Opinion: Thoughtful, Deliberate (And Not Rushed) Planning. Reflections By A Soon-To-Be-Former Councilor On How This Town Council Fails to Meet The Promises Of The Charter, Democracy, Transparency, And Public Participation. (#5)

Deliberation. Sculpture, Assen, Netherlands. Photo: Wikimedia Commomns ( Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication).

Darcy Dumont

Thus far, this series has looked at what the Charter Commission promised to the residents of Amherst were they to vote for a Town Council form of government, and whether those promises have been fulfilled, in the areas of: voter empowerment, public participation, and checks and balances.

The series concludes with a look at whether the Council has engaged in thoughtful deliberation on the important issues before it, and in particular on planning and zoning. Thoughtful deliberation assumes a discussion of the rationale and need for change, adequate research into best practices in other communities, outreach to and representation of interested stakeholders in the community, and a thoughtful process of deliberation and decision-making that gives each major issue adequate time and space.

What the Charter Commission promised:

5. It supports better planning for the future. Many participants in the charter process have expressed concern about our capacity to effectively envision and promote appropriate plans for the long term. The proposed Charter improves long-term planning in several ways.  

A Master Plan adopted by the Town Council, not just the Planning Board. 

The Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals will both be appointed by the Town Council.

This will help ensure that these important bodies reflect the concerns of voters town-wide, as expressed by their elected representatives. 

Councilors can be fully informed before voting on zoning…

With the Town Council, zoning and other bylaws will not be able to be “rushed through,” because the Council is required to discuss bylaws at two separate meetings before voting – and any one councilor can request postponement to a third meeting for further consideration.

What we have seen with this Council:

Steamrolling
The definition of “steamrolling” is “to overwhelm or suppress ruthlessly, to crush, to bring to adoption with overwhelming pressure”. It is the opposite of a deliberative process.

This first iteration of a Town Council has been accused of being authoritarian and of steamrolling their developer agenda. That is what it looks like to me. The majority is endorsed by the Amherst Forward PAC, whose primary goal is to enact zoning legislation that will favor developers. Endorsees must complete a survey that asks them for assurances that they will vote for such zoning changes and that is what the endorsed incumbents  have done — across the board. 

The Charter Commission suggested that having two required discussions was adequate to provide thoughtful deliberation on an issue, but that’s not actually the case when many (18, since January) zoning bylaw amendments are before theCouncil . It dilutes the discussion and confuses the public to have too many major issues discussed at one time. In addition, councilors do not at all feel free to ask for postponements for further discussion. I am the only councilor who has ever asked for a postponement. I did so twice in three years, and was severely rebuked by majority councilors for doing so. 

One cannot avoid concluding that a primary goal of the Council with all of this rushing is to push things through quickly to avoid scrutiny and deliberation. They did it over and over again. They contrive a deadline that requires a decision now.

The most recent time I asked for a postponement was at the December 21, 2020 Town Council meeting — on the basis that a list of Council zoning priorities were being voted on without even two official discussions and certainly not a full airing of the issues. And because I felt that voting on a major zoning measure on the eve of a big holiday was not ok in that the public would not be paying attention. It felt like a dirty, steamrolling trick. See Janet McGowan’s take on the “zoning chaos” that has ensued with the submission of 18 zoning bylaw proposals since January of this year, including four major bylaw amendments being considered in one  public hearing and a proposal to rezone the CVS parking lot for a parking garage via a somewhat murky backroom process led by Councilors George Ryan and Evan Ross.

One cannot avoid concluding that a primary goal of the Council with all of this rushing is to push things through quickly to avoid scrutiny and deliberation. They did it over and over again. They contrive a deadline that requires a decision now.

So the steamrolling is not just the rushing of the planning and zoning process. It is a well conceived plan to squelch any resistance through minimizing public access and participation, silencing the minority on the Council, controlling appointments to the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals through an opaque process, and manipulating the process for appointment of Planning Board members. It is through the Council taking control of the entire process of amending the zoning bylaw, usurping the power and authority of the Planning Board, insisting on the dissolution of the zoning subcommittee of the Planning Board, thereby causing the volunteer planning board to need to meet weekly for months on end. 

All of this adds up to a Town Council that is hostile to deliberation.

My criticisms of Amherst Forward-endorsed incumbents are not at all intended to cast aspersions on the good folks who receive all the Amherst Forward mailings. Many are unaware of what theCouncil  majority is up to in addition to promoting the library expansion project.

The Master Plan
In November of 2020 , the Town Council adopted “as is” the Master Plan adopted by the Planning Board in 2010. We did not discuss or debate it, and parts of it are out of date. The Council rejected the idea of amending the Master Plan to add the plans or goals the town has adopted in the interim, such as our climate action goals. Thus, the Council’s adoption of the Master Plan was not a meaningful act but probably a good thing in light of what they might have — and still might — do to amend it.

A Rushed, Non-deliberative, Non-Consensus-Building, Process
What is happening at this moment is exactly “rushing zoning proposals through”, presumably in an attempt to be able to say they were accomplished in this legislative session. Or because a change ofCouncil  might disadvantage the majority. It could not be more rushed or less thoughtful. 

I co-sponsored the temporary moratorium on permitting for downtown construction of new buildings with Cathy Schoen and Dorothy Pam. That would have allowed the town to pause while in the middle of considering amending the zoning bylaw so that we could complete the process before any new buildings were permitted. The majority, including Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andrew Steinberg, Evan Ross, and Goerge Ryan, voted the temporary moratorium down. Again, they did this even though there was a show of huge resident support and little if no opposition, except from landowners and developers.

The Planning Board (And Council) As A Reflection Of The Voters
The Planning Board and ZBA in no way reflect the voters of Amherst. Recently only two of the seven members of the Planning Board reflected the view that we should not be adding more of the same type of monolithic Archipelago-type buildings downtown. The Town Council decided nevertheless to oust one of the two minority voices in a clear attempt to steamroll its agenda. We now have one out of the seven members of the Planning Board left who supported the moratorium proposal, who questions the rush to construct a lot of student housing downtown, and who supports protecting space for a vibrant retail scene.

But, the petitions for a  temporary moratorium on new construction in the downtown garnered 1,000 signatures, while the petition against the moratorium garnered only 35 signatures and included a number of building owners, developers, and others profiting from the buildings. If those petitions more closely reflect the percentages of how people feel about the downtown building issues, it would appear that the Council and the Planning Board are pushing an agenda that is disliked by residents 30 to 1.

 It’s hard to miss that the point of the zoning changes is to lift almost all restrictions on developers, turning them loose to do whatever they like without having to answer to the community. Parking, setbacks, open space, even the retail space required by the mixed use bylaws — all is to be relaxed — and often without much study of the consequences.

If you voted for Hanneke, Steinberg, Ross, or Ryan three years ago, you likely did so based on how they claim to be “progressive” or because they supported the new school. But those councilors are singularly focused on pushing through unfettered development measures you most likely do not want. A new five-story Archipelago building is going to house only students according to the builders. And those same councilors are putting forward a bylaw that would go one step further by pushing the development of larger apartment buildings in the core of downtown and in our village centers, with no requirement for retail on the first floor. They are also doing nothing to curtail the sale of our neighborhood housing to investors to turn it into more student housing. It’s hard to miss that the point of the zoning changes is to lift almost all restrictions on developers, turning them loose to do whatever they like without having to answer to the community. Parking, setbacks, open space, even the retail space required by the mixed use bylaws — all is to be relaxed — and often without much study of the consequences.

What these councilors are not considering is any middle ground. We can have a beautiful, inviting, walkable, bikeable downtown with moderate “density”, leaving UMass to provide dense housing for its students on its campus and at its own apartment complexes. There is no reason why a compromise remedy can’t be provided through public private partnerships on state-owned land. Providing monolithic five story (or more) apartments downtown for UMass students, with only student-oriented food- and amenities-offerings, will render the downtown dead to long-term residents. 

We have other values to promote in town in the “new normal” world: climate action and community resilience, racial equity, affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families, including home ownership; education and promotion of the arts; and provision of our basic services — an Amherst that is welcoming and responsible to all of its residents. Planning according to the “old normal” simply is no longer the priority.

Why this Council would steamroll solutions that residents don’t want is a question we should all be considering when we vote on November 2.

Darcy DuMont is a member of the Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee, founding member of Local Energy Advocates of Western MA and an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 5. Views expressed are hers and not those of the Town Council.

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