Letter: Planning Board Process Circumvented In Rush To Adopt Zoning Changes Before New Town Council Is Seated

Photo: Tristan Schmurr,, Flckr.com. Creative Commons

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council and Amherst Planning Board on November 28, 2021.

I write to you to ask the council to please refrain from considering the four zoning amendments on Monday night until the Planning Board has read, confirmed, and agreed to the content of the Planning Board Reports on these amendments. The Town Council must clearly direct the Town Manager to ensure that our zoning bylaw process requires and needs a legitimate report from the Planning Board. When the Council receives Planning Board reports for consideration, it should be the true input and advice of the Planning Board, as directed by State Law.

This past Wednesday afternoon (11/24),  Planning Director Christine Brestrup sent three “Planning Board Reports” on three zoning amendments to the Council President and the Council Clerk for the Monday, November 30,  Town Council packet. Of these three reports:

  • the Planning Board (PB) had never seen even a draft of the 22-page Rezoning of Parcel 14A/33-Parking Facility District.
  • The PB had not had time to review and comment on a long draft report
    on Mixed Use Building sent to the Board on Monday afternoon, November  22
  • The PB was sent a short draft Planning Board Report on Article 14, Temporary Zoning on Friday, November 19

I was still crafting my edits of the draft Mixed Use Building Report when I learned that this report had already been sent to the Town Council, along with the two others. Town Council was sent three “final” Planning Board Reports before these “finals” were seen and signed off on by the PB itself.

Here is the sequence of events, as I know them.

Friday, November 19: Two days after the PB meeting of November 17, Christine Brestrup sent a short, clear draft Planning Board Report on Article 14, Temporary Zoning. I sent her a few edits. I do not know if other PB members sent in comments. There was no “final” version compiling comments that was seen by the PB.

Monday, November 22 –afternoon: Christine Brestrup sent the Planning Board a 13- page, draft Mixed Use Building Report, asking for comments by noon on Tuesday. I was away on Monday.

Tuesday, November 23 – Morning – I found the Mixed Use Building draft in my inbox, then emailed Christine Brestrup saying I did not have time to work on the draft report that day. She emailed me back, asking for edits by Wednesday mid-day, the day many people are cooking or travelling to holiday gatherings.

Wednesday, November 24 – morning: I spent several hours editing the draft Mixed Use Building report, knowing I could not finish them before Thanksgiving. It needed a lot of work to make the zoning changes clear to lay readers. So I sent Christine Brestrup an email saying that I would not be done and started getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner and house guests. At this point, no draft report on Rezoning of Parcel 14A33 (parking garage overlay) had been sent to the Planning Board. To me it was clear that any schedule to get four Planning Board reports to the Town Council before its Monday November 29  meeting could not be met. I thought it an unreasonable ask of the Planning Department staff and volunteer Planning Board members to work on this over Thanksgiving week. None of these amendments have an emergency deadline except Article 14. None are even on the Town Council’s Priority List from last winter. So I assumed that the Council would not be getting any Planning Board reports, except perhaps for the short Planning Board report on Article 14.

Wendesday, November 24 – afternoon: “final” Planning Board Reports on Mixed Use Buildings, Rezoning of Parcel14A/33 – Parking Facility District, and Article 14 Temporary Zoning amendments were sent out to Town Council. President, Council clerk, Town Manager, Assistant Town Manager, Building Commissioner, Planning staff members, and Planning Board Chair – all before the Planning Board received them. The PB was next sent an email with those reports. The PB had not seen any of finals of these reports before they went out under its name.

And as of this weekend, there is no draft or final Planning Board Report on the Parking Amendment even though it is on the Council’s Monday night agenda. Christine Brestrup emailed she will have it ready on Monday. Of course, this leaves no time for the Planning Board to revise, perhaps even read, and sign off on another report going out under its name.

I hope you find this as disturbing as I do. As you know, the Planning Board is an independent, all-volunteer board created by state law. One of our many tasks is to review and analyze proposed zoning amendments, then make recommendations and write reports to councils or town meetings before they vote. The Planning Board hasn’t signed off on its final reports on the zoning amendments before you tomorrow.

All year, there has been a rush to push zoning amendments through the Planning Board process and onto Town Council’s agendas. The Board met week after week all summer, often holding Public Hearings before the Planning Board had information on the amendments or more than an hour of prior discussion. The Public Hearing normally occurs towards the end of a careful review and input process, as shown on the zoning amendment process chart agreed to by the PB and Community Resources Committee.

The PB process is being turned on its head. Now the three of the “Planning Board Reports” in your packet are not final reports of the Planning Board. The Planning Board role has been circumvented – it is more of a pawn than a Board with state- mandated authority to work for and serve our community.

Again, I write to you because the Town Council must ensure that the Planning Board sees and approves its final reports before the Council begins its own discussions and debate on these important zoning amendments.

Janet McGowan

Janet McGowan is a member of the Planning Boards

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7 thoughts on “Letter: Planning Board Process Circumvented In Rush To Adopt Zoning Changes Before New Town Council Is Seated

  1. I am shocked but not surprised by the facts that Janet lays out. One could argue cynically that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) has since its inception been the de facto Planning Board and that the Planning Board per se exists only to conform to state requirements. Moreover, since the Planning Board members are appointed by the Town Council, there is reason to question whether or not it is truly independent. Back in the day, when the Planning Board was appointed by the Town Manager and the Zoning Board appointed by the Select Board we had a somewhat more independent Planning Board, Although it tended to be the public voice of the Planning Department, there were occasions when it referred proposals back to that department before it was willing to present them to Town Meeting. Our government was more democratic then.

    Many are appalled by the Town Council’s rush to decision before the new Council is seated in January. Janet’s letter gives bitter substance to that rush and clarifies the current nature of town government. With a new Council, there is reason to be hopeful that democratic procedures will have democratic substance and that revision of the Zoning Bylaw will be the result of thoughtful and collaborative deliberation.

  2. Apparently Planning Board Reports don’t have to be written or seen by the Planning Board! Another Planning Board Report on the Parking amendment was sent to Town Council today by Planning Director Chris Brestrup. I never saw until after it was submitted. Remarkable.

  3. This is unconscionable. Has this circumvention of the usual deliberative process been initiated by the Town Manager, the President of the Council, the four Amherst Forward CRC members? The public needs to know what’s been going on “behind the scenes” in our supposedly “transparent” town government.

    The President of the Town Council needs to make a formal statement about this undemocratic process. Without a forthright explanation, voters’ trust will continue to diminish rapidly.

  4. Nothing new…How do the objectors think one company has been selected to change the city scape of Amherst over the wishes of 46 – 54% of the residents?

  5. In her emailed response of Monday, 29 Nov. 2021, to an email of mine, Town Councilor Mandy Jo Hanneke wrote: “The Planning Board has voted to recommend adoption all four proposed amendments on tonight’s agenda.”

    When and how did the Planning Board vote “to recommend adoption of all four proposed amendments on [the Town Council] agenda,” if the Planning Board did not even see them all before Town Council received them?

    What Planning Board member Janet McGowan writes above, and what Councilor Hanneke wrote to me, cannot both be true. Something here is seriously wrong. The predictable downsides for Amherst will last many decades. Town Council must halt this re-zoning process now.

  6. Hi Sara, The PB did vote to recommend the 4 proposed amendments. What we did not do is receive, edit and see finals of the 4 Planning Board reports that were sent to the Town Council. In 2 instances, so-called Planning Board reports were sent to Town Council before PB members had even seen drafts.

  7. Thanks very much, Janet, and my apologies for not having seen your explication until now. Am I wrong to find the procedure at the least curious, for the Planning Board neither to edit nor to vote on all 4 final Planning Board Reports sent to Town Council?

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