Tempers Flare Over Calls For CRC To Provide Data And Analysis

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Report On The Meeting Of The Community Resources Committee Meeting (11/9/21)

The Community Resources Committee is composed of five town councilors appointed by the council president.

Present
Members: Mandi Jo Hanneke (Chair, at large), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Evan Ross and Stephen Schreiber (District 4), Shalini Bahl-Miln (District 5, vice-chair)

Staff: Rob Morra (Building Commissioner), Christine Brestrup (Planning Director), Dave Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager, Director of Conservation and Development), Nate Malloy and Maureen Pollack (Planning Department staff) 

Also: Town Councilor George Ryan, (District 3) co-sponsor with Ross of the proposal to rezone a town-owned parcel for a multi-level parking garage

This meeting consisted of three public hearings as well as committee discussions and public comment periods about three proposed zoning amendments:

  • Should the town continue to allow restaurants to operate outdoors until December 2022?
  • Under what circumstances should developers or owners be allowed to provide fewer or required to provide more than two parking places per dwelling unit outside of the downtown Municipal Business District?
  • Should the town-owned land off of North Prospect Street next to CVS’s parking lot be rezoned so that a parking garage of certain maximum dimensions and minimum setbacks can be built?

Outdoor Restaurants
Dorothy Pam observed that Amherst’s outdoor restaurant spaces look makeshift and unappealing, compared to those in other nearby municipalities, and asked whether enough relevant grants and approaches have been explored so that this problem can be remedied. Planning Director Christine Brestrup responded that the town recently received a grant that has enabled it to order furniture that will be placed in the Boltwood Walk plaza next spring and Building Commissioner Rob Morra said his office is working to obtain feedback from businesses.

Required Parking Spaces For Residential Developments
The proposed zoning change (Parking and Access Regulations) offers a set of criteria to help owners provide fewer or more parking places than the default requirement of two per dwelling unit, except in the part of downtown where there is no requirement. Planner Maureen Pollack made a presentation including how to help developers and other real estate owners have greater flexibility if they prove, for example, that two parking places per unit are unnecessary because of nearby public transportation or that tenants will be obligated to share parking or that parking spots will be leased elsewhere for them, and new construction would need an approved parking plan. As for oversight and enforcement, the public is responsible for reporting violations, while enforcement depends on adequate staffing, which Amherst does not have at this time.

Pam asked, “What is the motivation for this [loosening of regulations], when at house after house in my district there are many more cars than can fit in a driveway?” She registered her dismay at being told, repeatedly, that “young people today don’t use cars, they don’t have cars, they don’t park cars.” “I’m almost speechless at that because it isn’t true. Just look at UMass, where the lots are full [of students’ cars]. Residents need parking—the builder should provide parking” and it should not be left to the town to somehow deal with parking for their cars.

She also asked for more clarity on the term “dwelling unit,” and was told that a dwelling unit must provide sleeping, sanitation, and cooking facilities, but that the number of bedrooms and inhabitants is not relevant to the definition. Pam also pointed out that the proposed zoning change does not address the main issue: lack of tenants’ parking downtown (including in the Municipal Parking district), and was told that within the Municipal Parking District, which covers parts of downtown, developers are not required to provide any parking for their tenants.

Town resident Vira Douangmany Cage asked when this issue would be addressed. Brestrup said that it is very important, but prioritizing it requires agreement from others.

Much of the public hearing, and the rest of the meeting was devoted to issues that have already been discussed at other hearings or in other meetings. Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) expressed her appreciation that the Planning Department is taking the financial costs of developers into consideration, and asserted that without this support, bankers will charge higher fees and developers will be hesitant to build here if the town does not give them greater “flexibility.” She said that this proposed amendment would accomplish the goal of making it easier for developers.

The vote to recommend this zoning change to the Town Council passed 4 to 1 (Pam voted no). The Planning Board endorsed this amendment by a 4-1 vote at its November 3 meeting.

Rezoning Land Behind The CVS
The third public hearing was the most contentious, but revealed little new information. Councilor George Ryan joined the meeting as a co-sponsor, with Evan Ross, of the proposal to rezone Parcel 33 (off North Prospect Street, currently used as a ground parking lot, next to CVS’s ground parking lot) in order to establish a parking facility overlay district including dimensional and other details about a prospective parking facility there. (See here, here, and here).

Residents repeated their request for a three-dimensional model of the anticipated garage there, and were reminded that every proposed zoning change from the CRC or other committees creates extensive work for the Planning Department, and the staff does not have the time to create a realistic model.

Cage asked about BID Director Gabrielle Gould’s statement in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about sketches being drafted for a garage there, and the BID’s role in the garage project. Ross repeated his explanation from the CRC public hearing and meeting on October 26  that the proposal began with the Destination Amherst project, which he attributed to town hall in collaboration with the BID, and then he and Ryan drafted the rezoning proposal and have been advocating for it.

He also said, however, that the BID was “consulted like any other stakeholder.” “My interest,” he said, “is in paving the way for there being a parking facility in that location. We’ve talked to Amherst Cinema, to the businesses [their statements are in the meeting packet], to the library…trustees — those are the stakeholders we’ve reached out to.” Residents have also raised concerns, he noted, and the zoning proposal was modified as a result. 

A question was raised about how to find public comments and letters, which ought to be part of the public record but are difficult to find and are not necessarily in the meeting packets. Hanneke said that the Town Council’s web page has public comments from people who use the council’s designated form, and that other comments don’t tend to show up in meeting packets unless they are specifically identified as being intended to be a “public hearing comment.” Ross said, “This is our, I don’t know, 200th public hearing on this proposal, and there’s also been many before the Planning Board… The minutes of the Planning Board, and this committee are a record of all the comments [made at meetings].”

Brestrup noted that the Planning Department’s web page has a section for public comments. They are posted weekly, however, and are not sorted by topic. Malloy added that some comments find their way to the Planning Department even if they were not sent there directly.

Hanneke summed it up neatly, saying, “There’s no one place to see everything [letters about a proposal] that might have been emailed” by the public.

“The residents of this town, the taxpayers of this town, are not being treated with respect…I can tell you how the vote will go […] What we’ll see is the polite face of bureaucracy, but we will not see what I would consider to be a really democratic process.”
—Dorothy Pam, District 3 Councilor, member of the CRC

Ongoing comments about the “disappearance” of comments and letters from the public, and the lack of data and analysis, were the subjects of further disgruntlement. “Week after week,” said Pam, “there are beautifully thought-out, beautifully written statements from residents. I’m sure they live somewhere on a website, but they don’t really exist in the real world… people have to go and try to find them… And we’re at an impasse. The people concerned, people who are knowledgeable, the residents of this town, taxpayers of this town, are not being treated with respect. They’re being listened to politely, but their ideas are not being considered. Their questions are being answered, but are not being considered.” She continued, “I can tell you how the vote will go on this committee, I can tell you how it will go on the Town Council. What we’ll see is the polite face of bureaucracy, but we will not see what I would consider to be a really democratic process in which ideas are brought forth and there is a discussion and really digging into the depth of it. I’m disappointed and I think of the time that is spent by the people who come to these meetings, they show up and listen and speak. And some people are not speaking today because, I’m sure, they feel, ‘What’s the point? What’s the use?”

After Pam Rooney, newly-elected town councilor from District 4, praised the Planning Department for its work but expressed concern that only one site was looked at, Brestrup explained, “We’re focusing on this lot because this was the lot that was presented to us. There was a proposal on the part of some town council members that was eventually forwarded to the Planning Board to hold a public hearing about. We have not received a formal request to study the other lots. The Planning Department has many responsibilities and roles, and many of them have deadlines, and we try to do our work to the best that we can, but we were asked to focus on this particular property and that’s what we’ve done.”

Rani Parker, who moved to North Prospect Street recently and then learned about “Destination Amherst” and the push for a parking garage there, said, “I am speaking in opposition to this because there’s no data. Actually, we’ve seen data and the data goes in the other direction! But that hasn’t seemed to have any impact. There was no data on any other lot, just this one, and the data showed that usage is declining consistently since 2015. This particular lot is being targeted for reasons I don’t understand, even though there is a lot of public input against it. I haven’t seen any public support— and I haven’t seen any Community Impact Assessment.”

When Ross reiterated that the Destination Amherst plan identified the site as the place for a new parking structure and said that it has been studied “over and over and over again” since 1977, (e.g. look here). Parker asked that links to these studies be posted on the town website, and said that it is time for the town to focus on supporting businesses and development here.

“I’m not faulting the two sponsors,” said Pam, “for putting forth this proposal. However, we in the Town Council were voted on by residents, by the people who live here, the people who pay the taxes. Of course we have concerns with what the town is and how the town goes…we have to look at it in terms of representing them, and I think some people are confused as to who they represent. We can’t set crazy things together and wonder why it doesn’t work. You create a municipal parking district and say, ‘Let’s build a lot of buildings’ and to make [builders] do that, because there had been a slow period for building, ‘let’s not require them to do any parking.’” She said that the problems can’t be solved “at the expense of a local historic district that is extremely important to the town of Amherst… We are talking to people who are coming here [to these meetings] week after week after week. They live downtown. They are supporting this town. They shop, they walk, they go to these [businesses]. They understand the importance of small businesses and businesses in the downtown. That’s why they live downtown. But you should be able to live near downtown without having … a parking garage that is going to loom over the trees and have noise and light at all hours of the day and night. (you yourself wouldn’t want to live there) when there are other ways to solve the problem. We know people need cars. I’m for parking lots, parking garages because I, too, need my car. I think it’s time to get our attention off of this parking lot… If this thing goes through, you’ve made a statement that…the concerns of residents are secondary. I don’t think that’s really the statement you want to make.”

She also criticized a committee member, who has said that she felt sorry for Parker for buying a house downtown across from the parcel being proposed for garage rezoning, saying that the councilor lives far from downtown and doesn’t understand the realities of downtown residents. 

Hanneke responded with a scathing dressing-down. “Thank you, Dorothy. I want to remind my fellow committee members that we have codes of courtesy and conduct…We are not to interrupt others—that is part of our Rules of Procedure. We are, all councilors and all committee members and all members of the public, to avoid, according to Rule 6.1, discussing personalities and not impugning the motive character or integrity of any individual. I am reminding all of my fellow committee members of this rule. And I expect my fellow committee members to comply with the Rules of Procedure that this Council has adopted…I am going to mute you if you are going to complain about the Rules of Procedure.”

The vote to recommend this zoning change to the Town Council passed 4 to 1 (Pam voted no).

Before adjournment, there was an opportunity for public comment about matters not on the agenda, and this reporter noted that the CRC’s charge is “to review and make recommendations on the Master Plan,” among other things. Given that the formation of a Master Plan Implementation Committee has been considered the most critical aspect of the plan since its inception, but has never been formed, does the CRC have a responsibility to form it (and if not, who does)? Hanneke acknowledged the validity of the question and said she would look into the matter.

The meeting adjourned at 5:05 p.m.

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6 thoughts on “Tempers Flare Over Calls For CRC To Provide Data And Analysis

  1. Councilor Bahl-Milne’s comment above accurately sums up what, as far as I can tell, has been the intent, goal and result of many of the zoning bylaw amendments that have been approved by the Planning Board and Community Resources Community this year: “…..this proposed amendment would accomplish the goal of making it easier for developers.”

    The residents, through public comment, explain how many of these proposed zoning bylaw amendments will adversely impact the quality of life for neighborhoods and residents (current and future). As reflected in vote after vote of the Planning Board and CRC, the majority of members of these bodies see their primary (if not only) role as “unfettering” development so as “to make it easier for developers.” Adverse impacts on surrounding neighborhoods are simply the price to be paid for unburdening developers. (Councilor Pam is spot on — aside from herself, no member of the Planning Board or CRC lives anywhere near the proposed parking facility overlay district, so will not be impacted by the consequences of their decision.)

    Councilor Bahl-Milne is only the most recent CRC and Planning Board member to express the concern that “developers will be hesitant to build here if the town does not give them greater flexibility.” I think it’s fair to say that as long as UMass Amherst is located in Amherst, developers will want to build apartments in Amherst. Destroying the visual appeal and quality of life in downtown adjacent neighborhoods and village centers is not the price that our town has to pay in order to make Amherst appealing to developers. (The way they want to relax regulations to entice developers, one would think there’s no development currently going on in Amherst when, in fact, large scale apartments are sprouting up all over — Spring Street, N. Pleasant Street, University Drive, Route 9, the Mill District, Olympia Place, and the list goes on.)

  2. Kudos and gratitude to Councilor Dorothy Pam who at every CRC and Planning. Board meeting, valiantly endeavors to represent the people of her district by asking important questions, only to be ignored, or in the case of last week, angrily rebuffed, by other members of the CRC and by the Planning Board. Keep it up Dorothy – we’re paying attention!

  3. No wonder Dorothy was the only incumbent district Councilor to stand for re-election and WIN. She’s phenomenal!

  4. I was on the Planning Board that voted to accept Amherst’s Master Plan in 2010. I was the only member who voted not to accept the plan. One of my reasons was because of a lack of …. well, a plan! I was also on the subcommittee that went through the plan sentence by sentence, and what struck me on almost every page was that we had plenty of theory about the plan’s lofty and often admirable goals, but no actual specifics of how to reach them. Appendix A, the Implementation Matrix, listed 14 pages of what the plan wished to accomplish, yet the critical columns of “Responsible Entities” and “Time frame” still remain completely blank, 10 years after the plan was accepted. Theory is wonderful, but it has to be both grounded and tested in reality, and I have never seen that in Amherst’s plan. In contrast, around the same time Northampton produced its own Master Plan, for considerably less money, and with considerably better planning: For each goal, it listed who would be responsible, how much it would cost, what time frame it would be accomplished in, and possible obstacles that might prevent it from happening. Why can’t Amherst approach planning with plans that would truly be for the benefit and welfare of the town as a whole, rather than for a seeming select few who appear to be pushing an agenda contrary to the Master Plan’s stated goals, an agenda designed for personal enrichment, quietly promulgated behind the scenes and out of public view? What is Amherst afraid of?

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