Planning Board Approves Permits for Jones Library Expansion


The Jones Library front entrance. Photo: Hetty Startup

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Planning Board, December 6, 2023

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.

Present: Doug Marshall (Chair), Bruce Coldham, Fred Hartwell, Jesse Mager, Janet McGowan, Johanna Neumann, and Karin Winter.

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

The Planning Board approved three permits for the Jones Library expansion project in a continuation of the public hearings held on November 15. Most of this four-hour meeting involved reading the conditions and findings for the permits. At the previous meeting, Planning Board Chair Doug Marshall disclosed that he had donated to the Jones Library capital campaign, but felt he could evaluate the project objectively.

Architect Tony Hsaio from Finegold Alexander and landscape architect Rachel Loeffler from Berkshire Design addressed some of the questions raised at the November 15 meeting. Much of the discussion centered on the lighting plan, which includes some original wall-mounted historic lighting and some new fixtures that are similar. The architects were unable to find appropriate fixtures that meet the town guidelines of being dark-sky compliant. To solve this problem, Planning Director Chris Brestrup, at the suggestion of Building Commissioner Rob Morra, proposed adding these fixtures to the special permit that waives the setbacks for the building under section 9.22 of the Zoning Bylaw.

Planning Board member Janet McGowan was uncomfortable with this work-around, saying section 9.22 refers to the building itself and should not be used for lighting. She asked that a legal opinion be obtained before the lighting is approved. She did acknowledge that if the lighting is considered “architectural,” she could accept it. Planning Board Chair Doug Marshall also thought a legal opinion would be beneficial, but did not feel it was necessary. The rest of the Planning Board was not bothered by the noncompliance with town standards. This issue resulted in McGowan abstaining from the vote on the special permit.

In addressing other concerns from the November 15 meeting, the architects redesigned the roof connection between the rear of the children’s area and the new addition so that it matches the roof line at the front of the building. The roof line connects to the downspout on the addition.

Although the specifics of staging for the project won’t be finalized until a contractor is chosen, Brestrup said that the town-owned lot behind CVS will not be used for staging or storage. In fact, there will be a construction fence around the entire project with no access from the north. The sidewalk and parking spaces in front of the Jones will also be blocked off, with bicycles and cars sharing the travel lane on Amity Street. Vehicles and materials may be stored at the town-owned VFW space on Main Street or other areas rented by the construction company. The former VFW site is slated to become a 24/7 homeless shelter with wrap-around services. No mention was made of delaying that project while the library construction is occurring.

The new plans call for on-site parking to be reduced from 13 spaces to 7, with 2 handicapped spaces and one electric vehicle space. Fred Hartwell was concerned about the loss of the existing handicapped spaces during construction. He suggested that the DPW add two accessible spaces to the Amity Street lot across from the library, but noted that parking there would increase the distance to the Drake music venue. 

Brestrup said that because of recent design changes in the project, Town Engineer Jason Skeels has not yet reviewed it, although he has been present at most of the meetings. She indicated that his approval is required before a building permit is issued. Bruce Coldham asked that a requirement that the stormwater drainage area be cleaned out every year be added to the conditions, so that stormwater does not flow onto the lower lying properties on North Pleasant Street. Library Director Sharon Sharry asked if this was usually part of conditions, saying, “Of course we will maintain our property.” However, the board felt that stormwater drainage is often overlooked, and kept it as a condition.

Other documentation still pending includes review by the fire department and the consent of the Amherst Historical Society, whose property is next door to the library and may be used during construction. Sharry said that the Historical Society gave its approval to the project in a letter issued in October, and seemed surprised that the Planning Board had not received it. She said she would forward it to the Board.

Planning Board member Jesse Mager didn’t feel that a condition requiring no construction on major holidays was necessary and may delay the completion of the project. However, Jennifer Taub, Town Councilor for District 3, worried about the noise of construction being a disturbance to neighbors at their holiday celebrations. The board decided that no external construction can take place on major holidays.

Because many crucial documents were still pending on the application and other information was distributed at 4:30 p.m. for the 6:30 meeting, McGowan asked why there seemed to be a  time crunch for approving the permits at this meeting. She preferred to delay the vote until the next meeting, which is in two weeks, so that members can better review the recent documents, and the review from the town engineer, fire department, and Amherst Historical Society can be obtained. The rest of the Planning Board, however, did not feel that any delay was necessary, and Brestrup said that the library was “anxious” to have the permits approved, so that it can obtain a building permit. She cited other projects, including Kendrick Place and Aspen Heights, that were approved prior to final review by the town engineer. 

McGowan later expressed, in a statement to the Indy, her frustration that the Planning Board was not doing its due diligence in evaluating this complex project. She said, “[The Planning Board has] spent more meetings evaluating an ATM proposal than we have on the Jones Library project.”

The vote was 6-0-1 (with McGowan abstaining) to accept the site plan review for the main part of the project and a special permit for the waivers. The vote was unanimous 7-0 for the special permit to extinguish the 1990 special permit for the 1993 addition if the current project goes forward. Coldham noted that there have been so many different plans for the project that he wanted the plan that has been approved to be specified.

At the end of the meeting, Sharry thanked the Planning Board and planning staff for their help in furthering the library project.

The meeting adjourned at 10:25 p.m. The Planning Board will next meet on December 20.

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