Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Planning Board, November 1, 2023
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Fred Hartwell, Jesse Mager, Janet McGowan, Johanna Neumann
Staff: Chris Brestrup (Planning Director and Pam Field Sadler (Assistant)
Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC) presented its plans for building 15 affordable duplexes (30 units) for first-time homebuyers on nine acres at the corner of Montague Road and Pulpit Hill Road in North Amherst, the previous site of Matuszko Trucking. The project, currently named Amherst Community Homes (formerly referred to as Ball Lane Affordable Housing), must receive approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), but the Planning Board will make recommendations for the ZBA to consider in its deliberations. As Planning Director Chris Brestrup stated, this project is a “friendly Chapter 40B project”, meaning the town has encouraged this type of development and has supported it through a $750,000 Community Preservation Act grant and $350,000 from the Affordable Housing Trust.
Jessica Allan, real estate project manager for Valley CDC, outlined the proposed project. She said that Valley CDC purchased the site in August, 2022 after a thorough evaluation of soils and surrounding wetlands. Over the past year, the organization has engaged in extensive outreach to the community. Valley CDC also received acceptance into the Commonwealth Builders Program to subsidize the construction at $250,000 per home in subsidies. The project was eligible because it was in a qualified census tract (the only two in Hampshire County are in Amherst), and although the qualifications for the program have changed, the Commonwealth Builders program is honoring its previous commitment. Its subsidy is the only state subsidy program available for homeownership. (Most of the state’s money is for rentals.) Allan pointed out that homeownership is the main asset for most Americans, and the wealth gap between racial groups is not only wide but has not significantly changed in the past 40 years. She said, “For every one dollar in assets that a white household owns, Black household assets equal one cent, and LatinX household [assets are] eight cents. This is a direct result of the homeownership gap.” Therefore, she said, one of the goals of this project is to increase home ownership for BIPOC households.
The plans call for 10 homes for buyers earning 80% or less of area mean income and 20 for those earning up to 100% of area mean income. The 80% homes will remain affordable to people in that income bracket for 30 years, while the homes for people earning up to 100% of the area mean income will only have an affordability deed restriction for 15 years. However, as a contributor to the project, the town of Amherst can extend the restrictions; it can also share in the capital gains if the houses are sold at a profit. One restriction is ongoing: All units must remain owner-occupied. It is projected that the homes will cost $150,000 to $232,000 depending on the size and income level of the purchaser. The units, ranging from 995 to 1,300 square feet in area, will have two or three bedrooms, a front porch, a storage shed and a private area for patio and gardening. All will be fossil fuel free with passive solar and rooftop solar panels. Owners will need to pay a monthly condo fee for maintenance of common areas.
Purchasers need to have not owned a home in the past three years, have less than $100,000 in assets, be able to qualify for a fixed rate mortgage, and be able to provide a minimum of 3% down payment and all closing costs. They must also complete home ownership counseling, offered by Valley CDC, by the time of purchase. Applicants will be selected by lottery with preferences given to those living in a qualified census tract and those receiving federal benefits, such as SNAP.
The homes are planned to be arranged in a co-housing model, with the buildings being clustered around a 12-foot-wide central walkway with a couple of pocket parks and have a parking lot on each side for a total of 58 spaces, including eight EV charging stations and four EV-ready spaces, with entrances off of Montague Road and Pulpit Hill Road. There will be a sidewalk to the PVTA bus stop on Montague Road.
Public water and sewer are available through a connection on Ball Lane. Because there are wetlands on the site, 80% of the area will remain permeable, with a large meadow planted with native species and two stormwater infiltration basins. There will be a 150-foot buffer from the wetlands to the south. All lighting will be dark sky compliant.
The presentation continued with information from representatives of Dotson and Flinker regarding the site plans, Stonefield Engineering, and Austin Design architects regarding the design of the homes. Allan said that Valley CDC has engaged an attorney to develop the documents needed for the condo association.
Planning Board Input
Planning Board members were all enthusiastic about this project and complimented Valley CDC for the thought and effort that has gone into it. Bruce Coldham commented that it was interesting that, unlike the Habitat for Humanity houses he has worked with, the units will not remain affordable in perpetuity and are seen as a way to build assets.
Janet McGowan asked about canopy solar over the parking lots and Karin Winter asked if geothermal heating was feasible. Allan said that both had been considered, but were found to be too expensive. She said management of the property will be the responsibility of the homeowners’ association once the units are purchased, Valley CDC wants to keep the maintenance fees and house prices as low as possible, so they are limiting extra expenses.
Other comments from the Planning Board members were that the site may be over-lit with the current lighting plan. Also, several members felt that the individual storage sheds are too small, especially because the units will not have basements and will need a storage area for recreation and garden equipment. Coldham suggested constructing a larger shed with individual bays for the residents to use for storage. Doug Marshall was concerned about how to control private and emergency vehicles traversing the pedestrian area. McGowan suggested that the condensers for the mini splits to be used should be screened with vegetation or fencing.
The board also suggested a sidewalk along Montague Road connecting to the Mill River Recreation Area to the south, but Brestrup pointed out that Montague Road is a state road, so the state must approve alterations. There is access to Mill River on paths off Pulpit Hill Road near Puffer’s Pond.
A detailed discussion of the project will occur over the next three months at the ZBA. The public hearing for the comprehensive permit began on October 14 and continued on November 2 (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNtKiVDG534&t=1s for the ZBA’s comments on the site plan). Construction is expected to occur in 2025 and 2026 with occupancy in 2026.
This meeting adjourned at 9:20 p.m. The Planning Board will next meet on November 15, when the board will discuss plans for the Jones Library expansion. There will be an additional Planning Board meeting on November 29 at 6 p.m. to continue the discussion of increasing housing in Amherst.