Aerial rendering of proposed affordable housing project at 132 Northampton Road.


Highlight of the Zoning Subcommittee Meeting

  • The Zoning Bylaw Committee recommended changes in the requirements for approval of site plan review projects and special permits

Zoning Subcommittee members present: Maria Chao (Chair), Janet McGowan, Gray Mullen, David Levenstein, Christine Brestrup (Planning Director)

Highlights of the Planning Board Meeting

  • Unanimously voted to recommend that the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) approve the proposed supportive studio project at 132 Northampton Road
  • Completed its first review of a mixed use project at 1 University Drive South
  • Accepted, without objection, revised plans for the proposed Dog Park, with construction anticipated to begin in September 2020
  • Continued discussion and debate about waivers to parking bylaws for residential construction, with special reference to new requests for the proposed Southeast Commons project

Planning Board members present: Christine Gray Mullen (Chair), Michael Birtwistle, Maria Chao, David Levenstein, Douglas Marshall, Janet McGowan, Jack Jemsek. Staff members present: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director), Pamela Field-Sadler (Administrative Assistant).

Zoning Subcommittee Meeting
The Zoning Subcommittee dedicated the meeting to setting priorities for Zoning Bylaw changes that will be presented to the Town Council. It focussed on a suggestion to change the process for approving site plan review projects from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. With the reduction in the size of the Planning Board (from nine to seven members) in the new Town Charter, this means changing the requirement from five members (71 percent) to four members. As required by state law, special permit approval would continue to require a two-thirds vote (five votes). This is the procedure in most towns. The matter will be discussed at a future Planning Board meeting.

Levenstein has been working to revise the Zoning Bylaw on supplemental dwellings and will present his proposal at the next Zoning Subcommittee meeting. Other priorities for changes in the Town’s Zoning Law are requirements for: parking, signage, inclusionary zoning, and mixed use buildings. These topics were deemed to be complex enough to require the advice of consultants. Brestrup indicated that there is money to hire consultants. She will work on a request for proposals. She also noted that Building Commissioner Rob Morra will present his suggestions for changes to the Zoning Bylaw at the Zoning Subcommittee meeting on March 3 and the Planning Board meeting on March 4. Gray Mullen suggested a public hearing about zoning that would be coordinated with the Community Resources Committee of the Town Council.

Planning Board Meeting

Affordable Housing at 132 Northampton Road
The Planning Board held its first discussion on the supportive studio affordable apartment project proposed by Valley Community Development Corporation for 132 Northampton Road. This was to be a presentation by Laura Baker of Valley CDC that would result in a recommendation from the Planning Board to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). 

Valley CDC has applied for a letter of project eligibility from the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The current proposal involves demolishing the existing house on the site and replacing it with a new building. It will need approval from the ZBA for increased density and decreased parking (14 spaces for 28 units). McGowan expressed a desire to see some one-bedroom units included in the project, but Baker stated that the proposed smaller studio units met the greatest need.

Several members of the audience had come to speak in support of the project but were told that this was not a place for public comment. They objected, saying that the agenda that was posted had been unclear and that it had taken them considerable effort to attend the meeting, after which Gray Mullen allowed each of them to speak for two minutes. Four people spoke, emphasizing that the project provides housing for a vulnerable population and that landlords in Amherst often rent only to students and professors. Also, some working people stay at the homeless shelter because they cannot afford apartments here. Some neighbors of the project who had previously expressed opposition to the project were present but did not speak. 

The Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend the project to the ZBA. Brestrup will draft a letter to DHCD indicating this support. Assistant Planner Nate Malloy will organize the comments from the public for submission to DHCD. All public comments should be submitted on the Town website by February 26 in order to be included. 

1 University Drive South
A first review of a proposed project at 1 University Drive South was presented by Tom Reidy, attorney at Bacon, Wilson, Barry Roberts, developer, and John Kuhn architect. The project involves demolishing the existing nonconforming single family brick home on the site and constructing a three-story building with two commercial spaces, one of which would house an ophthalmology practice, and 45 housing units (32 studio units and 13 one-bedroom units). 

Because the site is zoned Professional Research Park, construction of residential and mixed-use buildings require a special permit, which triggers the Town’s inclusionary zoning bylaw, so the project must include five affordable units (three studio and two one-bedroom). 

The proposal would also reconfigure the South University Drive/Snell Street intersection to include parking in the dead end curve as well as a roundabout, in order to calm traffic and allow an entrance and exit from the new parking lot with all costs for planning and construction to be taken on by the developer even though most of the land is owned by the Town.  The town would be responsible for maintenance of the reconfiguration on town land. Parallel parking would be created in front of the building. In total, the building would have 44 parking spaces on site, plus 8 in front of the building (i..e on town land) and 12 in the dead end curve. The town would have jurisdiction over the 20 off-site spaces.

There was general agreement over the appropriateness of the project for the site, even though the land is not zoned for residential. . McGowan raised concerns about the encroachment of the building on the buffer zone between the property and adjacent wetlands; about the lack of parking; and about the limited space for recreation and gathering. Roberts pointed out that many of the parking spaces at his property at 70 University Drive are unused because residents bike, walk, or take the bus to UMass. The Conservation Commission will need to review the plans regarding the wetlands. 

The Planning Board recommended the project to the ZBA, 6-0-1 with McGowan abstaining.

Dog Park
Malloy presented revised plans for a Dog Park on the old landfill on Belchertown Road. A slight alteration of the fence line would allow the dog park to need less fill. 

A design for a privately financed information kiosk about the Dog Park was also presented. The Friends of the Amherst Dog Park have established a fund for daily maintenance of the Park, but the Department of Public Works (DPW) would be responsible for larger maintenance. Because the site is a breeding ground for the endangered grasshopper sparrow, construction cannot start until the end of the breeding season, on about September 1, but should be completed in a few months. The revised plans were accepted without objection.

Southeast Common
The mixed use project for 133 and 143 South East Street returned to the Planning Board. Amir Mikhchi, the developer, had brought it before the Planning Board five times over the summer and fall of 2019. The main contention was the construction of parking of 59 spaces for its 57 dwelling units when the zoning bylaw requires 118 spaces.  A proposal had been approved on October 19, after Mikhchi proposed a parking management plan in which 12 units would not have any parking available, but there would be 12 spots for visitors and 4 spots for the retail space. However, as soon as construction began, the Conservation Commission realized that this would breach the buffer zone with neighboring wetlands, which is not permitted. Noting that the Conservation Commission had approved a plan in June 2018 with a smaller parking lot, Mikhchi asked for permission to eliminate two visitor spaces and reduce the size of the lawn behind the building. 

 McGowan expressed concern that this matter had never been raised in the many previous hearings on the project. However, the board approved the revised plans and “hopes” that the parking manager for the property will present the board with data on parking utilization a year after it opens.

Parking Waivers
Birtwistle stated that in his 3.5 years on the Planning Board, the Board has granted a parking waiver for every single residential project! This, he said,, is an indication that the current Zoning Bylaw is not appropriate. He recommended revising the Parking Bylaw to more accurately reflect the needs of residents. This is a priority for the Zoning Subcommittee (see above).

Marshall requested that Planning Board meetings start earlier (6 or 6:30 p.m.) than at present (and end earlier). This will be discussed at the next meeting.

Brestrup announced that Ben Breger will join the Planning Staff. He is an Amherst native who is finishing his degree at UMass. He will work 8 hours a week until he graduates and then will be full time.

The meeting adjourned at 10:15 p.m.

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