Report on the Special Town Council Meetings with the Planning Board (1/4/21 and 1/6/21)
At the December 21, 2020 Council meeting, the vote on a 27-page memo regarding zoning changes (“priorities”) proposed by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) was postponed to January 4 when Councilor Darcy DuMont (District 5) used her authority for postponement under Charter Section 2.10c. In the interim, the Council and Planning Board received 80 letters from citizens, nearly all cautioning about the piecemeal approach that the CRC took to establishing new zoning priorities and the lack of public input into the process. These letters can be read here . Six were previously published in the Indy.
At the opening of this special Town Council meeting, Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) proposed a substitute motion , that asked the Town Manager and Planning Staff to report on the implications of the proposed changes and to consider other options that would achieve the stated goals of “increased density, housing, and economic vitality.” Her motion moved design guidelines to the forefront, to be considered in all changes, instead of at the end as in the CRC memo. Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), clearly moved by the large number of letters from citizens expressing concern, seconded this motion.
A nearly two-hour discussion followed. Although the CRC memo claimed to be based on the goals of the Master Plan, Schoen pointed out that there the Master Plan advises caution and emphasizes maintaining the small town and historic nature of Amherst. She stated that all pieces interact. For example, if apartment buildings are approved with site plan reviews instead of special permits, as currently required, the approval process would not trigger Inclusionary Zoning. She noted that the Planning Department has been thinking about many of these changes for years, so the Council should not hamstring them by requesting specific changes, as the CRC’s list of priorities does, but should let them be creative. Both Schoen and Councilor Darcy Dumont had previously noted that the proposed changes in zoning priorities require, according to the Master Plan, an assessment of their potential impacts, which they currently lack.
Bahl-Milne said that there were two public forums on planning for the downtown in 2017. She suggested that the Planning Department assimilate the feedback from these meetings with the many citizen letters received and with the CRC’s priorities. She has spoken to urban designers who live in Amherst and elsewhere who can help with the development of design guidelines. She felt this work could be done relatively quickly and would produce better results than the CRC’s list.
CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said she could not vote for the substitute motion, arguing that it adds topics like parking, which the Planning Department would not be able to consider as quickly as is desirable, and she did not like the limits it might end up placing on new buildings or the concerns it names, such as consideration of whether new duplexes or triplexes are owner occupied, as these might result in limiting densification. Also, she felt that the motion was setting the Planning Department up for failure by asking them to consider and present options.
Evan Ross (District 4) also objected to the substitute motion, saying it is “classist” to require design guidelines for duplexes but not single-family homes. He also felt the modification of the dimensional requirements proposed in the CRC memo are necessary to allow smaller houses on smaller lots, which would be more affordable for families and seniors as well.
Alisa Brewer (at large) dismissed the large outpouring of public input. She said that most of the letters that the Council received were “cut and paste” from white homeowners who fear change in their neighborhoods. She praised the “transparency” of the current process, which she declared to be an improvement of the way things were done under Selectboard/ Town Meeting system, but also felt that further discussion should be held at regular Town Council meetings, which are more accessible to the public than CRC meetings.
Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) disagreed with the assessment that most of the letters were from white homeowners who fear change. She felt that they displayed heartfelt feelings of residents about their town and neighborhoods. She didn’t understand the rush to make big, complicated changes. Many of the proposed changes are hard to grasp, she said, emphasizing that “we need to get things right.” People are moving to small towns from big cities, and it is important to keep the small town character of the town.
Councilor Steve Schreiber (District 4) said that “the process is working” and people are seeing a relationship between zoning and neighborhoods. He said he does think that all of the items on the CRC’s list of priorities will ultimately be adopted, and noted that zoning amendments require 9 votes on the Council to pass, which to him means that proposed changes need to be airtight.
Councilor Andy Steinberg (at large) pointed out that he thinks that new growth is “the only way to raise property tax revenue without an override.” He said that if we want to maintain town services, we should not delay new development.
Schoen said that she attended Zoning Subcommittee meetings of the Planning Board before she was elected to the Council. (The Zoning Subcommittee was dealing with many of the issues now in the CRC memo, but was told by the Council to slow down.) She stated that “smart design” does not have to slow growth, as evidenced by Bend, Oregon, and other towns.
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District2) emphasized that no zoning changes were actually being proposed yet, and that zoning changes require a public hearing through the Planning Board and approval of two-thirds of the Councilors.
A vote to accept Schoen’s substitute motion failed 5-7-1. Griesemer abstained. Pam, Bahl-Milne, Schoen, DuMont, and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) voted for it.
Attention then turned to the original CRC motion. Brewer thought Town Council should drive the process of revising zoning laws, since many of the Planning Board members have not served for long. Ross objected to prioritizing guidelines over increasing housing, repeating that there is a critical shortage of housing in Amherst. He said that all new housing, including expensive units, will open up housing opportunities here.
DeAngelis noted that the CRC document emphasizes reducing developers’ costs. She questioned whether the developers would pass the savings along to consumers and reduce rents. She felt that the CRC’s proposals push zoning in a direction that will be bad for Amherst. Although she agreed with some of the CRC’s proposed zoning changes, she did not agree with all of them.
The CRC motion passed 10-3, with only Pam, Schoen, and DuMont dissenting.
Planning Director Details Proposed Zoning Changes at January 6 Planning Board Meeting
The recently approved zoning priorities were discussed at the January 6 Planning Board meeting. The Planning Department is tasked with developing changes to the Zoning Bylaw to fulfill these goals. Because the Planning Board is required to hold a public hearing on proposed zoning changes, Planning Director Christine Brestrup explained each of the proposals in detail.
The following proposed changes to the Zoning Bylaw are to be completed by March 15, 2021:
- Adding B-L (limited business) district to footnote b would allow mixed use buildings to be built with no minimum lot area or frontage. It was noted that incorporating a tiny 200 square foot commercial area would relieve developers of many of the rules governing apartments (number and size of units, etc)
- Adding footnote a to maximum lot coverage and building coverage would allow existing dimensional requirements to be waived by Special Permit
- Propose a revised supplemental dwelling bylaw similar to that presented to Town Meeting in 2018. This would allow supplemental dwellings of up to 1000 square feet. Currently, the area is limited to 800 square feet. This measure did not pass Town Meeting with the required two-thirds majority.
- Demolition Delay Bylaw changes. The Historical Commission is working on revising this Bylaw, and it will probably be moved from the Zoning Bylaw to the General Bylaws.
- Move apartments to site plan review (not special permits) in more zoning districts. Note, inclusionary zoning is only triggered by special permit application, not site plan review, so this could decrease the number of affordable units created under that bylaw.
- Remove footnote m which establishes maximum density for apartments and townhouses.
And these proposals are to be completed by September 1, 2021:
- Dimensional regulations in the R-G (general residential) and R-VC (village center residential) to allow greater density and smaller lots in these areas
- Lowering barriers to development of duplexes and triplexes to allow them in more zoning districts. The zoning bylaw does not even mention triplexes.
- Frontage regulations for residential zones (again allowing smaller lots)
- What kinds of businesses are allowed in village centers. This is not specified in the Zoning Bylaw. Consider what businesses and services would encourage community and fulfill basic needs within walking distance.
- Transportation issues (may not be zoning).
Consultant money allocated in 2014 for use for the downtown area would be used to hire consultants to develop form-based zoning and design guidelines.
Rebirth of the Zoning Subcommittee
After Brestrup’s detailed presentation, Planning Board member Maria Chao said that the currently dormant Zoning Subcommittee had been dealing with many of these topics and had come up with proposals for several. These were set aside because the Town Council was dealing with other issues at the time. Chao proposed reviving the Zoning Subcommittee, and others on the Planning Board agreed. The format would be less formal than the regular Planning Board meetings with more open discussion, and the public would be encouraged to take part. Doug Marshall, Thom Long, and Andrew MacDougall were elected to join Chao and Janet McGowan on the Zoning Subcommittee. Meetings will be every other Tuesday, beginning January 12 at 5 p.m.