Report On The Meeting Of The Planning Board, September 29, 2021
This meeting was conducted over Zoom and recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
Planning Board members: Doug Marshall (Chair), Jack Jemsek, Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann
Planning staff: Chris Brestrup, Nate Malloy, Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler
Rezoning Of The Town Lot Behind CVS
Rezoning of the town-owned parking lot behind CVS from general residential (RG) to general business (BG) was previously discussed by the Planning Board on July 7 and August 4. Members of the Planning Board and residents of surrounding neighborhoods were concerned that the BG zoning could permit construction of a five-story parking garage, or a five-story apartment building if a garage is not built. Planning Board members were also uneasy with rezoning the parcel without plans for its use.
In response to these concerns, Town Planner Nate Malloy presented a proposal for a parking facility overlay zoning district consisting of only the one parcel. The advantage of the overlay zone is that design specifications may be created for that parcel, apart from those of the BG zone in general, and the rezoning would only be for a parking facility. Any other use of the land would need to conform to RG zoning. He recommended that the hearing for rezoning the land be continued until October 6, to give the Planning Department and Planning Board more time to consider this proposal.
Andrew MacDougall asked why the overlay zone does not constitute “spot zoning.” Malloy replied that since it is a boundary lot, adjacent to the BG, it can be considered an extension of the BG. Malloy said that this location has been studied as a possible site for a parking garage for decades. He said that the Amity Street lot is “too small” and that the town doesn’t own a lot of land in the BG, so options for a garage are limited. Parking studies, including a relatively recent one)(see parking study by Nelson Nygard) questioned the economic feasibility of a municipal lot [Editor’s note: The study concluded that a parking lot is not actually needed or recommended], but as a private enterprise with a developer building and operating the facility, it would not cost the town much.
Maria Chao countered concerns about traffic on Prospect Street from the garage, saying that usually traffic questions are raised after a design is presented. She did not understand why people were asking so many specific questions before the zoning was even changed. Thom Long said that maybe the lot would not provide enough spaces to make it worthwhile, but that could be determined after designs are developed. Jack Jemsek worried about the potential of a five-story garage being built next to a residential neighborhood. but Malloy contended that the purpose of the overlay district would be to be able to specify the height and setbacks allowed. He plans to present these specifications at next week’s Planning Board meeting.
The Board heard from many residents speaking in favor of the rezoning proposal. These included Yasmin Eisenhauer, executive director of the Amherst Cinema, Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District, Ann Tweedy, owner of Laughing Dog Bicycles [and on the staff of the BID], Rasif Rafiq, owner of the Monkey Bar, Sharon Povenelli of AJ Hastings, Clare Bertrand, Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, and developer and BID board member Barry Roberts, who owns adjacent property. All said that patrons to downtown frequently complain about the lack of parking. They contrasted Amherst, with its many small “hidden lots known only to residents,” to Northampton with its 400-car parking garage, which nearly always has space.
Gould said she had made a mistake at the Jones Library Trustees meeting last week when she said that Kuhn, Riddle Architects had drawn up a design for the proposed garage. She said Kuhn, Riddle is not involved with the parking garage. Preliminary plans have been drawn only to see what is possible to be built. She also said that there is no definite plan by Barry Roberts to build a $7 million garage.
Amy Gates said she is interested in “destination parking” and her District 4 representatives [District 4’s councilors are Evan Ross and Stephen Schreiber] had previously announced that there were plans to build a parking garage that wouldn’t cost the town money. Downtown Arts Foundation board member John Snyder, who owns Laudable Productions, which is in charge of booking programming for the proposed downtown performance center, said the town will need parking in order for the Drake “to become the venue we want it to be.”
Mary Sayer said there is an overwhelming sense that we need better parking in Amherst, but recommended that the CVS site be evaluated to see if it is an appropriate site before it is rezoned.
Further Planning Board Discussion
Planning Board member Janet McGowan requested information on any plans that have already been developed for this structure, along with possible costs to the town in lost revenue. Planning Director Chris Brestrup said the Planning Department has not been informed of any information about a design. Gould reiterated that no deal has been made, only a proposal to rezone the lot.
Malloy said that the Planning Department is working with proponents of the garage to develop conditions and standards for the parcel before developing a Request for Proposals. He said he would come to the October 6 meeting with specific recommendations for dimensional specifications, but was unsure if he could develop the three-dimensional model of maximum build out that McGowan requested by that time. He said there could be varied designs for a parking structure, and the actual design would be left up to the developer.
Jemsek said, “We’re asking for a lot of details that I think it’s unreasonable for us to ask for. We’re looking at a concept for which there is a super need… To ask for details is unreasonable at this point in time. We know that there is a super need for parking in town… I just want to put the brakes on [asking for]details for this garage.”
MacDougall agreed that specifics can be figured out down the road, but said he thinks it would be reasonable to consider the traffic impact of a garage there prior to rezoning, especially since the exit is on a narrow one-way residential road.
The public hearing was continued to October 6 at 6:35 p.m. by a unanimous vote.
Hearing On Proposed Archipelago Subdivision On 11-15 East Pleasant Street Postponed to October 20
Archipelago Investments’ request to create a two-lot subdivision at 11-15 East Pleasant Street was first introduced on August 25. The firm had requested that the hearing be delayed to September 1 and now is asking to continue it until October 20. Brestrup is not aware of the reason for the delay, but said it does extend the 45-day timeline that the Planning Board has to act on the proposal.
Change In Access For 462 Main Street
The newly built Center East Commons, a 24-unit mixed-use complex at 462 Main Street, is fully occupied. Developer John Wrobeleski purchased the large house next door, which he plans to demolish in the future. In the meantime, he requested an amendment to his special permit for 462 Main Street in order to allow a drive-through connection between the properties so that exits would exist both on Main and Gray Streets. This would make it easier for trash trucks and emergency vehicles, which would not need to back out of the lot onto Main Street.
The drive-through would result in the loss of two parking spaces on each property, but Wrobeleski said that currently there are only 16 cars registered for the 32 spaces available in the lot at Center East Commons. Seven of those spaces were to be shared with the business in the building. At the house next door, eight spaces are required for the one business and one apartment, but there are currently 14 spaces, so there would be little impact from the loss of the four total spaces, he said.
When McGowan, Jemsek, and Brestrup visited the site, Pioneer Valley Photovoltaics was installing rooftop solar panels. Even with ten spaces blocked off for the solar company trucks, there was still enough parking for residents. The Planning Board thought the addition of the driveway made sense and approved the special permit unanimously.
Survival Center Shed Can Remain Until 2023
Near the beginning of the pandemic, the Amherst Survival Center requested permission to construct a temporary shed in the parking lot in order to serve food. They had previously been serving meals out of a tent in the parking lot. The shed was approved for 18 months, or until March 2022.
Survival Center Director Lev Ben Ezra said that the shed has worked exceedingly well. It has received many positive comments and has become a critical part of the infrastructure. She requested an extension of the permit until the end of 2022 because of continuing concerns about indoor dining due to COVID-19. She said the Center has reopened the indoor food pantry and a warming center, but is not sure when it can return to indoor dining. The shed blends with the current building and has stood up well to the weather.
Marshall said he was concerned about ending the permit in the middle of winter. He suggested extending it until March 2023, after which the center would have to come back if it wants to again extend the use of the shed.
This passed unanimously.
New Screening Fence At The Unitarian Universalist Society
When the Unitarian Universalist Society (UU) expanded its North Pleasant Street building in 2014, it was required to screen the mechanical equipment on the north side of the building. The society built a four-foot vinyl screening fence around the equipment. However, there have been problems with people hopping the fence and tampering with the equipment and also with elicit activities occurring behind the fence.
UU representative Susanne Personette said that the vinyl fence has been removed and the Society wants to replace it with a six-foot metal post fence with a locked gate attached to the building. This design was unanimously approved by the Design Review Board.
Chao questioned whether there would be a problem with noise from the equipment with the fence that does not block the view of the equipment. Personette said that noise has not been an issue, and the only neighbor on that side is the rear of the post office across the street.
MacDougall said that the proposed fence satisfies the condition of security, but not that of screening. Marshall wondered if there could be mesh backing added to the fence to provide the required screening, but Personette worried that providing additional screening would permit elicit activity behind the fence, even though the proposed fence would be six feet high.
The Planning Board approved the new fence design by a vote of 5-2, with MacDougall and Marshall voting no.
Planning Board Receives Open Meeting Complaints Due To Missing Minutes
In the past few weeks, the Planning Department has received two complaints under the Open Meeting Law for missing minutes. Under Massachusetts General Law, public bodies are required to produce written minutes within 90 days or by the third meeting after a public meeting. The public body has 14 days to respond to a request for minutes or the matter is forwarded to the Attorney General. This 14-day period would expire on October 12.
Brestrup noted that with the passage of the proposed zoning amendments by the Town Council on January 4, 2021, the Planning Board has been meeting much more often than the usual twice monthly, and the Planning Department has had much more work to do in preparing and analyzing the proposed amendments. Over the summer (between May and September), the Planning Board met ten times. Unlike Town Council committees that have note takers who are paid, Planning Board minutes have been compiled by Brestrup and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler. Each set of minutes typically takes days to complete.
There are 17 sets of minutes missing. Brestrup has asked for help from assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek. She also proposed that meeting minutes be much less detailed, containing topics discussed, a summary of the discussion, and the outcome of votes. She noted that video recordings of all meetings are available on Amherst Media. She also requested that Planning Board members help the department catch up on the missing minutes.
Chao was taking the minutes at this meeting and will continue to do so for the time being, but cannot devote time to review past meetings. The other members of the Planning Board offered to create reports from the Zoom transcripts of the missing meetings.
Jemsek said that it makes no sense to have written minutes, when there are videos of the meetings. He said, “This is the 21st century.” But Marshall replied that the minutes are required by law. Chao said that creating detailed minutes, as has been done in the past, is a “wasteful use” of administrative time. She said that the meetings are public and she doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on minutes. She said she plans to submit her minutes shortly after this meeting ends.
McGowan disagreed and said that minutes are important and are supposed to document the deliberation that goes into decision-making. It is not reasonable to expect people to listen to a four-hour meeting to find information they want.
MacDougall said that he submitted edited Zoom transcripts of Community Preservation Act Committee meetings as minutes, and he thought that is an easy way to provide a complete, unbiased account of the meeting. Brestrup thought it makes more sense to summarize meetings, because when minutes get too long there is too much to read and digest.
Most members of the Planning Board offered to produce transcripts of the missing meetings from the recordings before the October 12 deadline. Jemsek suggested putting links to the time of discussion of various topics in the transcripts.
MacDougall suggested adjusting the meeting schedule to be a more reasonable amount of work. He wanted to cancel the October 6 meeting in order for members to work on the minutes. However, Brestrup said the board is already committed to have a continuation of the hearing about the rezoning the parking lot behind CVS next week, but the meeting can be limited to this topic
Johanna Neumann said she agrees that “we’ve been meeting a lot, but there’s a lot the town needs from the Planning Board right now…so we should keep doing this important work.” Chao asked, “Why at this time do we have to produce these minutes? Is someone trying to get us to stop pushing our agenda?…We shouldn’t let this get in the way of the really good stuff that we’re doing.”
Updates on Zoning
The updated Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) amendment is ready to go to Town Council for a vote. McGowan submitted some comments, so she, Brestrup, and Marshall will review the report and decide which comments to incorporate. Brestrup said she does not have the time to rewrite the report. Previously, the Zoning Subcommittee (now on hiatus) wrote the reports on zoning amendments, not town staff.
Bistro 63 wants to acquire a portion of the land behind the former Starbucks building owned by Mauro Aniello. Brestrup was unclear of the intended plans for the land, but the Planning Board had no objection to this property transfer.
The proposed changes to the mixed-use buildings and apartment bylaws are still being discussed. Because it will soon be over 90 days since the public hearing held on July 21, another public hearing will have to be scheduled. The apartment bylaw, which would allow apartments by Special Permit in the BG and by Site Plan Review in the Village Centers, will be presented to the Town Council for a vote, but the other proposed changes to that bylaw will be tabled until next year.
The Community Resources Committee has scheduled a public hearing on rezoning the town lot behind CVS for November 9. As far as the changes to the Parking and Access bylaw, Brestrup said people are still unclear about the intentions of the proposed changes put forth by the Planning Department. The staff will continue to work on the amendment and the Planning Board will need to hold another public hearing in the future.
The meeting adjourned at 10:25 p.m. The Planning Board will next meet on October 6 at 6:30 p.m.