Planning Board Raises Concerns About Implementing 40R Zoning Downtown

Proposed apartment building at 26 Spring Steet. It wsa announced at the Planning Board meeting on 16/21 that construction work at the site has stopped. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Planning Board Meeting of January 6, 2021

The meeting was held as a Zoom webinar and was recorded.All members of the Planning Board were present.

Chapter 40R Discussion

At the November 18 Planning Board meeting , the board held a lively discussion about the merits and shortcomings of adopting a 40R bylaw permitting expedited permitting for projects which meet certain design guidelines and provide at least 20 percent affordable units. This overlay zoning would allow increased density in the area in and around downtown, as proposed in the report from consultants Karen Sunnarborg and David Eisen. Affordable Housing Trust members John Hornik and Rob Crowner were invited to that meeting, and then Planning Board members Doug Marshall and Maria Chao agreed to carefully examine the proposed bylaw written by the consultants and give feedback to the rest of the board.

Town Planner Christine Brestrup noted that changes would need to be made in the proposed bylaw in order to be applicable to Amherst. She also suggested that with the Town’s planned purchase of land on Belchertown Road for affordable housing, perhaps East Amherst would be a better site for 40R development than the downtown area. She also pointed out that some of the zoning changes recently proposed by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and adopted by the Town Council are in conflict with 40R. 

Marshall said he has not finished his review of the bylaw, but feels it is too loosely written and too confusing when looked at in the context of the changes proposed by the CRC. He has been trying to get the 3-D CAD rendering tool from the consultants so as to have a clearer picture of what the increased density would look like. He asked if the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw would be triggered if housing is built in the limited business (B-L) district; Brestrup said it would not be unless a special permit was required for use or dimensional waivers.

Chao said she would be sad if the 40R site was changed to East Amherst from downtown. The Belchertown Road site will be developed under Chapter 40B, which requires a comprehensive permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. It would most likely be five years until the housing would be built and “we need affordable housing now.” 

Brestrup noted that if footnote b is added to the B-L district, as proposed by the CRC, developers would be able to build as many units as would fit without any being affordable and as a result a 40R overlay would not be appealing to them. 

Marshall also pointed out that if Amherst adopts the 40R bylaw, it will have to be approved by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), and a future decision to remove it would also require Massachusetts DHCD approval.

Brestrup felt the efforts of the Planning Board would be better spent on other zoning issues at this time and that it could resume the 40R discussion at a later date. 

The Board proposed a statement that it is interested in the concept of Chapter 40R overlay zoning, but is not sure if the downtown area is the best place for it, and details need to be worked out if the Town is to adopt it. The statement will be finalized as a motion at the next Planning Board meeting on January 20.

Update on Amherst Hills Subdivision

Tofino Associates, the developer of Amherst Hills, has requested the release of the lots being withheld from receiving Town building permits and sewer hookups because it has finished the roads there. Brestrup summarized the situation for new Board members. 

Amherst Hills has been under development since the 1990s. Economic downturns and the death of developer Doug Kohl in 2009 slowed development. Roads in the development were built in sections, but the topcoat was never applied. The original intention was for the Town to take over the roads when they were completed, but Town policy is to not apply a topcoat until most of the houses in a subdivision are built so that the roads do not get damaged by heavy construction equipment. This works well for small subdivisions, but this subdivision was so slow to develop that the base coat began to deteriorate. 

Residents came to the Planning Board in the fall of 2019 requesting the Board to rescind the release of unsold lots. Instead, the Board decided to instruct the building commissioner not to issue building permits or sewer hookups for the unsold lots.

Now the roads have been completed, but the drainage and sidewalks are still incomplete. According to the Town engineer, the cost of this work is less than the $280,000 three-party performance agreement held with the developer, the Town, and Greenfield Savings. Therefore, Tofino has requested removal of the restriction on the issuance of building permits on the lots. 

Mark Tanner, attorney with Bacon Wilson PC, representing the residents of Amherst Hills, requested a modification of the performance bond to ensure that the residents would not be held responsible for any remaining work. Tofino attorney Michael Pill is unwilling to modify the bond, but is willing to extend the time of the agreement until the work can be done. Brestrup has not had time to speak to Town Attorney Joel Bard and suggested that the board not take action until she has an opinion from him.

Board member Janet McGowan agreed that some aspects of the performance bond are unclear and offered to speak to Bard with Brestrup. Of course, any action would be moot if the work were to be completed in the spring.

James Masteralexis, who has lived in Amherst Hills for the past 15 years, noted that the remaining work was stipulated by a previous Planning Board when the subdivision was permitted. He pointed out that Tofino purchased the land containing 67 lots out of bankruptcy for $445,000. Now, those lots sell for $175,000 to $200,000 each. He stated that Tofino has made its money back and should complete the work.

The Planning Board took no action on the matter of releasing the lots at this meeting.

Spring Street Development, Troubles for Archipelago
Last fall, it was noted by former Planning Board member Michael Birtwistle that progress in the construction of the mixed-use building on Spring Street seemed to have stopped. Brestrup looked into this and found that the developer, Archipelago, and the contractor seem to have parted ways. She pointed to a letter received from resident Denise Barberet which stated that the Archipelago properties in town (Kendrick Place, Olympia Place, and One East Pleasant) now list Harrison Street, a global investment firm located in Chicago, as signatories. Barberet also cited a civil lawsuit for nonpayment against Archipelago filed by the steel company which erected the first floor.

Archipelago recently purchased a sorority house near Olympia Place for $1.5 million, and might have plans to construct another building or set of buildings like Olympia Place. 

The next meeting of the Planning Board on January 20 will include a presentation by Doug Hall of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission about recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Town Council has been invited to attend.

This meeting adjourned at 9:21 p.m.

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2 thoughts on “Planning Board Raises Concerns About Implementing 40R Zoning Downtown

  1. Correction – if the B-L zoning district is added to Footnote “b” developers will not be able to build as big a building as they wish to build. They will be able to build as big a building as the dimensional requirements in the B-L district allow.
    If the B-L is added to Footnote “b” developers would be able to put as many dwelling units as they can fit in the building that they are allowed to build, which will still be limited by the dimensional requirements of the B-L zoning district. The building would not get bigger. The number of units allowed in the building would change.

  2. I’d like to hear more from the town about the facts around this:

    “Brestrup … pointed to a letter … which stated that the Archipelago properties in town (Kendrick Place, Olympia Place, and One East Pleasant) now list Harrison Street, a global investment firm located in Chicago, as signatories. Barberet also cited a civil lawsuit for nonpayment against Archipelago filed by the steel company which erected the first floor.”

    Who are we now doing business with? It was predicted by many concerned community members that the local developer (who’ve described their niche as “third tier cities”) would eventually sell out; and now their correspondence shown signatories from a distant global investment firm.

    in the spirit of “transparency to the max” please say more!

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