Planning Board Approves Emily Dickinson Museum Upgrades, Allows Delay On Special Permit Hearing for 5-Story Downtown Building

Emily Dickinson House Museum. Photo: Trip Advisor

Report On Planning Board Meeting, June 3, 2021

The meeting was held via Zoom. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here

Present
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Joanna Neumann. Absent: Janet McGowan

Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director) and Pam Field-Sadler (Assistant)

Highlights

  • Archipelago requested a continuation of a public hearing until June 30 for their proposed mixed-use building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street
  • Board approved alterations to HVAC and electrical systems at Emily Dickinson Museum
  • Board discussed proposed revisions to the Demolition Delay Bylaw
  • Board scheduled interviews on June 9 for Planning Board openings

Public Hearing on Proposed 5-Story Mixed-use Building at 11 East Pleasant Street,Postponed
In an email, representatives of Archipelago requested a delay in further discussion of their plans for a five-story mixed-use building at 11-13 East Pleasant Street. After a brief discussion, the Board scheduled this continuation of the Public Hearing for the requested Special Permit to an added meeting on Wednesday, June 30 at 6:35. If the applicant is not prepared to continue the presentation at that time, the hearing will be at the July 7 Planning Board meeting. No reason was given for the postponement, but presumably Archipelago is revising the design for the proposed project

Upgrades To the Emily Dickinson Museum Site
Executive Director, Jane Wald and Preservationist Shantia Anderheggen presented the request for the Emily Dickinson Museum to replace the HVAC and electrical systems with a screened, pad-mounted generator and chiller next to the existing garage near 280 Main Street and a pad-mounted transformer near 20 Triangle Street. The surrounding fencing will be between 7 and 9 feet in height to thoroughly screen the utilities from the street and neighboring properties. The fencing will be painted oyster white to match the garage.

In other exterior modifications, the current restoration project to return the Homestead to its 19th century appearance involves removing the hardwood floors laid over the original softwood floors. Doorways had been shortened when the hardwood floors were installed and now must be lengthened to account for their removal. Also, the storm windows will be replaced, and there will be custom-made replacement French doors for the north side of the building.

There was minimal discussion of these plans by Planning Board members. Doug Marshall asked if the Museum had considered battery storage, rather than the diesel-powered generator and chiller. Wald replied that their engineer said that a battery would require a larger enclosure and greater expense, and might not provide enough power for an extended power outage. 

There were no comments from the public.

The Planning Board approved this Site Plan Review 6-0. The drawings illustrating these plans are presented on pages 12 to 39 of the Planning Board packet . The work is expected to be completed by next spring.

Revisions Proposed For Demolition Delay Bylaw
Town Planner Christine Brestrup noted several problems with the existing Demolition Delay Bylaw (Article 13 of the Zoning Bylaw). The definitions are unclear and sometimes contradictory. Also, the process is not clearly spelled out, so that it is difficult to meet the needed timelines. It is hoped that the proposed revision will make it more straightforward for applicants and the Historical Commission. The Planning staff and Historical Commission recommend repealing Article 13 of the Zoning Bylaw and adding Demolition Delay to the General Bylaws.

Town Planner Ben Breger presented the proposed bylaw revision. He noted that 160 towns in Massachusetts have Demolition Delay Bylaws. The time of delay ranges from 6 to 18 months. Amherst’s delay is 12 months. Demolition Delay is equivalent to a “pause button,” giving the Historical Commission a chance to explore opportunities to preserve or relocate a historical structure. Amherst’s Demolition Delay Bylaw was passed in 1999 and amended in 2005. 

Breger’s presentation can be viewed here. It was previously presented to the Community Resources Committee at its May 25 meeting.

Under the current bylaw, any proposed demolition or partial demolition of a structure over 50 years old must be reviewed by the Historical Commission to determine whether it is a significant structure and whether its demolition or alteration would be detrimental to the historical or architectural heritage of the community. If the Historical Commission deems that the demolition would be detrimental, it can issue the 12-month delay. This process means the Historical Commission must review many proposals, some with minor alterations proposed, such as replacing windows, trim, or a garage. 

The new proposal adds a preliminary review of each application by town planning staff and  one member of the Historical Commission to determine if the building or proposed changes are significant. Only those deemed significant would be forwarded to the Historical Commission for a public hearing. The new bylaw would allow the Historical Commission to take the future structure proposed by the applicant into account at the public hearing, something not allowed by the current bylaw. The intent is to streamline the review process and avoid overloading the Historical Commission.

The proposed changes would also clarify the criteria used to determine the significance of a structure. Any building that is at least 50 years old and meets one of the following criteria would be considered significant:

1. It is individually listed on, or is a contributing structure within an area listed on, the National Register of Historic Places or Massachusetts State Register of Historic Places or is the subject of a pending application for such listing; or

 2. The Building has value in association with a specific location, or one or more historic persons or events, or with the broad architectural, social, political, economic or cultural heritage of the Town of Amherst or the Commonwealth; or 

3. The Building, alone, in the context of a group of buildings or as part of a viewshed, has historical or architectural value, as to period, style, craftsmanship, method of building construction or in association with a recognized architect or builder.

During the public hearing, the Commission would consider alternatives to demolition, such as adaptive re-use, incorporation of the original structure into the future development, financial incentives for rehabilitation, relocating the building, or, with the owner’s consent, selling the building to someone who will preserve it. Decisions of the Commission may be appealed by the applicant or abutters.

Historic Commission Chair Jane Wald noted that the Historic Commission is compiling an inventory of buildings in town that are possibly significant. She estimates that the inventory might contain over 2,000 structures.

Marshall asked how the Demolition Delay Bylaw relates to structures in the Local Historic Districts. Wald said that, in general, the Local Historic District Commission would review proposed changes to properties in a Local Historic District. Unlike the Historic Commission, which has the power to issue a 12-month delay on demolition, the Local Historic District Commission can prevent demolition entirely.

Long asked how an owner can protect themselves if they buy a property intending to knock down a shed, for instance, and then find out they cannot do so (or run into a substantial delay). Brestrup said that smart buyers usually meet with the Planning Department before purchasing a potentially historic property to see what is permitted and what is not. But, she said that is not always the case.

MacDougall wanted to know the story behind the preservation and then alteration of the façade on the former Bertucci’s building, which had originally been a car dealership. Brestrup explained that the landowner wanted to build another five-story mixed-use building on the site, but word got out to the public, and it was suggested that there would be a way to reuse the former car dealership/restaurant. After a demolition delay was issued, Porta, a bar/restaurant, became a tenant. But Porta’s owners didn’t pay much attention to regulations, and they painted the façade purple. The new restaurateur at the site is much more attentive to the rules.

Before the Demolition Bylaw can be changed, there must be a public hearing, and then it must be approved by the Town Council.

The meeting adjourned at 8:37 p.m.

The Planning Board will next meet on June 16 at 6:30 p.m.

Interviews for Planning Board Scheduled for June 9
Interviews for Planning Board appointments will be conducted by the Community Resources Committee on June 9 at 7:00 p.m. There are six applicants for the two available positions. Marshall and Janet McGowan have applied for reappointment. Statements of Interest from the applicants can be read here. The interviews will be conducted via Zoom and are open to the public. 

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1 thought on “Planning Board Approves Emily Dickinson Museum Upgrades, Allows Delay On Special Permit Hearing for 5-Story Downtown Building

  1. It is interesting to me that Archipelago has had several tries at Amherst and struck out on more than half of them. I believe it is time to give another company a chance at a controlling share of this in Amherst. The moratorium may allow the town admin to listen to design guideline development that produces size, scale, (of most importance?) materials and use from their populous. Is that not the democratic process?

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