Planning Board Recommends Amendments To Zoning Bylaw


Architect's rendition for Center East Commons at 462 Main Street. Photo: Amherst Planning Department

Report On The Meeting of The Planning Board, August 18, 2021


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

Planning staff: Planning Director Christine Brestrup and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler

This meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

The packet for this meeting can be found here. There were 11 members of the public in attendance. None offered a comment during the public comment period.

Mixed-use Building Amendment
Suggested changes to the standards for mixed-use buildings (section 3.325 of the Zoning Bylaw) have been discussed at several Planning Board meetings, most recently on July 14.  A public hearing in conjunction with the Community Resources Committee (CRC) was held on July 21. 

The proposed amendment mandates that mixed-use buildings must contain a varied mix of apartment sizes and that at least 40% of the first floor area must be devoted to nonresidential use, among other requirements. It was the 40% figure that generated the most discussion among board members. No parking or open space requirements are included in the proposed amendment.

Jack Jemsek was concerned with setting any minimum for the amount of commercial space required on the first floor of a mixed-use building, expressing concern about the uncertain future of retail in Amherst. He felt the frontage should be commercial, but that  footage behind the street-facing portion of a building should be “more flexible.” He also thought that any commercial use on other floors, such as a roof-top restaurant, should be counted in the 40% requirement for mixed-use buildings.

Andrew MacDougall agreed that the commercial area should be determined less by the amount of floor area than by frontage. Although this received some support from Doug Marshall and Thom Long, Town Planner Nate Malloy pointed out that it could permit such a narrow commercial space along the street that it would not be viable for businesses; Maria Chao noted that, in a very narrow building, as is proposed for 11 East Pleasant Street,  very little nonresidential space would be required if the only requirement was based on a percentage of frontage. Chao spoke for keeping the amendment simple by stating that 40% of the first floor must be nonresidential.

Janet McGowan argued for increasing the nonresidential requirement to 60%.  There are more people living in Amherst than there were 10 years ago, she said, but many fewer businesses, and the increased number of residents will require more services. She spoke of the need to create space for these services and emphasized that most towns require mixed-use buildings to have up to 100% nonresidential on the street level, especially if they are in town centers. No one seconded her motion to change the proposed amendment to require 60% nonresidential space.

According to Malloy and Planning Director Chris Brestrup,  the Planning Department feels that 60% is “too high” a percentage for nonresidential use. Malloy said that previous measures with a 60% requirement had not passed at Town Meeting. The 40% figure, they said, is based on  their conversations with developers and the Business Improvement District (BID), and the experiences of recent projects in Amherst. Brestrup, suggesting that 40% was a reasonable percentage, pointed out  that Kendrick Place, One East Pleasant, and University Drive South have close to 40% nonresidential space on the first floor. Jemsek referred to an August 10 article on MassLive which presented the BID’s assessment of the precarious state of existing downtown businesses to argue against increasing the required nonresidenial space.

The Planning Board voted to recommend the proposed mixed-use building amendment to the Town Council by a vote of 6-0.

Accessory Dwelling Unit Amendment
Changes to the Supplemental Dwelling Unit bylaw (Section 5.0113) include changing the name to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and increasing the allowable maximum size from 800 to 1,000 square feet. With the new bylaw, most ADUs could be approved by the building commissioner without approval from either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals.

McGowan worried that the proposed changes do not require abutters to be notified of a proposed ADU project and do not allow them to appeal a proposal. She proposed an amendment that would require notification of abutters within 300 feet of a proposed ADU and would give them instructions about how to appeal if they objected.

Brestrup said that the planning staff discussed notification, but they did not think it  is a good idea because it would hamper an expedited approval process.   She said that the staff has spent a lot of time over the past 18 months notifying abutters of proposed additions to businesses, such as the outdoor dining that was permitted during the pandemic. Notification and a waiting period to allow for appeal took time and expense, and no abutters filed concerns. She pointed out that notification of abutters is not required for proposed single-family homes or garages, nor for contained or attached ADUs.

Building Commissioner Rob Morra added that most ADUs would be allowed by right, so there would be no legal basis for anyone to make an appeal.

MacDougall didn’t see how it could be a bad thing to share information up front. 

Marshall said he knows his neighbors and would talk to them if he himself were planning to build an ADU.

Long noted, however, that if he didn’t know his neighbors, he wouldn’t ask for their opinion.

McGowan’s amendment was defeated 2-4 (McGowan and MacDougall voting in favor) and the proposed ADU amendment passed 6-0.

Preliminary Subdivision Application For 11-13 East Pleasant Street To Be Discussed On September 29
On July 12, the same day that the town council voted to approve an inclusionary zoning amendment requiring large multi-unit buildings to include at least 12 percent affordable units, Archipelago Investments filed a preliminary subdivision plan application for its properties at 11-13 East Pleasant Street. If approved, Archipelago would have seven months to file a definitive subdivision plan that, if approved, would freeze the zoning requirement for eight years. In other words, they would not have to comply with the inclusionary zoning requirement that has already been approved, nor the mixed-use building amendment that will soon come before the town council. The potential freezing of zoning is a provision of Mass. General Law, Chapter 40A, Section 6. Note that Archipelago has agreed to comply with the inclusionary zoning by adding more units, including 11 affordable ones,  while eliminating parking

According to Brestrup, no subdivision actually needs to be built for a developer to take advantage of the eight-year zoning freeze. This loophole in the zoning law exists to protect landowners from a town rezoning a property when a developer reveals plans to develop it. Archipelago’s application stated the desire to form a two-parcel subdivision (11-13 East Pleasant) from the five parcels currently on the site.

The Planning Board is required to hold a public hearing within 45 days of the application, which would be prior to August 26. However, Archipelago requested an extension to the end of September, and the Planning Board is not scheduled to meet again until September 1. Brestrup said that the Planning Board would not be able to achieve a quorum if a meeting was added on August 25, so she will meet with a couple of members on that date to open the hearing and then continue it until late September.

Changes To Approved Plan For 462 Main Street
In a continuation of a discussion started at the July 28 Planning Board meeting, developer John Wrobeleski presented a more detailed revised site plan for Center East Commons at 462 Main Street. The project was originally approved on March 4, 2020 and is now ready for occupancy. Wrobeleski had planned to renovate the historic house next door into offices and apartments, but an assessment by a structural engineer indicated that the building was beyond repair. Wrobeleski received permission from the Historic Commission to demolish the building, which he plans to do. But the demolition necessitates changes in the previously approved site plan. Instead of constructing a structure for bicycle storage and trash collection attached to the rear of the neighboring house, he proposed erecting a temporary storage shed for these purposes. He plans to landscape the lot after the building is removed. 

Wrobeleski has also purchased the building at 446 Main Street, which has an office on the first floor and a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor. As of now, he has no definite plans for construction on the adjoining properties. None of the properties are in the Dickinson Local Historical District.

Center East Commons will be managed by Vertex Real Estate. No tenant has yet been found for the nonresidential space on the first floor. Wrobeleski’s attorney, Tom Reidy, noted that although adequacy of the available parking was a primary concern in the original approval, the development has 24 units with 35 total bedrooms, and only 16 vehicles are registered to the site as of now.

The revised site plan for the complex was approved 6-0.

Amendments Concerning Apartment Buildings And Parking On Agenda For September 1
Proposed amendments for apartment buildings and parking were discussed at the August 17 Community Resources Committee(CRC) meeting. The CRC had concerns about the changes to the apartment bylaw, specifically the effect of lifting the cap on the number of units in an apartment building (currently 24). They worried about the effect that larger apartment buildings would have on neighborhoods and whether the new standards would lead to apartment buildings being constructed downtown and further eroding businesses.

Brestrup said that to better illustrate the effects of the proposed bylaw change, Planner Maureen Pollock is creating models based on the dimensional standards for each zoning district. Her examples will be presented at the September 1 meeting. The proposed changes to the parking bylaw will also be discussed on September 1.

Election of officers for the Planning Board will be held on September 1. Jemsek expressed a desire to step down as chair.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:33.

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