Opinion: Maintaining Amherst’s Character Through The Design Review Board

Photo: pixnio.com. Creative Commons

Hilda Greenbaum

The aesthetic appeal of a renewed downtown is not incompatible with economic development. These are not mutually exclusive goals. An attractive downtown with affordable rents for both rental and owner-occupied housing with attractive small local retail businesses will bring in more tax revenue from local residents and revived tourism alike. The return of local entrepreneurs like those lost with the demolition of the Carriage Shops and now the Summerlin Block tenants (Cousins Market, the tailor shop, the Pub, etc.) will help recreate our once vibrant downtown.

The Town has had design guidelines since the beginning of the building growth spurt in 1983 but in recent years the Planning Board has not been willing to address the design sections of our zoning bylaw, and staff has not called their attention to them in their reports to Boards. Design Guidelines are elucidated in The Design Review Board (DRB) handbook for sale in Town Hall or accessible on line.

Section 3.202 of the zoning bylaw states what actions “SHALL” be subject to review by DRB and “SHALL be subject to the design standards therein.” To me “Shall” means MUST—and, if the Board isn’t satisfied that design goals are met, the plans should be sent back to the architect or owner for further refinement.  Even if a structure is allowed by right ,it is not exempt from compliance with our bylaws and regulations as they have existed for close to forty years.

The following quoted statements are excerpted from the Design Review Handbook with the hope that boards will exercise their powers of enforcement once again. (The bold type is the addition of this writer)

The need to establish design guidelines for development in downtown Amherst was recognized as early as 1972. In 1983, in response to construction of a new, modern bank building in the middle of Amherst’s 19th century brick commercial blocks (the current Bank of America Building), Town Meeting discussed the creation of a Design Review Board (DRB). The Planning Board and Historical Commission drafted zoning amendments and in October 1983, Town Meeting added Section 3.2, Design Review, to the Amherst Zoning Bylaw. This established the Design Review Board, defined a downtown Design Review area, and set the original design principles and standards used by the Design Review Board in reviewing development proposals.

Over decades of practice, through regular refinements of the design review regulations, and with the help of citizen collaboration and the guidance of Town staff, the role and jurisdiction of the DRB has evolved. The DRB’s geographic jurisdiction now includes: 1) all exterior changes requiring building or land use permits within the downtown business districts, and 2) any exterior change within 150 feet of the edge of the green spaces in the Town Common. These areas are established by overlay districts and are of primary importance for the preservation of historic architecture and significant site features, and for the application of sound urban design. Design review is also required for all Town projects above and beyond routine maintenance anywhere in Amherst. This includes any construction, alteration, demolition or removal of a structure or site by the Town.

In all districts, the Special Permit Granting Authority or Permit-Granting Boards, as applicable (e.g. the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals), can choose to apply the provisions of Sections 3.2040 and 3.2041 of the Zoning Bylaw (the Design Review Principles and Standards) to an application, and must apply them to any construction, renovation, or expansion resulting in the creation of new townhouses, new apartments, and new two family detached dwellings or the addition of a single new dwelling unit to an existing single-family residence resulting in a two family detached dwelling. By working together cooperatively, applicants, the Design Review Board, and other permitting bodies can protect Amherst’s environmental and architectural heritage, increase property values, stimulate economic growth and make Amherst an attractive place in which to live and shop, and an exciting place to visit.

The DRB gives “mandatory advice”. For applicants proposing a change within the DRB’s jurisdiction, design review is a mandatory step in the permit process, but the DRB only offers design advice and recommendations. It cannot impose permitting requirements. In those geographic areas where DRB jurisdiction does not extend, other permitting boards are authorized to apply the design review principles and standards set out in Section 3.204 of the Amherst Zoning Bylaw. 

Good design is an effective way to advertise one’s business and to improve the visual environment. By following the Design Review Principles and Standards contained in this booklet, you can help protect and enhance one of Amherst’s most treasured assets—the historical character, human function, beauty and diversity of its downtown. 

Link to DRB Handbook

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