Report On The Meeting Of The Planning Board, April 14, 2021
The meeting was held on Zoom. A recording can be found here.
The packet for the meeting can be found here.
Planning Board Members Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann. Staff: Planners Chris Brestrup, Nate Malloy, and Ben Breger; Building Commissioner Rob Morra; and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler
Mixed-Use Building Definition
Town Planner Nat Malloy presented new proposed guidelines for mixed-use buildings. Currently, there are few stipulations for developers. The same presentation was given to the Community Resources Committee (CRC) of the Council the previous day. The CRC asked for revisions and felt the new guidelines were not ready to go to the whole Council.
The proposed changes to Section 12.34 of the Zoning Bylaw define a mixed-use building as two or more residential units in combination with nonresidential use. The proposed amendment states that no more than 50 percent of the first floor of a mixed-use building can be residential (or parking). Those uses would need to be near the rear of the building, with front-facing commercial space along the street.
As opposed to previous versions of the Zoning Bylaws amendment, design guidelines have largely been removed in this version. The Planning Department felt that it would be better to consolidate design guidelines in a separate section.
But they did propose requiring 10 percent of the building area to be kept as open space. Also, language changes in Article 3.2040 and 3.2041 would increase the influence of the Design Review Board on projects; their recommendations would have to be taken into account, as opposed to being merely “advisory,” as is now the case. Also, the impact of a project on the streetscape would have to be taken into account.(see Articles 10.38 and 11.24)
Brestrup said that the Planning Department was not abandoning design guidelines, but they felt that incorporating design guidelines was getting too complicated and that it is imperative to finalize the definition of mixed-use buildings in a timely manner, since at present, there are few regulations for these projects. The Planning Department hopes to hire a design consultant to help develop design standards for the downtown and village centers
In addition, the Planning Department proposed that no more than 50 percent of dwelling units in a mixed-use building be of one size, as is required for apartment-only buildings.
However, the CRC apparently felt that market forces should determine the sizes of units, and several in the Planning Board thought that regulating the sizes of apartments would be “hard to follow” if there were only a few units in the building. Exceptions to the guidelines would require a special permit.
Other comments from the Planning Board members were mostly favorable. McGowan was concerned about losing the design guidelines in the text of the Zoning Bylaws and pointed out that the design guidelines laid out in the Design Review Board manual are not followed. She thought there should be a preference for small retail spaces, but Malloy thought this would be difficult to specify in the Zoning Bylaws. McGowan also thought the bylaw should specify at least three different sizes of units to encourage diversity of households. Marshall thought it should specify a mix of unit types, such as one-bedroom, two-bedroom, instead of sizes to be clearer about the need for diversity of units.
Chao, who had attended the CRC meeting the previous day, agreed with the CRC that it seemed “strange” to require a private developer to provide any public space, especially if the building was across the street from a park, such as Kendrick Place which is across the street from Kendrick Park.
This position was strongly contested in public comment. Pamela Rooney said there is a need to require a minimum of space in front of and at the sides of buildings to avoid the kind of encroachment on the street and sidewalk as now exists in front of One East Pleasant.
Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) added that even if there is a park across the street, there should still be places near downtown buildings for people to sit and converse. She said she hears from her constituents that they want wide sidewalks and well-designed buildings. She pointed out that none of the suggestions of the Design Review Board were followed for the Spring Street project, and that it is important to specify design guidelines and take them seriously.
McGowan pointed out that she spent some time downtown recently and noted that, while the area in front of Share Coffee and Brueggers was teeming with people, only two people in two hours appeared in front of One East Pleasant, and one of those came out of the building and immediately went to his car. She agreed that the open space requirement would encourage a “street life” downtown.
Ira Bryck noted that the main focus of downtown development seems to be on residential use, not retail. He hopes for more emphasis on public-facing businesses, noting that office space can be located anywhere. He encouraged the town to be bolder in their specifications because developers won’t do anything they are not required to do.
Kitty Axelson-Berry wanted to know if the Town could provide any support to small retailers who want to locate here. Brestrup said that there are plans to hire a new economic development director, but their role is not clear. In answer to a question about the roles and powers of the CRC, Planning Board, and Planning Department, she said that the CRC is driving zoning changes, the Planning Board still has a role to play, and must hold a public hearing before any zoning changes can be adopted.
Updated Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw
This proposal was previously presented to the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust and the CRC. The CRC felt that this proposal was complete enough to be forwarded to the full Town Council.
Amherst has had an Inclusionary Zoning bylaw (Article 15) for several years, but it is narrowly framed and has rarely been triggered. The proposed revision mandates affordable units in all developments creating 10 or more dwelling units over a period of five or fewer years. In buildings with more than 21 units, 12 percent must be affordable. The bylaw exempts traditional and cluster subdivisions and educational institutions. Adjacent properties developed together are considered one project and subject to the bylaw.
Several Planning Board members questioned a provision that allows a developer to locate the affordable units off-site or make a payment to the Housing Trust in lieu of building affordable units. But Malloy said that the provision would probably be used rarely because the off-site units cannot comprise more that 50 per cent of the required affordable units and they have to be located within 500 feet of the main development. Also, a special permit would be required. The payment in lieu of providing affordable units was increased from three times to four times the area mean income (about $300,000 per unit) to better reflect the cost of creating each unit. Malloy said the Housing Trust liked these two options because they did led to the creation of more affordable housing.
Marshall wondered if the affordable units would be “subsidized” by the market rate units, thus making market rents higher and skewing tenants of the market rate units away from middle-income residents to those with higher incomes. Malloy said the data on this is mixed. The consultants hired for the Housing Market Study in 2015 recommended that 15 percent of units be affordable. He also said that rents are high now due to demand and he does not feel that this bylaw would push them higher. There are articles discussing this aspect in the CRC packet.
Chao worried that the town could lose a large project because of the inclusionary zoning requirements. She wants to make sure there are incentives that will encourage the development of more housing. In a discussion of building heights, Brestrup said that the maximum height of buildings in the general business zone (downtown) was raised from four to five stories a few years ago, but could be lowered back to four stories, with a fifth story allowed if affordable units are included. She said she doesn’t think the bylaw would discourage development, because there is currently a lot of interest in development here.
Marshall was of the opinion that allowing a fifth story was “a tipping point” because changing the zoning to allow five story buildings is when development downtown began after a lengthy hiatus.
Axelson-Berry wondered if there might be any local developers who are a little idealistic and willing to make a little less money by including more affordable housing. Brestrup said that some developers are indeed more reasonable (than others) in the rents they charge, but that they need to recoup their expenses and make some money. Jemsek pointed out that some developers go bankrupt. Malloy said that public money is usually allocated to large companies, such as Beacon properties and Valley Community Development Corporation. Also, 12 percent affordable units is usually not enough to qualify for federal funding..
Jennifer Taub said that the town doesn’t need to accept whatever developers are offering. Residents rely on the Planning Board, she said, to give us attractive buildings — and developers are capable of creating attractive buildings and still making money. She hopes that the town will try to continue the look and feel that is seen in the southern part of downtown.
Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)
Breger reprised his presentation of February 17, 2021 with only two slight adjustments.
The gist of the proposal is that accessory dwelling units of up to 1,000 square feet and less than 50 percent of the area of the primary dwelling are allowed on an owner-occupied, single-family lot by right. They can be approved by the Building Commissioner and do not need to come before the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals, nor be the subject of a public hearing. Larger dwelling units must obtain a special permit, but the owner-occupancy requirement cannot be waived.
There would be a requirement for new detached ADUs to be built behind or to the side of the primary dwelling. Also, the new proposal removed the special permit pathway for ADUs contained within a primary dwelling that do not comply with the general requirements.
The CRC gave strong endorsement to this bylaw and felt it was ready to bring before the full Town Council.
Tiny houses would have to fit requirements for ADUs. The federal sanitary code specifies the minimum area needed for dwelling units, so no minimum is specified in the bylaw. If a property owner wants to convert a garage or other structure that is more than 1,000 square feet into a dwelling unit, they would need to abide by the Converted Dwelling part of the Zoning Bylaw and go before the ZBA with a public hearing.
McGowan wondered why the wording about maximum occupancy for ADUs was changed from three adults to three unrelated persons. These are small units, so moving lots of adult cousins into them could mean overcrowding. She was also concerned that one or two extra parking spaces required per unit might not be adequate if extra people reside in the unit. In addition, she suggested adding prior notification to abutters within 300 feet of proposed ADUs.
Long felt that requiring an ADU to be compatible with the design of the existing house was too prescriptive. Chao said that she has designed six or seven ADUs in the past two years. Allowing homeowners to work with the Planning Department and Building Commissioner instead of having to apply for a special permit would save them a few thousand dollars.
Brestrup will forward the comments from the Planning Board on all three of these zoning proposals to the CRC. Even after the proposals go to the full Town Council, they will have to come back to the Planning Board for a public hearing, so there will be an opportunity to make changes.
Associate Members To The Planning Board
State law and Amherst’s charter allow associate members on the Planning Board to deliberate on applications for Special Permits but not Site Plan Reviews. Town Council raised the issue of associate members on the Planning Board at its April 5 meeting and asked for input from the Planning Board. Amherst has never had associate members on the Planning Board, but does have them on the ZBA, which does frequently rule on Special Permits.
MacDougall wanted to know if there was a problem this was trying to solve. He said that the Planning Board has a vocal number of regular attendees from the public who contribute to discussions. Since associate members can only vote on Special Permits, their participation would be limited. Brestrup said she has not seen a need for associate members in her 18 years with the Planning Department.
Neumann questioned whether associate membership could create an on-ramp to the Planning Board, although she also observed that interested citizens can attend meetings and become familiar with the workings of the Board without being associate members.
All of the Board members agreed that associate members are not needed now, but did not feel the need to strike the provision at this time, as it could be useful in the future.
Marshall reported that the Agricultural Commission was unable to obtain a quorum for the third month in a row. He was unsure of the purpose of the committee since most of the discussion at the last meeting was about what they should do during the year, and most of the talk focused on sustainable farming and healthy eating, as opposed to the concerns of Amherst farmers.
General Public Comment
In response to a question by resident Pam Rooney, Brestrup replied that staff members are working on creating a website which will present current plans for proposed zoning amendments and allow the public to comment.
Brestrup announced that there will be a site pop-up meeting at Pomeroy Village Center on Saturday, April 17 from 10 to 12. The public is welcome. Donuts will be provided.
The public hearing for the North Amherst Library will continue at next week’s Planning Board meeting (April 21). Since that is the only topic on the agenda so far, McGowan suggested adding a discussion about the proposed temporary moratorium for downtown development permitting. The public hearing on the moratorium is scheduled for May 19.
The meeting adjourned at 9:58 p.m. The next meeting is scheduled for April 21 at 6:30 p.m.