Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, October 18, 2021 – Part 2
Councilors: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Alisa Brewer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, and Andy Steinberg (At large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and George Ryan (District 3), Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont (District 5). Absent: Sarah Swartz (District 1)
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
- Council rejects plan to limit parking on Lincoln Avenue
- Council keeps same property tax classifications
- Council passes zoning amendments for accessory dwelling units and changes in permitting for apartment buildings
- Council authorized purchasing of new monitoring equipment for ambulances
- Back-in parking to remain on North Pleasant Street this winter
Parking On Lincoln Avenue
In 2019, residents of Lincoln Avenue came before the council to complain about dangerous conditions on their street due to an excess of cars parked there when UMass was in session. The matter was referred to the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee, but was not taken up because the scaled-down use of the UMass campus during the pandemic temporarily alleviated the problem until this fall. With the return to full participation on campus in September, TSO discussed the matter and voted 3-1-1 to recommend restrictions to allowable parking on the street.
TSO recommends that there be no parking on the east side of Lincoln Avenue from Amity to McClellan Streets beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m on weekdays from September 1 to May 31. Parking near intersections would be prohibited at all times. Superintendent of Public Works Guilford Mooring noted that there were 29 traffic accidents on Lincoln Avenue over the three years studied, which he said is high for Amherst. There was some uncertainty about the necessity of the plan, since UMass intends to temporarily close the end of Lincoln Avenue near campus to permit the construction of a new dorm and new married student housing.
Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) asked why these provisions were not extended from Fearing to North Hadley Streets, which permits no parking at any time. Darcy DuMont (District 5) said that it doesn’t make sense not to deal with surrounding streets at the same time as Lincoln because cars that currently park on Lincoln might start using nearby streets. She wanted to consider the parking situation holistically. But Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said that if problems arise on nearby streets, TSO could consider those problems at a later date.
Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said she was not in support of this motion. She feels that the council is making a private street for the residents of Lincoln. She added that it doesn’t make sense to move cars to other streets and wait for those residents to complain. She felt that the council is “kowtowing to a privileged group of residents—that this is elitism to the extreme.”
Evan Ross (District 4) said he was “the one vote” against this proposal on TSO. He said Lincoln is a main artery from Route 9 to campus, but it is about to be blocked off for two years due to the construction on campus, so this plan seems premature. He wondered what would happen to those who park there now and how the town could notify them in advance of the proposed change.
George Ryan (District 3), who lives in the neighborhood said that this is a matter of safety. Lincoln Avenue is “wall to wall cars” during the day when UMass is in session. He thought the council should deal with one problem at a time because “we don’t know what the impact will be on neighboring streets.” He said he doesn’t understand the issue of elitism and is offended that the council would reject a proposal not because of its merits but because of the people who raised it. He added that TSO next plans to deal with parking on Kendrick Place, which is hardly a wealthy street.
Steve Schreiber (District 4) thought eliminating some parking would increase the speed that cars travel on the street. Alisa Brewer (at large) responded that there would still be speed bumps to control the speed of traffic, and that parking there will continue to present a problem that might even increase when the road is blocked off. She said that we have let these residents down by not responding to them over the past two years.
When questioned about why some of the agreed-upon signs were not placed, Mooring said that there is no foolproof way for him to learn of what the council has voted for the DPW to do. Town Manager Paul Bockelman took issue with this point, saying the council clerk communicates all relevant votes to the departments on the day after a meeting.
The vote on the proposed parking restrictions on Lincoln Avenue was tied at 6-6, so the measure failed. Councilors Schreiber, DeAngelis, DuMont, Hanneke, Ross, and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) voted against it. DeAngelis later apologized for her outburst during this discussion.
Town Maintains Single Tax Classification
Options for changing property tax assessment rates were presented by retired Assessor David Burgess and Finance Director Sean Mangano at the October 4 council meeting. The Board of Assessors recommended keeping a single tax rate for all classes of properties with no discount for open space and no small commercial or residential exemptions. All three of these recommendations passed by an 11-0-1 vote, with Dorothy Pam (District 3) abstaining.
DuMont said she would prefer to adopt the residential exemption to help low- and moderate-income homeowners and wanted the town to look at other towns with this exemption to determine the effect on local rents, since non-owner-occupied properties would not be eligible for this exemption. Griesemer said there was not time to look into the implications of this change for FY23. Mangano said the town would need to engage the public and owners of apartments in town before instituting a residential exemption. Schoen and Brewer encouraged the town to do the outreach and education early in the year, rather than just before the decision on tax rates needs to be made as has happened for the last three years.
Zoning Changes For Accessory Dwelling Units And Apartments Accepted
Town planners Chris Brestrup, Ben Breger, and Maureen Pollack were available to answer questions about these proposed amendments, along with Building Commissioner Rob Morra.
The proposed amendments to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be up to 1,000 square feet and to be allowed by a permit from the building commissioner in most cases received favorable comments at the October 4 council meeting, but there was a question about whether a deed restriction could be placed on each property with an ADU, that one of the units must remain owner occupied. Brestrup said the town would develop a form that an applicant for an ADU could complete and file with the town clerk, so a subsequent buyer of the property would be made aware of this restriction. Bahl-Milne worried that this would be expensive, but Brestrup said the cost is minimal (currently $110) and no lawyer would be necessary. Griesemer said the intent was to prohibit sale of the property as two rental units.
The zoning amendment passed unanimously.
Change In Permitting For Apartment Buildings
There was considerably more controversy over the Planning Department’s suggestion to change permitting for apartment buildings in the Residential Village Centers (RVC) from Special Permit to Site Plan Review and the reverse for the downtown (BG) area.
Schoen voiced concern about maintaining the health of the village centers, emphasizing that each village center is unique. She said in North Amherst there are nearby flood plains, farmland, small businesses, and traffic problems, all of which would be impacted by adding large apartment buildings in the village center. Because of this, she wanted to keep permitting by Special Permit, which allows the town to have more discretion. She also questioned the opinion from KP Law that only 7 votes (a simple majority) are needed to make this zoning change, as opposed to the 9 votes (two-thirds) needed for most zoning amendments. Andy Steinberg (at large) agreed that there are limitations to dense development in the North Amherst Village Center. In public comment, Janet Keller voiced concern for putting local businesses in competition with apartment buildings in the village centers by loosening permit regulations.
Ross disagreed and said that requiring apartment buildings to have a Special Permit in village centers means that “we do not think any area of town is appropriate for apartments… that we are a town that favors single-family homes on large lots. We will struggle with equity matters which conflicts with what we say we are as a town. We need to act even if it makes us uncomfortable.” He mentioned that the Master Plan advocates for commercial and residential development in village centers.
Bahl-Milne said the Residential Village Center (RVC) areas are exactly where there should be more density in order for open space to be preserved in other areas. Also, she believes that changing to Site Plan Review for the village centers would help the town meet its housing goals. Because existing restrictions on minimum distances from historic structures and farmland would still apply, she said, so apartment buildings “could not be built everywhere.”
DuMont questioned how the council could approve this significant change when it was decoupled from specifying a maximum number of units allowed in an apartment building. She requested that the motion be withdrawn until there is information on the rest of the changes to the apartment amendment that are in the works. She received no support for this suggestion.
Brestrup answered some of the concerns. She said that the RVC borders in North Amherst are “odd” because they need to exclude farmland, the church and the historic inn there. The town has been applying for a Massworks grant to help reconfigure the traffic pattern in the area, she said, but the town might have more success at securing a grant if there is “impending development” in the area. All developments must have a plan to keep stormwater on site, so further erosion should not be a problem, she said.
Pollock added that the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals can place conditions on a planned development. They can require a developer to make improvements in the roads, she pointed out, as Barry Roberts’ development on One University South was required to do. Also, by current dimensional guidelines, a builder would need 2.4 acres in the RVC to build a 24-unit apartment building and that 60% of the site — 1.47 acres— would need to remain unpaved open space, but Brestrup corrected that, pointing out that the dimensional requirements and the 150-foot buffer for farmland can be waived by the permit granting authority.
Schoen noted that there are apartment buildings in North Amherst (Presidential, Brandywine, Puffton, etc). It is not urban sprawl, but the town should think about where it is going. Ross said that apartments in the RVC can only be three stories high and have a maximum lot coverage of 40%. He said he was “struggling to see where some of this opposition is coming from.” He said the 2015 Housing Production Plan calls for this change in permitting, so “it is nothing new.”public
Hanneke added that special permits cost more and are harder to obtain than site plan reviews and that looser regulations for developers would make apartments more affordable.
Brestrup explained that applications for special permits are rarely denied, even though the town can legally do so, whereas the town cannot legally deny a site plan review application (it can only be modified). Denial of a special ermit can be appealed.
Ryan said that this proposal came from the Planning Department and was vetted by the town planners. He said that it seems like “some of my fellow councilors want to also sit on the ZBA and the Planning Board” and urged the councilors to “trust the process.”
When Schoen questioned the legal opinion from KP Law on the required vote count for this issue, which the council received only four days before the meeting, Bockelman said that the opinion was in response to a new state law that aims to promote the creation of more housing. The town attorney considered it carefully and talked to other attorneys before rendering his decision, he said.Hanneke added, “We follow our town attorney. He rendered his opinion, and we follow it.”
The council voted 9-3 to accept the loosened regulations for permitting apartments in residential village centers. DuMont, Schoen, and Pam voted no.
Change In Permitting For Apartment Buildings Downtown
There was much less controversy about changing permitting of apartments downtown from Site Plan Review to Special Permit. Pam did express worry about the plan to remove the cap on the number of units allowed in apartment buildings, which would make them more advantageous to developers than mixed-use buildings. When Bahl-Milne disagreed with the implication that this was the motivation for the change, Schoen reminded the council that this concern had been voiced frequently during the public hearing on the topic and had resulted in separating the cap on the number of units from the type of permitting required.
The vote was unanimous to allow apartment buildings downtown by Special Permit, rather than Site Plan Review.
Purchase Of Monitoring Equipment For EMS Authorized
Fire Chief Tim Nelson and EMS Officer Jeff Olmstead presented a lease-to-own plan for five
LifePak 15 devices to use in ambulances. This is important monitoring equipment that the town uses all of the time. The motherboards on the older models have failed and can’t be replaced. The cost in the first year is $48,000. The total cost over the three years is $140,000.
The expense was authorized by a unanimous vote.
Back-in Parking To Remain On North Pleasant Street This Winter
Mooring said the back-in parking on North Pleasant Street has been a success. Rather than reconfiguring the lanes on the street as was done at the end of the outdoor dining season last year, he recommends expanding the back in parking to where the current outdoor dining is located on the east side of the street. The four businesses in the area are eager to regain the parking spaces lost with the outdoor dining space. The back-in spaces will be metered at $1 per hour. The arrangement will be in effect until April 30, 2022.
The matter passed unanimously.
Natalie Rubin, a UMass student, said she is concerned with the COVID vaccine data published on the town website. She said the town is not including students who got vaccinated elsewhere in the vaccination statistics. UMass undergraduates are 96 to 98% vaccinated, and Rubin would like to know the rates for year-round residents. She said she has heard disparaging comments that students are not concerned with public health, but their vaccination rates prove that they have done their part and earned the right to attend school in person in Amherst. She requested that the town publish more accurate data reflecting the high vaccination rate among students. Griesemer asked her to send an email to the council so the town can respond to her concerns.
Hanneke announced that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) has scheduled second hearings on amendments to the mixed-use building bylaw as well as the proposed parking overlay district for a possible parking garage on the town lot behind CVS, both to be held on October 26 beginning at 2 p.m. On November 9, the CRC will hold a second hearing on parking and access, and will discuss extending the temporary zoning amendment allowing expanded outdoor dining (Article 14),
Hanneke also announced the need for two more associate members for the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The annual meeting for the town manager and the financial director to present the financial indicators for FY23 is scheduled for the November 15 Town Council meeting. The meeting will be preceded by a public forum on the budget.
Bockelman announced that the town is offering COVID vaccine booster shots for eligible residents every Thursday, and that COVID-19 testing is also available at the Bang’s Center.
The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for October 25, at which time the council will receive the final report of the Community Safety Working Group and will vote on the District Advisory Board’s redistricting plan (see Indy link).
The meeting was adjourned at 11:43 p.m.