Planning Board Approves Amherst Media Project. Controversy Erupts Over Choosing Next Chair

Architect's rendering of proposed new Amherst Media building at Main Street and Gray. South Elevation. (Prior to final required changes).

Report on the Planning Board meeting of 8/5/20

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was broadcast on Amherst Media Channel 17.  The recording of the meeting can be found here.

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

The most lively parts of this meeting were not listed on the agenda, which consisted of two major items: further discussion on the Amherst Media project planned for Main and Gray Streets and discussion of priorities for revising the Zoning Bylaw. However, near the end of the meeting, Gray-Mullen provoked a heated discussion by recommending dissolution of the Zoning Subcommittee and the appointment of the newest Planning Board member, Doug Marshall, as Chair when she leaves the board at the end of August.

Amherst Media Project
The public hearing for a Special Permit and a Site Plan Review, requested by Amherst Media to build a new headquarters on Main and Gray Streets, was continued. The Special Permit was requested because of a controversy as to whether the twice-normal front setback (or 20 feet) required for educational structures under Zoning Bylaw 6.60,  was applicable to this project. According to Building Commissioner Rob Morra and an opinion in an email from Town Attorney Joel Bard, the project could be exempt under Footnote A of the bylaw, because, unlike most educational buildings constructed by colleges and universities, it is a small-scale structure with minimal foot traffic anticipated. However, engineer Bucky Sparkle applied for the Special Permit as a hedge against expected challenges from abutters.  The proposed building is 13.3 feet from the sidewalk on Main Street at its closest point. 

Sparkle also answered previous concerns of the Planning Board. He made the Parking Management Plan a separate document and labeled parking spaces 7 and 8 for guest parking. He confirmed with the architects that the roof would be solar-ready. In response to a letter from one of the abutter’s attorneys, Matthieu Massengill, expressing concern about a propane tank and propane delivery trucks at the site, Sparkle replied that there would be no propane tanks associated with the building. The heat would be electric. 

Daniel Finnegan, another attorney for the abutters, Harmsway Associates, asserted that the Planning Board is not the appropriate body to grant the Special Permit. Brestrup said that, usually, when the Planning Board is evaluating a Site Plan Review, it also deals with an Associated Special Permit, especially when the permit is for dimensional variance. The abutters have already filed an appeal with the Zoning Board of Appeals.

After reviewing all of the applicable conditions for the Special Permit and Site Plan Review, both passed unanimously 6-0-0. Waivers were given for number of parking spaces, a traffic impact study, and the proximity of parking to the building.

Planning Board member Michael Birtwistle stated he felt it is a shame that this building would be built on this important site, but because it meets zoning requirements, he needed to vote to approve it. Planning Director Christine Brestrup noted that before rezoning the property to B-N (Neighborhood Business), there were two building lots at the site, which meant two single-family homes could be built there, which would be much more likely to obscure the view of the Amherst Women’s Club and Henry Hills House than the proposed structure.

Zoning Bylaw Priorities
With the Community Resources Committee of the Town Council (CRC) beginning to discuss revising the Zoning Bylaw, Planning Board members gave their priorities for which bylaws are most crucial to update. Morra is working on re-codification of the bylaws by resolving inconsistencies.  Zoning Subcommittee Chair Chao, presented a chart of priorities that the subcommittee had developed over the past few years. The subcommittee has not met since early March because of the pandemic. The headings on the chart were Housing, Village Centers, Downtown, Zoning Bylaw Repair, and Zoning Bylaw Overhaul.

Planning Board members voiced what they felt was most critical to include in a Bylaw revision. Marshall felt that fixing the zoning for downtown, the B-G (Business General) and B-L (Business Limited)  districts, especially the dimensional requirements, was most important. He also recommended clarification of standards for mixed-use buildings and recodification of the bylaw along the lines of Newton or Arlington. Gray-Mullen expressed desire to add inclusionary zoning and design requirements. Birtwistle wanted to focus on housing, including mixed-use buildings and inclusionary zoning. Chao wanted to expand the diversity of housing by increasing infill and multiple unit dwellings. She felt Form Based Code would be extremely beneficial, but believes it is impractical at this time. Jemsek noted that B-L zoning does not work for anyone. He also wanted to improve village centers and revise parking requirements.  He did note that the numerous close wells in the North Amherst, Flat Hills area is an “accident waiting to happen”, but solving it would involve hiring a consultant which the Town does not have the money for this year.

McGowan said she would like to see all apartment buildings with ten or more units include affordable units. She also wanted residential buildings downtown to be required to provide parking, and she wanted to preserve open space and farmland. Brestrup and Gray-Mullen will compile a draft of these priorities for the Planning Board members to review before presenting it to the CRC.

At the end of this discussion, Gray-Mullen and Chao raised the idea that the Zoning Subcommittee was no longer necessary, since the CRC was going to be working on zoning issues and would present them to the Town Council.  The Planning Board could advise the CRC, but it is the Council which must vote to approve any changes. Chao did not think it was worth the time of the Planning Department staff and Planning Board members to meet another two times monthly to discuss zoning. Birtwistle stated that, since the Planning Board is most familiar with the Zoning Bylaw, perhaps an hour of each meeting of the whole Board could be devoted to this discussion. McGowan raised the issue of process, since the topic was not on the posted agenda, and, as a member of the Zoning Subcommittee, she wished she had had time to consider its dissolution before the meeting. No action was taken at this meeting.

Old Business
In old business, Birtwistle noted that no work had been done on Archipelago’s mixed use building on Spring Street for the past four months or so. Brestrup said she also noticed that, but did not know why work was stopped.

New Planning Board Chair
After completion of the listed agenda items, Gray-Mullen, who earlier agreed to extend her term on the Planning Board until August 31, 2020, suggested that Doug Marshall be elected as the next chair.  Marshall is the newest member of the Board, and only began his tenure in February 2020, but has a wealth of experience in planning. Vice Chair Jemsek and Chao indicated that they were not interested in the chairmanship. McGowan and Birtwistle objected to raising this topic late in a meeting and without prior notice and without placing it on the agenda. McGowan stated that not placing it on the agenda was a violation of open meeting law. Gray-Mullen stated that she might not attend the next Planning Board meeting on August 19, so this might be her last meeting, and she felt Marshall would be the best to take her place and she asked the Board to vote now. Marshall stated he would accept the position, but said that he would also probably not be at the next meeting.

Birtwistle pointed out that, in the absence of the Chair, the Vice Chair would run the meeting, and Jemsek is the Vice Chair.  He also pointed out that interviews for the three open Planning Board seats are scheduled for the end of August, and that there may be two or three new members in September. “The new Board should choose its chair, not the outgoing Chair who is  not going to be there” he said. Brestrup agreed that, in the past, the newly instated Board has usually voted on a chair, and that it is the duty of the Vice Chair to take the place of the Chair if the Chair is absent. Gray-Mullen aggressively pressed the point that Marshall was the best person to succeed her, but the rest of the members agreed to wait until September to elect a new chair.

After the heated discussion, Board members thanked Gray-Mullen for her service and wished her well. She will be the one to sign the permits for the Amherst Media project.

The meeting adjourned at 10:30 PM.

The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, August 19 at 6:30 PM.

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3 thoughts on “Planning Board Approves Amherst Media Project. Controversy Erupts Over Choosing Next Chair

  1. I just watched this meeting and was really taken aback by Gray-Mullen’s actions and behavior, especially with respect to her nominating Doug Marshall to replace her as chair. It was very unbecoming, and likely an Open Meeting Law violation to boot. (Proposing a vote for a new chair when it was not on the posted agenda, and earlier, Chao’s proposal to dissolve the Zoning subcommittee which was also not on the posted agenda both seem to be OML violations.)

    Birtwistle and McGowan were right to push back against this coup-like behavior, and I was glad to see Planning Director Brestrup propose that the Vice Chair Jack Jemsek perform the role of chair until such time as the new committee is seated and can discuss and vote on leadership nominations, as is supposed to be the process.

    I appreciated that new member Doug Marshall had the humility and decency to agree that this was the correct approach.

    Gray-Mullen’s response was condescending and childish, trying to shame Birtwistle and McGowan into acquiescing to her unreasonable demands.

    This is required viewing for all Amherst residents. I think the chair discussion begins about 3:21:30 into the 4-hour meeting:

  2. Toni,
    I couldn’t agree with you more…Gray-Mullins facial expressions were enough to set my teeth on edge. Her verbal zings (e.g., “Well said Doug. Nice leadership”) fell flat in her lap, underscoring a complete lack of professionalism.
    As curious was her accusation that those who disagreed with her were putting Doug Marshall in an uncomfortable position when it was she who initiated (and persisted with) a motion which was unnecessary, if not contrary to written rule.
    Thank you for speaking up…

  3. This was very disturbing. I hope whoever becomes the chair does a good job of process, content, and tone.

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