Planning Board Ponders Historic Preservation


The Massachusetts Agricultural College was established in 1863 and opened in 1867. During the late industrial period the college opened many new buildings, several of which remain to this day. Photo: Amherst Preservation Plan (Courtesy of the Special Collections of the Jones Library)

Report Of The Meeting Of The Amherst Planning Board, March 15, 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, and Johanna Neumann. Absent: Andrew MacDougall. Coldham left the meeting at 7:30.

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

Shannon Walsh, Historic Preservation Planner for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), and Deputy Director of Land Use and Planning Ken Comia joined the March 15 Planning Board (PB) meeting to gather the board’s opinions regarding historic preservation. The PVPC is looking to update Amherst’s historic preservation plan that dates to 2005. The project, which is being funded by Community Preservation Act funds, started in May of 2022. The new plan is a collaboration between the PVPC, the Amherst Planning Department, and the Historical Commission.

PVPC plans to compile a list of historically significant resources in town, with special emphasis on those sites significant to specific populations, including Black and indigenous residents, underrepresented in the 2005 plan. The project is now doing outreach to determine what residents consider important to historic preservation. In addition to obtaining feedback from relevant committees, they have launched a survey on Engage Amherst. So far, the survey has received 81 responses. It is open until the end of April.

The next phase of the project will be to meet with community stakeholders. The Planning Department is helping PVPC identify people in the community who have relevant experiences.

Planning Board Chair Doug Marshall said he felt several questions on the 18-question survey were slanted toward preservation, with no options given to answer if one felt preservation was not important in a certain aspect. He also thought that historic preservation needs to be balanced with other needs of the town, such as the development of new housing and businesses. He pointed to the buildings downtown that are often cited as iconic and indicative of  Amherst’s character, but the second floor of one building on South Pleasant Street has been for rent for almost 10 years, and the upper floors of some buildings on Main Street are sorely in need of renovation.

Planning Board member Johanna Neumann agreed with Marshall, saying the most important goals of the town should be to create more housing and walkable and bikeable village centers. She repeated the hearsay that Amherst has a reputation with developers that it is difficult to build anything in town and said she thinks historic preservation statutes may contribute to that. She also pointed to the difficulty of retrofitting old buildings in ways that meet the town’s climate goals, and claimed  that it is easier to make new buildings energy efficient. 

However, Walsh pointed out that there is much energy embedded in the bricks and timber structure of old buildings that would end up in the landfill if they were demolished. 

Janet McGowan noted that, although the village centers are National Historic districts, the buildings in them have no protection other than the ability of the Historic Commission to enact a 6- or 12-month delay on demolition. Only structures in the local historic districts (Lincoln-Sunset and Dickinson) are protected. She also felt it was important to protect farmland and sites of early businesses in town. She suggested placing more historical markers that point out the history of a site, such as the fact that the Baby Carriage trail in South Amherst was the site of a factory that made baby carriages.

Karin Winter also felt that signage is important to show the historical significance of a site. She pointed to the markers on the Writer’s Walk alerting people to the research that has been done on the history of various sites. She also noted the efforts of European cities to preserve the facades of old buildings while modernizing the interiors. She added that new buildings can be designed to blend in with existing neighborhoods, such as the designs for the townhouse complex to be constructed on Sunset and Fearing streets. 

Thom Long emphasized the need to protect landscapes important to the pre-colonial indigenous populations of Amherst, noting that these sites are not as obvious as historic buildings.

Planning Director Christine Brestrup noted that the Historic Preservation Bylaw was moved out of the zoning bylaw and into the general bylaw this past year. Buildings of 75 years and older are evaluated for possible historical significance  before they can be demolished or substantially modified. This review is done by the Historical Commission, so the Planning Board has minimal jurisdiction over the decisions. McGowan noted that owners of old buildings sometimes cannot afford to maintain them, and these buildings might be  approved for  demolition as a result of this neglect.  She suggested a revolving loan fund to help preserve these resources. Brestrup advocated for the increased use of Community Preservation Act funds to help property owners repair their historic properties. 

Marshall thought historic preservation is important to preserve the character of the town, but may hinder Amherst in meeting its climate and housing goals. He said that although many people come to town to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, others come for a high school lacrosse tournament or college visit, and those people are more interested in the restaurants and accommodations than the town’s historical attributes or character. He feels Amherst does a “pretty good job” to protect its historic resources, noting several houses that have been moved instead of demolished.

In terms of preserving documents regarding the history of sites in town, Brestrup said that many documents have been scanned, but some paper documents are stored in the basement of the former North Amherst school, which, she said, “Is not ideal”. She noted that the town needs to devote more time and resources to ensuring that these documents are protected.

Walsh summarized the PVPC project as documenting what resources exist and action steps to take to protect them. She noted that the 2005 plan is very complete, but is too complicated for a volunteer board, such as the Historical Commission, to follow. Brestrup said the Historical Commission will adopt the completed updated preservation plan, but she suggested that the Planning Board put a link to the new plan in the Master Plan.

April 5 Planning Board Meeting Canceled
The Planning Board will meet in person on March 29 at 7 p.m. to further the discussion begun on February 21 about where further development could be encouraged, concentrating on the village centers. The meeting will be broadcast by Amherst Media and recorded. The meeting on April 5 will be canceled due to it being the first night of Passover. The hearing on the Hanneke/DeAngelis zoning changes will be continued until the April 19 meeting.

Brestrup announced that a new planner has been hired and will be starting on March 29. There is still one vacancy in the Planning Department. 

The meeting was adjourned at 8:32 p.m.

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