Amherst council backs zoning changes

  • Amherst Town Hall FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2021

AMHERST — Motivating developers to pursue housing projects downtown and in village centers is a primary goal of zoning priorities being endorsed by the Town Council.

With an affirmative vote Monday on action steps, which councilors deemed consistent with the town’s master plan, the hope is to encourage more housing options for people from all economic backgrounds.

“We have a massive deficit of housing in this town,” said At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke.

The 10-3 vote in support of the zoning priorities recommended by the council’s Community Resources Committee came despite concerns raised in writing from several residents, including from a group calling itself Citizens for Better Planning.

Among the zoning priorities are allowing apartments by site plan review in more zoning districts, removing a cap on the number of units in an apartment building, and easing the rules for siting duplexes and triplexes.

In addition, the council would like to give developers more flexibility in what they can build, such as allowing two-family homes in all zoning districts and reducing the lot sizes for homes, which would allow for denser residential occupancy near services and public transit.

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross, who as a renter has prioritized housing, said establishing specific design guidelines that can preserve Amherst’s character will also be critical as affordable housing projects move forward.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said actual zoning changes will need to go through a public hearing process and be adopted by a two-thirds vote by councilors.

Some of the criticism from the public focused on zoning changes being done piecemeal, with some people saying they are being rushed into place before the November town election, when all 13 seats on the council will be on the ballot.

Others pointed to what they view as inappropriate projects downtown, such as Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant, both five-story mixed-use projects.

“What I do want to point out is that Kendrick Place was unashamedly built, is advertised, and serves as undergraduate student housing,” wrote Elizabeth Vierling of Cottage Street.

Councilors, though, rejected an alternate motion from District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who urged her colleagues to move with more caution and give more “breathing room” to potential zoning changes.

Schoen sought to have various options for zoning adjustments reviewed, such as having developers obtain special permits for construction of apartments in any zoning district, increasing the setbacks from the street for buildings in the general business zone, and potentially having “step backs” for the upper floors of five-story buildings.

“The sentiment is not to stop action, but to keep moving forward,” Schoen said of her amendment.

That was defeated 7-5, with Schoen joined by District 2 Councilor Patricia De Angelis, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam and District 5 Councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne and Darcy DuMont.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer, who supported the zoning priorities, said the public input received by the council delivered the message that white homeowners in Amherst don’t want change.

“I understand fear is what is driving this,” Brewer said.

Those who spoke after the vote criticized the council’s action.

Ira Bryck of Strong Street said he rejects the contention that his objection is rooted in racism or is somehow a dog whistle, and that Amherst should immediately place a moratorium on new five-story mixed-use buildings.

Hilda Greenbaum of Montague Road said she was disgusted by the vote in favor of the zoning priorities and wants to see more input from residents if zoning changes are developed.

“A lot more public discussion is needed before any bylaw changes are made,” Greenbaum said.