Planning Board Approves Permit For Main Street Building Changes. Recommends Extending COVID Expedited Permitting.

534 Main Street, where the planning board approved a number of changes. Photo: amherstma.gov

Date Set For Hearing On Temporary Moratorium For Solar Projects

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, November 17, 2021

This meeting was conducted over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

The meeting packet can be found here.

Present
Planning Board members: Doug Marshall (Chair), Jack Jemsek, Maria Chao, Thom Long, Andrew MacDougall, Janet McGowan, and Johanna Neumann.

Planning staff: Planning Director Chris Brestrup and Assistant Pam Field-Sadler

Highlights

  • Changes to 534 Main Street and associated parking lot approved with conditions.
  • Extension of temporary zoning changes for the pandemic through December 2022 recommended.
  • Amount of detail appropriate for meeting minutes still controversial
  • Hearing on proposed temporary moratorium on large solar installations scheduled for December 1

Plans For Alterations To 534 Main Street Approved
Christine Lindstrom, owner of the mixed-use building at 534 Main Street and the gravel parking lot across the street requested a special permit to add a space for small group art classes for children in addition to the businesses already at the site, Fitness Together and Valley Frameworks/Archival Matters. She also requested to increase the number of spaces in the parking lot across Main Street from 14 to 16, which, in addition to the six spaces off of High Street next to the building, would still leave it one space short of the 23 spaces required by the Zoning Bylaw.

Fitness Together owner Jessica Phaneuf wants to expand her private training business into the space occupied for the past 10 years by Valley Frameworks/Archival Matters. Valley Frameworks owner Ani Rivera said that his business changed during the pandemic. He now sees clients only by appointment and is concentrating more on the Archival Matters aspect, which involves consulting on collection management for museums and universities. Since he no longer relies on walk-in customers, the second-floor space in the building works well for him. Also, the adjoining suite on the second floor would serve as an ideal site for his daughter’s small-group art classes. There is a ramp to access the second floor for wheelchairs.

Planning Director Chris Brestrup said that the building received special permits in 1967 and 1977. The former owner acquired the parking lot and its special permit for lot coverage in 1977. Lindstrom purchased the building and parking lot in 2018. There are currently four residential units and two businesses on the property.

Lindstrom was accompanied by Laura Fitch of Fitch Architecture. They determined that two extra parking spaces could easily be accommodated in the Main Street lot without altering it. They recommended eliminating the handicapped space there, since it would be difficult for someone with disabilities to cross busy Main Street. There is one handicapped parking space next to the building on High Street. There is also space near the ramp at the back, but this encroaches on a right-of-way, so cannot be an official parking space without permission from the Town Council.

At the site visit attended by Planning Board members Janet McGowan, Maria Chao, and Jack Jemsek, board members noted that there was ample space in the parking lot, which was about half occupied at the time of the visit. Eight of the spaces are allotted to the residents of the four apartments. Lindstrom said she intends to have curb stops placed to better delineate the parking spaces.

Fitch said that the scope of the proposed alterations does not trigger the Americans for Disabilities Act. Nevertheless, the plan is to add a handrail to the second-floor access ramp. Several Planning Board members were concerned that there was only one handicapped space, which meets state and federal requirements, but not the more stringent Amherst Zoning Bylaw, which requires two spaces. Andrew MacDougall said that when all of the businesses at the site are by appointment only, one handicapped spot could be enough, but would not be sufficient if the nature of the businesses change. He suggested designating two of the six spaces next to the building as accessible. An email from Nancy Higgins, an abutter, also strongly encouraged two handicapped spaces.

The project was approved unanimously by the Planning Board with the condition that there be an  additional accessible parking space next to the building and increased plantings to screen the parking lot from the neighboring house. The Planning Board also wanted to review the new signs for the businesses before they are installed. As far as fixing the large ruts in the parking lot, the vote was 3-3-1 with Thom Long abstaining and McGowan, MacDougall, and Chair Doug Marshall voting to require the ruts to be graded. No one at the meeting knew what to do with a tie, but when Lindstrom said that she planned to have the ruts fixed when the curb stops were installed, Marshall changed his vote to a no.

Article 14: Temporary Zoning Changes During The Pandemic
With little discussion, the Planning Board recommended that the Town Council extend the date of the temporary zoning changes put into place during COVID-19 through December 2022. These changes allow businesses to occupy the public way for dining, and permit tents for administering vaccines or holding classes. The Lift Salon in North Amherst installed outdoor personal care stations behind the business. The recommendation does not change any of the stipulations of the bylaw, only the effective date. It was to have expired on December 31, 2021.

Brestrup said there have been no complaints about the changes under the bylaw. Notices of impending changes have been posted in the windows of businesses, so abutters and patrons are aware. Although some parking has been impacted, this has been ameliorated by adding the back-in spaces on North Pleasant Street. The outdoor dining will be removed for winter. The amendment allows the Building Commissioner to approve many of these changes. McGowan asked when the town would go back to the usual permitting processes by the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals, which allow for public discussion. Marshall said the town will need to decide whether this streamlined permitting will be permanent or whether it will go back to the usual way of permitting, but this decision could wait until next year. Chao noted that the ease in obtaining approval has been helpful for businesses.

Three More Wayfinding Signs For Amherst College Approved
In addition to the many signs to direct visitors to Amherst College buildings and attractions approved on September 1, the college sought permission for three more signs. One is at the corner of Boltwood and College Street to direct traffic toward the Amherst College athletic fields. The second is near the athletic fields, and the third is on South East Street at the entrance to the Book and Plow farm.

Because all of these signs are in residential districts, they are larger than the 12 square feet allowed by the Zoning Bylaw. But the bylaw allows for larger signs for public convenience and safety. The Planning Board felt that these signs met those criteria and approved them unanimously.

More Controversy About Planning Board Minutes
The minutes from May 12 were approved unanimously, but McGowan had concerns about those of November 3. She felt that referring to pages of the Planning Board packet for Planner Maureen Pollock’s presentation was not adequate and that the presentation should be summarized in the minutes. Chao, who took the minutes, said she only included information that was not in the packet and Brestrup agreed that those who are interested could go back and read the packet. But Marshall said that “minutes should stand on their own” and MacDougall also felt that they should briefly summarize what was presented. Assistant Pam Field-Sadler, who was taking minutes at this meeting, said she has been attaching a link to the packet to the minutes.

The Planning Department agreed to add the summary of the presentation to the November 3 minutes.

Hearing On Temporary Moratorium For Large Solar Projects To Be Held On December 1
Town Councilors Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) have proposed a moratorium on large solar installations until a solar bylaw could be written. Brestrup said that typically solar arrays have been treated as energy generating projects under Article 3 of the Zoning Bylaw. As such, they require special permits from the ZBA. In the past, this has worked well, but the town has never had a project as large as the one proposed in northeast Amherst on land owned by W.D. Cowls. Most of the projects in town have been only a few acres, but the new project is to be 45 acres and involves cutting down many trees. The Conservation Commission is now evaluating the project, but she said the town may need to hire someone to evaluate the environmental impact of the project. 

Concerning a solar bylaw, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has published guidelines for towns, and Belchertown has had a bylaw since 2019. The Planning Board has not dealt with solar installations in the past, so Brestrup said that the bylaw development would be an opportunity for members to educate themselves on the topic. 

Although the hearing on the moratorium is set for December 1, it could be continued to a later date for further discussion.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:30 p.m.

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