CRC Meets With Planning Department To Discuss Downtown Zoning Priorities

Artist's rendering of proposed overlay district for Triangle Street. Three story buildings would be allowed within 100 feet of the street. Photo:

Focus on Increasing Residential Density, Accessory Dwelling Units, Footnotes “m” and “a,” Inclusionary Zoning, And Mixed-Use Building Definition

Notes On The Meeting Of The Community Resources Committee (CRC) Of March 9, 2021 

The meeting was held via Zoom and was recorded.

CRC members Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, at large), Steve Schreiber (District 4), Evan Ross (District 4), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5). Town Staff: David Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager), Rob Morra (Building Commissioner). Planning Staff: Christine Brestrup, Maureen Pollock, Ben Breger,Nate Malloy

Presentation And Discussion Of Zoning Priorities
David Ziomek introduced and thanked Town staff for the leadership and heavy lifting on all this zoning work, noting that significantly more time on this topic will be needed. Staff is not looking for decisions today, acknowledging that more information will be available over time via email and meeting notes. 

Christine Brestrup, Town Planning Director, recapped the process that began on January 4 when a Town Council vote directed the Planning Department (PD) to develop zoning articles that would incorporate a dozen zoning changes for consideration.

The PD broke these tasks into two phases. Their work plan began with Limited Business (B-L) district changes, Footnote m, supplemental (also known as accessory) dwelling units, and definition of apartment buildings. It also worked on definitions for mixed-use buildings and on inclusionary zoning in order to produce more affordable dwelling units. This March 9 meeting with the CRC was to present proposed amendments. The CRC is expected to then conduct a public process, transmit amendments to the Town Council, and schedule Public Hearings in conjunction with the Planning Board (PB) while both the Department and the Board) continue to work on other amendments. 

  1. Staff Planner Ben Breger presented an overview of proposed changes to the Supplemental Dwelling Bylaw and recommended it be changed to  the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) bylaw. to conform with state housing terminology. The goal of ADUs is to add to the housing stock by building small units typically on single-family parcels. An ADU is an independent unit with a kitchen and sleeping area. They help create less expensive housing, often used as rentals, family support, or entry level housing. AARP and the American Planning Association support ADU laws for creation of smaller, more affordable units. Massachusetts lags slightly, but the new Housing Choice Law permits ADUs at up to 900 square feet or one-half the primary home’s size, whichever is less. Amherst now allows an ADU with at least 350 square feet and no more than 900 square feet for an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) accessible unit. 

This 2021 proposal is for three types of ADUs: Contained (within an existing home), Attached (connected to an existing home), and Detached (separate). ADUs could be up to 1,000 square feet (1,100 square feet for an ADA unit) with a streamlined permitting process and a relaxing of parking requirements and design guidelines. A minimum unit size would not be specified, as it could be regulated by building and health codes. An Attached and Contained ADU could be allowed by Site Plan Approval, or Special Permit if it didn’t conform in some way to requirements. A Detached ADU could be allowed by Site Plan Approval if it were less than 50 percent the size of the primary home. 

Design guidelines consist of being compatible with and secondary to the primary structure. Owner occupancy (OO) of one of the units is a requirement, but it does not have to be in the larger, primary structure on the property. 

  1. Staff Planner Maureen Pollock presented on Footnote (m).  She studied the implications of the CRC request to remove it, as it applies to the General Residence District (R-G). In the 1990s, citizens pushed for greater limits on the number of dwelling units (DUs) that could be placed on a property. This would apply to properties with three or more units, in other words for larger scale developments than the Accessory Dwelling Units just discussed. Townhouses or apartments currently require 4,000 square feet more land for each DU beyond the first one. The suggested removal of Footnote (m) would require only 2,500 square feet for each additional DU. There are roughly 840 parcels in the R-G.: 
  • In the two areas staff studied in more detail (Lincoln Avenue and Gray/High Streets), 114 parcels could support three or more units. These are parcels that are 20,000 square feet (0.46 acres) or larger. If all of these parcels were developed to their full capacity, an additional 467 DUs could be built with today’s zoning. 
  • If Footnote (m) were removed so that less acreage per DU is required, 163 parcels of at least 17,000 square feet (0.39Acres) or larger) could support three or more DUs. If all of these parcels were developed, 948 new DU’s could be built in the R-G. 

Apartment and townhouse developments have no Owner Occupancy requirements. The numbers on the graphic below indicates net potential growth in DUs in the Lincoln Avenue area with Footnote (m) removed.. The purple properties have not been included, due to uncertain data about their use. The PD is discussing whether removing Footnote (m) might allow too much density–more than the public would want.

Staff sampled the Gray and High Street area as well. An additional 100 DUs could be added to those streets if Footnote (m) were to be removed. Staff discussed various options for incremental allowances: 2,500 square feet required per the second, third, and fourth units; then the 4,000 Square feet requirement would kick back in for any additional units over four. Example: Up to four units on a property would not have to meet Footnote (m); if more than more units were planned, then the land required would once again increase to 4,000 square feet  per DU. Or possible variations on that ratio could be discussed, such as a cap on new DUs at a maximum of five per parcel. More discussion is needed. 

Draft Language by Town Staff is in red (this has not had full Planning Board input or public discussion): 

  1. Staff Planner Maureen Pollock also brought up Footnote (a). The CRC priority list recommended that Footnote (a) be applied in ALL districts on Maximum Building Coverage percentage and Maximum Lot Coverage percentage. This is the first time there has been public discussion on this element. Footnote (a) allows proposed dimensional requirements to be considered in the context of the project’s surroundings, so it allows flexibility within the Special Permit Granting Authority’s ability to waive or adjust dimensions. This flexibility already applies to Maximum Floors and Maximum Heights in all zoning districts. Draft language by the PD suggests adding to the existing language: “In the R-G Zoning District, the Additional Lot Area requirement shall only be modified for uses with all residential units that are owner occupied by deed restriction.” 

Next steps – more study of Footnote (m) on parcels along main corridors such as Main, Amity, North Pleasant and East Pleasant Streets. Consideration of new housing type categories such as triplex (three-unit residential use) and quadplex (four-unit residential use). 

  1. Staff Planner Nate Malloy presented on Inclusionary Zoning (IZ). Inclusionary Zoning is intended to “…maintain and increase the supply of affordable and accessible housing in the Town of Amherst….” Today, IZ applies only to projects that produce 10 or more new dwelling units and require a Special Permit for the use, or to modify some dimensional standards.  In that case, 10 percent of the units are to be designated as affordable units, to be rented to qualifying individuals earning 80 percent of area mean income (AMI) (see note below). In this manner, affordable units are added to the Town’s inventory. The goal is to apply IZ to more housing types.

The PD proposal would eliminate current thresholds for a Special Permit and for modifying dimensional modifications. IZ would apply to any project — townhouses, apartments, mixed-use buildings, and cluster subdivisions — that results in 10 or more new dwelling units, with a few exceptions (40B projects, regular subdivisions, fraternity districts, institutional uses such as college dorms, and public housing). Note – 80 percent of AMI is often too expensive for Section 8 Housing Voucher holders, given Amherst’s expensive housing; Seventy or 75 percent of AMI would allow for Section 8 use.

  1. Malloy presented on Mixed-Use Building definition. The PD proposed better definitions for  a “mixed-use building” as well as conditions for management, uses within the building, mix of unit types (bedroom counts), and parking

In addition to these clarified requirements, creating site and building Design Guidelines or Standards would allow the Town to require certain design elements in new, mixed-use buildings that are not currently specified. These would include streetscape requirements, certain architectural elements compatible with historic buildings, and design for social and economic community  benefit. Proposed wording would give Town boards more tools to help balance residential and non-residential uses in the building, especially on the ground floor;  requiring active retail to face the street,  open space for residents, patrons, and public; and shared parking behind the buildings. As specific retail or commercial occupants cannot be mandated by the Town, and the developer’s intended retail type might not be what we want to see on the ground floor, the Town would rely on better building- and site-design requirements to create a desirable environment.

Specific design details could be mandated. Open space and setback requirements would give teeth to the permitting authority to make new construction more compatible with a New England college town look. For instance, front setbacks can now be waived,but could be mandated with new guidelines.  Examples of potential building facades that abide by design guidelines were shared.

6. Malloy presented on B-L and Footnote (b). The stated issue is that today’s B-L zoning restricts new development, especially housing. The CRC priority list directed PD to review applying Footnote (b) to the B-L, thus eliminating the need for additional lot area/per DU or the need for a basic minimum lot size. Planning staff felt that applying Footnote (b) would allow too many units to be built, so they proposed an overlay instead. This proposed overlay focuses on a 100-foot wide strip along the street in B-L districts in which apartments would be allowed by right (Site Plan Review); adopted mixed-use building standards could apply townwide; the Inclusionary Zoning By-Law would apply where 10 or more DUs are created. Behind this 100-foot strip would be regular B-L with all of today’s requirements. 

Substantive comments about such an Overlay Zone have come from Planning Board and community members. Because “Design standards are important “ for this zone, any downtown development should include distinctive “placemaking,” active streets that are pedestrian- and bike-friendly, public open spaces, mix of housing and retail, and transportation choices, among other elements.

Visuals were shared for the B-L strips, as an example of potential building facades.

Part  of the block from Cowles Lane to Hallock Street, as viewed from One East Pleasant building (below)

Or the corner of Hallock and North Pleasant Streets at the south end of Kendrick Park (Silverscape/Amherst Laser) (below)

Triangle-Cottage Street Overlay example, seen from different angles (below)

At 4:40 p.m., the meeting opened to comments:

CRC Councilors
Schreiber said that we’re taking on too much, getting so much information at one time that could impact huge portions of Amherst. We should not make decisions without lots more study. Owner-occupancy (OO) is the most critical element. It’s astonishing that one type of development (one Accessory Dwelling Unit) requires owner-occupancy while a development of four or five units in an apartment building has no such requirement.

Schreiber added that the R-G has reached stability, and he is more amenable to starting with owner-occupied ADUs.. He supports all kinds of OO in R-G , and added that “we’re hearing a ton of concerns” and questions like, “can we get OO [requirements] even downtown?” If it’s LLCs, that’s not allowing residents who are looking for starter homes to build wealth; what’s missing is starter condos. Unless there’s some change (in town’s demographics), we know that our demands [for reasonably priced housing] are competing by the bedroom with students who can group together and pay more to rent. 

Bahl-Milne stated that the factors she uses to weigh what the priority changes are: economic tax base and revitalization; sustainability; affordable, diverse, equitable. Which of the zoning changes affect these factors the most? Simple-Life website describes how to make starter homes affordable. Can we invite developers who can build these? “We need a community engagement process; what is stopping residents from building ADUs?” Do we need to educate people on this option? She recommended doing a scientific survey and using district meetings to help design strategies.

Ross felt ADU proposal is in good shape and he’s ready to go with it, with a question – why is there a difference in the number of unrelated people allowed, three in ADUs instead of the four allowed in every other housing type?  

The B-L- the overlay idea is growing on him, but why limit the maximum number of floors to two [in the area behind the Overlay Zone]; it should at least be as high as [is allowed] in the R-G. Parking in the back is good; pedestrian streetscape is good. Rooftop space is lacking in Amherst. Could we require or allow open space on the roof?

Pam appreciated considering input provided already. She would concentrate on the mixed-use [building definition] first as we have a new project coming…is it too late for this project? Might our new zoning limit the new development at 11-13 East Pleasant Street? Morra said it will need a special permit. If that is granted before the change in zoning, they would not need to comply with the new zoning, and they would have one year to get a building permit. New zoning would be applicable as of the date of public advertisement for Public Hearing.

Pam also said that owner occupancy is key. Two-family homes in the local historic district need to be owner occupied, but duplexes don’t? [the answer is: two-family homes are duplexes when built at one time. OO duplexes are allowed by SPR in two residential districts R-VC and R-G; and allowed by Special Permit in R-O, R-N. A Non-OO requires a Special Permit in all residential districts.]  She asked why an ADU is limited to one new unit that is OO per property, yet the same parcel could add five or more Non-OO apartment units? [this is true]. Also, if Footnote (m) is removed, is only one ADU allowed? [the answer is yes, only one ADU is permitted, but many apartments are allowable, depending on size of the parcel…go figure!]. Also, when you build, you remove trees and grass crucial to sustainability.

Schreiber said the proposed text of the ADU bylaw is not ready yet. Most ADUs are located in the backyard except the examples shown by Town Staff) up on the front of the lot. The terms converted dwelling/ duplex /ADU are confusing to differentiate. Also,bylaw Section 9.22 allows almost all requirements to be waived, today.

Ross resisted defining mixed-use buildings before defining the guidelines for apartment building. 

Public Comment
John Page from the Amherst Chamber of Commerce was encouraged by this discussion and will weigh in as much as possible. He liked having design guidelines, mixed-use building standards, and a reduction of barriers to development.

Ira Bryck complimented the PD in considering public input. So much development in the R-G is already possible, but is not happening, so is it not a need or a lack of understanding? Is education the first step? 

Suzannah Fabing Muspratt thanked the PD for the presentation and hard work. She asked if since in the B-L on North Pleasant Street, only two developers own most parcels, is there any limit to numbers of parcels that could be combined so one large structure could be built? Malloy said there are no constraints he knows of.

Linda Slakey reinforced the need to balance tax base needs with the affordability for starter homes. A young person starting in her job today could not purchase a home as she was able to forty years ago. Creating economic diversity is important to all neighborhoods.

CRC Wrap Up:
Hanneke summarized that the work presented today represented an enormous amount of work. There remains a lot of work and conversation still to go. She also thanked the Planning Board for spending the past month meeting weekly on these topics.

Next steps: The CRC will hear a presentation on housing policy on March 23.

The meeting adjourned at 5:15pm

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