ZBA Continues Discussion of Supportive Housing at 132 Northampton Road

Aerial rendering of proposed affordable housing project at 132 Northampton Road. Photo:amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Zoning Board Of Appeals, 9/10/20

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded.
Participating: ZBA members Steve Judge (Chair), Tammy Parks, Keith Langsdale, Dillon Maxfield, and Joan O’Meara. 
Staff:  Planners Christine Brestrup and Maureen Pollock.
Valley Community Development Corporation representatives Laura Baker and Jane Loechler.
Attorneys Jonathan Witten (KP Law) and Felicity Hardee (Center For Human Development). 

The meeting was a continuation of a hearing on the supportive housing project proposed for 132 Northampton Road held  on August 6 and August 25.

The hearing was devoted to responses from Valley Community Development Corporation (VCDC) to the ZBA’s questions from  previous meetings. Laura Baker, VCDC’s Real Estate Project Manager, gave a 33-slide PowerPoint  presentation and, along with Jane Loechler, responded to follow-up questions from the ZBA.

Smoking Area
The most contentious and lengthy discussion focused on a proposed smoking area for the project. In response to opposition to the proposed sites that could be designated for smoking, VCDC adopted the ZBA’s suggestion to make the entire property non-smoking. Under this plan, the closest area available to residents for smoking will be the sidewalk on Northampton Road. Steve Judge asked whether this would be more harmful than a designated smoking area. 

Tammy Parks said, “I think there ought to be a smoking area on the property. If people are going to smoke, it’s better to have a designated area where it will be the least disturbing. We have designated smoking areas where I work at Hampshire College and this made a big difference in terms of allowing people to avoid smoking.”

Keith Langsdale said that smoking on the sidewalk is probably not desirable from the perspectives of neighbors and non-smoking residents of the proposed development. The problem with the previously-proposed smoking area is that it is only 11 feet from the building and 6 feet from the garden. He said he had previously asked the applicant to come back with an alternative location, and asked again for it.

Laura Baker reminded him that he previously asked VCDC to move the smoking area to the front of the building, and said that this is not an option because it is part of the property’s storm water drainage system and can’t bear the foot traffic. She also said that the previously-proposed smoking area is 14 feet from the nearest window and 75 from the nearest door. Langsdale disputed those numbers, saying that they are not reflected on the property maps.

Baker said that the VCDC feels as if they have exhausted all possible options that address the many objections of abutters. She reminded the ZBA that it had given them two options at its last meeting: find another viable location for a smoking area (which they were unable to do) or make the property non-smoking. “If we move the previously proposed area to any other location, it is going to draw other objections, so we opted to make the property completely non-smoking,” she said.

According to Judge, the ZBA has the right to require a smoking area and to determine its location. “We can make that a condition of permitting the project,” he said. (He will ask the Town Attorney for confirmation.) 

Loechler said that she wants it to be clear that their decision to make the entire property non-smoking is in response to the strong objections to the proposed smoking area from abutters and that they have tried very hard to be accommodating. 

Langsdale said he wants the VCDC to show all possible locations for a smoking area and to review the objections to each at another ZBA meeting, and that he wants to hear testimony from a designer or landscape architect about why the stormwater drainage area would prevent a smoking area in front of the building. 

Dillon Maxfield gave an opinion as well, countering that the originally proposed area is perfect and that he does not see a need to impose additional costs on the developers for additional assessments and expert testimony. “It seems that the petitioners have tried to be very accommodating,” he said. “They wanted a smoking space and said they were amenable to making the property non-smoking if there were too many unresolvable objections, and this is where they have ended up.”

Attorney Jonathan Witten said that the Board can impose any condition under a mandate to protect Town safety and health. That includes requiring a smoking area and telling the petitioner where it must be located, if it is deemed a matter of Town safety and/or health. After repeating that the ZBA can mandate a smoking area and specify its location, Judge  told the VCDC to come back with another proposal for a smoking area.

Additional Questions Posed to Valley CDC
Baker responded to a series of questions previously posed by the ZBA. The questions are summarized below. The prepared answers can be found in Baker’s powerpoint presentation

Do you have any intention to expand the size of any of the dwellings in the future?

Can the size of the closets be enlarged and if so can the Board get updated floor plans?

How does the tenant selection process work?

What is happening with the Town Council decision to ask that local preference be given to Amherst residents, Town employees and people with children in the Amherst Public  Schools? How does local preference work and how does it impact the selection process? 

What happens when people are referred by a service provider?

Will the property be occupied mostly by men?

How will the units be furnished?

Why can’t some of the units be reserved for families?

Why is affordable housing so expensive?

What about financing? Where will the money come from? Is the plan viable? What is the likelihood that the financing will come through? What assurances are there that this project will not become a financial burden for the Town?

Public Comment
Two people offered public comments. Both suggested alternative smoking areas. One expressed concern that the amount of time that residents referred by service providers  will be tracked after move-in had been shortened.

Next Steps
ZBA requested that for the next meeting, the VCDC will:

  1. Produce a proposal for an alternative smoking area
  2. Produce more specifics on the tenant selection process and financial screening process
  3. Produce more specifics about meeting the preferred local preference request from the Amherst Town Council

Baker asked for clarification from the ZBA on where they are leaning regarding the smoking area, as finding a new location and documenting the viability of each possibility  is a significant use of staff time. Judge responded that there are at least two members of the ZBA who want to see another option for a smoking area and therefore deemed a straw poll of the membership unnecessary. 

The next ZBA meeting will be on September 24 at 6:30 PM  and will be dedicated to a continuation of this hearing. On the agenda will be responses to questions posed at this meeting, discussion of site amenities and layout, and public comment. Future meetings will take up waiver requests and what conditions to require. Judge said that he hopes that the ZBA will be able to vote on approval by mid-October. 

The meeting adjourned at 8:46 p.m.

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