Planning Board Skeptical About Proposal To Relax Permitting For Duplexes, Triplexes, and Townhouses


Duplex. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, January 18,2023

This meeting was held on Zoom and was recorded.

Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Thom Long, Karin Winter, Janet McGowan and Andrew MacDougall. Absent: Johanna Neumann

Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director) and Pam Field-Sadler (Assistant)

20 members of the public were present on Zoom. Marshall read their names. However, due to problems with technology, some members of the public lost their access to the meeting.

Proposed Zoning Changes For Duplexes, Triplexes, And Townhouses Spark Criticism
As they did at the January 9 Town Council meeting, Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Pat DeAngelis summarized their proposal to relax permitting for duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses. The purported impetus for the change is that it “has the potential to make the Town more affordable by expanding the supply of housing; make the city fairer by reducing racial and economic segregation; and combat climate change by reducing commutes and making housing more environmentally friendly.” According to Hanneke, the proposed bylaw change is a way to ameliorate the housing crisis in Amherst. Under the existing bylaw, simple administrative permitting with no notification to abutters or public hearing applies only to single-family homes and many accessory dwelling units. 

The Planning Board must begin a public hearing on the proposed changes before March 15, but will discuss the topic again at its February 1 meeting, after members have had more time to examine the issues and the draft. The Community Resources Committee of the council will also hold a public hearing. Both groups will make their recommendations to the full council after concluding their hearings. 

In summary, the proposal streamlines permits for owner-occupied duplexes in all non-fraternity zones so that they only need approval from the town building commissioner, without notification or public hearing. It also changes classifications concerning triplexes and townhomes, and changes permitting for most multifamily dwellings so that they can be approved by a site plan review (SPR) instead of requiring a special permit (SP) ( see table). Site plan review essentially means that a project can’t be denied if it meets the requirements of the bylaw, although the town can request modifications. As for special permits, which are granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals or Planning Board depending upon the circumstances, Planning Director Christine Brestrup explained that they can be denied, but rarely are. However, the requirement for a special permit can “discourage” developers from building in Amherst. Both SP and SPR require legal postings and public hearings with notification of abutters (see here). 

In discussion, Planning Board member Bruce Coldham agreed with making permitting easier for owner-occupied duplexes and affordable duplexes and allowing approval by the building commissioner alone. However, he said, he doesn’t understand why the change from special permit to site plan review for other conditions is needed. Board member Thom Long said he doesn’t understand how the proposed changes would increase home ownership, pointing out that most duplexes would be rentals. 

Board member Janet McGowan also questioned the purported advantage of site plan reviews over special permits. She asked, what is wrong with current ZBA reviews that necessitates this change? She also noted the fallacy upon which the proposal is based, that increasing housing would lead to lower rents, since the expensive new housing, most of which is designed and built for students, has led  to higher rents overall. Karin Winter said that an important goal should be to protect the areas of modest homes and diverse residents from being bought up by out-of-town real estate investors. Andrew MacDougall said he likes carving out a category for triplexes that distinguishes them from larger multi-unit structures, but agrees with McGowan that the proposal’s changes do not address the root cause of high housing costs here. “[They] may simply be a boon to landlords,” he said.

Severe Time Limits Placed On Public Comment
The bylaw changes were discussed near the end of the Planning Board meeting. Because of the late hour and because this was not a public hearing on the topic, chair Doug Marshall imposed a one-minute limit on public comments.

Josna Rege objected to being held to one minute for her comments after waiting three hours to deliver them. In her prepared comment, she noted the changes in her neighborhood near UMass over the past four years, with houses being bought by corporate landlords at inflated prices and then converted into student rentals. She called on the Planning Board to limit these conversions and increase the affordability of housing.

Ken Rosenthal noted that Amherst is a university town, but in addition to students, there are thousands of others who work at the university and might want to live here too. If they are year-round residents, they would register their cars here and spend money in town. He urged the Planning Board not to only think about students when it comes to housing but about the many other people for whom it would be desirable and convenient to live in Amherst.

Town Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3) said that the stated goals of the proposed bylaw changes are laudable, but that the actual proposed changes do nothing to increase home ownership or affordability. Her fellow District 3 councilor, Jennifer Taub, noted that all of the added rental units in her neighborhood are rented to students at costs unaffordable to families. Councilor Pam Rooney (District 4) said she likes the differentiation of triplexes from larger apartment buildings, but feels that townhouses should continue to require special permits for approval.

Planning Board Offers Alternate Means Of Increasing Housing
Marshall stated that one of his goals for the Planning Board this year is to increase the density of housing in places with existing apartment complexes. This could be accomplished, he said, by adding floors or decreasing the size of parking areas. The other board members responded positively to this proactive policy. Long felt that this tactic would increase housing more than Hanneke and DeAngelis’ proposal.

Brestrup said that the building commissioner had approved expansions for Presidential Apartments and the former Southpoint complex, and there is a possibility of doing so at Colonial Village in the future. She said that these approvals were possible because the complexes were already “nonconforming”, so it was possible to approve expansions that did not conform with the zoning bylaw. But to make this generally possible, she said, would probably require zoning changes to permit increased density in certain areas. 

Transitional Housing Project On Belchertown Road Approved
ServiceNet received approval of its plan to build 12 studio apartments at the site of the former Michael’s billiards (10, 12, and 20 Belchertown Road) to serve as transitional housing for its clients. At the suggestions of Planning Board members at prior meetings, landscape architect Brian Nelson of Leveque Associates increased the grassy area around the parking lot and included shade trees in the plan. He also agreed to replacing the existing lighting with dark-sky compliant fixtures. The Conservation Commission had approved the plan at its January 11 meeting. The vote for the project was 5-0-1 with Winter abstaining.

State Decarbonization Plan Presented
Former NASA scientist and Solar Bylaw Working Group member Martha Hanner gave a presentation on the roadmap to reaching the state’s net zero fossil fuel emissions by 2050 . The plan signed by Governor Baker includes a 25% decrease in fossil fuel emissions, compared to 1990, by 2030 and a 50% decrease by 2030. The 2050 net zero value does not mean there will be no use of fossil fuels, only that these emissions must not exceed carbon sequestration.

Hanner said that transportation produces the largest share of emissions, with buildings the next biggest producers. Fossil fuel use from electricity production has decreased with the switch from coal and oil to natural gas. With the decrease in driving and commuting during the first year of the pandemic, the state met its goal in reduced emissions for 2020, but the downward trend has reversed slightly since then. In order to decrease carbon emissions, the state must increase efficiency, electrify heating and vehicles, decarbonize electricity production, and increase carbon capture. Offshore wind is expected to be the backbone of renewable energy production in the state.

Massachusetts is part of the Northeast Regional grid. Some of the challenges in the commonwealth are a high population density that is not close to renewable energy sources, and a large winter heating load. The state has a tie-in with Hydroelectric Quebec, but there is a need for battery storage because peak production of renewables does not correlate with peak needs.

Hanner stressed that newer studies place more emphasis on carbon sequestration as a means of reducing carbon emissions, and that Western Massachusetts’ abundance of forested land serves as a carbon reservoir. Studies are being done to determine the best mix of old and new growth forested land to maximize carbon sequestration. Fifty-seven percent of the land in Massachusetts is forest. The state’s goal is to protect 40% of undeveloped land by 2050. Currently 28% of undeveloped land is protected state-wide, and 30% of undeveloped land is protected in Amherst.

She concluded that we need a drastic decrease in emissions to meet the 2050 goal, including financial incentives to increase the use of heat pumps and solar panels and an upgrade to the transmission and distribution system, in addition to protecting forests and wetlands. She noted that environmental justice mandates equitable distribution of energy saving technologies because of their high upfront costs and thoughtful siting of solar arrays, wind turbines, and batteries.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:01. The Planning Board will next meet on February 1.

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