Planning Board Approves Site Plan Review For New Kestrel Trust Site.

Kestrel Trust's new property off of Bay Road. Photo: amherstma.gov

Discusses  Formation of a Master Plan Implementation Committee
Report on the Meeting of the Planning Board (10/7/20)


The meeting was held as a Zoom webinar and was broadcast simultaneously by Amherst Media. A recording of that meeting can be found here

Participating
Members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Douglas Marshall, Andrew MacDougall, Janet McGowan. Johanna Neumann arrived at 8 PM. 
Staff: Christine Brestrup (Town Planner), Pam Field Sadler (Administrative Assistant), Dave Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager )

Kestrel Land Trust Property Near Bay Road
The Kestrel Land Trust, which purchased property off Bay Road near the Atkins roundabout several years ago, wants to convert an existing single-family home there into an office building. Tom Hartman, Architect at C & H Architects, presented the proposed alterations to the property and house as part of a Site Plan Review. A Site Plan Review is required because this is a Change of Use for the property. Because Kestrel Trust is an educational 501C3 non-profit, it is not limited by the zoning. The property is zoned R-LD (Residential Low Density). 

Hartman said that the Kestrel organization plans minimal alterations:
(beginning on page 17)

* The entrance will receive a new door and overhead light. 

* The driveway will be widened to 14 feet. The driveway is ordinarily required to be 20 feet, but because Kestrel will install an alarm in the building that will automatically notify the Fire Department in the event of a fire, the Fire Department is amenable to a 14-foot driveway. 

* A turnaround for emergency vehicles will also be constructed.

* There will be 11 parking spaces (7 along the driveway, two in the garage, and two visitor spaces near the entrance walk). 

* The entrance walk will be made handicapped accessible. 

* Meeting rooms will be accessible. Because the repairs to the building will cost less than $50,000, Kestrel is not required to have an accessible bathroom. 

* Wooden stairs leading to the Town-owned pond will be replaced with a path.

* Three small sheds will be removed (after approval from the Historical Commission). 

Trails around the property connect with the Norwottuck Range Trails. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek said that the developer of Apple Brook subdivision to the south plans to donate seven acres for public parking and access to the trails from the west. The Town also plans to add signage, kiosks, and additional parking at the Sweet Alice area on Bay Road to the east.

The Planning Board site visit found the property and house as described in Hartman’s report, and agreed with the proposed alterations. The Conservation Commission has also approved the plan with some minor conditions.

Abutters within 300 feet of the property were notified of the plans and Brestrup said she had received no comments as yet. No member of the public commented at this public hearing. 

The Planning Board approved the Site Plan Review 6-0-0 with Neumann absent. Marshall proposed that Kestrel return for another public hearing if it decides to demolish the garage in order to provide more parking.

Zoning Changes
Mandi Jo Hanneke (At large), Chair of the Town Council’s Community Resources Committee (CRC), and Ziomek explained the process for proposing and approving changes to the Zoning Bylaw. Hanneke had distributed a complex flow chart of the process earlier (at the Planning Board meeting on June 3). 

 The chart includes hearings that are required before a Zoning Bylaw change can be approved but is vague about proposing and discussing a change as well as how the Planning Board and CRC interact in this process. 

Town Planner Christine Brestrup gave a brief history of the Zoning Subcommittee (ZSC) of the Planning Board, which has existed since before she joined the Town staff 17 years ago. The ZSC is supposed to identify problems in the Zoning Bylaw and present ideas about how to make amendments that will correct them. The ZSC makes sure that the wording of each amendment is correct and then presents the amendment to the Planning Board and eventually Town Meeting for approval. However, the ZSC has not met since the COVID-19 shutdown. It was working on several problem areas, but was unclear about how to bring them before the Town Council and, in fact, was told that the Council was not ready to deal with zoning issues. Later, the Community Resources Committee expressed “an interest” in managing zoning changes. Now, it is unclear whether the ZSC still has a role.

Hanneke surveyed the Councilors on their priorities changes to the zoning bylaws and produced a list, which she then narrowed down to 10 items, each of which had been mentioned by at least three Councilors, for the purpose of beginning the discussions. 

These items are:

  • design guidelines and form-based codes
  • diversity in housing stock
  •  incorporate climate action goals
  •  design review board
  •  BL District requirement
  •  apartment and mixed use building regulations
  • BG District sets backs and heights
  • inclusionary zoning
  • parking regulations for new develipments
  • review the zoning map

The Planning Board had previously presented its own zoning priorities to the CRC, which include reviewing downtown zoning, increasing housing, and the recodification of the Zoning Bylaw. 

The Planning Department wants to make the Zoning Bylaw more internally consistent and to revise problematic sections, such as the Sign Bylaw. 

Planning Board Member Janet McGowan asked whether the CRC plans to get input from the public; Hanneke said it is not ready yet, as it is still gathering information, but might be ready for public feedback in mid- to late November. The question of how the CRC , Planning Board, and Planning Department will work together on zoning issues will be discussed in the future.

Creating a Master Plan Implementation Committee (MPIC)
Chapter 10 of the 2010 Master Plan contains a detailed plan for implementing the Plan, with a 14 page checklist in the Appendix . However, according to Brestrup, a committee to implement the Plan, which is part of the Plan and is required to include a Planning Board member, was never formed. (The Master Plan itself is under the purview of the Planning Board.)

McGowan and MacDougall pointed out that it is important to track progress on the goals of the Master Plan; both volunteered to participate. Marshall encouraged raising the level of public interest in the Plan. Chao expressed concern about creating more work for the Planning Department staff, and does not want to create “another committee that goes nowhere,” although many community members have valuable historical knowledge and could contribute to achieving the goals of the Master Plan. 

Brestrup said that identifying what has already been done and what needs are still unmet would be fairly easy, that a subcommittee that meets monthly, sets its own agenda, and takes its own minutes would not put a lot of strain on the Planning Department, and she could serve as a resource. She offered to provide a list of Town plans that augment the Master Plan, noting that every proposed Zoning Bylaw change is required to meet the goals of the Master Plan. Discussion of a possible subcommittee for Master Plan Implementation will continue at a future meeting.

Minutes Controversy
The Board previously had a lengthy discussion about the level of detail needed for the Minutes. Several members said that the Minutes should summarize a meeting rather than provide details or be “almost a transcript” and added that minutes have been submitted late, several months after meetings. 

Jemsek added that meetings are recorded and that anyone who wants information about a meeting, for example for a dispute or legal challenge to a decision, can listen to recordings of them. 

In response to the discussion, the minutes for the September 16 Planning Board meeting were shorter. McGowan, who had objected to abridged minutes, were willing to accept the change for now. It was pointed out that the minutes from the September 15 CRC meeting, received by the Planning Board, are detailed and “almost a transcript.”

Announcements
Brestrup said that the Town received a $129,000 grant from the State Department of Transportation to enhance the streetscape downtown to make shopping and outdoor dining more inviting.

The next meeting will be October 22 at 6:30 p.m.

A fourth and final  public forum on 40R Overlay Zoning will take place on Wednesday, October 14 at 6:30 p.m.  The meeting can be joined via Zoom at  https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/88562506992

The meeting adjourned at 9:30 p.m.

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