Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, December 6, 2021
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
- State of the Town Address presented by elected officials and Town Manager
- Inconsistent application of rules for public comments
- Council discusses guidelines for FY 2023 budget
- Performance shell for the South Common approved unanimously
- Extension of temporary pandemic zoning and flexible parking amendments pass easily
- Delay of voting on rezoning for parking garage off North Prospect Street and new mixed-use building requirements evokes confusion and controversy
- Town Manager evaluation accepted and contract extended with pay hike
Present: All councilors were in attendance
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
40 members of the public were present
State Of The Town Address
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Town Manager Paul Bockelman, School Committee Chair Allison McDonald, and Jones Library Trustee Christopher Hoffman presented a review of the past year from the perspective of each of their departments. The complete report can be read here. This was the third State of the Town address since the change of government in December 2018.
Griesemer thanked town employees, members of committees, Amherst Media, and her fellow councilors for the accomplishments and hard work of the past year. She cited the council’s success in fulfilling the requirements of the charter, ensuring voting rights, promoting sustainability, encouraging economic vitality, advancing social justice and racial equity, promoting recreation, and making progress on housing affordability and future capital projects, all while promoting health and safety during a pandemic. She lauded the sound financial advice of the town finance department and town manager, but stated that council meetings need to be shorter and less often.
Bockelman reiterated his praise for the guidance the town received from the finance department, and added that every department in Town Hall stepped up during the COVID crisis. He said that town finances remain strong, but officials must be mindful of the pressure on Amherst taxpayers from town needs, programs, and projects. He also noted that the town recently received a grant to study the installation of solar arrays in town and several grants for economic vitality. He praised the Business Improvement District (BID) and Amherst Chamber of Commerce for finding creative ways to help local businesses.
In her presentation, McDonald stressed that the school system has had to do more with fewer resources at both the elementary and secondary levels. Budget increases have not kept pace with the increased cost of salaries and benefits, so that the elementary budget has almost $1 million and the regional budget $2 million less to devote to educational programs. The elementary school population is 54% BIPOC, with 27% whose first language is not English. More than half of all students are “high needs,” with 39% being economically disadvantaged and 23% with disabilities. These figures are similar at the regional schools.
Hoffman stressed how the pandemic influenced every aspect of the library system. He reviewed the progression of services from pick-up and on-line access only to welcoming patrons back into the building in June, 2021. He said that the library has limited the draw on the endowment to 4.5%, which he said, “is higher than we like, but less than in some years.” He added that the library is now planning for how it will operate during the almost two years that the Jones will be under construction.
Public Comment Rules Apply To Some But Not All
Because of the long agenda, Griesemer announced that only those participants who raised their hands at the beginning would be recognized to speak. Out of the 40 attendees, seven offered comments, most regarding the proposed zoning amendments
Harry Peltz of North Prospect Street said he is opposed to the rapid movement to approve a parking garage on North Prospect Street, despite a lack of study and consideration of other locations. Ira Bryck of Strong Street also urged the council not to pass the overlay zone for the parking garage and also not to adopt the limited commercial presence specified in the proposed mixed-use building amendment. He disagreed that there aren’t retailers who would locate to Amherst if affordable space was available.
Rani Parker, who has only lived in Amherst for a few months but is a business owner downtown, said she was impressed with the State of the Town address, but disagreed with placing a parking garage on North Prospect. She thought its central location would be better used for mixed income housing, seeing how it is zoned residential.
Meg Gage also cited numerous problems with the proposed rezoning for a parking garage on North Prospect.
Several other members of the public commented on the importance of encouraging retail space in the downtown.
Janet Keller emphasized the importance of first-floor, public-facing retail. She said, “Don’t make downtown ‘cheek by jowl’ apartments.”
Suzannah Muspratt said she recently witnessed vibrant retail spaces in Hadley, Northampton, and Easthampton, and advocated for increased space for retail in Amherst. She said that if hordes of people come to town, we may need a parking garage, but not when the current lot sits empty most of the time.
Tracy Zafian of the Transportation Advisory Committee spoke generally in favor of the proposed changes to the Parking and Access part of the Zoning Bylaw, Article 7. She said she was happy with the increased flexibility to parking regulations, but stated that parking impact statements need to be done when UMass is in session and that factors like proximity to public transportation doesn’t mean residents won’t have cars and need parking.
Then, going against her previously stated stipulations, Griesemer allowed Chamber of Commerce Director Claudia Pazmany to speak in favor of the overlay zoning for a parking garage on North Prospect Street, even though she had not been previously recognized. Pazmany said that parking in Amherst is challenging because there is nowhere where we don’t hit historic neighborhoods and narrow streets. She added that she was feeling “energized” about the revival of downtown and said, “We know that parking is a problem because we get the complaints. Although residents may know of the hidden gems of available parking, Amherst is not welcoming to those from out of town.”
The Finance Committee drafted a preliminary document outlining budget guidelines for FY2023. The 11-page document presents the guidelines in terms of overall philosophy and concerns, revenue projections, expenditures, expenses for operations, expenses for capital, other budget needs, and planning for the future. The Finance Committee entertained comments from the council on the draft and planned to finalize the document at their meeting the following day.
Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said she wants to make sure that the four additional fire/EMS positions added during COVID are made permanent in future budgets. She disagreed with the statement that FY23 was expected to be a difficult budget year because of continued slow growth, and said that she feels economic growth has actually improved after COVID.
Councilor Darcy DuMont (District 5) wants climate action goals made more explicit if the town is to hit its adopted target of reducing its carbon use by 25% by 2025. She hopes the town will apply for more grants that will be available over the next year.
The council had a discussion about the relation of UMass to town businesses. Page 8 of the draft document states, “Our partners [the colleges and UMass] need to avoid actions that compete with the [town’s private] businesses.” For instance, UMass dining is now delivering food off campus, and new businesses are proposed for the Massachusetts Avenue dorms soon to be built. Councilors Cathy Shoen (District 1), Alisa Brewer (at large), and Dorothy Pam (District 3) thought that these profit-making enterprises should pay taxes, although Pam pointed out that UMass dining supports local businesses by buying local produce. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he has attempted to collect taxes on the private businesses on campus, but the university pushes back.
Brewer said she finds the budget guidelines document “incredibly dense” and not a good reference document. She said that in previous years the document has been more succinct.
Performance Shell On The South Common
The proposed performance shell on the South Common , sponsored by the BID and designed by Ray Mann and Naomi Darling, was previously discussed at the council meeting on September 27, 2021. Griesemer added that the project had also been discussed at the last Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee meeting. TSO received favorable reports from the Design Review Board, the Historical Commission, and the Disability Access Advisory Committee (DAAC). Improvements to the parking and access paths recommended by the DAAC have been incorporated into the design. TSO voted unanimously to approve the final design contingent on the BID signing a memorandum of understanding with the town regarding management and maintenance plans for the structure. The council voted unanimously to approve the construction of the performance shell.
Extension of Temporary Zoning And Parking Amendments Pass Easily
With no discussion, Article 14 of the Zoning Bylaw, which permits businesses to temporarily extend outdoor services due to the pandemic, was extended until December 31, 2022. It was due to expire on December 31, 2021. With this provision, many of these uses can be approved expeditiously by the building commissioner and not have to go before other boards. The extension passed unanimously.
Discussion of proposed changes to Article 7 of the Zoning Bylaw at the November 29 council meeting was curtailed by the late hour of the presentation. Town planners Chris Brestrup and Maureen Pollock, as well as Building Commissioner Rob Morra were present at this meeting to answer questions. The proposed changes would make the current requirement of two parking spaces per dwelling unit more flexible, depending on specific characteristics of each site.
Schoen had several questions about the changes, starting with asking why these changes were needed when the existing bylaw already allows for waivers. She also disagreed with counting nearby public and on-street parking so as to allow developers to provide less parking for their tenants.
Pollock said the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council have detailed documents promoting flexible requirements for parking. Brestrup said that in places where there is a parking problem, such as Lincoln Avenue, the Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board would not allow consideration of on-street parking in determining what is adequate parking; but, as a nonresidential example, Amherst Media said that their new building, planned for Main and Gray Streets, could accommodate overflow parking on Gray Street at certain times, since the projected time of maximum use is not at the same time as the parking is used for the high school and nearby businesses. Brestrup also noted that most accessory dwelling units will be approved by the building commissioner, who can determine if parking is adequate.
The town plans to look into payment in lieu of parking and re-evaluating the municipal parking district, which does not require downtown housing projects to provide parking for their residents. Pam pointed out that many of the tenants of these downtown buildings use the $25 annual town permits for on-street parking. Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) said that Article 7 does not apply to the municipal parking area downtown, so is outside of this discussion.
Brewer wants to make sure that future councils would not be handcuffed in their ability to regulate the public way if developers were granted use of public streets for parking for tenants. For instance, she said that future councils may want to create bicycle lanes on those streets. Brestrup said that if conditions did change and on-street parking was no longer available, the building owner would need to find another solution for tenants’ parking.
Schoen moved to remove nearby public and on-street parking from consideration in determining the adequacy of a developer’s parking plan. This amendment passed 10-3, with Griesemer, Ross, and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) voting no. The amended Article 7 passed 12-1, with DuMont voting no.
Action Postponed On Rezoning The Town Lot Off North Prospect Street For A Parking Garage And On Revising The Mixed-use Building Standards
Before any discussion took place on rezoning the town-owned parking lot behind CVS from general residential to an overlay zone for a parking garage, DuMont requested a postponement of the vote to the next council meeting. This is allowed by the charter (Section 2.10).
In regard to the changes to requirements for mixed-use buildings, Schoen suggested increasing the minimum required nonresidential space from 30% to 40% of the first-floor area, as was originally approved by the Planning Board in September. Hanneke cited the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission market demand study of 2018 that she had summarized at the November 29 meeting, and argued that the larger number was not “necessary” and was in fact “detrimental.” She said that according to this study, Amherst needs very little additional commercial space, and requiring too much from developers might leave us with empty storefronts or no new housing” (if developers did not find it profitable enough to build in town). Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) said that since the current bylaw has no minimum for nonresidential space, the proposed amendment, if not perfect, is at least an improvement. Pam said the mixed-use building amendment should be considered in conjunction with changes to the current stipulation limiting apartment buildings (but not mixed-use buildings) to 24 units.
The motion to increase the nonresidential space of mixed-use buildings from 30% to 40% of the first-floor area was defeated 6-7 (Schoen, Pam, Griesemer, DuMont, Steve Schreiber (District 4), and Sarah Swartz (District 1) voted for the increase). After that vote, DuMont requested to delay the vote on the entire amendment until the next council meeting, as permitted by the charter.
Confusion On When the Votes On The Parking Garage And Mixed-Use Buildings Will Occur
The charter (Section 2.10) allows any councilor to postpone a vote until the next Town Council meeting. However, it was not clear when that meeting will be. The TSO meeting on December 9 was slated to be a meeting of the entire council, since the committee was holding public forums on creating a civilian responder force (CRESS) that would be an alternative to the police and a Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. There is also a Four Towns meeting on December 11, where the four towns in the regional school district will begin to discuss the regional school budget. That meeting is also a meeting of the entire council. Nine councilors need to support each zoning amendment in order for it to pass, so if there are not nine councilors present at a meeting, the vote cannot be held.
Brewer complained, “This [the postponement of the votes] has thrown our whole schedule into complete chaos. Because one councilor decided it wasn’t convenient for her to do this, we don’t know when the votes will actually take place, and the public doesn’t know either. This is the polar opposite of transparency. It also tells our fellow town councilors that if you don’t want to vote on this on Thursday night, you better not show up for the discussion of the DEI and CRESS program.”
However, Hanneke pointed out that there is a second provision in the charter that allows four councilors to agree to postpone a vote to a meeting more than five days in the future. If that occurs at the TSO meeting on December 9, the amendments would be voted on at the December 20 council meeting, since the December 13 meeting would not meet the five-day requirement.
At the TSO meeting, councilors Schoen, DuMont, Pam, and Swartz moved to postpone the votes on the two amendments until December 20. The Four Towns meeting on December 11 was canceled.
Town Manager Evaluation Accepted
The council then continued with the discussion of the Town Manager evaluation and goals for the coming year. The Town Manager evaluation was passed by a vote of 12-0-1 (DuMont abstained). Several councilors commented on the draft of the Town Manager goals , and advocated for the hiring of an economic development director and progress on finding sites for the DPW and new fire station. Schoen and Steinberg cautioned about spending too much money on schematic designs for the DPW and fire station, with the large costs for the library and elementary school looming. Councilor George Ryan (District 3) said the town must move forward to find a site or sites for the DPW, so the fire station can be built on the site of the current DPW.
In Executive Session, Council Recommends Another Two-Year Extension Of Town Manager Contract
At 11 p.m., the council adjourned to executive session to discuss extension of the town manager’s contract. According to the town website , the council recommended extending Bockelman’s contract another two years until August 31, 2025 with a 2% cost of living raise. The council will vote on this extension at the December 13 meeting.