Controversy Continues To Plague Town Council Appointments

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, June 27, 2022. Part 2

This meeting was held both in person and over Zoom and was recorded. No in-person audience attendance was allowed. The recording can be viewed here

Present 
Michele Miller and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), Shalini Bahl Milne and Ana Devlin-Gauthier (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andrew Steinberg, and Ellisha Walker (at large). Absent: Pat DeAngelis (District 2) and Pam Rooney (District 4)

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

ZBA Appointments
After the Community Resources Committee (CRC)held interviews for appointments to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on June 23, they recommended Steve Judge and John Gilbert for reappointment and Sarah Marshall to one of the four vacant one-year associate member seats. They also voted 1-3 against recommending John Varner for another of the  associate member positions. Varner’s application had been filed after the interview date was set, and the CRC had waived its requirement that he be present at the interview process because he was unable to attend on that date. Varner submitted a Statement of Interest as well as written answers to the interview questions. The requirement to be present at the interview had also been waived in 2021 when applicant Karin Winter was out of the country. Winter was subsequently selected as an associate member of the ZBA.

Varner has been outspoken in his concern for Amherst neighborhoods, including his own, as family houses are snapped up by real estate investment companies that outbid families, and are transformed into rentals for groups of students.(see also here).

CRC Chairperson Mandi Jo Hanneke and member Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), as well as  Pat DeAngelis (District 2), who was absent for this part of the council meeting, stated in the CRC report that they could not approve Varner for the ZBA because they felt his answers to the interview questions showed a level of “rigidity” that might make it difficult for him to be sufficiently “cooperative” with other committee members. They did not question his qualifications for a one-year associate position. 

Hanneke and Bahl-Milne specifically cited Varner’s answer to the question: “Whose interests do you think are most important in Special Permit or Site Plan Review applications — the Town staff, the landowner (applicant), the parties-in-interest (abutters), other residents?”

Varner had responded that “…the environment should be an overarching consideration. Abutters, especially longstanding abutters, often feel they have a tacit level of protection afforded by existing town policies, and that should be given a lot of weight. Infringing on this relationship warrants the most serious of considerations, as it essentially involves the abrogation of a tacit contract between the town and the resident abutters. In some cases, this may be trivial, in some cases it may be grave.” 

Hanneke and Bahl-Milne felt that this response infringed significantly on the rights of sellers and showed a level of “inflexibility” that would interfere with ZBA operations. (Editor’s note: Both Hanneke and Bahl-Milne live in Amherst Woods, which has so far been spared significant purchase of houses by investment companies and subsequent conversion into rental units) .

Cathy Schoen (District 1), Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Jennifer Taub (District 3) removed this item from the consent agenda, which would have precluded discussion, to afford it a thorough airing. All objected to the decision of the CRC to deny Varner a seat. 

“…we have been hard pressed to receive enough applications to even begin to fill the six upcoming vacancies on the ZBA. Yet, here we had a qualified, willing, engaged and capable applicant who was denied even a one-year, associate appointment, because his views were deemed out of step with the majority of CRC members.”  

Town Councilor Jennifer Taub (District 3)

The ZBA chairperson himself, Steve Judge, also wrote a letter in support of Varner’s appointment, stressing the need for the ZBA to have a full slate of associate members to function effectively and saying that although he does not know Varner personally, he has seen him achieve consensus effectively, using a “transparent approach to problem solving” when Mudpie Potters, to which both men belonged at the time, was deciding how to cope with COVID restrictions. 

Taub read the following prepared statement in support of Varner’s candidacy:

“I am disappointed and saddened that a majority of the CRC members voted not to affirm Mr. John Varner, the second applicant we were considering, for one of the four associate slots on the ZBA. This decision did not reflect a sense that Mr. Varner is not qualified to serve, but rather because some read into his responses, positions out of sync with their own. It should be noted that Mr. Varner has written letters to Town Council and authored opinion pieces printed in local news publications expressing his views. Views perhaps not shared by the majority of CRC members, but certainly shared by an increasingly substantial portion of our community. 

“Appointing residents with different positions and perspectives to Town governing boards is exactly how we reach consensus and compromise. Putting our thumb on the scale to ensure that boards and commissions represent only our own point of view, does not well serve the larger community. 

“As the CRC Chair stated at a recent Council meeting, we have been hard pressed to receive enough applications to even begin to fill the six upcoming vacancies on the ZBA. Yet, here we had a qualified, willing, engaged and capable applicant who was denied even a one-year, associate appointment, because his views were deemed out of step with the majority of CRC members, even though this candidate shares the deeply held concerns of a great many residents of our town.

“In response to the CRC report of the June 23rd meeting, which appears in this evening’s meeting packet, I respectfully take issue with the characterizations of Mr. Varner’s responses to the interview questions, which, again, I fear reveal a thumb on the scale.  

“Nowhere in Mr. Varner’s responses did I discern any hint that he does not ‘have a willingness to listen, not only to the views of the applicants and public, but also a sensitivity to the opinions and expertise of other [ZBA] members.’” 

Andy Steinberg (at large) noted that the CRC report describing the reasoning around the decision was not placed in the packet until shortly before the council meeting, and Judge’s letter as well as Varner’s statement of interest and responses to the interview questions were in the CRC  packet, but not the council packet. Steinberg said he did not have enough information to make a decision. Council President Lynn Griesemer agreed, and asked that the documents referred to be placed in the council meeting packet for this meeting. Steinberg moved that the discussion be continued at the next meeting. The vote was 11-0 with two absent to postpone further discussion and a vote until July 18.

An unusual aspect of the CRC report is that it lists the racial/ethnographic identities of the ZBA applicants as 25% white, 50% Caucasian, and 25% European, i.e., all are white, all speak English, and 25% live in District 3 (Varner) and 75% in District 4. There was one female (Marshall) and three males.

Hanneke Questions Reappointment of Winter To Local Historic District Commission
Karin Winter was reappointed to the Local Historic District Commission (LHDC) by Town Manager Paul Bockelman on June 22, but Hanneke questioned it because she worried that by serving on the commission and the Planning Board, Winter might have too much of a voice on issues that come before both bodies. The CRC had recommended her for the Planning Board on June 2 and she was confirmed by the council on June 6. According to Hanneke, the LHDC and the Planning Board are regulatory bodies and it is conceivable that the LHDC could decide on the appropriateness of a project in the LHDC that is then forwarded to the Planning Board for permitting, and  if Winter served on both bodies, she could exert too much influence (or as Bockelman put it, “two bites from that apple”). 

Bockelman clarified that there is no policy preventing someone from serving on more than one committee, even though they might deal with the same project.

Bockelman, however, defended his reappointment of Winter to the LHDC. The CRC knew Winter was serving on the LHDC when it recommended her for the Planning Board, and did not object to her serving on both bodies then. Hanneke replied that when Winter was appointed to the Planning Board, her LHDC term was to end on June 30, 2022, but it was subsequently extended by her reappointment. Councilor Dorothy Pam noted that Dillon Maxfield serves on both the ZBA and the Board of Licensure, and that Winter is a “fabulous, hardworking member of the LHDC.” Bockelman clarified that there is no policy preventing someone from serving on more than one committee, even though they might  deal with the same project.

Taub, who was previously chair of the LHDC, noted that in her four years on the commission, new construction was rarely reviewed for a certificate of appropriateness from them before an application was made to the Planning Board or ZBA for a site plan review or special permit. In recent years, the proposed new Amherst Media headquarters on Main Street was referred to the Planning Board, and the Sunset/Fearing apartments were referred to the ZBA.

There was a discussion about whether Winter should recuse herself if a proposal before the Planning Board had previously been discussed at the LHDC, but Council Clerk Athena O’Keefe and Bockelman agreed that this was unnecessary because it was not a matter of financial interest or personal gain. Schoen thought that the extra knowledge gained from the LHDC review might be helpful in the Planning Board deliberations. Griesemer suggested that, if the council did not approve Winter’s appointment, she should be given a choice as to what committee she wants to serve on. It was not mentioned that, for the past year, Winter has served as an associate member of the ZBA while also being on the LHDC, and that she was appointed to the ZBA in 2021 by a CRC chaired by Hanneke.

(Note: during the deliberation over Planning Board appointments, Hanneke suggested that maybe the CRC should only nominate Bruce Coldham to the Planning Board and try to encourage applicants more experienced than Winter to apply. Her arguments were refuted, and Winter was recommended unanimously by the CRC)

The vote to approve Winter’s reappointment to the LHDC was 7-2-2. Hanneke and Ellisha Walker (at large) voted no, and Anika Lopes (District 4) and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) abstained. Pam Rooney (District 4) and DeAngelis were absent.

Most Town Manager Appointments Approved On Consent Agenda
While the above appointments engendered extensive discussion, most of those chosen by the town manager to serve on town committees were left on the consent agenda and approved by the council without controversy. The following residents were reappointed to town committees for terms to begin July 1, 2022.

 Affordable Housing Trust (for terms to expire June 30, 2024):

 • Allegra Clark

 • Risha Hess

 • Aschleigh Jensen

African Heritage Reparation Assembly (for terms to expire June 30, 2023):

 • Heather Lord

 • Alexis Reed

• Irvin Rhodes

• Amilcar Shabazz

• Yvonne Mendez

Michele Miller (representative of Reparations For Amherst)

 Agricultural Commission (for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Glenroy Buchanan

 Cultural Council (for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

• Julianne Applegate

• Leah Neuburger

Board of License Commissioners (for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Dillon Maxfield

CDBG Advisory Committee (for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Lucas Hanscom

Community Preservation Act Committee (for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Sam MacLeod

 Conservation Commission (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Leroy Gaynor

 • Laura Pagliarulo

Council on Aging (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

• Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

 • Dennis Vandal

 Disability Access Advisory Committee (for terms to expire expires June 30, 2025):

• Elysse Link

 • Myra Ross

 • Ruth Smith

 Energy and Climate Action Committee (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Laura Draucker

 • Andra Rose

 • Jesse Selman

 Historical Commission:  (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Patricia Auth

 • Robin Fordham

Local Historic District Commission: (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Greta Wilcox

 Public Shade Tree Committee: (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Gordon Green

 • Bennett Hazlip

 • Julian Hynes

Recreation Commission(for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Sarah Marshall

Residents Advisory Committee (for a term to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Jim Pistrang

Water Supply Protection Committee (for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

 • Linda Arsenault

 • Anna Martini

 • John Tobiason

 • Lyons Witten

Also, the following new appointments were made and approved unanimously:

African Heritage Reparation Assembly(for a term to expire June 30, 2023):

 • Deborah Bridges

Human Rights Commission(for terms to expire June 30, 2025):

• Victor Cruz

• Juliana Shepard

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4 thoughts on “Controversy Continues To Plague Town Council Appointments

  1. It should be noted that Special Permits approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals are for projects that are not allowed by right because of their potential impact on abutters, the neighborhood, the environment etc. The Planning Board can also approve Special Permits where requested as part of a Site Plan Review application for a project allowed by right in a given district. Conditions are usually attached to both kinds of decisions. A good outcome for approval of a Special Permit is when compromises are reached that satisfy both the appellant and the abutters–even better perhaps is when neither party is happy to serve the “better good.” The process for approval of the Special Permit with conditions for the Sunset/Fearing subdivision should become the new model for all development! The bad examples on East Pleasant Street, Spring Street , South East Street, and now Main Street should teach us all a lesson.

    I keep wondering where were all the Gray Street neighbors (who attended all the hearings for the Amherst Media building to voice their opinions) during the hearings for the very dense Main Street project which will have a more negative impact on the neighborhood, the Local Historic District and gateway to the downtown than the television studio ever will.

  2. Hanneke self-deprecatingly bemoans the lack of effective recruitment of volunteers for town positions, claims the well-qualified John Varner will not work well with others on the Zoning Board.
    The chair of the Zoning Board then comes out in strong support of the applicant!

    What are we to make of this?

  3. I agree that boards like the zba should not have members that are rigid and uncooperative, but I sense neither of those in anything I’ve read of John Varner’s answers or essays. It seems more likely that his noticing that Amherst’s neighborhoods are being invaded by poorly maintained, overfilled, overpriced student housing is a problem to be reckoned with. He is not the first person who thinks this way that has been rejected for this kind of role, or booted off a board for such perspectives.

    I think John Varner, who I have known for most of the 29 years I’ve lived in Amherst, would bring reason and objectivity and collaboration to the discussions that should be happening on the planning board and zba.

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