Planning Board And Town Planners Continue To Voice Concerns About Proposed Relaxation Of Permitting
Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board Public Hearing, March 1, 2023
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Thom Long, Karin Winter, Janet McGowan, Andrew MacDougall, and Johanna Neumann. Marshall left the meeting at 7:30 p.m.
Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director) and Pam Field-Sadler (Assistant)
Sixteen members of the public were present on Zoom.
Hanneke And DeAngelis Propose Extensive Zoning Changes To Increase Housing Density
This meeting included the public hearing to discuss the changes to Articles 3, 4, 9, and 12 of the zoning bylaw to encourage more duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses in more districts of town by means of streamlined permitting. This proposal was developed by Town Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Pat DeAngelis (District 2). The Planning Board (PB) previously discussed the proposal on February 1 and February 15. The proposed changes to the bylaw are summarized below:
Zoning Bylaw – Article 3, Use Regulations, Article 4, Development Methods, Article 9, Non-conforming Lots, Uses and Structures and Article 12, Definitions To see if the Town will vote to amend Article 3, Use Regulations to change the permitting requirements for owner occupied duplexes, affordable duplexes, nonowner occupied duplexes, converted dwellings and townhouses to create more streamlined permitting pathways for these uses, to remove the use category “Subdividable Dwellings”, to add a use category “Three-family Detached Dwelling (Triplex)”, to add a permitting pathway and standards and conditions for triplexes, to modify standards and conditions for other housing use categories, to amend permitting requirements for housing use categories in the Aquifer Recharge Protection Overlay district, to amend Article 4, Development Methods to add three-family dwelling, where appropriate, to amend Article 9, Non-conforming Lots, Uses and Structures, to add a reference to three-family dwelling, to amend Article 12, Definitions, to add Three Family Detached Dwelling Unit (Triplex) and to delete Subdividable Dwellings
In response to concerns raised at previous PB meetings, Hanneke and DeAngelis made some alterations to their original proposal by adding design guidelines for duplexes, redefining triplexes as any property with three units and defining townhouses as containing four to ten units, tightening approval for properties in the aquifer recharge protection area, and retaining special permitting for certain multifamily housing. All buildings with three or more units, including those in the aquifer recharge protection area, must be connected to the town sewer system.
According to co-sponsor DeAngelis, one of the goals of the proposed changes is to create housing affordable at a range of incomes, and that as stated on the website Strong Towns,: “no neighborhood should be subject to radical change and no neighborhood should be immune to change.” She warned against what the Brookings Institute refers to as “zoning creep” — using zoning to regulate non-land use problems, such as behavior, property upkeep, ownership, etc. — which are better handled by a “multi-pronged approach”, such as rental registration and nuisance bylaws that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) is currently working to develop.
Hanneke said that there are a variety of zoning districts near each village center, and each has its own regulations. Their proposal aims to incrementally change the zoning requirements to encourage the construction of housing other than apartment buildings and single-family homes in all zones.
Planning Department Has Many Reservations About The Proposal
Planning Director Chris Brestrup read extensive comments on Hanneke and DeAngelis’s proposal derived from conversations she has had with Senior Planner Nate Malloy and Building Commissioner Rob Morra. Her statement, which she says could go further, contains five major points:
1.The proposal does not have the robust support of the Planning Department. It is too all encompassing and too complicated, and the consequences and ramifications have not been clearly identified.
2.We believe that the proposal is unlikely to accomplish what the proponents set out to accomplish, i.e. making homeownership and rental units available to lower- and moderate-income individuals and families. The Planning Department believes that the goals of the proponents are worthy and that the town should work to accomplish those goals. However, we believe that this zoning amendment, taken in the entirety, is not the right mechanism for accomplishing those goals. The following are some examples of things we have concerns about:
A. One example of the disconnect between the proposal and the goals can be found in the proposal on owner-occupied duplexes. The proposal to make owner-occupied duplexes a “by right” use in all residential zoning districts seems, on the face of it, to make sense. However, an investor or developer could purchase a property, build a duplex which is permitted as an owner-occupied duplex, by a building permit, live in it for a short time and then apply to have it changed to a non-owner-occupied duplex. If there were no proposed exterior changes, the non-owner occupied duplex could then be permitted by administrative approval by the building commissioner with a site plan review waiver. Thereby, a new non-owner occupied duplex could be created without any public hearing or public input and without conditions being set forth that would protect abutting properties from potential problems.
We need to take time to establish standards, criteria and conditions for duplexes, and figure out how to monitor and maintain owner-occupancy, when it is required, and how to monitor changes in ownership and occupancy. This is just one example of unintended consequences of this zoning proposal.
B. Allowing triplexes in the R-LD (low density residence) zoning district is another example that may not have the desired effect of providing housing for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. In order to permit a triplex in the R-LD zoning district, you would need 100,000 square feet of property, to meet the lot area requirements, or 2.29 acres. It seems unlikely that someone with a property that large would build a triplex, but would more likely subdivide the property into two frontage lots and sell the lots for single-family development, for large expensive houses.
In the R-O (outlying residence) zoning district you would need 50,000 square feet, or 1.15 acres, to build a triplex. Would someone with a property that large want to build a triplex and rent it out, or would they sell the property to be developed for an expensive single-family home? Again, it is doubtful that this change would have the desired effect of providing housing for low- and moderate-income individuals and families.
In addition, the R-O and R-LD zoning districts tend to be located in areas that are not well-served by public transportation or other types of services, such as stores. So, these zoning districts are not ideal locations for multi-family dwellings, such as triplexes, especially for people and families who may not have multiple cars per household.
C. Another issue of concern is the unlikelihood that low- and moderate-income individuals and families can or will take advantage of the proposed streamlined permitting process, due to the expense of buying property and building a house. In the opinion of the Planning Department, it is unlikely that middle and low-income individuals and families will be able to afford to purchase property in Amherst and build an owner-occupied duplex. Without a stellar credit rating and a history of having previously developed and managed property, a bank is unlikely to make a loan for such a project. The only people or entities who will be able to get a loan to build this type of development are investors and higher-income individuals and families, who are unlikely to want to live in a duplex. If they did take on this type of project, they would be likely to want to get the highest rent possible for the adjacent unit, rather than renting it out to a low- or moderate-income individual or family. They could do that for altruistic reasons, but we believe that this is unlikely.
Amherst recently adopted a zoning amendment that allows ADUs (accessory dwelling units) to be permitted “by right” in most situations. We should see how this new ADU bylaw plays out over time and what the issues are in enforcing the owner-occupancy requirement as well as other aspects of the new ADU bylaw. Let’s take time to review how the new ADU bylaw has worked before we launch into a full-blown zoning amendment that would treat other types of uses the way we are treating ADUs. Let’s find out how many people have taken advantage of the new ADU bylaw, how is it being enforced and what the results have been for ADUs. This may give us insight into how other zoning amendments would play out.
3.The proposal appears to run counter to the Master Plan in that it would encourage development of properties outside of the downtown and village centers and outside of already developed areas. This proposal would encourage scattered small developments throughout town, including in the parts of town that we have worked long and hard to preserve, such as Bay Road, and other rural parts of town. Development should be focused in areas that are already developed and we should promote infill in those areas. Aspects of this proposal do that, but as a whole the proposal does not protect our outlying areas and does not focus development in the downtown and the village centers.
4.Amherst is not like other towns that have done away with single-family zoning. More than half of our residents are students, and there is a tremendous pressure on our housing stock to be occupied by students. Amherst has a student population that exceeds the year-round population. We cannot assume that new dwelling units created through this zoning amendment will be occupied by permanent residents and their families. It is more likely that investors will take advantage of the zoning amendments to create housing that will be occupied by students.
As we know, students and developers of housing for students can out-bid and out-pay middle and low-income families and individuals. The Planning Department believes that the new units that will be created by the proposed zoning amendment will be occupied primarily by students and owned by investors and developers.
We should carefully plan for locations for housing of student populations and place conditions on such housing that make it likely that the units will be managed and maintained to the advantage of the neighbors and the town.
And we should be creative in allowing and encouraging housing for low- and moderate-income would-be homeowners, such as the project that is being proposed by Valley Community Development Corporation on Ball Lane in North Amherst, which will be reviewed by the ZBA in the near future. This type of project will be subsidized by the state, and the cost of land will be lower per unit because the developer can take advantage of Chapter 40B, which allows the Zoning Board of Appeals to approve more units per lot than would ordinarily be allowed by our current zoning.
Loosening permitting processes for so many use categories in so many areas all at once will produce a flood of proposals by investors and developers and is unlikely to result in owner-occupied homes being built by and for moderate and low-income individuals and families, as envisioned by the proponents.
5.There are aspects of the zoning amendment which have merits and which could be developed into a workable set of proposals, but as it currently stands, it is too broad and all encompassing to have a positive impact on housing in Amherst. Some aspects with merit are: making owner-occupied duplexes by right if coupled with making non-owner-occupied duplexes by special permit. This will prevent the conversion of owner-occupied duplexes to non-owner-occupied duplexes without a public hearing and without conditions. We should also create a list of standard conditions for owner-occupied duplexes and non-owner-occupied duplexes, such as we did with ADUs, to make sure that these properties are managed and maintained properly.
Creating a new use category of Triplexes, separating three-unit buildings from the Apartment use category, makes sense and these types of uses may be permitted in a similar manner as Duplexes – i.e., Owner-occupied and non-owner occupied. Again, we should establish criteria and conditions to make sure that they will be well managed.
Eliminating the use category of “Subdividable Dwelling” is a good idea. This category has only been used once, since it was established two decades ago.
Hanneke And DeAngelis Defend Their Proposal, But PB Remains Skeptical
DeAngelis asserted that the kind of developer that builds duplexes or triplexes is not necessarily the kind that will build multiple buildings. She said Amherst needs to cultivate small developers and expand who can purchase homes in town beyond those who can afford single family homes. She warned that “doing nothing” is not an option, and we “should not be afraid of change”. Hanneke denied that the proposal goes against the Master Plan because, she said, the Pomeroy Village Center contains RO and RLD zones.
Although PB member Janet McGowan stressed the need for more housing for low- and moderate-income families, she pointed out that rental prices have soared, not because of a shortage of housing, but because of the pressures of student rentals. Also, she doubted whether the reason that more multi-family dwellings weren’t being built was because of the permitting process.
Andrew MacDougall and Thom Long also liked the idea of promoting more housing in village centers, possibly by the creation of overlay zones. Johanna Neumann had reservations about applying the changes town-wide, fearing it would encourage sprawl. Karin Winter urged caution so that changes don’t have a catastrophic effect on a neighborhood. She favored incremental change.
Public Has Much To Say At Planning Board CRC Public Hearings
The following is a summary of comments made at the public hearings of the PB meeting on March 1 and the CRC meeting on March 2.
Melissa Farris asked what these changes would mean for the Local Historic Districts, but was told that restrictions in these districts would be retained. Several commenters referred to a proposed development at 98 Fearing Street which aims to add three duplexes to a property with an existing triplex, creating nine units and a 24-car parking lot. Daniel Wallack noted that, under the proposed changes, this project would be approved by site plan review instead of a special permit. The special permit could be denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals if it was deemed inappropriate. A site plan review, however, is not discretionary.
Graham Caldwell noted that the nine units proposed at 98 Fearing is one less than would trigger the need to create an affordable unit. Dorothy Pam felt that we cannot rely on the market to provide housing for families. Creating workforce housing will most likely require funds from the state or town. She also said that “it takes a long time to build a neighborhood, but very little time to destroy it. Once a home is converted to multiple rentals, it does not go back to family housing.”
John Varner applauded the goals of the proposal, but felt there was too much to push through at once. He noted that it would take years to determine if the changes aspired to would occur, but the zoning changes would take place immediately. He noted that a triplex can have parking for 12 cars and a lot of black-top, and questioned if that is what the town intends with the creation of that category.
Janet Keller preferred a more targeted approach to creating more housing, with emphasis on preserving wetlands, farmland, and the aquifer recharge protection zone, all of which are vulnerable to development.
Ira Bryck noted the infinite demand for student housing. He questioned how this proposal would control “the frenzy of investors who are unconcerned with maintaining the character of the town and are already calling us to sell to them.”
Susannah Muspratt said she was troubled by the referral to a housing crisis. She asked, “How much housing has been built in Amherst recently? How many people can the town accommodate?”
CRC member Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) noted that Amherst must do something. The town has not made progress on work-force housing.
Planning Board And CRC Continue Public Hearings Until April
Noting the many concerns about their proposal, Hanneke and DeAngelis agreed to meet with members of the Planning Department to work on revisions. The Planning Board will continue its hearing on April 5 and the CRC on April 6.
Meanwhile, the Planning Board plans to continue its exploration of increasing development in village centers and near UMass and apartment complexes at an additional in-person meeting at 7 p.m. on March 29.