Town Council Scuttles Varner Appointment To ZBA, Approves CPA Borrowing For High School Track, Hears Complaint About Amherst Police Engagement With BIPOC Youth

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, July 18,2022

This meeting was held over Zoom and in person in the Town Room of Town Hall and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

On July 16, 2022, Governor Charlie Baker extended certain provisions of the Open Meeting Lawenacted during the pandemic that allow meetings to be conducted remotely without a quorum being physically present, provided the public has access to the meeting. This measure will remain in place until March 31, 2023.

Present
In the Town Room: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)

Attending remotely: Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam and Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (at large)

Absent: Michele Miller (District 1) and Anika Lopes (District 4)

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

Highlights

  • Town Manager responds to complaints regarding Amherst police treatment of BIPOC youth on July 4
  • John Varner denied appointment to ZBA in close vote
  • Request for reserved parking for Hope Church referred to Town Services and Outreach committee
  • CPA borrowing for high school track and field approved
  • Resolutions passed supporting safe and legal abortion, decriminalization of plant medicine, and common sense gun laws.

Close Vote Denies Varner Position On ZBA
At the June 27 council meeting, councilors began a discussion of John Varner’s application to be an associate member of the Zoning Board of Appeals. Because his application was filed after the interview date was set and he was unable to attend the interview, the Community Resources Committee (CRC) offered him the opportunity to submit a written reply to the interview questions, which he did. In his answer to question 5 about whose interests are most important in an application for a special permit, Varner replied that the environment was the most important factor, and that the opinions of long-term abutters should be carefully considered. Hanneke and Bahl-Milne (District 5)  felt this answer showed an “inflexibility” in opinion that would be detrimental to the ZBA, despite a letter supporting the nomination by ZBA Chair Steve Judge.

First, the council needed to vote on whether to waive the interview for the appointment. Hanneke said that she originally supported waiving the interview because she thought that would save time on the Community Resources (CRC) schedule, but now that the search needs to be reopened to fill other one-year associate positions on the ZBA, she no longer supports it. Jennifer Taub (District 3) noted that councilors were implored by Hanneke to seek more applicants for the ZBA in June, and  Varner’s late application may have been in response to recruitment. The vote to waive the interview for Varner was 6-4-1 (DeAngelis, Griesemer, Devlin Gauthier, and Hanneke voted no, Bahl-Milne abstained). 

In discussing Varner’s application, Cathy Schoen (District 1) said that the zoning bylaw has  frequent references to the importance of considering the impact of a project on the residents of the area. Pam Rooney (District 4) pointed out that another candidate, Sarah Marshall, said she thought the interests of the developer should take precedence over abutters, and she was appointed to an associate’s position. Rooney felt it was important to have multiple viewpoints represented on the ZBA and that the associate positions were created so that members could learn how the ZBA works before becoming full members.

DeAngelis, who voted against the appointment, said that if the views of the abutters to the supportive studio complex being constructed at 132 Northampton Road had been given “primacy”, the project would not have been approved. Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she thought it was interesting that Varner’s opinions were solicited, and then he was being punished for giving them.

Griesemer then said that she found this conversation distressing because the councilors were reading different meanings into Varner’s written responses and said this is why she voted against waiving the interview. She added that she felt that the discussion was inappropriate because it was like interviewing Varner without him being present. Andy Steinberg (at large) agreed with Griesemer and noted the continuing tension around appointments to the Planning Board and ZBA. He said that the interview process used by the CRC prevents any follow-up questions to clarify, explore, or challenge answers.

Varner’s appointment was defeated by a vote of 5-4-2, so he did not receive a majority of those councilors present. Voting against his appointment were Hanneke, DeAngelis, Steinberg, and Bahl-Milne. Devlin Gauthier and Griesemer abstained. Hanneke noted that Varner could apply again in the future and that the next round of ZBA appointments will be posted on August 1.

Varner’s response to the vote can be read at Indy link.

CPA Funding For High School Track And Field Approved
The meeting began with a public forum on providing additional Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding to reorient the high school track and improve the enclosed playing field by improving the drainage, replacing the grass with artificial turf, and improving accessibility. The $4.7 million project needs to be approved by the three other towns in the district and depends on a successful fundraising campaign to raise about $900,000. If the project goes forward, Amherst will authorize $800,000 in CPA funds to be borrowed over a ten-year term. The town has already contributed $150,000 in CPA funds to develop the proposed design.

The only question from the audience was from Kathleen Anderson, who asked why the track needed to be oriented from East-West to North-South. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek explained that the reorientation was for the enclosed field, so that athletes were not playing with the sun in their faces. 

The measure to authorize the debt exclusion for CPA funds for the project passed 11-0 during the council meeting.

July 4 Incident Regarding BIPOC Youth And Amherst Police
Kathleen Anderson, Brianna Owen, and Pat Ononibaku raised concerns regarding an incident that occurred in an apartment complex on July 4 when a noise complaint was called in for a group of young people waiting for assistance with a flat tire (see also here). According to a 54-second video, Amherst police officers arrived, not to help the youth, but to question and detain them. In the video, the police can be heard telling the youth that they “have no rights”. Anderson noted that this incident occurred despite considerable effort on the part of the town to combat racism over the past two years.

Councilor Ellisha Walker (at large) noted that many of the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group have yet to be implemented. The Community Responder (CRESS) program is now being launched and the Director of the Department of Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has been hired, but there has not been a change in the culture of the police department, and a Resident Oversight Board (ROB) with a mandate to hear complaints about the police has not yet been established.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman noted that the CRESS responders are currently undergoing extensive training during July and August so are not ready to respond to situations at this time. The ROB will be under the direction of the DEI director who has just been hired. As to the July 4 incident, discussions between the police chief, the CRESS director, and the DEI director are taking place to assess what occurred.

Hauler Reform And Composting
In public comment Darcy DuMont reiterated her request for trash hauler reform, which is also supported by a dozen organizations in town, including the Board of Health. She noted that the 11 most populous communities in the state either contract with a single hauler or provide the service themselves. The exception is Northampton, which is worried about hurting the local cooperative business Pedal People if the city provides trash pick-up.

This matter will be discussed at the August 15 council meeting

Hope Church Requests Three Parking Spaces On Gaylord Street
The parking spaces in front of the Hope Church on Gaylord Street are designated for permit parking, and are frequently occupied so that churchgoers have nowhere to park. Deacon Timothy Haley requested that three spaces be designated as parking for the church, similar to the agreement the town made with the Inn at Boltwood , which pays for several spaces of reserved parking.

Haley explained that the church has been closed during the pandemic and is now trying to reopen after remodeling is completed, but there is nowhere to park nearby. He noted that the pastor and church mother are elderly and would benefit from nearby parking spaces.

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said she worried about the precedent this would set by reserving spaces for one entity indefinitely. She noted the loss of income to the town if the three spaces were removed from permit parking and asked that the Town Services and Outreach (TSO) committee consider what the Inn at Boltwood pays for its spaces.

Pastor Charles Anderson of the church said the church probably did not need the spaces every day, but would like them reserved on Sundays and perhaps one other day and that the church would be willing to pay for the use of the spaces. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) noted that the town has removed parking for outdoor dining at restaurants during COVID, and that it should look favorably on the church’s request, especially with its willingness to compromise.

The council voted 11-0 to refer the request to TSO for a report back on September 12. 

Resolutions Passed On Consent Agenda

The council passed three resolutions as part of the consent agenda. These are:

  1. A Resolution Reaffirming Support for Safe and Legal Abortion sponsored by Devlin Gauthier and Michele Miller (District 1)
  1. A Resolution Supporting the Decriminalization of Plant Medicine and Prioritizing Public Health Responses sponsored by Anika Lopes (District 4), Miller, and Rooney.
  1. A Resolution in Support of Common Sense Gun Laws sponsored by Bahl-Milne, Devlin Gauthier, Griesemer, Miller, and Walker.

Hanneke again announced the community forum regarding the updating of the Residential Rental bylaw to be held on July 25 at 7 p.m. Comments can also be submitted on the Engage Amherst site https://engageamherst.org/ , and there is a survey on that site as well. She also suggested that when the TSO schedules its public forum on parking on Lincoln Avenue in the fall, it place notifications on the windshields of cars parked on the street for at least a week as outreach.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:03 p.m. The next council meeting will be held on August 15. That meeting will include a discussion of trash hauler reform and curbside composting, discussion of the African Heritage reparations legislation, and a vote on the warrants for the November elections.

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3 thoughts on “Town Council Scuttles Varner Appointment To ZBA, Approves CPA Borrowing For High School Track, Hears Complaint About Amherst Police Engagement With BIPOC Youth

  1. I’ve considered several times the argument made by an Amherst town councilor, why to not vote for a certain Amherst resident for a volunteer position as alternate on the Zoning Board of Appeals.

    That applicant expressed that abutters should continue to be fully informed and respected, in the town’s process in deciding to grant waivers from our zoning bylaw to proceed with a project.

    The councilor described how they might one day want to build a house on a flag lot behind their house. Possibly their neighbors have always enjoyed the forested view of that lot, and would be unhappy to hear that a house will replace that scenic area.

    Those neighbors might see it as their right to express their concerns and regrets to the Zoning Board of Appeals, so would it not be better to not have to tell the neighbors/ abutters, and avoid all that unpleasantness, that might result in you not getting the waivers and permits?

    (note: abutters do not have any power to veto the plan, and John Varner, who aimed to serve as ZBA alternate, never suggested that abutters would get their way, only that their concerns would be factors in the ZBA decision)

    If I faced that situation, I imagine I’d feel a social pressure to not only have the abutters receive legal notice, but actually knock on my neighbors doors, to explain my reasoning and my needs, and express some understanding of their position, ie how the views from their house will be lessened forevermore.

    I can imagine that the reason for informing abutters with a legal notice evolved out of people just not being communicative and considerate neighbors. We live in an ever more anonymous society, where you are hidden in legal process, and where forgiveness is as good as permission.

    Still, I’d inform my neighbors, and am glad that even if someone else would choose to not inform, the legal notice would do it for them.

    (note: how many students would fit onto that councilor’s ¾ acres, if not restricted by their neighborhood’s homeowner association’s rules?)

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