Zoning Board of Appeals Continues Hearing on Supportive Housing at 132 Northampton Road (9/24/20)

Architects rendering of the proposed supportive housing project at 132 Northampton Road. Photo: amherstma.gov

by Maura Keene and Hilda Greenbaum

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded.

Participating 
Committee members: Steve Judge (chair), Joan O’Meara, Dillon Maxfield, Keith Langsdale, and Tammy Parks
Planning Department Staff: Maureen Pollack, Christine Brestrup, and Nate Malloy
Town Counsel: Jon Witten
Valley Community Development Corporation: Laura Baker ( Real Estate Project Manager), Jane Loechler (Executive Director), Rachel Loeffler (Berkshire Design Group), and Tom Chalmers (Architect, Austin Design).

The meeting was a continuation of a hearing on the supportive housing project proposed for 132 Northampton Road held  on September 10August 6 and August 25.

Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) Chair Steve Judge summarized the review process for a Comprehensive Permit. According to the Zoning Bylaw, the petitioner, in this case Valley Community Development Corporation, presents the issue at meetings open to the public. The public may speak at the recognition of the chair. The decision must be rendered within 40 days after the end of the public hearing and posted within 14 days to allow appeals.

Judge chastised Valley CDC for submitting a 50-slide presentation on the morning of the meeting because it did not give ZBA members enough time to thoroughly review it. 

In addition to the slide presentation, the ZBA received two anonymous letters regarding the project since the last meeting.

Questions raised at the September 10 ZBA meeting 

Smoking Area
The location of a smoking area was again discussed. Because of the ZBA’s criticism of the original smoking area near the outdoor seating area, Valley CDC had proposed to make the property non-smoking. The ZBA was not happy with this decision because they felt residents would then be smoking on the public sidewalk. Baker presented several other suggestions for sites, one near the western corner of the building, which would be close to the air intake, one in the front of the building, one at the eastern edge of the property, and one in the back western corner near the track. 

Each location has pros and cons. Keith Langsdale suggested either moving the originally proposed area farther from the building and outdoor seating or placing a smoking bench at the front (northeast) corner of the front yard with a fence to screen it from the sidewalk. Most Board members agreed that these two suggestions were improvements on the original plan, and encouraged the Valley CDC to look into their feasibility further.

Tenant Referral and Selection Process
Board members wanted to know about exceptions granted in the selection process for tenants, such as allowing those with bad credit to rent units. Loechler explained that there is a regulatory guide for affordable housing spelled out in the HUD Occupancy Handbook. This handbook gives guidance on selection criteria and screening guidelines. Lack of a credit history is not a basis for rejection, and requiring a perfect credit history is too strict for projects such as this. The applicant must be able to perform the obligations of the lease. Housing Management Resources (HMR), the management company, shares its screening criteria with applicants and consistently applies these criteria to all applicants in compliance with fair housing law. Loechler said that HMR can consider mitigating factors, such as recent rehabilitation or the presence of external help to pay rent such as a Section 8 or other housing voucher. These mitigating circumstances must be verified to be considered, and any rejection of an application must include the reason for denial and offer an opportunity for appeal.

Loechler said that the Tenant Selection Plan must be finalized at the request for funding. The Department of Housing and Community Development determines if the plan satisfies all regulations.

Maxfield was concerned about what would happen to tenants who lost their vouchers or income needed to pay their rent. Loechler said that, although the building needs to meet its income to remain viable, they would work with tenants to avoid eviction if possible. Maxfield said he worries that future decisions at the federal level might endanger the voucher program as a whole. Loechler and Malloy felt the chance of this happening was extremely remote, and would affect thousands of people all over the country, not only those in this project. In addition, Brestrup said that most of the public funding for the project would be up front in the construction phase.

In response to Maxfield’s question about where to refer people, especially homeless residents, who want to apply for space, Baker said that Amherst Community Connections and Craig’s Doors can help fill out applications and that Valley CDC is required to do outreach before accepting applications.

Density of the Project
Baker noted that this project has 32 bedrooms per acre — 28 units on 0.88 acres. It is located in a RG (Residential General) district, in which zoning would allow seven three- or four-bedroom units on this lot or up to 50 studio apartments if the lot was fully built out. But the first of these scenarios  would probably mean just as many residents on the property, and the second would be out of proportion for the neighborhood. With the current plan, the cost to acquire the property was $14,300 per unit, which is at the high end of the range of financial feasibility, and reducing the number of units would make the project non-viable from an economic standpoint. 

Judge pointed out that the ZBA has authority to waive  zoning requirements if the project meets goals of the Town and Master Plan.

Amenities, Architecture, and Site Layout
Baker went through the earlier designs of the project. At first, the plans included the existing house. A later design was very modern in appearance and did not fit with the neighborhood. Austin architect Chalmers pointed out that the current design blends in with other structures in the neighborhood, with peaked roof and gables. The windows maximize interior light. The clapboard will be Hardy Panels, which look like wood but are more durable, and the trim will be composite. The new design brings the stone façade at the base several feet above the first floor windows to give a more balanced look. This façade echoes the nearby Amherst College Fieldhouse.

An eight-foot fence will separate the property from the neighbors to the east. A taller fence would be too unstable and would need reinforcement. Exterior lights would be directed downward so as not to shine on neighboring properties. 

O’Meara asked if Valley CDC would use local contractors. Baker said that they would issue a Request for Proposals to those contractors they have worked with in the past. These companies are usually from the Western Massachusetts area.

Local preference for Tenants 
Valley CDC will develop a plan for giving preference to those who live, work, or have children in Amherst. This plan will be reviewed by Attorney Witten and will be discussed at a later date. 

Public Comment
Erica Piedade, a member of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust and resident on Montague Road, stated that she feels this is a comprehensive, thoughtful plan which will fit into the neighborhood. There are many individuals and families who very much want to live in Amherst, she said, but often can’t afford the rents. In regard to some concerns of ZBA members, Valley CDC has excellent experience and is familiar with state and federal government regulations.  She said she believes that this project fits into the Town’s housing plan to provide more affordable housing.

List of Possible Questions or Conditions
This project will next be discussed at the ZBA meeting in two weeks. Because of scheduling conflicts, that meeting will be Wednesday, October 7, not the usual Thursday evening. Judge said he hopes to be able to give Valley CDC a decision by the end of October.

At the October 7 meeting, the ZBA will start to go through the list of conditions and waivers for the project. Board members are requested to submit their ideas for conditions to Pollack at the Planning Department. 

Building Inspector Dave Waskiewicz requested a more up-to-date drawing of the building’s appearance and its relation to the surrounding neighborhood. Baker was concerned that this would be an expensive, time-consuming project, but Brestrup suggested that a simpler scaled line drawing would suffice.

Upcoming ZBA Meetings:
The ZBA will next meet on Thursday, October 1 at 6:30 to discuss:

A request for an appeal of the Building Commissioner’s advisory opinion regarding Sections 6.6 and 3.330 of the Amherst Zoning Bylaw, in an email correspondence dated July 1, 2020 submitted to the Amherst Planning Director in relation to properties identified as Map/Parcel 14B/250 and 14B/251(continued from September 3).

A request by Pioneer Property Services LLC to convert an existing detached garage to a residential unit, which will increase the number of residential units (Converted Dwelling) from 1 to 2, located at 275 East Pleasant Street.

A request from Greg Stutsman for a Special Permit to allow a supplemental detached dwelling unit as accessory to a one-family detached dwelling at 1325 South East Street.

Continued discussion of the 132 Northampton project will be Wednesday, October 7 at 6 p.m.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:11 p.m.

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