Planning Board Recommends Amendments To Apartment Bylaw

One East Pleasant Street. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, September 1, 2021

Present
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek, chair, Maria Chao, Thom Long, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, Andrew MacDougall, and Johanna Neumann. Planning staff: Planning Director Christine Brestrup, Planner Maureen Pollock, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler.

The meeting was broadcast on Zoom and recorded. It can be viewed here

The two packets for the meeting can be found here and here

Amendments To The Zoning Bylaw On Apartments (Article 12)
Maureen Pollock of the Planning Department summarized the major changes to Article 12 (beginning on page 4). The proposed amendment eliminates the cap on the number of units in an apartment building, which is now set at 24. The number of units allowed would depend on the size of the lot and the number of floors as well as the building and lot coverage allowed by the dimensional table. Any building with more than 10 units could not have more than 50% of the apartments with the same number of bedrooms. Enclosed parking must be at the rear of the building.

Since the public hearing on July 21, the Planning Department added the provision that an apartment building fronting one of the main streets in the center of town (Main Street, Amity Street, North Pleasant Street, South Pleasant Street, and East Pleasant Street) must be at least 500 feet from another apartment building on one of these streets. This is to avoid construction of too many apartment buildings in the downtown, where they might displace space for businesses. The 500 feet minimum does not apply to apartments built on side streets, such as Spring Street, Kellogg Street, or Pray Street.

Planning Board member Janet McGowan worried that this provision would push five-story apartment buildings onto side streets where they would be closer to surrounding neighborhoods, and would introduce further disincentives to create more space for businesses, since apartments are more lucrative to developers. Members Andrew MacDougall and Thom Long agreed that the goal should be to minimize the number of apartment buildings downtown in favor of mixed-use buildings, they felt the 500 foot limit would provide that assurance. 

Doug Marshall pointed out that apartments in the downtown area require a special permit from the zoning board of appeals (ZBA) that could always be denied. McGowan countered that she does not remember the ZBA ever denying a special permit, but Pollock said that, in her four years as staff liaison to the ZBA, several developers have withdrawn their permit applications when it was clear they did not have the support on the board. Others have negotiated fewer floors or fewer units in order to obtain their permit.

Another change made since the public hearing is the recommendation that apartment buildings proposed for the residential village center zones (RVC) also be approved by Special Permit as specified in the existing zoning bylaw, rather than the less rigorous Site Plan Review in previous versions of the amendment. This was in response to comments received from the public and the fact the much of the land in the RVC is close to farmland. The Planning Department thought this change would make the plan more acceptable to the public. 

Planning Board member Maria Chao questioned the requirement for a special permit for apartments in the RVC. She wondered if the Planning Department was listening too much to “a small handful of public comments and emails” that do not reflect the views of the actual population and that would hinder the growth of housing in town. She said that designers and developers are “are a creative bunch, so don’t cut off their ability to come up with good designs for land use.”

Pollock presented models of the RVC zones in North Amherst, East Amherst, Pomeroy, and Atkins areas. She illustrated how very few parcels in those areas could support more than the 24 units allowed by the current bylaw maintaining the maximum three floors allowed and the minimum of 40% open space. However, McGowan pointed out that the models didn’t take into account what might be possible if several lots were combined, or if waivers were obtained under footnote a. She requested more study of what these changes would mean for neighborhoods.

At the start of the meeting, Suzannah Muspratt, Hilda Greenbaum, and Pam Rooney expressed a desire to speak to the proposed amendments, even though the public hearings were closed. Rooney and Muspratt said new information was presented, so public comment should be allowed, and both requested clarification of the impact of the apartment bylaw changes on the limited business district near downtown. Brestrup said the Planning Board could take public comment if it wanted without reopening the public hearing, but to reopen the public hearing would require a notice published two weeks in advance.

Planning Board member Johanna Neumann said that she “was inclined not to take public comment,” since she thought the board would have to reopen the public hearing in order to do so. The July 21 public hearing dealt with four zoning amendments and lasted over five hours, so very few members of the public were present when it ended near midnight. In the end, no further public comment was taken and the revised apartment amendment was endorsed by a vote of 6-1 with McGowan voting no.

Amherst College Wayfinding Signs
Amherst College is planning an extensive network of signs for motorists and pedestrians on campus. The signs target destinations popular with visitors to campus, such as museums, prominent buildings, and parking. Some of the proposed signs are in the Educational District (ED) and can be placed with only notification to the Planning Board. They do not require approval. Some of the signs are in the public way, so are under the purview of the town council. The council has referred these signs to the Town Services and Outreach Committee which has requested feedback from the Design Review Board and the Historical Commission. The third group of signs is on Amherst College property not in the ED zone and must receive approval from the Planning Board.

The signs were designed by Roll Barresi Associates Landscaping and Planning. Andrew Barresi presented the different types of signs for different locations. These can be seen on pages 3 through 48 of the Planning Board packet. Most of the signs are dark purple with white lettering on dark posts. There are also some two- and three-sided kiosks with maps and information and some banners on public buildings. Granite seating walls with native plantings are planned for the primary entrances to the campus. Some of the signs would require a waiver because of their height and the plan to place more than one sign on some properties.

Planning Board members had only favorable comments on the plan. Marshall asked if the town should rezone the ED zone to more accurately reflect the use of the properties and include much of the land belonging to Amherst College currently in the general residence or other zone. Tom Davies, Director of Design and Construction at Amherst College, said the college would “wholeheartedly embrace this concept, since it would make our lives much easier.” Brestrup said the Planning Board could talk about changing the borders of the ED zone in the future.

The Planning Board approved the wayfinding sign plan unanimously.

Because of the late hour, the discussion of the proposed amendment to parking requirements for multi-unit dwellings and a continuation of the discussion of the mixed-use building amendment were deferred to a future meeting, as was election of Planning Board officers. An additional meeting of the Planning Board was set for Tuesday, September 14 at 6:30.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:39 p.m.

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7 thoughts on “Planning Board Recommends Amendments To Apartment Bylaw

  1. Planning Board member Maria Chao … wondered if the Planning Department was listening too much to “a small handful of public comments and emails” that do not reflect the views of the actual population

    HOW WOULD YOU KNOW THE VIEWS OF THE ACTUAL POPULATION? REMINDER THAT 900 VOTERS PETITIONED THE TOWN COUNCIL TO TAKE 90 DAYS TO PLAN BETTER – THEY DISMISSED THE PETITION, SAYING THAT PLANNING PROPERLY WOULD TAKE MUCH LONGER, SO WHY TAKE 6 MONTHS TO PAUSE AND CONSIDER MORE? (and also, is that really an appropriate thing for a public official to think/ say?)

    and that would hinder the growth of housing in town.

    THERE DOESN’T SEEM TO BE THE RIGHT MATH BEING DONE BY THE TOWN GOVERNMENT, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH HOUSING IS NEEDED, CONSIDERING WHAT UMASS SHOULD BE DOING, HOW MUCH HAS BEEN BUILT, HOW MANY BETTER STUDENT COMMUNITIES WILL LURE TENANTS AWAY FROM DOWNTOWN, AND UMASS PRESIDENT MARTY MEEHAN’S PREDICTION OF AN UPCOMING “DEMOGRAPHIC CLIFF” – ALL LEAVING UN-RE-PURPOSABLE STUDENT APARTMENTS WITH VERY MEAGER GROUND FLOOR BUSINESS

    She said that designers and developers are “are a creative bunch, so don’t cut off their ability to come up with good designs for land use.”

    NOBODY IS CUTTING OFF THEIR ABILITY TO HAVE CREATIVE DESIGNS, THEY ARE PROTESTING THE FORM AND FUNCTION OF THEIR DESIGNS, AS WELL AS THE PLANNING BOARD’S LACK OF DUE DILIGENCE IN EXAMINING THEM

  2. Hear, hear Ira! I had the same reaction.
    Ms Chao’s comment was beneath the professional standards we should all expect and insist on from those elected to represent (not lord over) the citizens of our town. Sadly, inappropriate (true colors), if not disrespectful, comments from TC members are on the increase. So much for any argument that fewer can represent better the many. What a mess!

  3. question: what is the difference between an Amherst-style “mixed used” building and the new kind of unlimited apartment building, that is considered so impactful that you can’t have 2 of them closer than 500 feet?

    answer: a tiny store on the ground floor, or instead, maybe a rooftop bar for the students living there

    Can we stop using the word “planning” when it comes to how the town council and planning board are “planning”?

    “entropy” or even “chaos” seem better word choices

  4. … or, in the spirit of the times, “black holes”?

    Maybe we’ll see some Hawking radiation from the smaller units, but the bigger ones will continue to grow, eventually sucking everything inside their “event horizons” and coalescing into a single giant “black hole” at the galactic center now known as “Downtown Amherst” and sending ripples of gravitational radiation out into the surrounding neighborhoods with each coalescence!

    And of course Ira is exactly right: the area of the black hole horizon is proportional to its entropy….

  5. It is SO time for that pause we wanted, to ask for real discussion on zoning. The latest round – the APT amendment – is so convoluted. It was preceded by the Mixed-use discussion, but the two are not being connected! First – the Planning Bd did not push for more than that minimum 40% commercial ground-floor space in the MXU, and may even adopt E.Ross’ allowance of commercial anywhere in the building (forget enlivening the street front!). So you get a MXU building that is 2% commercial. Now, the PBd adopts staff’s Apartment bylaw that removes the cap on #units/bldg; will this lead to a rash of 5-story APTs in the B-G? Well, to patch that opening and dampen the effect of unlimited APT construction, a very messy “fix” is thrown atop the amendment. A 500′ separation between APTs will safeguard against losing the “vitality MXU buildings would bring”! Ira already asked “what’s the difference between a MXU and an APT?” As it turns out, in downtown, nothing. But un-capped #units/bldg in the R-VC, R-G, B-L(!), B-VC, and B-N…keep your eyes on this!

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