After Contentious Debate, Council Postpones Vote On New Zoning Priorities To January 4

Photo: picserver.org. Creative commons

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council (12/21/20)

Highlights: 

  • Vote on Zoning Priorities postponed until January 4, 2021 meeting
  • Ranked Choice Voting advances
  • Belchertown Road properties purchase proposed for affordable housing
  • FY 2022 budget guidelines outlined
  • Stormwater management bylaw required
  • The memo posing questions about the  Jones Library renovation or its demolition/expansion was debated.  Approval of the memo was postponed to the January 4 meeting
  • Council requested from GOL a process for addressing citizens’ petitions submitted under article 8.1 of the Town Charter.
  • Council debated roles of the Council President and Vice President in advance of the scheduled January 4 election for these offices.
  • Council appointed Jane Scheffler to fill a vacancy for a non-voting member on the Finance Committee

The meeting was held as a Zoom webinar and was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 17. A recording of the meeting will be posted on the Amherst Media website.

Participating: All Town Councilors

Zoning Priorities
The most controversial part of the meeting involved a request from the Community Resources Committee (CRC, a subcommittee of the Town Council) to the Town Manager directing staff to begin drafting changes to the Zoning Bylaw according to the priorities it has developed.

CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) noted that the Council has received a lot of emails from residents who are voicing concerns about the CRC’s priorities. Former Planning Board member Pam Rooney, for example, urged the Council to give the public more opportunity to have input. Hanneke said that actual amendments have not yet been formally proposed and anyway, zoning changes require a public hearing and two-thirds approval by the Council. She added that community impact reports would be conducted after actual proposals have been made.

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said that although she supports some of the zoning changes, she is concerned about unintended consequences and feels that more input from the community is needed. She moved to delay voting until there has been additional information and dialog. Cathy Schoen (District 1) said that the CRC’s 27-page document includes some significant changes that have the potential to permanently alter the Town’s appearance. In fact, a 2016 memo from Planning Director Chris Brestrup spoke of the drastic changes that could result if the Limited Business (B-L) zone is added to Footnote b.  She cautioned that Councilors should be clear about their priorities for Amherst before they vote.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam agreed with DeAngelis and Schoen, adding that no clear and well-informed vision has been agreed upon. For example, she said that ‘more density” is vague and means different things to different people and added, “I feel like a little lamb being led to the slaughterhouse.”

Fellow District 3 Councilor George Ryan was dismissive of the perceived lack of clarity and input, and said there will be plenty of time later for discussion and for public input. 

Evan Ross (District 4) defended the changes and said they will increase affordable housing. He said he ran for Council on the issues of housing and zoning changes. He said he “cannot buy a house in Amherst” and that all of the priorities from the CRC have roots in the Master Plan. He urged the Council to move forward right away.

At-large Councilor Alisa Brewer objected to the way the CRC established priorities for changing zoning in Town, but also pointed out that the public is involved earlier in the process than under the previous form of government, when proposed changes were not widely known until Town Meeting was sent a warrant for its meeting.

The largest challenge to the CRC came from District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont. DuMont said that its proposal violates the Town Charter by skipping the Planning Board. She also noted that the Zoning Subcommittee of the Planning Board had been ready  to propose zoning changes in September 2018, but then the Zoning Subcommittee was dissolved and the CRC took over its role in proposing zoning changes.

DuMont also pointed out that eight of the current Councilors pledged to the Amherst Forward PAC that they would support densification of Amherst’s downtown and village centers. She urged that Councilors think carefully about whether their plan for the Town is to house UMass undergrads downtown, or whether it is to house a mix of students, families, workers, and retirees. If people are going to live there for more than a year or two, she said, we need different priorities, such as greenspace, balconies, and parking, than are needed by the undergraduate student population.

Steve Schreiber (District 4) said that the Town’s current zoning bylaw allows five-story buildings with no setbacks from the sidewalk and little or no green space or parking to be built downtown.

Andy Steinberg (at large) said that new development would add to the tax base.

DeAngelis withdrew her motion to delay the vote, but Schoen, who had seconded the motion, held firm, explaining that the CRC list is specific but does not present an overarching vision for the future of Amherst. In addition, she explained, it has been shown new development and growth alone do not solve fiscal problems. She also complained that not one of her priorities was included on the CRC’s list. She suggested that the CRC make a more creative and cohesive list of priorities. Some towns, for example, require developers to contribute to the extra costs their projects add to the Town’s budget, such as roads, sidewalks, education, and public safety. 

Schoen moved for there to be a public dialogue before the January 25 Council meeting, followed by a vote on February 8, before Town staff is tasked with writing new zoning. The measure failed 3-10-0 (Councilors Pam, DuMont, and Schoen voted in favor.) Then DuMont used her Charter right under section 2.10c, and moved to postpone the vote. As a result, zoning priorities for Amherst will be discussed again, at the January 4, 2021 meeting.

Ranked Choice Voting
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) moved closer to becoming a reality in Amherst. At the Town Council’s meeting on December 7, the Ranked Choice Voting Commission had presented its final report. (The Amherst Home Rule Charter, Section 10.10 mandates that a seven-member Ranked Choice Voting Commission be created and present a report to the Town Council, and that the Town Council accept the report with or without amendments.)

At the December 7 presentation, Councilors had asked the Commission for more time to study the report and to submit questions. 

RCV Commission Chair Tanya Liese and Acting Town Clerk Sue Audette  were present to clarify the report and answer Councilors’ questions. Implementing Ranked Choice Voting would necessitate purchasing new voting machines and tabulators, which would cost in the neighborhood of $80,000. This expense will be included in the FY 2022 budget, so the equipment cannot be purchased until July 2021. Therefore, it would be difficult to implement ranked choice voting for the November 2021 municipal elections.

Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) noted that the Charter Commission had not realized that Ranked Choice Voting must be approved by the State legislature and signed by the Governor before it can go into effect.

Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said that both State Senator Jo Comerford and State Representative Mindy Domb are supportive of the measure but feel that the odds of getting it through the legislature before July are slim to none, given the multiple steps involved and the legislature’s schedule. A letter has been drafted from the Council to the legislature making it clear that Ranked Choice Voting is a requirement of our Charter and that 58 percent of Amherst voters had supported it on the November 2020 ballot.

The Council voted unanimously to send the letter requesting approval of Ranked Choice Voting for Municipal Elections to the State Legislature . 

In public comment at the beginning of the meeting, Bonnie Isman of the League of Women Voters stated that the League supports Ranked Choice Voting and is willing to help with voter education. Easthampton and Cambridge have adopted Ranked Choice Voting.

Purchase of Property on Belchertown Road for Affordable Housing
The Town’s 2013 Housing Production Plan projected the need for 250 units of affordable housing in the subsequent five years, but fewer than 50 units have been built. The Town is proposing purchasing 2.66 acres at 72-76 Belchertown Road, currently owned by Keith Kaneta, on which to construct about 40 affordable units. The parcel is roughly across from Colonial Village.  The proposal was presented by Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek, Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Affordable Housing Trust Chair John Hornik. 

The parcel is near public transit, the East Amherst Village Center, and town services. The Community Preservation Act Committee recommended awarding $800,000 of CPA funds for the purchase, but most likely only $600,000 will be needed, since the Housing Trust will contribute $200,000 of its own CPA funds. This property could be bundled with the nearby East Street School to produce 70 units of one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. Because the parcel is in a Neighborhood Residential (R-N) Zone, a comprehensive permit under Chapter 40B of the State Housing Code is required to construct an apartment building.

If the purchase is approved by the Council, the Town will put out a Request for Proposals to developers. Not all units would necessarily be affordable, but most would have to be in order to be eligible for State funds. The RFP for East Street School specifies that at least 50 percent of the units be affordable. Although the Town will temporarily lose tax revenue by purchasing the land, it can collect rent on the two existing houses on the lots and eventually can collect taxes on the apartment building or buildings. The Town typically gives a developer a 99-year lease on the land used.

The Council voted unanimously to refer the proposal to the Finance Committee and Community Resources Committee, with reports due back by January 25. Closing on the purchase is tentatively scheduled for February 16. 

Adoption of Budget Guidelines
Griesemer prefaced the presentation of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget guidelines by noting that this is the very beginning of the process and that the guidelines may change as more information becomes available. 

Finance Committee Chair Steinberg noted that the long document covers topics from the meeting on financial indicators . 

The budget guidelines project level funding for all departments, which, according to Steinberg is  “a big ask.” The Capital budget is higher than in the FY 21 budget, when it was cut by half, but is still “less than desirable” because of the backlog of capital needs.  This raises the possibility of a tax override request or use of the rainy day fund which has been built up in anticipation of the four large capital projects (elementary school, fire station, DPW, and library) that have been proposed for the near future .

Steinberg acknowledged that the Council has received many emails supporting additional funding for the schools, but said that the School Committee has not yet submitted a budget to evaluate. Hanneke pointed out that projected revenue in this budget is $1.5 million less than the current year’s, even though it anticipates level funding from the State. Town Finance Director Sean Mangano said that the Governor’s budget will be released in January, so the information will be updated then.

Brewer opined that not enough attention was being paid to sustainability and racial equity in this budget. She also said she is unhappy about how schools are treated in the proposal. There is a fine line to prevent families from leaving town because of a decrease in school quality due to cuts to school budget, she said. She stated that she cannot support the proposed guidelines.

Griesemer countered that the Town does not yet have reports from the Energy and Climate Action Committee (a subcommittee of the Council) and the Working Group on Community Safety, so sustainability and racial equity could not be included in this document.

The budget guidelines were passed 12-1-0, with Brewer dissenting.

Stormwater Management Bylaw
Wetlands Administrator Beth Willson and Assistant Superintendent of Public Works Amy Rusiecki  presented the proposed Stormwater Management Bylaw, which must be passed by June 30, 2021 . In 2019 Amherst applied for and was granted a permit for a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4), which requires the Town to develop a stormwater management system. The program is administered by the EPA and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. 

There are six aspects to the program: 

* public education and outreach;
* public involvement and participation;
* illicit discharge detection and elimination program;
* construction site runoff control;
* stormwater management in new development and redevelopment; and
* good housekeeping and pollution prevention on Town-owned properties.

The last four points require a bylaw to be drafted.

Rusiecki pointed out that the Town is required to establish these regulations, but the State does not provide funding for them (it is an unfunded mandate). The Town is unsure how much it will cost to develop and maintain these requirements. Northampton instituted a fee to pay for stormwater control, and some grants are available. There is also an option of establishing a Town public utility for revenue, as 25 Massachusetts towns have done.

The Council voted unanimously to refer the bylaw to the following Council committees: Finance Committee, Town Services and Outreach Committee, and Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) when the draft is completed.

Follow Up on Jones Library Renovation and/or Demolition/Expansion
As a result of the November 14 Town Council retreat, Griesemer drafted memos to the Jones Library Trustees  with questions about the proposed renovation or expansion of the Library, as well as questions to the Town Manager about  construction of a new Department of Public Works Building and a new Fire Station. The original memo to the Jones Trustees raised concerns from some of the Councilors.  Brewer said that she felt that same questions ought to be posed about renovation that were posed about demolition and expansion.. Also, she felt that it is inappropriate to ask about the expanded Library’s operating expenses in the construction plan. Schoen, however, said that the operating budget should be included because it has been a “stretch” for the Jones to even meet its current expenses in recent years without overdrawing from its endowment, and a significantly larger library might take more money to run.

Griesemer felt the letter was not ready to submit to the Trustees and requested another round of Councilor input. It will be discussed again at the January 4 meeting. 

Future Agenda Items
Griesemer drafted a memo listing  many items that the Council has considered dealing with in their last year There are far too many issues on the list to be completed in one year. She suggested that the Council committees review the items in their purview and prioritize them. 

Pam noted that agendas are already too full and that it is difficult to adequately prepare for these long meetings. The length of the meetings discourages people from running for Council. 

Open Meetings Requested by Residents
Charter section 8.1 provides for 200 residents to request an open meeting on an issue to the appropriate body. Such a petition was recently filed with the Town Clerk by residents requesting a meeting with the School Committee. There was some controversy as to whether phone numbers of the petitioners were required as well as names and addresses. The petition was answered by the Town Manager with advice from K-P Law, but the Council felt that they needed to clarify the process for any petition that might be brought before the Town Council. The matter was referred to the GOL committee with a report due back in 90 days. The vote was 12-0-1 for referral, with DuMont abstaining.

Roles of the Council President and Vice President
In anticipation of the election of new Council officers at the end of the January 4 meeting, Brewer requested that the roles of the President and Vice President be discussed. The meeting packet included the roles of the officers according to the Charter and a list of the functions performed by Hanneke as Vice President . Brewer pointed out that there is a concentration of power in the Council in the President and Vice President and that maybe that was necessary at the change of government, but it should be reexamined at this point. She noted that before COVID, other Councilors were to be involved in agenda setting, but that hasn’t happened since the pandemic began.

DuMont thanked Brewer for suggesting that the Council have this discussion. She stated that the duties listed by Hanneke are unique to her and not necessarily to the office of Vice President. Pam also stated that she didn’t like the idea of such a powerful team. It shuts the rest of the Councilors out and doesn’t promote diversity of thought.

Sarah Swartz (District 1) said she hoped the main job of the Vice President would be to step in for the President, as specified by the Charter, and that the President would not have to take on all the extra tasks as Griesemer has done. She also felt the President should be more free to express her opinion and not only to manage the meetings. She hoped the position of President would be less daunting in the future. Election of Council officers will occur at the end of the January 4 meeting.

Nonvoting Member of the Finance Committee
Due to the resignation of Sharon Povenelli from the Finance Committee, there was a vacancy among the three non-voting members. GOL voted 4-1 to nominate Jane Sheffler to fill the position until June 30, 2022.  Brewer objected to the brevity of the report which did not include the selection process or the statements of interest of the applicants. Swartz also disagreed with  the process that was used, which deviated from the process developed in the former Outreach, Communications and Appointments committee last year. DuMont felt this reflected the need for a uniform appointment process.

Hanneke pointed out that this was the same process as was used in the June appointment of another non-voting member of the Finance Committee. She did not feel the steps needed to be reiterated for each appointment. The vote to approve the GOL recommendation was 12-1-0 with Brewer dissenting.

Announcements
Hanneke noted that Doug Hall of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is coming to the January 20, 2021 Planning Board meeting at 6:30 to talk about post-COVID planning. The entire Council is encouraged to attend.

Town Manager Bockelman announced another drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Mill River will be held  for those who are symptomatic or have been exposed to the virus  on December 29. There will probably be a third date in the future.

He urged the Councilors to take some time for themselves and their families over the holidays.

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