Report On The Town Council Meeting of December 20, 2021
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. The video recording was not available at press time.
All councilors attended.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Twenty-two members of the public attended.
The swearing-in ceremony for the second town council will be held in the Town Room in Town Hall on Monday, January 3 at 6:30 p.m. The ceremony will be broadcast on Zoom, and the public is encouraged to attend virtually.
The council’s public hearing on the temporary moratorium on large ground mounted solar arrays will be held on Monday, January 10 at 6:45 p.m.
There are vacancies for councilor representatives on the Elementary School Building Committee and the Jones Library Building Committee, since Steve Schreiber (District 4) and George Ryan (District 3) will not be members of the next council. These positions will be filled on January 3.
Craig’s Doors opened a warming center at the old VFW on Main Street. The center will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Food will be provided as well as some services.
Mixed-use Building Bylaw Amendment
This proposed amendment, which stipulates that future mixed-use buildings must devote 30% of the ground floor area to nonresidential use and not have more than 50% of the units with the same bedroom count, has gone through numerous changes since it was first discussed at the June 28 council meeting. The minimum nonresidential space on the ground floor was initially placed at 50% of the area. After discussion in the Community Resources Committee (CRC), the requirement was lowered to 40% in July and approved by the Planning Board in September. The minimum required area was then lowered to 30% with the street-facing façade being predominantly nonresidential, but allowing some of the nonresidential area to be placed on other floors of the building or in another building on the same site. Specifications for minimum setbacks and public space were also removed in the revisions. This version of the bylaw was discussed at the November 29 council meeting, but the vote scheduled for December 6 was delayed by Darcy DuMont (District 5) as allowed by section 2.10 of the Town Charter.
Most of the objection to this amendment has centered on the small amount of nonresidential space required. The existing bylaw has no minimum, but several councilors and many members of the public have noted the loss of small businesses in the downtown when the large mixed-use buildings were built in recent years and they advocated for more commercial space to be created in order to revitalize the town center. Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) had her suggestion to make the minimum nonresidential space 40% of the ground-floor area defeated on November 29, so she offered a compromise of 35% at this meeting.
Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at-large) said this requirement would be good “in an ideal world, [but] we have to deal with reality. Even 30% is a stretch based on the 2018 market research study, and we are in a worse position than in 2018.” Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) agreed, saying that even before COVID there were “lots of empty storefronts.” She said that if we increase the amount of retail required, many of the spaces in long, narrow buildings would be dark and uninviting, and rents for the apartments would need to be higher to support the retail space.
Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) pointed out the apparent contradictions in the arguments of her fellow councilors. For example, Hanneke says we don’t need more retail, but if we don’t have more retail downtown, we don’t need a parking garage. She added that when she looked on Saturday, both the town lot and the CVS lot off North Prospect Street were mostly empty. Councilor Sarah Swartz (District 1) argued that a mixed-use building should have viable retail space or it is actually an apartment building. She pleaded with her colleagues to embrace the 35% compromise, noting that compromise has been largely absent in the council’s first three years and that this small change would be a positive closing gesture from the group.
Councilor Evan Ross (District 4) said he was wary of setting any numerical percentage. He said maybe 30% makes sense in the downtown, but not elsewhere, and he would not vote for a bylaw that contained a 35% minimum. Councilor Steve Schreiber (District 4) agreed with Ross.
Councilor Alisa Brewer (at large) said she could support the compromise, but wanted to make sure that the councilors who supported the increased percentage would vote for the bylaw if it passed. Hanneke pointed out that if the bylaw passes, it could be amended in the future.
The amendment to increase the minimum nonresidential space to 35% failed 4-9, with Schoen, Swartz, Pam, and DuMont voting for it. The original amendment passed 12-1 with only DuMont voting no.
Rezoning Of Town Lot Behind CVS For A Parking Facility Overlay Zone
The vote on this zoning amendment was also postponed from December 6. The original proposal was sponsored by Councilors Ross and George Ryan (District 3), both of whom lost their reelection bids. In public comment, Ira Bryck, Ken Rosenthal, Meg Gage, and Freddie Manning spoke against the rezoning. Manning said that although she is not an abutter of the proposed garage, she feels that the views of those who will be most affected by the change should be given more weight.
In opposing the rezoning, Schoen questioned the rush for this zoning change and maintained that it is unnecessary. Construction at the nearby Jones Library will disrupt traffic downtown, and she said, “We don’t need a second construction site.” In fact, the Jones plans to use the town lot as a staging zone for the library construction. Schoen added that, during the library construction, the town can decide on the best use of this “very valuable land.” She also countered the argument that the parcel has to be rezoned before the site can be studied for a parking garage, pointing out that in 1990 there was a schematic design for a parking garage at the site without it being rezoned. She asked what would be the cost to the town in lost income if the garage is turned over to a private developer as part of a public/private funding scheme, and urged the town to make more privately owned spaces available for parking while studying the best place and financial implications of a parking garage.
Ross countered that in order to have an increasingly vibrant downtown, Amherst needs an infrastructure to support it, which includes “destination parking.” He said that to assert that there is no parking problem in town is to be “rooted in the present instead of planning for the future.” He added that the rezoning is just a first step, but nothing else” can happen without it. Andy Steinberg (at large) agreed that this vote is on zoning, not building, and that building a garage would mean issuing a long-term lease to a developer, which would require a two-thirds vote of the council.
In encouraging more study of the issues, Pam said that we can’t fix things we don’t understand. DuMont, too, questioned the need for another parking garage and the lack of study of other locations. Both Pam and DuMont pointed out the large number of letters received from the public, most of which opposed rezoning the North Prospect Street lot.
Bahl-Milne said the council is “not ignoring” residents and that they will be included in the process later. She said that parking was frequently mentioned in focus groups held in 2019 and that a garage is an important part of Destination Amherst promoted by the BID and is one of the justifications for eliminating parking in the plan to renovate the North Common.
Swartz argued, however, that the council is not listening to the experts. The Nelson/Nygaard studies of 2016 and 2019 found that a garage should only be considered if parking reaches 85% occupancy five days a week, and Amherst barely hit that threshold one day per week, if at all. She pointed out that BID Director Gabrielle Gould’s comment at the end of the Nelson/Nygaard presentation was,“Nice report, but we are going to build a parking garage.”
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) stated that an affirmative vote does not mean a garage will be built on the site if the rezoning passes, and that the next council will determine if there is a more appropriate place for a garage, including adding levels to the Boltwood garage. Brewer added that the town should not issue any requests for proposals for a garage unless it has studied other possible locations. She stated that the town needs an engineering study of the Boltwood garage and information about any deed restrictions that might exist on the Amity Street surface parking lot.
The rezoning measure passed 9-4 with Schoen, Swartz, Pam, and DuMont voting no.
Fire Chief Tim Nelson’s Term Extended Until June 30, 2023
Massachusetts stipulates mandatory retirement for police officers and firefighters at age 65, but an officer’s term can be extended beyond this age with approval from the state legislature. Fire Chief Tim Nelson turns 65 in April, but Town Manager Paul Bockelman proposed that he continue in his role until June 30, 2023, and Nelson has agreed to continue serving.
In public comment, Ben Graham, President of Local Firefighters Union 1764, voiced the union’s objection to the extension of Nelson’s term, citing erosion of morale, high turnover, and lack of improvement in staffing levels during Nelson’s 12 years as chief. He urged new leadership for the department.
Bockelman gave several reasons why he wanted to retain Nelson as chief over the next 18 months. He said that Nelson is a strong leader who was invaluable during the COVID crisis. The chief enabled the hiring of four additional firefighters who are continuing to serve. He also led the drive for the new $350,000 ambulance and the cardiac units for the ambulances. As the Emergency Management director, he has held the COVID response team together. In addition, Nelson and the police chief have been meeting weekly with the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) to implement the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) program. And lastly, Bockelman stated that, as a person of color, Nelson is important to diversifying the leadership team and is an example to others that a person of color can thrive in Amherst.
Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said that she has tremendous respect for Nelson and the fire staff. She would like to see the town work through the problems that “seem to be surfacing in the department.” Bockelman said he was willing to meet with the union and emphasized that the town has a strong policy against retaliation for any accusations made.
Griesemer said she had worked with Nelson on the fire station study committee for three years prior to the council being formed and found him to be respectful and professional. She noted that the council’s role is only to ask for an extension of the age 65 deadline. The reappointment is in the hands of the town manager.
Pam and DuMont were troubled by the issues raised by the union in a letter to the town manager and town council [ADD LINK], but Bockelman pointed out that the fire chief is a department head, and conflict is often “part of the job.” Schreiber repeated Griesemer’s statement that the council was only being asked to petition the legislature to override an artificial age limit in this case.
The vote was 9-2-2 to extend Nelson’s term. Swartz and DuMont voted no. Schoen and Pam abstained.
Budget Policy Guidelines
The proposed budget guidelines for FY23 were accepted unanimously. No changes to the revised draft were suggested, but DuMont wanted to emphasize the implementation of climate action goals passed by the council in May. She said that “if the town is to meet its goals of decreasing carbon use by 25% in 2025, we need more funding and staffing, such as a staff member for the Energy and Climate Action Committee.”
Praise For Outgoing Councilors
The councilors spent the last 45 minutes of the meeting raising a glass and praising the six councilors who will not be continuing into the next term. Those interested can watch the video.
In her parting comment, Brewer cautioned the council not to judge its success by how many members of the public attend and comment at council meetings. She said it is up to councilors to solicit the opinions of all members of the public and not be swayed by a vocal few.
The meeting adjourned at 10:09 p.m.