Community Resources Committee Reviews Zoning Priorities and Planning Board Appointment Process

40R potential North Pleasant Street buildout. Photo: amherstma.gov

The meeting was held via Zoom webcast and was recorded. 

Participating
Members of the Community Resources Committee (CRC): Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, At large), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Evan Ross (District 4), Steve Schreiber (District 4).  Absent: Sarah Swartz (District 1). Staff: David Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager

CRC Appointment Process
The committee discussed the appointment process that was used in the recent appointment of three new members to the Planning Board (see here and here). The committee had solicited feedback from those who had been candidates and this was summarized in a memo drafted by Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke that can be read here 

A description of the current appointment process can be read here.

There was no discussion of the controversy that surrounded these appointments or the considerable backlash that resulted in the committee’s decision not to reappoint Michael Birtwistle to a second term on the Board. Although 25 people had written to the Council protesting both the way the appointments were handled and who was appointed, the discussion was highly self-congratulatory, with very little acknowledgement of the broad array of residents who raised concerns.

Councilor Evan Ross stated that the feedback the CRC had solicited suggested that group interviews and candidate’s statements of Interest (SOI’s) that were central to the appointments were “incredibly helpful”. Ross said that he sees no need to change anything about the process.

Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, echoing concerns that had been raised by Councilor Sarah Swartz , expressed concern that there don’t seem to be any checks and balances because the appointing authority is also the group putting forward issues to be considered by that body. “From an auditing lens this does not look OK, “ she said. 

Councilor Steve Schreiber objected to the letters of concern sent to the Council about the dismissal of Michael Birtwistle from the Planning Board as well as letters in support of Birtwistle before the dismissal, and said that if letters are a good idea then we should ask all candidates to provide them. He especially objected to letters received after “we made our decision[s],” he said. “ I’m not comfortable with such letters being taken into consideration.”

“We are asked to do this because we are the most knowledgeable body about zoning and the Planning Board,” he proclaimed. “And we nominate a slate of people to [comprise the Planning Board and] advance our issues. That’s not a conflict of interest!”

Hanneke suggested asking candidates, on their Statements of Interest, whether they would be open to a term of less than three years. She also raised the issue of automatic reappointment and whether this question should be brought back to the full Council.

Ross said, “I dread a conversation in the Council about reappointment and term limits. We did come to an agreement within OCA [the now disbanded Outreach, Communication and Appointments Committee], after considerable discussion, and then this committee changed it. “ Hanneke said that the CRC will revisit the question of whether term limits and reappointments should be brought before the full Council.

Zoning Bylaw Priorities
Hanneke noted that the CRC has heard from a variety of sources on proposed Zoning Bylaw priorities and that she has endeavored to summarize the comments in a memo . She asked the committee to steer its conversation toward next steps, asking what’s missing from the current discussion and whether they need to reach out to get more information from the community on what priorities ought to be.

Schreiber voiced a concern that there is no mention of 40R zoning amongst the current priorities. He is strongly in favor of 40R zoning, and said that 40R would enable the Council to “do a lot of the things that we want to do.”

David Ziomek replied that a lot of questions have been raised by the Town Planning Staff about how effective 40R could be for the challenges of Amherst’s downtown. He said, ”I wouldn’t say that this is in the top five priorities of our Planning Staff.

Our priority should be what needs to be done to support our small businesses. “

Bahl-Milne read a letter from someone who has a small office in the PRP (Professional Research Park) zone downtown and is “handcuffed” by requirements that are expensive and time consuming and seem to be more appropriate for a large corporation.

Hanneke noted that the issues identified by the Planning Staff as priority are not congruent with the priorities of the Council — and perhaps the current Planning Board — and that it is not clear how to balance the differences.

Ziomek reminded the Committee that “we need to look at this through a COVID-19 lens and be poised to help those businesses that survive the current crisis. “

Ross suggested that the CRC should check back with Planning Staff and ask them to think about priorities in terms of complexity and time; some things can be done more quickly, easily, and at lower cost than others. For example, some things do not require consultants. But some things will have more of an impact than others, so “let’s sort that out.” One thing that could be done now, he suggested, is to simply change the BL (limited business) district to BG (general business).

Schreiber agreed that dealing with the BL would allow the Council to address several things on their list.

Hanneke said that the CRC would invite Town Planner Chris Brestrup and Building Inspector Rob Mora to its next meeting to revisit the Planning Department’s and Council’s lists of priorities and to frame the discussion. She asked what CRC would like to result from that discussion. “Is our aim to ask the Council to adopt a set of priorities or to instruct the Town Manager or what?” she asked.

Preliminary Discussion of a First Draft of a Comprehensive Housing Policy
There was no discussion about soliciting input about housing priorities from the public. At the previous CRC meeting, John Hornik, Chair of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, had attempted to introduce a three-page memo summarizing the Trust’s housing priorities as well as those voiced by the Amherst Racial Equity Task Force, but was told that the CRC was not ready to receive input from the public and that the Trust’s priorities were not considered in the Committee’s initial listing of priorities.  According to Bahl-Milne, Hornik’s memo has now been incorporated into the updated CRC memo. 

The first draft of a comprehensive housing policy was offered in a memo written by Hanneke. That memo can be read here. The discussion will continue at the next CRC meeting which, according to the Town website, will be held on November 6, from 2 to 4 p.m.

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