Town Council Rejects Temporary Downtown Building Moratorium

Incomplete apartment building development by Archipelago on Spring Street. Photo: Art Keene

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, July 12, 2021

A recording of the meeting can be viewed here. 

Present
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Darcy DuMont and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council), David Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager)

Highlights

  • Council voted against adopting a temporary building moratorium downtown
  • Council passed an inclusionary zoning bylaw amendment
  • Council’s position that it needs state approval to implement ranked choice voting was contested by Andy Anderson during public comment
  • Council voted to refer to the GOL a proposal to eliminate the position of council representative to the ECAC, a position now held by Darcy DuMont
  • Council passed a conservation restriction for the former landfill to facilitate future construction of a solar farm 
  • Superintendent of Public Works suggested several changes to roads and sidewalks in town
  • Town declines to exercise right of purchase for land in North Amherst
  • Town considers joining PACE program for financing energy conservation improvements to commercial properties
  • Council supports Mass. Senate bill seeking 3 percent fee on real estate transactions exceeding $500,000 to support affordable housing
  • Council issues citation for APD officer Rita Curley for exemplary performance

Inclusionary Zoning Bylaw  Amendment Passed. Temporary Building Moratorium Defeated
An amendment of Article 15 of the Zoning Bylaw that requires all projects creating more than 10 new dwelling units to include 12 percent affordable units passed unanimously, with no discussion. (it had previously been discussed, at the June 28 Town Council meeting).

A proposed 180-day moratorium on issuing downtown building permits for structures creating three or more dwelling units did not fare as well. In public comment, Ira Bryck urged the council to slow down and consider the implications of the changes it is proposing to the zoning bylaw. He said, “What is built today, will plague the town for decades to come.” Suzannah Muspratt, Kate Green, Lenore Bryck, and Marion Hoffman also spoke in favor of the temporary moratorium.

Councilor Pam said that she realizes that she is speaking in vain, but she has received so many letters, and people speak to her every day in support of the temporary moratorium. They are worried that the “ very essence of Amherst is disappearing.” Schoen said that a lot of good work done by the Planning Department was stripped away in the Community Resources Committee (CRC) and was never even presented to the full council. DuMont added that the town should wait to hear from the design consultant to be hired by the Planning Department before issuing more downtown building permits.

Hanneke vociferously objected to the proposed amendment, saying it  “would not do what the supporters want it to” because it only stops building permits, but does not stop site plan reviews and special permit approvals for proposed projects. According to Hanneke, projects in the planning phase would not have to follow any new guidelines instituted by the town after the project was approved by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals, so the six-month moratorium would not affect any project currently under consideration.

Steinberg admitted that most of the correspondence received by the council from the public supports the temporary moratorium, but he said he is worried that Amherst would be perceived as “anti-development and anti-business” if the amendment were to be adopted. Bahl-Milne, too, expressed concern about discouraging developers interested in building in downtown Amherst .

Brewer and Schreiber said that citizens should work with developers to create “better projects” rather than supporting the moratorium, and cited  the North Square project in North Amherst as an example of a project first opposed but then improved by local input.

DeAngelis said she is “tired of hearing about the character of Amherst” and worries about the potential impact of a moratorium on affordable housing and home ownership (note: neither of these topics is mentioned in the proposed amendment). Griesemer said she has heard people from other towns saying that the environment in Amherst is “toxic” and the moratorium would reinforce this view. She said the conditions for building are always changing and will not be settled after a six-month pause.

The amendment was defeated 4-9, with Schoen, Swartz, Pam, and DuMont voting for it.

Polling Stations For The November 2 Town Election
Town Clerk Sue Audette proposed making a permanent change in polling places to the ones used for the September and November 2020 elections, since they worked well during those elections; Precincts 2, 4, and 10 voted at the Amherst Regional High School. This change from previous years was made because the North Amherst Fire Station, where those in Precinct 2 voted in the past,  also serves as the living space for on-duty EMS/firefighters. The basement of the Bangs Center, where Precincts 4 and 10 voted previously, was crowded and posed difficulties with access. (Precinct 5 polling will remain at the Bangs Center.) School Superintendent Mike Morris has agreed to a system-wide teacher workday on election days so that students will not be in school buildings when voting is taking place.

Audette admitted that the experience during the 2020 elections might not be indicative of future elections because many people voted by mail or during early voting then, and those options will not be available in November 2021, so more people might vote in person.

The council received an email from the League of Women Voters Amherst asking for more discussion on the topic before the polling places are permanently changed. Councilors Pam, DuMont, and Bahl-Milne also said that “a lot of people” want more discussion of the proposed changes. They asked for a public forum before the August 2 council meeting to discuss the matter. Hanneke, however, wanted to act on changing polling places at this meeting because, she said, she thinks “the public has had ample time” to weigh in about the changes and she has heard “nothing but good.” Ryan said that the change only affects three precincts so “we don’t need a public forum for the whole town.” Brewer said a public forum would be “false openness” because Precinct 2 has to be moved from the fire station regardless. She encouraged councilors from the affected districts to communicate with their constituents.

The motion to vote immediately on changes the polling places in town failed by a vote of 6 to 7, with Bahl-Milne, Pam, Schoen, Steinberg, Swartz, DeAngelis, and DuMont voting no. 

There will be a period of public comment on polling places at the beginning of the August 2 meeting. Hanneke warned that a public forum requires that 50 percent of the time be devoted to public comment. This  often results in the council “just waiting around” for the proper amount of time to pass, she said. She proposed that comments be “invited” during the public comment period instead.. 

Audette must finalize any changes in polling places by the end of September so she can notify affected voters by mail prior to the election. Pam suggested evaluating how well the polling place changes for this year worked shortly after the election.

Concerns About The Lack of Rank Choice Voting (RVC) In Upcoming Town Election
In public comment, Andy Anderson again voiced his concern about the town not implementing ranked choice voting this coming fall. He said that, because there is no primary election, people might be elected to public office with only a small segment of vote. He said that legislative approval is not needed to institute RCV, and that there are private companies that will analyze the data if the town does not yet have the appropriate software.

Griesemer said she was under the impression that the town needs the approval of the state in order to proceed, but that she will check into it. She had previously cited a lack of time to educate poll workers and the public about RCV prior to the next election as another barrier to institute it this year.

Should Councilors Be Members Of The Energy And Climate Action Committee?
Hanneke proposed that the Government, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL) review the charge of the  Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC), specifically to consider whether councilors should continue to be members of the committee or if a councilor liaison would be sufficient, as is the case with “most other committees.”

DuMont, a councilor member of the ECAC, wondered why this topic was even on the agenda. She said that the other ECAC members did not know it was being discussed. The ECAC is working on implementing its recently submitted Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resilience Plan, and its members are not talking about this matter. 

Schoen asked why GOL should review this one committee, which has been “working beautifully and has been wonderfully productive.” Why would GOL take it up as a topic?

However, according to Ross, a former member of ECAC, having a councilor on the committee creates a “weird dynamic  [because] it is unclear if the councilor is speaking for themself or the council as a whole.” DeAngelis said the primary voice on the committee should be a resident voice, and the presence of a councilor might  “stifle discussion.”

Schoen noted that two councilors are required to serve on the Elementary School Building Committee, and she served on the Percent for Art committee with residents. She also pointed out that liaisons are not supposed to participate in discussions, so their value to a committee is much less than a committee member would have. They serve only to clarify matters pertaining to the council and to provide a conduit for information for the council.

Swartz, the other councilor member of the ECAC, said she is still upset about the fact that the Outreach, Communication, and Appointments Committee (OCA) was disbanded by the council  in 2019 even though the majority of the committee opposed the move. She said  the council should not effect a significant change like this if the committee has not asked for it or discussed it.

The request for review was referred to GOL by an 8-5 vote, with Schoen, Schreiber, Swartz, DuMont, and Pam voting no.

Conservation Restriction Passed For Former South Landfill
Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said that the town has been planning to put a solar farm on the capped landfill for the past ten years. Originally, there was a plan to put solar arrays on both the north and south landfills, but the south landfill was found to be home to the endangered grasshopper sparrow, and plans for construction on that site were abandoned.

Now, the grasshopper sparrow has also been found on the north landfill.  The town worked with the Massachusetts National Heritage and Endangered Species Program and crafted a plan to allow the construction of the solar farm. In order to permit the construction of the solar farm on that site, the town must agree to permanently protect the south landfill through a conservation restriction. According to the town’s Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello, Kestrel Trust will be in charge of assuring that the 53 acres are in permanent conservation protection. Hiking, sledding, running, and bird watching would be permitted. The soon to be completed dog park is on a corner of that land, near Old Farm Road.

Endangered grasshopper sparrow. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To compensate for the inability to utilize the south landfill, the town will maximize solar energy production on the north landfill working with Cypress Creek. Renewables. It is estimated that the solar array will contribute about $78,000 per year in taxes to the town over the next 10 years, while also reducing the cost of energy.

The motion to put the south landfill under a permanent conservation restriction passed unanimously.

Proposed Changes To The Public Way On North Pleasant Street
Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring suggested several alterations to streets and sidewalks in town. The first is continuing the  back-in angle parking on North Pleasant Street in front of Antonio’s as long as the outdoor dining area is set up . Mooring said that this has been going well and creates six spaces where there were only four previously. He said it bodes well for the angle parking spaces proposed for Main Street when the North Common is remodeled. The Council agreed to allow the North Pleasant Street changes until November 30.

Another proposal is to make North Pleasant one-way from Hallock to Triangle Street and to create about 32 on-street parking spaces along the west side of Kendrick Park. Schoen thought a left turn onto Triangle would be difficult to make and that North Pleasant should be one-way from north to south. Pam spoke in favor of leaving the sidewalk on the west side of the park and maintaining the green space near the street in front of the houses bordering the park. Preliminary plans maximize parking by eliminating the sidewalk and the green space.  Brewer wanted it to be clear that the on-street parking was for those using the downtown and the park and should not be used for long-term parking by residents of downtown buildings.  The matter will be discussed at the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee and brought back to the council on September 13.

The Department of Public Works has also been working on a plan to reconfigure and widen the sidewalks along North Pleasant Street from Pine Street to Eastman Lane. This plan involves moving some crosswalks, bus stops and driveways, as well as deciding whether or not there should be a roundabout at the entrance to the UMass family housing complex at the former North Village. No funds have been allocated for this project at this time. TSO will discuss the details and report back to the council by October 4.

In another decision about the public way, the council unanimously agreed to extend the Mobile Market’s use of the East Street Common and the area near the Valley Bikeshare station on East Hadley Road until October 15. 

Town Declines To Exercise Right to Purchase Land in North Amherst
Developer Barry Roberts has offered $1.6 million to purchase the 18.5 acres of farmland belonging to the Mitchell family on Sunderland Road for the proposed Eruptor Incubator project. Because the land is protected under chapter 61A as farmland, the town has the right of first refusal.  Most of the parcel is zoned as Professional Research Park. The Conservation Commission voted 5-1 that the town should purchase the land because of its possible wetlands significance. The Planning Board voted 4-0-2 against the town purchasing it.  

Tom Reidy of Bacon Wilson, attorney for Roberts said that for the Eruptor Incubator project to proceed, there will need to be further reviews of the property and plans by the Conservation Commission, the Planning Board and other agencies. The project would also need a wetlands delineation and storm water plan. Abutting property owners must be notified and given an opportunity for input. 

Although Swartz voiced concern about the effects on nearby farms of water drainage from the proposed Eruptor project, the council voted unanimously not to purchase the property.

Town Considers Implementing the PACE Program
Finance Director Sean Mangano and Bockelman proposed that the town adopt the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE ) program which allows owners of businesses, nonprofits,  and multifamily dwellings to upgrade their clean energy use by transferring loan payments to their tax bill. Although PACE has been widely accused of facilitating predatory lending for work on single family residences in other states, the proposal for Amherst will not involve single family homes.  In Massachusetts, single family homes are served by MassSave. 

DeAngelis was concerned about the provisions of the program for assuring that the providers of the capital and the contractors are vetted.  Mangano will get more information about the program and bring it back to the council on August 2. Northampton, has an ordinance in place regulating the use of PACE for commercial properties.

Council Supports Fee On Certain Real Estate Transactions
Hanneke, DuMont, and DeAngelis sponsored a resolution in support of Massachusetts Senate Act S868 which allows towns to impose a fee of up to three percent on real estate transactions of more than $500,000 to support creation of affordable housing S1843 which provides for a fee to support infrastructure to combat climate change and also promotes affordable housing. Hanneke pointed out that the details of these proposed programs are spelled out in the actual bills. The council voted unanimously to support these two bills.

Officer Rita Curley Cited For Exemplary Performance
Veteran Police Officer Rita Curley, a member of APD’s Crisis Intervention Team was cited by the Department of Mental Health Law Enforcement for her handling of a dangerous mental health situation in which she was herself stabbed.  She and her fellow officer were successful in deescalating the situation and getting the distressed individual transferred to appropriate care.

Curley said it means a lot to her to have the appreciation of the town, and she spoke for her fellow officers who she said are always ready to serve. 

The resolution passed 12-0-1 (DuMont abstained because of the personal information that was included in the text)

The meeting adjourned at 11:35 p.m.  The next council meeting will be on August 2.

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5 thoughts on “Town Council Rejects Temporary Downtown Building Moratorium

  1. As chair of ECAC, I would be very happy to talk to anyone about my experience running a committee that included councilors. Strange that people seem to have opinions of how well it works without actually speaking to the chair. My email is laura.Draucker at gmail and I would be happy to answer questions or clear up any confusion.

  2. This is a little buried in this article, which covered yet another packed meeting, but the discussion around councilor participation on committees is an interesting one that deserves a spotlight. It seems to me that there should (at a minimum) be some consistency around expectations of councilor participation, and it makes sense that GOL discuss this, as it isn’t about ECAC specifically. Councilor DeAngelis raises a good point about potentially stifling voice. It also seems like double dipping for councilors to vote in committee on what should then go to them again for a vote as the Council. I don’t think this should be about ECAC or the participation of councilors DuMont or Swartz. ECAC is a wonderful committee, and their work is commendable (that report…amazing). It is interesting that this discussion is happening in tandem with public discourse about the need to not have our council be a monolith of power. Distributing committee membership to our non-councilor community, with councilor liaisons (who do not vote and participate minimally) seems wise.

  3. Thank for your detailed reporting on this meeting. A minor comment, re: the proposal for North Pleasant Street between Hallock and Triangle Streets on the west side of Kendrick Park. The article indicates that the memo from the Town Manager and Superintendent of Public Works recommends removing the sidewalk on the west side of that stretch of N. Pleasant St. My understanding is slightly different. The sidewalk on the west side of the street is not being proposed for removal. However, the greenspace buffer between that sidewalk and the street is, in order to make room for a sidewalk on the park side of the street west of the current row of trees there.

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