Controversies Persist Over Demolition Delay Bylaw And Committee Appointments. Council Mulls Escalating Costs Of Water Treatment Plant Repairs 

Demolition of an historic Bay City Michigan Victorian home. Photo: YouTube

Report On The Meeting of The Amherst Town Council, June 6, 2022

The meeting was held both in-person in the Town Room of Town Hall and over Zoom, and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

Highlights

  • Public forum on Capital Improvement Budget inspired little comment
  • First reading about removing Demolition Delay Bylaw from Zoning Bylaw and replacing it with a general bylaw on Preservation of Historically Significant Structure was discussed.
  • New borrowing plan required as Centennial Water Treatment Plant costs increase, was discussed.
  • Problems with parking on Lincoln Avenue were discussed.
  • New traffic patterns and parking regulations on North Pleasant Street near Kendrick Park were approved..
  • Controversial appointments to the Solar Bylaw Working Group and Planning Board were discussed.
  • Crucial decisions about the new elementary school will be made at the June 13 meeting of the Elementary School Building Committee.

Present
All councilors were present

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

Six members of the public attended virtually.

Public Forum On Capital Improvement Plan Elicits Little Comment
As required by the Home Rule Charter, the council held a public forum on the Capital Improvement Plan for the FY23 budget. The forum was preceded by a brief presentation by Finance Director Sean Mangano, who noted that the budget returns to the town goal of investing 10% of income into capital. The five-year plan covers construction of the Jones Library expansion, a new fire station, and a new Department of Public Works (DPW). The new elementary school will require a debt exclusion override. Although this year’s budget is in balance, there will be significant deficits beginning in FY24, when the new projects need to be financed.

In addition to the large projects, the $8 million FY23 capital budget includes $200,000 for sidewalk repair, $200,000 for new vehicles, several of which will be hybrid, $350,00 for replacement of the gym floor at the high school, repair of the HVAC system at Crocker Farm Elementary School, and other maintenance projects, many which will improve sustainability. The budget also includes a $100,000 escalation clause to cover unanticipated costs due to inflation.

The only resident comment on the budget was from Rani Parker who said that the $200,000 for new vehicles should be used to replace gas vehicles with electric ones, and that the town should encourage UMass to do the same.

The only resident comment was from Rani Parker who said that the $200,000 for new vehicles should be used to replace gas vehicles with electric ones, and that the town should encourage UMass to do the same. She also wants the town to encourage conversion of energy use in buildings from gas to electric and to apply for grants that will likely be available for sustainability. 

The public forum ended at 6:45.

Announcements
A resolution proclaiming June 12 as Race Amity Day, with a virtual presentation planned for 4 p.m., was passed as part of the consent agenda.

There will be a Juneteenth program on June 18 and 19. On Saturday, a History Walk co-sponsored by Ancestral Bridges and the Amherst History Museum will begin at the West Cemetery at 11 a.m. On Sunday, the Town Common will be the site of a Jubilee beginning at noon and lasting most of the day. The actual holiday will be celebrated on Monday, June 20.

The Council will meet on June 13 and June 27.

Demolition Delay Bylaw Revision Continues To Spark Disagreement
The Amherst Historical Commission has been working on a revision of the Demolition Delay Bylaw since 2017, proposing to remove it from the Zoning Bylaw (Article 13) and creating a Preservation of Historically Significant Structures in the general bylaws. A version passed by the Planning Board in the fall was substantially modified by the Community Resources Committee (CRC). On May 18, the Planning Board voted 6 to 0 to remove Article 13 of the Zoning Bylaw, but failed to achieve a majority on recommending the proposed bylaw by a vote of 3-0-3, because three board members felt the Planning Board should not weigh in on a general bylaw and therefore abstained.

The new bylaw raises the age of buildings that must be reviewed before substantial alteration or demolition can take place from 50 to 75 years old. It also creates a two-step process for the reviews, where one member of the Planning Department or Historical Commission, or a subcommittee of two, will determine if a building is “significant.” If it is deemed significant, the plans must undergo a public hearing with the Historical Commission to determine if a 12-month delay in the proposed demolition or alteration should be issued in order to encourage the owner to find means to preserve the building.

By including the bylaw in the General Bylaws, any appeal of a decision would be handled by the courts, instead of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). The definition of demolition in the proposed bylaw is total destruction of the structure or alteration of 25% or more of one façade.

Councilor concerns came from  opposite viewpoints. Jennifer Taub (District 3), Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Pam Rooney (District 4) worried that one person could decide that a structure is not significant, and a demolition could occur without the Historical Commission even knowing about it until after the building was gone. Taub recommended that the Historical Commission be informed of the decision before the structure is demolished. Pam said that having appeals handled by the courts would give an advantage to those with the most money to hire lawyers and experts. She said she has more confidence in the integrity of the local ZBA and Historical Commission. CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), however, said that the Historical Commission is comfortable with one individual making the decision.

On the other hand, Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), expressed  that a single person could hold up a homeowner’s plans or that a homeowner could be forced to sell a property because the proposed bylaw would require that an attempt be made to preserve it during the 12-month demolition delay. She said that Taub’s suggestion to require notification to the Historical Commission could delay a project by as much as  six weeks, since the commission meets only once a month. Devlin Gauthier admitted that she had concerns that any delay of demolition amounted to an infringement of  a property owner’s rights. Hanneke agreed.

Planning Director Chris Brestrup said that the Historical Commission will develop criteria to determine whether a structure is significant. She said that the council should trust that the town manager will appoint “reasonable people” to serve on the Historical Commission, and that they will make decisions that are fair to property owners while preserving the town’s history. Taub noted that when she served on it, the Local Historic District Commission bent over backwards to accommodate requests from homeowners.

This was the first reading of the bylaw, so it must be brought to a second meeting for a vote. Rooney and Devlin Gauthier said they would submit suggestions to allay some of their concerns.

Centennial Water Treatment Plant Costs Escalate
The Town Council approved borrowing $11 million in 2019 for repair of the Centennial Water Treatment Plant , but costs have increased significantly and the current estimate is now $18 million. The plant has been off-line since it was struck by lightning in 2018. Amherst was accepted into a revolving fund program from the state which provides a 19.8% reimbursement and a favorable interest rate, but requires the town to approve borrowing the entire amount for the project by June 30. 

Therefore, the council was asked to rescind the original $11 million approved borrowing and replace it with an $18 million loan. This loan will be repaid by funds collected from the water and sewer enterprise funds, meaning that water rates will rise more than previously anticipated. 

Hanneke said that the Forward bill in the state legislature can, if passed, provide up to $3.5 million in grants to projects such as water treatment plants. DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring said that all permits for the Centennial Plant are in order, and the project will go out to bid in the fall.

The request for the increased borrowing was discussed at the June 7 Finance Committee meeting and unanimously recommended to the council.

Parking On Lincoln Avenue Referred To Town Services And Outreach Committee
Twenty-five residents of Lincoln Avenue filed a petition in February 2020 to request that there be no parking on the east side of the street between Amity Street and McClellan from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when the UMass is in session. They stated that there is only room for one car to pass on the two-way street and that the obstruction of sight lines for residents exiting their driveways because of the density of parked cars on both sides of the street is a safety hazard. Movement of delivery trucks and emergency vehicles has also been impeded.

A plan for restricted parking from September 1 through May 31 was developed by the Town Services and Outreach Committee (TSO) in August, 2020, but the council defeated the motion in a tie vote of 6 to 6 more than a year later, in October, 2021. Traffic to UMass decreased considerably during the first year of the pandemic. Also, the north end of Lincoln near Massachusetts Avenue is closed for construction of new dormitories, so the street is no longer a through-street to UMass.  Several members of the council thought traffic and parking will be manageable now that the street is no longer a through-street.

Taub said that pedestrian access to UMass remains from Lincoln Avenue and the parking situation is even worse than it has been in the past . Conditions should be even more dire when the new dorms bring 800 more students to the neighborhood, she said, and when UMass loses the large parking lot that the dorms will replace.

Hanneke said she does not support the referral to TSO because a 2020 study showed less traffic on the street than in 2019. She also worried about creating a domino effect by worsening parking and traffic on surrounding streets. Instead, she supports having the town support its parking regulations by ticketing cars parked too close to driveways. She pointed out that referrals to committees are usually to evaluate, not develop a proposal (although the CRC, chaired by Hanneke, is developing a rental permit bylaw and previously developed a Comprehensive Housing Policy).

Pam stated that parking on Lincoln has been an issue since day one of the council and should be dealt with before the fall. She said she is “not excited about dealing with it again,” but supports a referral to TSO. The vote for the referral was 10-2-1, with Hanneke and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) voting no, and Anika Lopes (District 4) abstaining.

Traffic And Parking Changes On North Pleasant Street Approved
On May 5, TSO voted 3-1 to make traffic on North Pleasant Street one way north of McClellan Street, and move parking to the east side of the street, closer to the Kendrick Park playground. In order to maximize parking for the playground, parking will be back-in and the permit spaces will be dual purpose so that users of the park can use open permit spaces if all of the non-permit spaces are occupied. This system has worked on Spring Street.

Andy Steinberg (at large) said he voted against the proposal at TSO because he objected to making permitted spaces harder to find when the town is raising the cost of parking permits substantially. However, the rest of the councilors voted for the plan.

Councilor Pat DeAngelis suggested that the Conservation Commission representative to the Solar Bylaw Working Group, Laura Pagliarulo, has a conflict of interest because she is a founder and president of SolaReit , which provides “flexible capital solutions for solar real estate.”

More Controversy About Appointments
DeAngelis requested that the Town Manager’s nominations to the Solar Bylaw Working Group be removed from the consent agenda and discussed. She thought that the Conservation Commission representative Laura Pagliarulo has a conflict of interest because she is a founder and president of SolaReit , which provides “flexible capital solutions for solar real estate,” according to its marketing materials.

Devlin Gauthier felt that Pagliarulo should not be prohibited from serving if she has no direct financial interest, and that her position in the working group would be to represent the Conservation Commission. Hanneke thought it is beneficial to have someone employed by  the solar industry on the working group. DeAngelis worried that, as a worse case scenario, Pagliarulo could promote a bylaw that makes it easier for developers at the expense of the welfare of the town. The vote was 10-2-1 to accept the appointments to the bylaw working group. DeAngelis and Cathy Schoen (District 1) voted no and Pam abstained.

Hanneke brought up the recent interviews the CRC conducted for vacancies on the Planning Board . Only two candidates were interviewed for the two vacancies, and both were recommended unanimously by the CRC. However, Hanneke expressed concern that the applicant pool was not sufficient. At the time the CRC decided to proceed with the appointment process, there were seven applicants. Only three people submitted statements of interest, however, and then one of them withdrew 90 minutes before the interviews began.

Hanneke admitted that both candidates, Bruce Coldham and Karin Winter, possess the qualifications to serve on the Planning Board, but said she disagrees with some of their answers to the interview questions. Both pointed to the Local Historic District Commission’s resolution of the proposed Amherst Media headquarters on Main Street as an example of good government. She did not agree with that statement, and added that she doesn’t think Planning Board appointments should be “by default.”

Rooney agreed that the pool for the Planning Board was not sufficient, but she wouldn’t have voted to recommend the two candidates if she didn’t think they were highly qualified. Taub agreed. Pam said that the town should be grateful when it has good candidates, and those candidates should be encouraged and supported. She thought a positive message could result in a larger pool of applicants. Miller added that expertise is important, but committees and boards need to let people know they will be mentored and supported when they are new to committees.

The council voted unanimously to accept the CRC recommendations that Coldham and Winter be appointed to the Planning Board for three-year terms beginning July 1, 2022. Hanneke noted that there are still not enough candidates to fill the two upcoming vacancies on the ZBA. Griesemer urged all councilors to talk to their constituents about applying for the ZBA openings. Statements of Interest are due June 14. The CRC has now rescheduled ZBA interviews until September 2022.

Creation Of A Housing Task Force Gets Cool Reception
Rooney proposed creating a seven-member resident task force to study and promote affordable rentals and homeownership, and to implement the Comprehensive Housing Policy developed by the CRC last year. She suggested that the composition and charge for the task force be referred to the CRC. She emphasized the special pressure on the Amherst housing market with 19,000 more UMass students than available on-campus housing.

Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) pointed out that Brestrup and the planning staff have presented several strategies to help create more housing for families and middle- to low-income residents, and said that the town should concentrate on implementing them. Pam felt a task force would be valuable in looking at how to improve existing housing, making it more energy efficient and affordable, in addition to creating new housing. She also thinks  the task force could look for grants for sustainability or adapting housing for older people to be able to remain at home.

Hanneke disagreed, saying a task force would duplicate the Comprehensive Housing Policy, which is under the jurisdiction of the CRC. She noted that the Town Manager is already having difficulty finding residents to serve on existing committees, and that the council shouldn’t create a new committee. DeAngelis also mentioned that the role of the proposed task force seems similar to that of the Affordable Housing Trust.

Lopes said  that if the town puts too many restrictions on what people can do with their property  developers might leave . Miller again brought up her contention that the town should place more emphasis on building a partnership with UMass to work on creating student and workforce housing. Griesemer worried about placing additional demands on planning staff, which the task force would ask for  help in gathering information.

Elementary School Building Committee Nears Selection of Site For New School
Schoen reported that the ESBC has seemed to favor a new building over an addition/renovation, but still needs to determine whether the new school will be built at Wildwood or Fort River and whether it will be two or three stories. Those decisions will be made at the June 13 meeting of the committee.

Griesemer then emphasized that, although the council has received a lot of input on what should be done with the vacant school, the council is a long way from making that determination. She said that if the tax override is defeated, there will be no new school and therefore no vacant school. She added that both existing schools belong to the school department, which will  decide whether it  needs the extra building or not before the council has any say in its disposition. Finally, she added that both schools are in poor condition and would require investment of a lot of money to be put to any ongoing use.

ESBC member Ellisha Walker (at large) said she is glad to be having this conversation, especially since recent  discussions about the lack of usable town space with the Senior Center and Amherst Media. She is interested in the school department’s timeline on when it will make a decision about the vacant school. Miller added that some residents might consider future use of the vacated school as part of a package deal when  the override vote takes place.

The meeting adjourned at midnight. The council will next meet on June 13 at 6:30.

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