Planning Board Selects New Officers And Liaisons. Continues To Track Amherst Hills Roads Dispute

Aerial view of the Amherst Hills subdivision off of Old Amherst Road. Photo: Google Maps.

Report on the Planning Board Meeting of September 16, 2020

The Meeting was held via Zoom webcast and broadcast simultaneously by Amherst Media.  A recording of the meeting can be found here

Participating: Jack Jemsek (Acting Chair), Maria Chao, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, Thom Long, and Andrew MacDougall. Johanna Neumann arrived at 7PM. Staff: Town Planner Chris Brestrup and Administrative Assistant Pam Field Sadler

Jones Library Requests Temporary Tent
The Board heard a site plan review for the Jones Library to erect a temporary 14 by 40 foot frame tent on the front lawn of the library to provide library services and internet access. The plan was presented by George Hicks, facilities advisor for the Jones and Library Director, Sharon Sharry.  The long sides will be closed but the short sides will not be covered.  The tent would provide space for 10 workstations and a staff member.  The plan calls for barrels on the Amity Street side to weight the tent down.  The tent will extend from the sidewalk to the garden area near the building to the right of the main entrance. The tent will be taken down when the weather gets too cold or if there is snow. This tent design is specified to be able to withstand high winds and rain.

No equipment or furniture will remain in the tent when it is not in use. Marshall asked if there were any plans to keep homeless persons from using it for shelter. Hicks said the Library has asked the police to increase patrols in the area for the smaller tent now in use and expect the same for the larger one proposed.

Because the size of the tent is greater than 200 square feet and is in a very visible site, it requires a building permit. The Building Commissioner will determine if a rigid flooring material will be needed to allow easy wheelchair access. The site plan  passed 6-0-1 (Neumann abstained because she arrived at the meeting at the end of the discussion). If the Library needs the tent after 18 months, they will need to apply for an extension at a public meeting.

Planning Board Officers and Committee Liaisons
McGowan nominated Jemsek as Chair, seconded by Chao and approved unanimously. Chao nominated Marshall as Vice Chair and this was also approved unanimously. Chao was approved unanimously to continue as Clerk. 

MacDougall was elected unanimously as the Planning Board representative on the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC), although if he begins to travel for work again, he may need to miss some meetings. He will be a voting member. Long was approved to represent the Planning Board on the Design Review Board (DRB) and Marshall as a liaison (non-voting member) to the Agricultural Commission.  The CPAC, DRB and Agricultural Commission appointments need to be approved by the Town Manager.

MacDougall suggested that the members of the Planning Board introduce themselves to each other, since there are three new members of the Board

Jemsek introduced himself as an environmental consultant and hydrologist with a doctorate from MIT. Chao is an architect focusing on net zero and sustainable housing who came to the Planning Board through the suggestion of former Planning Board Chair and Councilor Steve Schreiber when she was an adjunct at UMass. McGowan is a graduate of Harvard Law School and worked in litigation and conservation law.  She also worked with Cultural Survival, a Cambridge-based organization focusing on the rights of indigenous people. She grew up in Stony Brook, New York, a college town that did not protect its open space, she said.

Marshall has worked at UMass in the Campus Planning Group for the past ten years and is an architect by training. Long also trained as an architect and is a graphic designer as well.  He currently teaches at Hampshire College. MacDougall is a marketing planner for Capital One Bank. Neumann lived in Germany until age 7 and is active in environmental action and organizing. She currently runs the national chapter of Environment America.  All members have, or had, children in the Amherst schools. McGowan was in Town Meeting, but for all the others, the Planning Board is their first volunteer/government activity in the Town.

Amherst Hills Subdivision
Brestrup presented the history of the subdivision off of Station Road, which has been under development since the 1990s. Due to a downturn in the economy in 2008 and the death of developer Doug Kohl, the roads in the subdivision were never completed. Because they lack a topcoat, the roads are deteriorating so the DPW has threatened to not plow in winter. The residents asked the Planning Board to rescind the building permits on nine lots that had previously been released.  There are now seven lots being held from development. The Conservation Commission inspected the lots and asked for a determination of the borders of wetlands and the location of the vernal pools in the spring. The Conservation Commission asked the developer, Toffino Associates, to come to a meeting to discuss building on these lots, but Toffino has not showed up to the scheduled meetings. They did state that they do not have the money to finish the roads without selling some of the seven lots.  The developer is now scheduled to come before The Conservation Commission next week. If they do not show up the entire Public Hearing process will be restarted. 

Toffino has sued the residents of Amherst Hills, though Brestrup is unclear of the reason for the suit.  The estimate for completing the roads is $600,000 to $900,000. Toffino has submitted a performance bond for $288,000, which would not cover the full cost of completing the roads. The developer did make enough repairs to allow the roads to be plowed last winter. Previously, Toffino stated that they planned to complete the roads this year, but ran short of money due to the issues raised by the Conservation Commission. Brestrup suggested that the Planning Board not act until the matter with the Conservation Commission is settled, but will keep the Planning Board appraised of any developments.

Zoning Subcommittee
Brestrup and Jemsek attended the meeting of the Community Resource Committee of the Town Council (CRC) on September 15, 2020 outlining the priorities of the Planning Board for revising the Zoning Bylaw.  These include improving downtown zoning, unlocking housing development, increasing diversity of housing stock, and recodifying the zoning bylaw. The CRC expressed a desire to work with the Planning Board on the revised Zoning Bylaw, but they will take the lead. The status of the Zoning Subcommittee of the Planning Board is still uncertain. Chao suggested setting aside time at Planning Board meetings to discuss zoning and the priorities of the CRC. For now the Zoning Subcommittee will remain on hiatus.

Planning Board Minutes
Jemsek expressed his opinion that minutes are approaching becoming transcripts of the meetings, so that, in his view, they are no longer timely and are taking up too much of the staff’s time. “The scope of the minutes have greatly expanded over the past year,” he said. Jemsek thought the minutes should be summaries of the topics, discussions, and votes. The full meetings are available as videos on Amherst Media.

McGowan felt that if some decisions were appealed, the details of the decisions should be apparent in the minutes, though other topics can be summarized. Brestrup agreed that decisions need to be detailed, but she and Field Sadler will work on making the minutes more compact.  MacDougall wondered if the video record could serve as the official record for appeals. 

Chao agreed that the minutes are taking up way too much of the time of the Planning Board and Planning staff. McGowan referred to the handbook on open meeting Law from the Attorney General as to what minutes should contain. She did not feel that interested members of the public should have to wade through a four hour video to find what they are looking for. Marshall felt that it is important that the minutes be completed and approved while members still remember what happened at the meeting. 

Regarding the minutes of the August 5 meeting, Jemsek especially took exception to McGowan’s additions to page 13 and 15 where she objected to former chair Christine Gray-Mullen’s proposals to eliminate the Zoning Subcommittee and her desire to elect Marshall as chair at that meeting.  McGowan stated that since these topics were not on the agenda for the meeting, dealing with them may have been a violation of Open Meeting Law, but Jemsek did not want that included in the minutes. Chao also did not agree with McGowan’s corrections. This led to a lengthy discussion of what should and should not be included in the minutes.  The minutes, without McGowan’s additions,  were approved 3-1-3 with the new members abstaining and McGowan voting no.

The September 2 minutes were passed without discussion or objection.

Shared Streets and Spaces Grants from Mass DOT
Northampton and Easthampton were recently awarded some funds through this Department of Transportation program. Northampton used its grant to redesign Main Street but the city then undid the modifications in response to complaints from merchants. Easthampton used its money to improve its bike path. Amherst has applied twice but not been accepted. Brestrup said the Amherst application has focused on umbrellas, plantings, and possibly portable heaters for the downtown in order to extend the outdoor dining season for as long as possible. Neumann suggested that perhaps this would be a source of funding to promote safe means for children to walk or bike to school, since school bus transportation will be complicated by social distancing guidelines and the staggered starts.

The Planning Board will next meet on September 29.

The meeting adjourned at 9:20 PM

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3 thoughts on “Planning Board Selects New Officers And Liaisons. Continues To Track Amherst Hills Roads Dispute

  1. The Planning Board will next meet on October 7. The meeting on September 29 is a Town Council meeting at which the Master Plan will be presented and discussed.

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