Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, September 14, 2021
This was a special meeting of the Planning Board, called to discuss proposed zoning bylaw changes for parking and mixed-use buildings. The meeting was conducted over Zoom and recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
Planning Board members: Jack Jemsek (Chair), Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Doug Marshall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann
Planning staff: Chris Brestrup, Maureen Pollack, Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler
Public Comment On Changes To Bylaw On Apartments
The Community Resources Committee (CRC) of the Town Council met shortly before this meeting and proposed retaining the 24-unit cap on the number of units allowed in an apartment building in the general business (BG) district downtown. The CRC felt that allowing large apartment buildings to be built downtown instead of mixed-use buildings would be detrimental to business.
Resident Suzannah Muspratt applauded this decision, but felt it should also apply to the limited business (BL) zone surrounding downtown. She expressed the concern that many of the small businesses on North Pleasant and Triangle streets will be forced out if apartment buildings were built in those areas. She urged the town to maintain the commercial use of the ground floors of buildings in the BL.
Janet Keller thought that the cap on the size of apartment buildings should apply to the village centers as well. She said that lifting the cap on apartments would give incentives to developers to build apartment buildings in the village centers to the detriment of local businesses there.
Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) agreed with maintaining the limit on the number of units in apartment buildings in the BG and noted that people living in apartments downtown are already parking on residential streets because developers are not required to provide parking in their downtown apartment buildings. Lincoln Avenue, she said, has more cars than ever before and noted that there are no more parking spaces available on the UMass campus.
Updated Parking Amendment Proposed
On July 14, the Planning Board had briefly discussed changes to Article 7 of the zoning bylaw , which concerns parking. It was also the last topic covered at the almost six-hour public hearing on July 21. Since July, the Planning Department has responded to concerns of the public, as well as CRC and Planning Board members about the vague requirement that “adequate” parking be provided for residential buildings, and revised its recommendation. The new proposal mandates two parking spaces for each dwelling unit as in the current bylaw, but allows developers to apply for permission to provide fewer spaces, depending on certain criteria, such as:
bedroom count; analysis of traffic impact reports; analysis of parking utilization study of public or private, on or off-street parking no further than 800-feet of the proposed use; peak parking needs generated by on-site uses occur at different times; proximity to downtown; proximity to public transit; proximity to public parking, including on-street and off-street parking; availability of alternative modes of transportation; tenant lease restrictions relative to parking; and shared or leased parking, as regulated in accordance with Section 7.2 (Shared or Leased parking)
Unfortunately, this revised version was not included in the Planning Board packet and was only given to board members the day before the meeting. In public comment, Pam Rooney noted that the current version of the amendment is much different than the one presented at the public hearing in July. Because the public was not given sufficient time to fully review the current version, she said that the discussion should be moved to a more reasonable date. The board decided to proceed with the discussion. However, it said it would “probably postpone” a vote on the revised proposal until members of the board and the public could better study it.
Planner Maureen Pollock noted that Amherst does not have a reliable public transit system, like larger cities often have, so citizens are more reliant on cars. Therefore, she said, the Planning Department recommends that the starting point should still be two parking places for each dwelling unit, no matter if the unit is a single-family home, an accessory dwelling unit, or part of a larger development. The permit granting authority (the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals) would decide if fewer spaces would be adequate on a case by case basis. It is important to note that none of these parking specifications apply to the municipal parking district (Amherst’s downtown), where no parking spaces are required to be provided by developers.
Pollock noted that the annual rental permit requires a parking management plan, so the town has data on parking for each permitted unit. For instance, Planning Director Chris Brestrup noted, Amherst Media presented information on available on-street parking for overflow parking when they applied for a permit for their proposed new headquarters on Main Street. (However, the amendments being discussed here only apply to residential buildings.)
Doug Marshall said that the new proposal is not “user friendly,” especially for small developments or homeowners who build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) , who might not have as much capital available as larger developers.
Janet McGowan said that the proposal is still “too rough.” She said that of the six developments that have been granted waivers for parking in her tenure on the Planning Board, only two have been built, so it is not possible to evaluate the adequacy of the developers’ parking management plans. She wants these plans to be reevaluated periodically to determine if they meet the needs of the tenants. She presented an alternate plan (page 40 of the Planning Board packet). (There was some confusion about conditions under Article 7.00 and waivers under 7.91. Her proposed changes refer to 7.91, but Building Commissioner Rob Morra said that 7.91 refers to all structures that are not residential. The changes being discussed under this proposal are only for residential buildings.)
Maria Chao said that she felt the impetus for this amendment was to avoid long discussions about giving parking waivers, as occur with almost every proposed project. She said it now seems as if we are going back to the previous requirements of two parking spaces per unit and questioned whether this standard was appropriate.
Brestrup said the current proposal is attempting to get away from granting waivers. Developers will know up front what information they will need to provide in order to provide fewer than two spaces per unit. Thom Long agreed that the burden of data collection should be placed on the developer, and that each situation is different, so the town should have a inflexible standard.
Jack Jemsek said that the fact that UMass parking is sold out is a “game changer.” He felt that it is important that renters have available parking at their apartments. Pollock said that in researching parking requirements in other municipalities, a common theme is “flexible parking,” taking into account location and demographics. She also mentioned “shadow parking,” where a developer does not pave all of the spaces required, but leaves some land open to develop as parking in the future if it is needed.
Dorothy Pam agreed with the need to be flexible, but said the town should think about the convenience of those actually living in the buildings, not just the needs of developers.
Pam Rooney said she agreed with starting with two parking spaces per unit and modifying the requirement as appropriate.
Since the Planning Board was not ready to vote on this amendment and still had several other topics on the agenda, Brestrup proposed another meeting to finish this discussion. The Town Council has 90 days after a public hearing to vote on any zoning amendments without holding another public hearing. Ninety days from the July 21 public hearing would be October 18, meaning the council would need to have the first reading on October 4. It should be noted that the Planning Board has held five extra meetings since June to comply with the aggressive schedule set out for it regarding zoning amendments.
While Marshall felt the Planning Board was nearing agreement on the parking amendment, McGowan stressed that more factors need to be considered, and offered to send her concerns to Brestrup, who could distribute them to other board members.
The Planning Board decided to add an extra meeting (Tuesday, September 28 at 6:30 p.m.) to discuss modifications to the apartment and mixed-use building amendments, as well as the parking amendment. The board will hold its regular meeting on Wednesday, September 29.
Election of Planning Board Officers
Jemsek indicated that he no longer wanted to serve as Planning Board chair. He nominated Marshall for chair, Long for vice-chair, and Chao as clerk. All accepted their nominations and were approved unanimously. Planning Board members thanked Jemsek for his year of service as chair.
Planning Board liaisons to local committees remain the same. Jemsek will continue as representative to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, where he is on the executive committee. Andrew MacDougall will remain as liaison to the Community Preservation Act Committee. Long will continue with the Design Review Board. And Marshall will remain as liaison to the Agricultural Commission, which has been dormant for the past year.
The meeting was adjourned at 9 p.m. The next Planning Board meeting will be on Tuesday, September 29 at 6:30 to finish discussions on zoning amendments for parking, apartments, and mixed-use buildings.