PLANNING BOARD APPROVES CENTER EAST COMMONS HOUSING DEVELOPMENT WITH REDUCED PARKING

Architects rendition of the planned Center East Commons (on right) with an existing office building, also known as the Jared T. Wescott House, (left) . Photo: Amherst Planning Board

REPORT: PLANNING BOARD MEETING (3/4/20)
ZONING SUBCOMMITTEE MEETING  (3/3/20)

Zoning Subcommittee
Present: Planning Board Members Maria Chao (Chair), Janet McGowan, Christine Gray-Mullen, David Levenstein and Michael Birtwistle. Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director), Rob Morra (Building Commissioner). Guests: Hilda Greenbaum, Dorothy Pam, Maurianne Adams, Bob Greeney, Maura Keene.

Planning Board
Present: Chao, McGowan, Gray-Mullen (Chair), Levenstein, Birtwistle, Jack Jemsek, Doug Marshall. Staff: Brestrup and Pamela Field-Sadler (Administrative Assistant). Liason to the Town Council:District 2 Town Councilor Pat DeAngelis.

Highlights

  • Building Commissioner Rob Morra was given permission to proceed with revising the Zoning Bylaw – a process estimated to take between 18 months and several years.
  • Approval of the Center East Commons Housing Project with reduced parking requirements.
  • Special Permit granted for a driveway modification at 389 Bay Road.
  • Update on dispute between Amherst Hills Residents and Tofino Associates on the completion of subdivision roads
  • Status report on the work of updating the Master Plan

Updating Zoning Bylaw
At the Zoning subcommittee meeting, Morra  gave a presentation on updating the Zoning Bylaw, which was adopted in August 2019, but has not been substantially revised since the 1970’s.  He pointed out that some areas are conflicting, such as notifying abutters either 14 days (Section 13.31) or 7 days (Section 13.33) for a demolition delay and the lack of definition of an Educational District.  There is no mention of Public/Private partnerships, and no dimensional standards for such projects. There is also no definition of what qualifies as a mixed use building.  

Morra believes that the Zoning Bylaw needs a full overhaul to be useful. The staff spends an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what applies to certain projects in order to explain what is needed to developers. He proposes going through the bylaw page by page.  Some changes will be easy and obvious. Others may require hiring consultants, such as the mixed use building codes, signage, parking, inclusionary zoning, and downtown zoning. There is money allocated in the budget for these consultants, $40,000 previously and $60,000 requested in the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Morra also said it was important to have a user-friendly, searchable on-line version of the bylaw with explanatory graphics.  He felt that much of the updating and IT work could be done by town staff, with feedback from the Zoning subcommittee, Planning Board, and Community Resources Committee.  The process would probably take 18 months to several years, he said..

McGowan felt the Zoning Subcommittee should look more into the revision process, seeing what other towns that have revised their zoning bylaws have done.  Northampton, Somerville, and Arlington have recently completed the process, she noted. She would like to know what worked and what didn’t. Gray-Mullen said she had looked up reports from several towns and found there were different ways to accomplish the task.  Morra said that he has been involved in two zoning bylaw rewrites from other towns. One used an expanded zoning subcommittee and another had the town attorney do much of the work.

This discussion continued into the Planning Board meeting the following night with a more extensive presentation by Morra about many of the changes needed in each section of the bylaw.  Birtwistle felt it was important that the public be allowed to give input from the outset, not only at the public hearings after the work is finished. Gray-Mullen hoped that an area on the town website could be created for this input, similar to that expected for the Master Plan.  In the end, the Planning Board gave Morra and his staff the go-ahead to begin work on the revision. He will discuss his progress as early as the March 18 meeting. 

Center East Commons Public Hearing
There were two public hearings at the March 4 Planning Board meeting.  The first was a discussion of the parking plan for Center East Commons at 462 Main Street.  The 24-unit mixed-use building proposed by John Wrobeleski will have 25 spaces for residents and 32 total spaces, with 3 handicap spaces and 2 electric vehicle  charging stations. Five resident units will not have parking. Wrobeleski said he felt that the number of spaces he was proposing, (less than one/bedroom) was adequate based on surveys he has done on other area apartment complexes.  He added that he could add six more spaces if he took down several large trees on the property.

The hour-long discussion included testimony by several neighbors of the project on High Street who noted that Wrobeleski was an excellent manager and there were seldom any problems with the other properties he owns in the neighborhood.  Gabrielle Gould, Director of the Business Improvement District, stated that this property is in the Business Improvement District (BID) and fits with the vision of more density and residential units near the downtown. She felt it would be beneficial for the businesses on Main Street. The BID and Wrobeleski have talked to the PVTA about increasing the capacity of the Route 30 bus which serves the area from the Belchertown line to UMass. 

McGowan felt Wrobeleski should also talk to nearby property owners, such as the VFW or the Yellow Barn music center about being available for overflow parking if tenants from 462 Main Street need it.  She noted that she counted 28 cars parked at a 12 unit building on a Sunday morning.  

The project was approved 5-1-1 with McGowan opposed and Marshall abstaining.  Wrobeleski agreed to report on parking data at the building after 12-18 months of occupancy. The Special Permit for building a bicycle storage and indoor trash collection at the rear of the existing building next door had been approved at the February 19 meeting.  

Special Permit Request for 389 Bay Road
Bucky Sparkle of The Zengineer, presented a request for a Special Permit for John and Jessica Brown of 389 Bay Road to extend the existing common driveway in order to build a fifth private home on the family land.  This would make the driveway longer and in parts steeper than allowed by section 7.722 and 7.715 of the Zoning Bylaw. The property is one-half mile off of Bay Road. Four houses currently use the common driveway which would be extended 1200 feet with some grads as steep as 15 per cent. 

There was a question of whether there is habitat for box turtles there.  There was a letter from the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife that requested a box turtle protection plan prior to written approval.  A supporting letter from the Amherst Fire Department, attesting that fire trucks would be able to access the site and requiring that the new home be equipped with a sprinkler  system. There were also supporting letters from two families using the common driveway. The proposed house would have a well and septic system. The proposal was approved 6-0-1 with Marshall abstaining.  It will now need to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Master Plan
Brestrup stated she has begun working on the update of the Master Plan.  She started with Chapter 3, Land Use, and quickly realized she needed to consult with other town departments such as the School Department, Town Manager, Department of Public Works, and Information Technology.  She is hoping to use the GIS mapping program to figure out how much has changed since 2010 when the Master Plan was written. She would like to know facts such as how much more land is in conservation, how much is mixed use and other aspects of land use in Amherst.  She will keep the Planning Board apprised of her work.

Ongoing Amherst Hills Dispute
In an ongoing matter concerning the dispute between residents of the Amherst Hills subdivision and Tofino Associates regarding finishing the roads of the subdivision, Brestrup arranged a conference call between James Masteralexis, representing the residents, and town attorney Joel Bard.  The two agreed that the security bond required of Tofino (add link) was the best way to assure that the roads get finished. The lots being held from development will be assessed for their value, and then the residents can decide whether they want to push for an increase in the bond or are happy with the current $280,000 bond and the nine lots which are being withheld from sale until the development’s roads are completed.  The developer had earlier stated that the roads will be finished in the coming construction season. 

Committee Reports
In committee reports, Birtwistle stated that recommendations from the Community Preservation Act Committee will be presented at the March 9 Town Council Meeting. 

The Planning Board agreed to try a 6:30 PM start time for its next meeting on March 18 which had been the suggestion of Marshall at the last meeting.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:40 PM.

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4 thoughts on “PLANNING BOARD APPROVES CENTER EAST COMMONS HOUSING DEVELOPMENT WITH REDUCED PARKING

  1. Regarding the story about Amherst Hills, I would not say that the residents and the town agreed that reimposing the Covenant was the right path to take at this time. More information is needed and there will be more discussion once we have more information. Chris Brestrup, Planning Director

  2. Just wanted to make sure that you received my correction to the story about Amherst Hills. Agreement has not been reached yet. More information is needed.

  3. There’s a current trend toward building apartments without adequate parking for tenants. How can developers get away with this? It makes no sense to cut-back on parking. I would guess that it’s an idea to make more space for apartments, Which make more money than parking lots. Amherst seems to go along with this, and is headed for a bad situation down the line, and in not that long a time. How can this be a rational goal for development?

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