Opinion: Town Councilors Blatantly Misrepresent My Views While Rejecting My Application To Serve On ZBA

Photo: Flickr.com. (CC BY 2.0)

John Varner

This is in response to Scott Merzbach’s article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on 7/21 reporting on the Amherst Town Council discussion of my application for a seat as an alternate member of Amherst’s Zoning Board of Appeals.  The meeting was acrimonious enough to warrant press coverage.  I feel maligned by the process, and slandered by political posturing.    

I have written previously on the need to regulate single-family to student rental conversions, and, as requested, have stated my views on zoning to Town Council.  My positions have been misrepresented, and I encourage members to reread my submissions.  As I was out of town during the one and only opportunity I was offered to be interviewed by the CRC for this position, I was asked to submit my views in writing.  Although I was told my responses (available on the town website) seemed incomplete, I was not permitted to have any input at the recent meeting where my application was considered a second time.   

I would first like to clarify my belief that zoning regulations are essentially a contract between a town and its residents.  When a person buys a property, zoning specifies what the purchaser can count on in terms of what can be built or done around them.  This influences purchase decisions, it impacts property values, and can affect the character of the town.  My concern is that if these regulations are too easy to amend to accommodate the whims of a neighbor or developer, residents can reasonably expect ‘anything goes’, and their assumptions, future plans, and property values become unduly murky.  I did write that abutters’ concerns must be given serious consideration. Nowhere did I state that abutters should have the final say, or would always win out, contrary to what was implied.  I believe that the ZBA should not rubber stamp appeals, without regard to the circumstance of any given situation, but should review the facts and adjudicate solutions when there are conflicts between what people want to do, and how it effects those who live around them.  To be clear: sometimes abutters would win, sometimes they would lose.   

Another Council member bemoaned what she imagined was my lack empathy for college students.  I have previously promoted ideas to limit the accelerating spillover of student rental conversions into all but the most upscale residential neighborhoods, but I would encourage this member to re-read what I wrote regarding the need to balance various interests of businesses, property owners and students.  In addition, in my initial application, I reflected that the Hadley Malls and Amazon have decimated Amherst’s business sector and acknowledged that feeding, housing and entertaining students is now the primary business in Amherst.  The town councilor also ironically insisted it is important for the ZBA and Town Council to listen to different perspectives, which is exactly what I wanted to bring to the table.  

My indignation with the Town Council meeting was brought to a crescendo by the comments of another councilor.  She worried that in order to protect abutters harboring animosity toward ‘those people’ who would live in low-income housing, I might, at some future date, vote against the hypothetical development of a yet-to-be-planned low-income housing project in an unspecified part of town.  In the course of her posturing, this member implies I would reflexively side with those who do not favor an open, diverse, inclusive Amherst.  I reject and resent this aspersion.   

Finally, there is the procedural issue of two abstentions being arbitrarily counted as no votes, thereby sinking my nomination.  I believe that all abstentions should be accompanied by a statement as to why the member is abstaining from voting, and that abstentions should be regarded as neutral, neither for nor against whatever the vote is on.  Otherwise, abstentions weaken the democratic process generally, by obscuring the views of those voting to abstain, and/or they amount to a way for members to cast a NO vote without taking responsibility for it.

I have been invited to start at square one and resubmit my application and documentation to become a ZBA alternate.  (There are still 3 open positions).  At this juncture, for several reasons, it is tempting to ask why anyone would want to do that.  My answer: to work with others in the community to continue to make Amherst a great place to live.  I am now sadly unsure how I can best accomplish this.  

John Varner is a resident of Amherst and a former member of Amherst Town Meeting

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8 thoughts on “Opinion: Town Councilors Blatantly Misrepresent My Views While Rejecting My Application To Serve On ZBA

  1. What is gained by this clumsy maneuver to yet again keep certain views off the planning board, zoning board of appeals, and even to be an alternate on the zba, only active when full members are absent? It doesn’t smell right, doesn’t look wise, and certainly doesn’t make those boards more capable. Why would some town councilors not want the discussions of those boards to be robust and collaborative? Why not build those boards with representatives of diverse views? Certainly John Varner expresses himself logically, and states he will make balanced decisions, but also recognizes the growing threat of Amherst overrun with outside investors buying up private homes and then charging $1400 per bed in overcrowded (and often under-maintained) student houses and neighborhoods. It is widely recognized by many in our community that low quality/ high priced student slums are keeping families away, and allowing UMass to avoid their obligation to provide ample housing on campus. It seems to be understood, even by the councilors who prevent that spectrum of views on town boards, even as those boards are lacking members and applicants.

    Characterizing John Varner in this way is absurd and makes our town look absurd. I urge the town council to reject this divisiveness, and realize that problems don’t solve themselves, when swept under the rug or allowed to fester.

  2. I realize TC came into being at a difficult time (the beginning of Covid), and figuring out how it should conduct itself is still a work in progress. I would suggest that TC study “Roberts’ Rules of Order”, THE classic manual of parliamentary procedure. On the topic of abstentions, Roberts has this:
    Do abstention votes count?
    The phrase “abstention votes” is an oxymoron, an abstention being a refusal to vote. To abstain means to refrain from voting, and, as a consequence, there can be no such thing as an “abstention vote.”
    In the usual situation, where the rules require either a “majority vote” or a “two-thirds vote,” abstentions have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the vote since what is required is either a majority or two thirds of the votes cast. On the other hand, if the rules explicitly require a majority or two thirds of the members present, or a majority or two thirds of the entire membership, an abstention will have the same effect as a “no” vote. Even in such a case, however, an abstention is not a vote and is not counted as a vote. [RONR (12th ed.) 44:1, 44:3, 44:9(a); see also p. 66 of RONR In Brief.]

  3. I watched the tape of the Council meeting in question over again last night, spurred by the coverage both here and in the Gazette, and I must say that I sympathize with Mr. Varner’s indignation reaching a crescendo during Ms. deAngelis’s intemperate remarks about him. For me, they really did cross a line, and I invite other residents in town to watch the tape on YouTube and see what they think. I sat there, wondering “why would anyone in town subject themselves to this?” There has to be a better way to do this. It does appear that residents increasingly are opting to stay away from board and committee service in town.

  4. I, too, found the discussion about Mr. Varner’s application appalling and disturbing. It is no wonder that vacancies continue unfilled. The process should be carefully and fully considered to allow true community engagement, starting with a thorough interview process that is not unnecessarily contricted. This situation illumnated a chronic procedural problem: how the Town Council members choose to cast their votes. I have noticed since the beginning of TC how abstentions are liberally used, without explanation, at times when there is no discernable reason to abstain. This is especially troubling when a Council member has fully participated in a discussion, displaying a clear position, and that refuses to vote and show a commit to a position. And that is what an absention is – a refusal to vote. Abstentions are not votes – it is as if there was no vote cast. These should be used sparingly, in situations where the individual has an actual or perceived conflict of interest, or had not had the benefit of discussion. Not wanting to reveal one’s position through a vote deprives the community of the transparency that it deserves. If the vote of the Council was 5-4, then the majority of those voting should have carried the motion and Mr. Varner should have been elected to the ZBA (if, indeed, he would accept the position after the treatment his application received). If the rule is that the vote must be a majority of those present, then the very nature of an abstention has been distorted beyond recognition. The use of abstentions should be addressed – at the very least, anyone abstaining from a vote should state their reasons for failing to vote. It is the least that constituents are due. I have shared this view with District 5 Council members at its most recent zoom meeting.

  5. If a person abstains from voting then he or she is not voting. So it’s unreasonable to interpret an abstention as a “no ” vote. If an abstention were considered a “yes” vote then the process would still be unreasonable.

  6. Advocates of a town-council form of government promised to free the citizens of Amherst from the tyranny of Town Meeting, and painted a lovely vision of a paradise where all voices would be heard and heeded. Those of us who had carefully watched the tactics of this group — starting in 2006 with its original incarnation of Sustainable Amherst — knew that the promised plurality of voices was empty, and was nothing but blatant hypocrisy that would allow this loud and intolerant minority to maneuver itself into a position of power, where they in turn would silence any and all voices that did not fully support their vision for the town. I wish they had had the courage to say what their true goals were, rather than to hide behind seemingly laudable stances so alien to what they ultimately craved.

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