Editor’s note: a copy of this letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council.
I write to urge that the motion to move forward on drafting a specific roster of zoning amendments, which is on the agenda for the Special Meeting on January 4, 2021, be denied. The list is flawed, and setting town staff to work drafting language for specific zoning amendments is premature. There are at least two zoning priorities that are not on the list at all, despite having been called for by the Planning Board and many individual Councilors. They should be added.
The first is a review of the current heights and setbacks permitted in the B-G zone (listed first on the Planning Board’s zoning priorities memorandum to the Community Resources Committee [CRC] dated September 1, 2020). Now that we have seen what this zoning permits, in the form of Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant Street, numerous residents and several members of Town Council have expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the result. Surely a fresh look at B-G zoning is merited, when so much else in the zoning arena is being considered for change. Bad buildings will continue to be built until we tackle this issue.
The second item that should be among the earliest priorities is mandating that a percentage of affordable or below-market units be created in any new residential project of a specified size, wherever it is situated in Amherst. If making housing available to citizens of all stripes is seen as such a priority for the town, there is no good reason not to put inclusionary zoning into effect town-wide as soon as possible. Create incentives for developers if that is deemed necessary.
Neither of these items will involve any additional expense in drafting or require more effort by the Planning Department and other town entities than the items on the list the motion enumerates. More broadly, I am dismayed by the process the CRC has outlined, in which opportunities for citizen involvement will not occur until after the bylaw changes have been drafted. This seems entirely backward to me, and indeed it seems to conflict with the CRC’s own Process for Advising the Council on Bylaw Measures (step B.4). Until there is wider discussion of what, specifically, we residents want our downtown, village centers, and neighborhoods to look and feel like, those drafting the change language will be operating somewhat blind, under the limiting mandate of “densifying” everywhere.
The proposals for zoning changes need to be weighed against all the objectives of the Master Plan, not just the narrow slice cited in the CRC’s addendum to the Council dated December 21, 2020, and the appropriate balance for each district of Amherst will need to be sought when objectives conflict. Historical preservation, adaptive re-use, encouraging small businesses, creating performing arts venues and green spaces, and maintaining Amherst’s small-town character should not be cast aside in the press to multiply the number of housing units in every quarter.
The Master Plan emphasizes the importance of developing proper design standards for new construction. This was identified as a priority by 70% of Councilors surveyed last summer. Why is it not on the list? Citizens as well as Council members—who have the ultimate responsibility to adopt or reject the proposed zoning changes—need to have the proposals made concrete and visual, through drawings and graphic representations that, one hopes, would employ the new design standards. Hence, developing design standards should precede —or at least move forward in tandem with—drafting zoning amendments. Quantifications would also help all parties understand the impact of each proposal.
I am concerned that the haste to approve as many zoning amendments as possible before the current Council term ends is not in the town’s best interest. Zoning changes should not be made piecemeal. They intersect and have cumulative effects that need to be fully evaluated. It is far better to do the whole job right than to do some of it quickly in the interest of personal political expediency. You owe us that if you want our votes going forward.
Suzannah Fabing Muspratt
Suzannah Fabing Muspratt is a resident of Amherst