Opinion: Proposed New Permitting Regulations Dismantle Existing Protections For Residents, Ignore History Of Real Estate In Amherst

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There is a proposal currently being offered to make changes to the zoning rules in Amherst.  The proposed changes, eliminating certain requirements and oversight, will do several things, just not what the proponents say will happen.  What the changes will not do is provide more affordable housing for lower income residents, increase the supply of housing for seniors and downsizing retirees, and maintain a good quality of life for the residents of the areas bordering UMass.  The sponsors of these changes, Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Pat De Angelis (District 2) have proposed changes based on a complete disregard for reality and appropriate protection for the residents of Amherst.

The basis of their argument is that Amherst has a housing “crisis” and that the proposed changes to make it faster and easier to get permission to develop certain kinds of properties will result in more affordable housing.  Whatever the nature of the supposed crisis, this conclusion is unfounded and disregards all recent history of real estate development in Amherst.

The process for a Special Permit is neither cumbersome, unreasonable, expensive, nor a burden.  There should be a relatively high level of scrutiny and required proof for a development that is likely to last for decades and can contribute to a change, perhaps for the worse, to the nature of the town.  An attorney is not required for such permitting and is most often not needed.  The procedure does not add a significant cost to any development, contrary to Hanneke’s assertion that the change will make development less expensive and therefore reduce the cost of projects, resulting in more and cheaper rentals.  Applications for Special Permits are rarely rejected, especially after the Zoning Board of Appeals has worked with the applicant to make the project more acceptable.  All of this has been publicly confirmed by Planning Director Christine Brestrup.  She actually knows a lot about the subject and is objective.  The process of Site Plan Review is simply not a factor in whether or not a project is workable.

The arguments put forward by Hanneke and DeAngelis are incorrect at best and disingenuous at worst.  They ignore history, reality, and common sense.  According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Ms. DeAngelis stated that there is no difference between students and anyone else, and that it is divisive to disagree about that.

Anyone who lives in town knows that statement is ridiculous.  I have never been awakened by a group of 60-year-olds walking down my street at 1:00 a.m. making so much noise that everyone wakes up and the dogs start barking at the intrusion.  Nor 40-year-olds.  Nor anyone but students.  None of my over-30 neighbors have barbecues and beer pong on their front lawns or have large parties that result in noise complaints.  Not even my messiest neighbors litter the street with pizza plates and beer bottles.  During the height of the pandemic, when UMass was closed and there were no students in town, there was no vomit on the sidewalk, beer bottles, liquor nips, discarded pizza or other litter, nor any late-night loud disturbances.  Coincidence?  Maybe it was because my senior citizen neighbors decided to stay at home but I don’t think so.  Students are not a disenfranchised minority in Amherst.  Their behavior is a choice and the disregard for the neighborhoods is an Amherst fact of life whether DeAngelis is reasonable enough to accept it or not.

Hanneke and DeAngelis assert that they are concerned about university employees and seniors being able to afford to live in Amherst.  If those people are competing with students for living space, nothing about the proposal will make it easier for them.  The problem is not the application process or legal fees, the problem is inadequate housing by UMass.  This proposal will not change that at all.  Only a willingness on the part of the town to insist that UMass fix its own problems will help.

Homeowners who want to add a rental unit and own an owner-occupied dwelling are already able to do that.  The rules are in place for multi-family dwellings and are applied in a fair and appropriate way to protect the community.  The current procedures work and the proposal will only remove needed protection for our neighborhoods.  The only ones this proposal will help are investment developers of student housing. 

Hanneke is fond of using inflammatory language such as “segregation” and “exclusion” to characterize any opposition to her proposal.  Equating appropriate procedures with the Jim Crow South is appalling and harmful to civil discourse.  She expresses disdain for people who live in single family homes who do not want townhouses and apartments next door, even saying “you are sending a message that people who can’t afford townhomes aren’t welcome here, even in a high-density area.”  Yet she has chosen to live in a neighborhood of single-family homes that are unlikely to ever see a townhouse or triplex.  Why are townhouses fine for other neighborhoods where she does not live?

The most puzzling aspect of the effort to push a proposal that is unneeded and potentially harmful is where does it come from and what is the motivation?  It certainly is not based in reality or need.  It would be foolish to remove a proven, fair, reasonable procedure to facilitate developments that are almost certainly going to hurt the quality of life in Amherst.  There will be no more families moving in.  There will be no more year-round residents moving in.  There will be no downsizing seniors choosing to live in a four-bedroom unit with one bathroom and no dining area.  If there is a housing crisis involving UMass employees of all sorts who cannot afford to live in Amherst, this proposal will do nothing to mitigate it.  So, the questions must be asked – who are Hanneke and DeAngelis trying to protect?  And in whose interests are they making this proposal?  Developers?  UMass?  Certainly not the Amherst public they are supposed to represent.

Amherst needs more, rather than less, protection for its neighborhoods and quality of life.  It needs to stop protecting developers and UMass and instead protecting its year-round residents as a priority.  The current rules serve as a minimal protection for the town.  There is no justifiable reason to reduce that protection.

David Sloviter is an Associate Member of Amherst’s Zoning Board of Appeals.  He does not write on behalf of the ZBA nor in his role as a member.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: Proposed New Permitting Regulations Dismantle Existing Protections For Residents, Ignore History Of Real Estate In Amherst

  1. Exactly, David. As someone who lives in the middle of what has become a goldmine for absentee landlords, I see the need for greater, rather than less, regulation. This is a devastating critique of a wholly unneeded change to our zoning regulations. Thank you for writing it.

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