While you have been working, vacationing, finally visiting friends and family, or maybe just living life, the Planning Board has been bombarded with zoning amendments. And so has our community, you probably just don’t know about it. The Planning Board cannot keep up, and it seems no one really wants the community to take part.
Last year, I wrote an article for the Indy called: Rezoning Before Planning, criticizing the 12 zoning amendments sent to Town Council by its Community Resources Committee (CRC). The theme of these amendments was more—more buildings, bigger buildings, more lot coverage, almost everywhere. Twelve is a huge number of zoning amendments to start with and could not be done well even in a year. No one had done any serious research or analysis of these amendments – amendments that were not on Planning Department or Planning Board priority lists. Despite this, this large list of 12 amendment was put together at one CRC meeting and sent to Town Council where 10 of 13 Town Councilors voted in support of moving forward with them.
The Town Council voted to refer them to the Planning Board and CRC to work on them. Along with its referral, Town Council also set a completely undoable, fast timetable for action– I think meant so the Town Council could have final votes before the November town elections.
In the winter, working closely with Planning Department, the Planning Board carefully studied 2 of the 12 amendments—removing footnote m from the General Residence (RG) district and adding the Limited Business (BL) district into footnote b. It quickly became evident these were not good changes for downtown and the neighborhoods around it. The zoning changes would lead to lots with way too many housing units, overwhelming the neighborhoods and the Limited Business District itself. For example, removing footnote m, would allow up to 9 dwelling units on 1 acre in the quiet neighborhoods around the downtown (which allow 7 units per acre now). These changes did not fit the zoning districts, so the Planning Department and Planning Board recommended they be shelved.
Then at the end March, there was a shift away from the Town Council list. The Planning Department presented the Planning Board with zoning amendments on mixed-use buildings and the long overdue expansion of inclusionary zoning requirements to all projects with 10 units or more. Neither amendment was on the Town Council list. But both issues were familiar, since the Zoning Subcommittee (ZSC) had been working on them in the Fall of 2019 before the ZSC was asked to stop working on any zoning amendments by Town Council leadership and Town Hall. The Planning Board worked on both amendments at its meetings. Now the zoning amendment list was up to 14.
Then in April, the Planning Department added another amendment increasing the size of accessory dwelling units—both on the Town Council and the Zoning Subcommittee’s list from Fall 2019, so a familiar issue to the Planning Board. Now 15 amendments.
Added to the Planning Board’s Spring work, hearings on the permit applications started for 11 East Pleasant Street, Harrison Street Partners’ latest downtown building to be built by Archipelago. This project had led to a zoning amendment calling for a moratorium on building permits and a 900+ signature resident petition. If 16 amendments were not enough, by the end of July, there would be 18.
From this point on, the zoning amendment process became more chaotic. On May 12, a new zoning amendment appeared on the Planning Board agenda, a new apartments definition that also changed parking requirements. The Planning Board also had an expected review of a total re-write of the Demolition Delay zoning bylaw. As the pace of zoning amendment accelerated, the Planning Board started adding extra meetings to its bi-monthly schedule. Ultimately, we met 5 weeks in a row this summer and our meetings lasted longer and longer—going from 4 to 5 hours. Previously we skipped some meetings in the summer.
Sometime in May, Town Councilors Evan Ross (District 4) and George Ryan (District 3) (along with Dorothy Pam District 3) who later withdrew her support), filed a zoning amendment with Town Council to rezone the town parking lot next to the CVS from three-story General Residence (RG) zoning to General Business (BG), which permits five-story structures. Unfortunately, no one bothered to send this amendment to the Planning Board for weeks. We got it after I asked for a copy, when a resident told me about it. Then when the Planning Board held its public hearing on rezoning this lot on August 4th, so little information was presented to us about this lot and the town’s other downtown parking lots, we weren’t sure what to do with it.
In late June, the town manager and planning director filed three zoning amendments with the town council. These were amendments on mixed-use buildings, lifting the 24-unit cap on apartment buildings, and changing residential parking requirements from 2 spaces per unit to “adequate parking” for mixed use buildings, apartments and accessory dwelling units. The Planning Board had briefly discussed the apartments amendment once, had never discussed the parking amendment and was still evaluating the most recent changes in the mixed-use building amendment. At its previous meeting, several Planning Board members literally said the mixed-use amendment not ready to send to Town Council and I added that apartments and parking also were even less ready. Yet, these were sent to Town Council with representations by Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) that the Planning Board had agreed that the amendments were ready and with the Planning Director saying that issues with the amendments had been resolved. And without consulting the Planning Board and even before Town Council voted to refer them, the Planning Director had already scheduled the required Public Hearing for July 21. 18 amendments! The rush was on.
As you read this, please know that a Planning Board Public Hearing is usually at the end of a thorough process of review, data collection, analysis, drawings of potential buildout, and drafting and redrafting of amendment language. This work is now done by the Planning Board, (formerly by its Zoning Subcommittee), the Planning Department, and interested residents. (The nitty gritty analysis and changes were worked out by the currently mothballed Zoning Subcommittee –another story.) With the new city government, the CRC now is a key part of the zoning amendment process, but does not and cannot work at the level of detail or analysis that the Planning Board members are able to do with the Planning Department.
Also, the Public Hearing is not for the Planning Board to do preliminary work, the Public hearing is to hear from the public! After the Public Hearing is closed, the public has no right to comment.
And maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the initial experience of the Planning Board’s careful look and analysis of removing footnote m and putting the BL into footnote b leading to the Planning Department’s decision to shelve them led to a conclusion that careful study was an impediment to speedy changes and unfettered density increases. The footnote m and BL studies included a lot of resident participation and resulted in the formation of a group called Community For Better Planning. These citizens attend a lot of Planning Board and CRC meetings and write to Town Council.
But maybe informed residents and an involved Planning Board were seen as problems. So now we have more zoning amendments with less information, less study, less time, less process. Maybe jamming four zoning amendments into a public hearing on a summer night will achieve these goals. If the Planning Board can’t keep up, no one can keep up. Maybe almost no one will know what is going on.
So, on July 21, our joint public hearing with CRC went on for 5 hours, from 6:30 to past 11:30 pm. Four amendments: for apartments, mixed-use buildings, supplemental dwelling units, and parking were all put on the same night. Not many people were left by the end, and I salute all who attended. I recall that we closed the hearings on each zoning amendment. I wonder, did you even hear about these zoning amendments? The public hearing? Did you miss it? Here are the links to the entire agenda and the 77 page packet: https://www.amherstma.gov/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/13594
You can’t find the 18 zoning amendments in any one place on the Town website. The lists of questions I wrote up about the town lot rezoning, parking and apartments amendments are not in the same place as these amendments. Even harder to find and sort out are thoughtful comments sent by residents on the different amendments.
Will more zoning changes come? Planning Board has been told the Planning Department is working on an amendment involving converted dwellings with Councilor Schreiber but have no details. That would be number 19. Also, I forgot to mention the Planning Department’s proposal for denser four-story development through Limited Business Overlay Districts along North Pleasant Street and Triangle Street.
Why does any of this matter? Well, first off, it’s your town and 18 zoning changes will impact our neighborhoods, downtown, village centers, businesses, farmland, everything. Residents should know about them. As more and more amendments go through faster and faster, no one is looking in detail at how these amendments will work or how they affect each other, much less cumulative impacts. Information gathering, analysis, legislative drafting and good thinking cannot go quickly. A broad group of people—including town residents—are needed to make quality zoning changes. That cannot happen quickly. Zoning changes should not happen without information and detailed analysis and residents’ involvement. We need to take more care with our town.
Janet McGowan is a member of the Planning Board, a resident of District 5, and a graduate of Harvard Law School. She was a long time member of Amherst Town Meeting.