Town Clerk Recommends Polling Places For New Precincts. Council Hears First Presentation On Historic Preservation Bylaw

Proposed new district and precinct map for the Town of Amherst. Photo: amherstma.gov

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, March 21, 2022

Present:

All Councilors were present. In the Town Room of Town Hall:Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandy Jo Hanneke (at-large), Cathy Schoen and Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5). None were wearing masks. 

Participating remotely: Andy Steinberg and Ellisha Walker (at large), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager, wearing a mask) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Highlights

  • Farmers’ Market to return to the South Common and Mobile Market to East Hadley Road
  • Potential polling places for newly drawn precincts are presented by Town Clerk
  • Proposed revised Historic Preservation Bylaw to replace the Demolition Delay bylaw is presented, and referred to the Community Resources Committee
  • Council’s “Rules of Procedure” are being revised
  • Hybrid format  including remote participation of the public is retained until July 15;  remote format for council committee meetings is retained.
  • Applicants are needed for open positions on the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board.

Announcements, Resolutions, And Proclamations
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) announced the upcoming retirement of Mary Decker, Town Hall Building Maintenance Assistant, who has worked at Town Hall for the past 33 years. In addition to making sure that Town Hall is cleaned and swept, Decker planted and cared for the flowers in the beds at the Munson Library as well as the boxes and bed in front of and to the side of Town Hall. She worked all through COVID, including when all surfaces needed to be wiped down frequently at the start of the pandemic, and she stayed until all council meetings ended, often after 11 p.m. The council expressed its gratitude for her service, and the staff will be holding a celebration in the near future. 

As part of the Consent Agenda, the Council approved the use of the South Common for the Farmers’ Market [insert photo of map] and the East Hadley Road Bike Share area for the Mobile Market. With the ending of many COVID restrictions, the Farmers’ Market will occupy a smaller area on the north end of the South Common.

Proposed layout for 2022 Amherst Farmers Market

There are two surveys for town residents that are currently circulating. The Age and Dementia Friendly Town Survey is sponsored by the Housing Trust and the Senior Center. There is also one about youth programming at the Jones Library.

The Council unanimously passed the following resolutions and proclamation: 

Resolution on the Condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine with a reading and raising of the Ukraine flag on March 23.

A Resolution Regarding Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month with a ceremony scheduled at Town Hall on April 1 at 2:30 p.m.

A Proclamation Congratulating the UMass Women’s Basketball Team on its first A-10 Championship.

Town Clerk Gives First Presentation On Proposed Polling Places
Town Clerk Sue Audette presented her proposal for polling places. All polling places will remain the same, since they have ample parking and are ADA compliant, but the location where people vote may be different because of the redrawing of the precincts. Instead of being labeled Precinct 1 through 10, the new precincts are 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, etc. to 5B, where the number refers to the district, and every district having two precincts [insert map and list of precincts and polling places].

Audette said that although she tried to keep polling places close to the precincts, changes in the precincts led to complicated considerations. For instance, high-density UMass dorms are in five different precincts, with Southwest and Central dorms having two precincts each. District Advisory Board member Tracy Zafian noted that residents of Ann Whalen and Clark House would have to vote at the high school, instead of at the Bangs Center, which is adjacent to their apartments. Zafian also wanted the availability of public transportation to be taken into account so that all residents can reach their polling place via bus or on foot.

Isolda Ortega Bustamante and Rani Parker urged the town to take an “equity pause” and look at how the proposed plan might disproportionately impact residents in traditionally disenfranchised groups.

Isolda Ortega Bustamante and Rani Parker urged the town to take an “equity pause” and look at how the proposed plan might disproportionately impact residents in traditionally disenfranchised groups. Audette agreed to reexamine the voting places for those in the Ann Whalen and Clark Houses. She also was intrigued by Andy Steinberg’s (at large) suggestion that UMass students be allowed to vote at a central location on campus, such as the Mullins Center or the Campus Center. Steinberg said that many UMass students change dorms every year, and it could cause additional confusion if  their polling place also changes. 

Audette did say that she expected that voting by mail will continue in the future, so there will be less pressure for people to need to go to polling places to vote. She will take the comments offered into consideration and will bring back a revised plan at the April 4 or April 25 meeting.

New Preservation Of Historic Structures Bylaw Presented 
Historical Commission Chair Jane Wald and Town Planner Ben Breger presented the proposed replacement of the Demolition Delay Bylaw, Article 13 of the Zoning Bylaw, retitling it “The Historical Preservation Plan” and moving  it to the General Bylaws. This plan was presented to the Planning Board on March 2, and received its endorsement. This is the first reading for the Town Council, although the Community Resources Committee (CRC) has begun to review it.

The Amherst Demolition Delay Bylaw was passed in 1999 and updated in 2005, but there were some problems in applying it, so the Historical Commission has been working on revising it since 2018. The Commission reviewed bylaws of other towns and the template produced by the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC). They also attended a workshop with MHC members. Most of the more than 150 towns in the state with preservation bylaws include them in their general bylaws. All structures over 50 years old are subject to a review before they undergo any significant demolition or change to the exterior. Currently, the Historical Commission must conduct a public hearing for proposed projects on older buildings and then decide if it should issue a 12-month delay on the work. The delay is to give the owner an opportunity to find a way to preserve, sell, or repurpose the structure. This process causes much work for the Historical Commission and can delay projects from being built.

The new bylaw has a more precise definition of what constitutes “demolition” of a structure as being alteration of more than 25% of a façade or a change to a significant architectural element, such as a cupola, in addition to total demolition. Also, instead of requiring a public hearing for each project that falls under this definition, the proposed bylaw stipulates that a small committee of Historical Commission members and/or town staff will determine if the structure is historically significant. The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) will be a guide to determining significance. About 1,300 structures in Amherst are currently listed on MACRIS.

If the structure is not deemed significant, the project can proceed with regular permitting. If it is deemed significant, however, a review must take place before the Historical Commission, which has the authority to delay the work for up to a year. Under the new bylaw, many fewer projects will have to have hearings before the Historical Commission.

The proposed bylaw change must have public hearings before the Planning Board and the CRC, and both must recommend rescinding Article 13 of the Zoning Bylaw. The CRC must then recommend inserting the new bylaw into the General Bylaws. If the bylaw is to go into effect by July 1, the hearings must be completed by the middle to the end of May, since the Council will need to have two readings of the new bylaw in June.

Changes To Council Rules Of Procedure
Michele Miller (District 1), Chair of the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL), said the committee has been working on revising the Council Rules of Procedure in a continuation of the discussion that began at the council retreat last month. Most of the changes are minor, with the exception of Rule 6, which has undergone major revision. This rule is entitled “Code of Ethics, Conduct, and Debate” and deals with respectful behavior on the part of councilors, staff, and the public. At the recommendation of Ellisha Walker (at large), councilors are to explicitly communicate to others what name they wish to be called. She also suggested adding tolerance to the expected behavior at meetings. 

Cathy Schoen (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) suggested including the state ethic rules to this section, but Andy Steinberg (at large) felt that since councilors are required to do ethics training yearly, this would not be necessary. Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) suggested placing a live link to the state statute. GOL will continue to revise the rules and bring the document back to the council on April 4 or 25. 

Format For Council Meetings
Unlike the previous discussions regarding whether council meetings should be held in person or remotely that often lasted over an hour, most councilors were happy with the hybrid format. With little discussion, it was decided unanimously, with Steinberg abstaining, that meetings will continue to be held at Town Hall with the public only allowed to attend virtually. Any councilor who wanted could also attend virtually. This arrangement will be in effect until July 15, 2022.

Pam Rooney (District 3) wanted to make sure the public would be able to continue remote participation after July 15, but President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) informed her that this decision is up to the governor.

Council committee meetings will continue to be held remotely until July 15. Hanneke said that although she would rather meet in person, she knows the public enjoys the virtual access to meetings and she, too, would like that to continue after in-person meetings return. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the IT department is trying to outfit some of the smaller meeting rooms with adequate audio and video equipment to allow remote public access. He considers public access and meeting recordings to be of the highest importance.

Committee Reports
Hanneke said that the terms of two Planning Board members are expiring on June 30. She is unsure if those members wish to continue. In addition, there will be six openings for full and associate members of the Zoning Board of Appeals at the end of June. She urged all councilors to encourage eligible residents to submit Community Activity Forms for these openings.

Schoen said the Elementary School Building Committee is continuing to meet weekly after submitting preliminary design possibilities to the state. The committee must now narrow down the site and the scope of renovation and/or new construction. The Net Zero committee will meet on Tuesday afternoon, March 29, for a presentation about ground source and air source heat pumps. Griesemer said she has been working with State Representative Mindy Domb and State Senator Jo Comerford to convince the Massachusetts School Building Authority to revise its formula for reimbursement to more accurately reflect the square footage, site work,and energy conservation features. 

Town Manager Report
The full Town Manager Report is reprinted in the Indy (link) or can be read here. Bockelman announced that the Board of Health rescinded the indoor mask mandate on March 10 due to the lower incidence of COVID in town. Also, the state is discontinuing the COVID testing site at UMass on April 1. Appeals from Domb and Comerford to keep the site open until the end of the semester have been unsuccessful. Rapid tests are available at the town health department in the Bangs Center, and two testing sites in Springfield remain open.

A town clean-up day has been tentatively scheduled for April 30. Councilors are encouraged to participate.

Northampton Road (Route 9) will undergo a major renovation from the center of town to University Drive. The work will entail widening the road to create sidewalks on both sides of the road as well as bicycle lanes. The work is expected to take two years, and traffic may be reduced to one lane at times. The work of creating the round-about on Snell Street and South University should only take two or three weeks and will not shut down Snell Street.

Wayfinders has been chosen as the developer for the Belchertown Road site. The site will have about 70 rental units, all of which will be affordable. The purchase of Hickory Ridge was finalized last week.

Bockelman said that the asphalt plants have opened for the season, so roadwork can begin and the DPW can fill potholes more effectively than with the cold patch they need to use in winter.

The meeting adjourned at 11 p.m. The next meeting is scheduled for April 4.

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