I interviewed Christine Brestrup, Director of the Planning Department, and David Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager, to get a better understanding of who is ultimately responsible for the look and feel of Amherst — and how that works.
Indy: I’m interested in the roles of the different planning groups in Amherst. The question is, who determines the look and feel of Amherst (and the affordability)? Who ultimately has the power and the responsibility? Could you briefly explain the different planning entities?
Dave Ziomek: For the whole town or the downtown?
Good question! Let’s say Downtown.
Dave: We have excellent plans that staff refer to all the time, so most everything that we do in planning and conservation and development stems from the Master Plan, the open space and recreation plan, and our housing plans.
I think that the Planning Department has taken a more proactive role lately in what the Zoning Bylaw should look like in the future.
Dave: Your perception is is probably accurate but it’s driven by the Council. Ultimately the Council decides on zoning. When we changed our form of government, that became crystal clear. The Council said, “We want to get the zoning [right],” so back in 2020 we began to organize, and in conversations with the Council, with the town manager, with the CRC [Community Resources Committee] we began to put together a priority list for zoning. Now here we are…we’re really moving toward and through those priorities. Chris can talk more about what the Council and staff and the Planning Board arrived at for the priorities.
Well, I just want to know what the powers are, for now.
Chris Brestrup: The Town Council has the power. The CRC is a branch of the Town Council and they focus on land use issues, and one of the things they’re working on right now is zoning amendments. They’re working very closely with the Planning Department and the Planning Board. After public hearings, which the Planning Board is required to hold for amendments, the CRC and Planning Board each individually submit their recommendation to the Town Council, which makes the decision and has the ultimate decision-making role.
But the Planning Board also has considerable powers to approve requests for special permits, for instance for increased heights of buildings or decreased setbacks, correct?
Chris: Yes, those are spelled out in the Zoning Bylaw. An applicant can take advantage of them to get a Special Permit for Modification.
Does the Planning Board have to say yes to every request?
Chris: No. Special Permits are discretionary. Site plan review is different — the use is considered to be “by right” and the Planning Board helps the applicant shape the project. With a Special Permit [request], the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals can say “no.”
I would say that neither body is inclined to say “no.” They don’t say “no” very often, but sometimes they do. Usually, what they try to do is work with the applicant to figure out, “Is there a way we can make this work for everybody?” and they put conditions on the Special Permits.
And the Design Review Board? I was present at meetings of the Planning Board, where the Design Review Board was unanimously, I think, critical of the Spring Street project, but were ignored.
Chris: The Planning Board differed from the Design Review Board in terms of its view of the Spring Street project. The Design Review Board makes recommendations [but] it’s an advisory board. They offer their recommendations to the Building Commissioner, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Planning Board, and then those bodies can choose to take the recommendations or not. In the case of Spring Street, it was the second time around [because of significant alterations to the plans]. The Planning Board had taken the recommendations of the Design Review Board during the first iteration of the building. Then, when it came to the second iteration [of the plans], the Planning Board went in a different direction. But they were within their rights to do that.
When the Design Review Board gives an opinion, it’s not enforceable, it’s just for guidance, right? I hear a lot of talk about the future benefits of design guidelines or design standards. Are design guidelines or standards enforceable?
Chris: Right now, we have design guidelines in certain sections of the Zoning Bylaw, Section 10.38 and Section 11.24, and boards use that to make decisions, and we have design guidelines in the Design Review Board standards and conditions. They are kind of general guidelines.
We are going to be working on more specific design guidelines once we are able to hire a consultant specifically to help us with the downtown and the village centers. We feel that it’s important to get some outside help with regard to those things. And we know that some consultants are very good at public process and hearing from the public about what the public likes and doesn’t like. We’re trying to put it all together and so we’re hoping to start that process this summer, assuming that we do get the money to be able to hire a consultant.
I might have missed something — would the design guidelines, then, be requirements?
Chris: They would be requirements, but it depends on how specific they are. If the design guidelines say something like “all buildings must have a cornice at the top of the building, all buildings must have a central front door, all buildings must have a lintel or a “sign band” or whatever they say, then of course buildings would need to adhere to that — but it depends on how the design guidelines are worded.
OK, so it’s not a written-in-stone thing.
Chris: I would say it’s not written in stone — it’s just, as the phrase says, “guidelines.” If it were to be regulations or strictures or limitations, or whatever other ways you want to phrase it, then they would be strictly enforced. But if they’re “guidelines,” that’s what they are, guidelines for the board that are considered for whatever project is being proposed.
Is it the same for design standards?
Chis: I would say “probably.” We don’t have design guidelines [or standards] per se, we don’t have the experience of working with them. Now we’re going to hopefully work with a consultant to develop design guidelines.
I’m curious about forecasts about Amherst’s population, but haven’t seen any information about the recent census results. Can you address that?
Chris: I think the Donahue Institute recently put out a report about the census, but it’s [so recent that] we don’t have a handle on the information yet.
Whatever your forecasts are, they might change when you get the census results?
Chris: Well, we don’t base our forecasts on the census. The census is a moment in time — this is the condition right now. To forecast what’s going to happen in the future, we have to use other means.
We hear anecdotal information about people moving away from the cities and wanting to move out to the countryside, which would indicate that Amherst would be more popular to people who want to buy or rent [outside of cities] … and anecdotal evidence that people are moving to the South and some Northern states are losing population. So we don’t really have a good handle on how to forecast that number yet. We also don’t know what the future of the university is going to be. We don’t know whether it’s going to continue to grow the way it’s been growing in the last several years, or kind of take a step back, or have more remote learning. And we’re just coming out of this COVID pandemic, so that’s going to affect things as well. So to some degree we kind of have to wait and see.
I think there’s general agreement that it’s good to have a balanced population of young people, young families with children, middle-aged people, old people. Is our young-family population kind of dependent on the university?
Dave: I think there are a lot of factors, it isn’t just the university. We’ve been talking a lot about affordable housing, broadly defined, in Amherst. How can we keep Amherst as affordable as possible? A huge factor in whether families are able to come and be a part of our community, or select our community when they’re looking around, is, “How affordable is the housing? How affordable are single-family homes? How affordable are apartments? How do people enter the Amherst market?” I’m sure you’re familiar with the the Affordable Housing Trust — they’re doing tremendous work, partnering with the Town — we’ve been quite successful over the last 10 years at adding to the stock of affordable housing, at Olympia Oaks and adding units at Presidential Apartments and other places. Chris can say a bit more about our proposal for inclusionary rezoning and how that’s working its way through the CRC, and hopefully to the [full] Council. I think a big factor is, “How affordable is the community?”
We certainly have a number of jobs with the colleges and university and hopefully, coming out of the pandemic, they will continue to do well, but a big factor, I think, is, “Do we have a supply of housing that is affordable?” What I often say in meetings is, “We need housing in all categories. We need houses, we need more apartments, we need more condos, we need more single-family homes ….” That’s where the Master Plan leads us, toward, “Where should that housing be?” We know we value open space preservation and agricultural preservation, we know we want to develop in our village centers, so how do we do that, how do we get density in our village centers in a way that people support?
North Square in North Amherst was a way for the Town to get 130 new units, 26 of which are affordable. That’s working very creatively with the developers of North Square. We gave them about a $1.7 million in Tax Increment Financing, and that resulted in 26 affordable units being built there.
I’ve heard that the affordable units rented right away, but the market rate units haven’t done as well.
Dave: It took awhile and the pandemic certainly threw a curve ball to them, but I believe they’re completely leased out now. Chris, you might want to say more about that question about young families moving here…
Chris: Yes, housing is a key factor, and we don’t really have that many houses that could be considered entry-level houses. We have certain neighborhoods which might be considered entry-level, but for the most part there hasn’t been much housing built in Amherst in the last 30 or 40 years, so we really need to build more, and of all different types, as Dave was saying.
My particular neighborhood [in District 2] has seen a big influx of young families recently and I think it’s the result of people who moved there in the ’70s when houses were just being built … those people have now retired and gone on to live in Applewood or wherever they’re going, and the houses have been able to be turned over for younger families. But that’s only anecdotal evidence that’s immediately surrounding me. I do know that the number of school children has dropped, which would indicate that the number of families in Amherst is not as great as it used to be or people aren’t having as many children as they used to. Once the information from the census comes out, we should be able to understand that a little better.
Dave: We’re seeing a real turnover in my neighborhood, too, down near Crocker Farm school. I was out on the the cul de sac last night with two young families with four children together — my kids are beyond college, but it’s that turnover and the ability for people to get in at a level they’re comfortable with. We’re getting that and it’s really nice.
We also have the downtown buildings — designed, built, and marketed specifically as student housing (See here and here and here). I don’t know who these places would appeal to other than students, yet they are [ironically] called “multi-family” housing.
Chris: Actually, they’re called “mixed-use” buildings if they have a certain number of square feet of retail/commercial on the first floor.
OK, but I’m asking about the terminology because of accusations that people like me who criticize massive new “student apartment-type buildings downtown” are among other things “anti-family”
Chris: Well, there are certainly a lot of students who live in those buildings. But we understand that there are other people as well … professionals or people who teach at the university or Amherst College.
Is there any way to get at the reality of that perception, or would we have to stand at the entry and ask people?
Chris: Hearsay is the only way we can really get that information — the owners of those buildings are not required to give that information to us.
Dave: I did have a personal experience — I was talking to a healthcare professional who lives in North Square and is excited to be part of “a vibrant, youthful” if you will, “community.”
I was thinking about the downtown buildings…
Chris: I think the apartments occupied by students could take pressure off some homes that are now rented to students. Would you rather live in a house that might not be as well-taken care of or in a new building downtown that’s up-to-date? Some of those older homes could become available to families, if more students are able to live in the new downtown buildings.
A lot of college towns market themselves as good places to retire to, but not Amherst. The Business Improvement District (BID) director is focussed on Amherst turning into a destination town — some kind of Woodstock, Vermont — mostly for day trippers from places like Easthampton, Northampton, and Cape Cod. A lot of us baby boomers are retiring, so why not market Amherst partly as a cool place to retire to? Apparently, older people bring in as much property tax money as anyone else does — and are a stable, year-round population … and shop and dine locally … and don’t need town services much. They’re a net gain., Why isn’t Amherst interested?
Chris: Five or 10 years ago, that was a hot topic — maybe we need to revive it as a topic. I think Amherst is certainly a great place to retire to.
Dave: Fundamentally, it doesn’t surprise me that the BID director, and Chamber of Commerce director, would focus on tourism and daytripping. They want more visitation to downtown, a more vibrant downtown. Easthampton has done a wonderful job with their downtown and marketing their downtown. They’ve added live music, outdoor dining, all of those things, that we have lagged behind on. I think we’ve learned a lot during the pandemic about what could be in downtown if we worked on wider sidewalks, more outdoor dining, more music during the summer. Northampton and Easthampton have much more of all of those than we do.
I think we’re now looking and saying, “How can we help the BID and downtown business owners and property owners to make the downtown more attractive to everybody? To people who want to go out and listen to some live music, or have a nice dinner on a cool July night, in our downtown.” I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I think we can have more housing of the types that have been built in our downtown, but I also think we can do better to attract more retirees, and I think people do want to live in Amherst — we have the the Five College environment, we’re close to Boston, in the next five or ten years we may have a high speed rail from Springfield to Boston — but in my mind it comes down again to housing. We don’t have enough housing for retirees.
We have these conversations and it’s something the Planning Department and I work on — “How do we work with property owners who own tracts of land in Amherst to encourage more affordable housing for seniors?” I often point to the Upper Orchard area, in South Amherst. Whenever units go on the market, they move very quickly. That’s a very attractive model for seniors who want to downsize, it’s the kind of thing I think we need more of, and I think the town would embrace that kind of housing.
It seems as if people are happy when they realize our regulations allow duplexes and Accessory Dwelling Units, and that one of the proposed zoning amendments would encourage them even more.
Chris: We do have a zoning proposal on the agenda for Town Council to make it easier for people to build Accessory Dwelling Units, either as part of their existing house or as a detached structure. It would loosen up the permitting requirements and kind of clarify where the add-on could be, how big they can be, etc.
People don’t seem to be aware that they’re allowed or that the proposed amendment would make them easier to build.
Chris: We need to do a better job of making people aware of this option, for example for aging family members who would like to be closer to their families, people who want to stay in their homes and need a little bit of extra income in order to stay there. I think it’s good all around, and it won’t cause sprawl, and it won’t really be difficult for neighbors because the main dwelling units need to remain owner-occupied. It’s a way of having infill without having big developments, a really positive motion. I hope the Council votes in favor.
I was looking at the zoning map on the Town website, and there are about 22 zoning districts and a lot of zoning categories, and they aren’t in a neat grid like New York City. How can people figure out what kind of zoning they’re in?
Chris: For the type of district, and what’s allowed there, you can call the Planning Department. Or they can go online.
Dave: By and large most [of the Town area] is single family, and if you own a single-family home you’re probably less concerned with the zoning district but more concerned with, “What are the requirements if I want to put on a deck or expansion to my house” or “I want to do an apartment for my mother-in-law” or whatever. A simple call to the Planning Department — we have a permit administrator, Jennifer Mullins, who can help with any of that. It’s pretty easy to get quick answers when it comes to those simple questions.
Chris: The other thing is that if people have questions — or have difficulty navigating — the website, we’re happy to walk people through it, we’ll help them figure things out.
Last question — I’m wondering about the ideal makeup of a Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals. I’ve observed that our Planning Board has a lot of architects.
Dave: I guess my quick answer would be that there’s no right answer to this — and as staff, we don’t have any involvement in appointments. I think balance is important and different perspectives are important.
Chris: It’s also important to have the skills that, for example, architects have — architects can read plans, when they get a site plan. They can read, ”Oh, that’s a catch basin” or “That’s where the sewer line comes in,” or “That’s the property line and that’s where the parking is,” and they also understand development, from the points of view of developers and people who want to build things as well as people who live in the neighborhood — because, obviously, they have to live in Amherst in order to be on the Planning Board. So they have a lot of innate skills or professional skills that are useful, they’re really 10 steps ahead of many other people. Another type of person, of course— we want the broad range of people, but we find that attorneys are really helpful. We have Janet McGowan [an attorney] now and she’s very good at reading the bylaw and figuring out exactly what it says, and sort of keeping people’s feet to the fire to make sure that they follow it. Those are two professions that are very helpful … and we also have Johanna Neumann, who is an environmental activist and brings that perspective — she’s always talking about the need for alternative means of conveyance and alternative energy, etc. All of these things are important to bear in mind. I think we actually have a really good Planning Board right now. We have someone who is trained as a landscape architect and a planner — but he actually works in the commercial world, so he brings that point of view. It’s a pretty good balance. I enjoy working with those people, and admire them for their skills and their dedication, and they show up at meetings, and always read their packets.
Probably I’ve run out of your time — and I want you to be willing to be interviewed by me again. Is there anything else you want to say?
Dave: We spent a little time on zoning, but I think Chris and I would like to share our enthusiasm for what’s going on right now with our Zoning Bylaw. We have not had a major revision to it since the 1970s, and the amount of work, the amount of energy and dedicated time that staff and various committees and boards are taking to really look at it — well, we’ve known for a long time that there are problems and inconsistencies, and things we need to change to encourage more development in the areas we’ve been talking about — more redevelopment, more affordable housing — and I think we’re feeling a sense of optimism, like “We’re going to, the Town is going to get something done that will set the stage for some very exciting things.”
It’s a tremendous amount of work for the Planning Department, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, CRC, and ultimately the full Council, but it’s very exciting to have these major pieces of the Zoning Bylaw wide open, and people open to having the conversations about how to improve it.
Chris: I think it’s much more out in the open than it used to be, and now we have the Planning Board discussing them [the bylaws, the future] and the CRC discussing them. And fortunately, with Zoom we’re able to have a wide audience, so we often have 20 people tuning into a Planning Board meeting that’s all about zoning, which we wouldn’t have had before. It’s very rich, and we hear things from the public that may not have occurred to us. It makes the process more transparent, and we get a lot more input, and I think we come up with a better product as a result.
Dave: It’s really exciting, so thank you for having us [tell you about it]. And let us know in the future if we can be helpful.
Thank you! It’s great to learn about planning and zoning, and how the Planning Department and the multi-member entities are working together and with the public for the betterment of the town.
A Few Questions For… is an occasional feature of the Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the people who make things happen in our town and our Valley. We feature members of town government and key town employees, along with civic leaders, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well-known. If there is someone you would like us to interview, please send your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org
Kitty Axelson-Berry has retired from her self-publishing service specializing in memoirs and family histories. She was the editor-in-chief of the Valley and Springfield Advocate newspapers in the 1980s, and has lived in the Amherst area since 1971. She raised three daughters in the Amherst Public Schools and was a member of Town Meeting.