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Amherst council rejects zoning appointee over pro-abutter views 



Staff Writer
Monday, August 01, 2022

AMHERST — An associate position on the Zoning Board of Appeals remains vacant this week after the Town Council turned down a resident’s application to serve on the panel, in part due to concerns with his written responses to a council subcommittee’s questions.

In a second meeting discussing John Varner’s application, councilors narrowly rejected his appointment, even though a majority of councilors agreed to override the selection procedures used by the Community Resources Committee.

Though the final vote was 5-4 in favor of Varner’s appointment, abstentions by Council President Lynn Griesemer and Vice President Ana Devlin Gauthier were counted as no votes, meaning that his candidacy failed to win approval from a majority of the 11 councilors present.

The decision came following about two hours of discussion over two meetings about Varner’s appointment, with councilor comments about his views leading Griesemer to issue him an apology.

“I find this conversation one of the most distressing examples of a council conversation,” Griesemer said. “We have now taken one man’s written words, we have construed it this way, we have construed it that way.”

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who chairs the Community Resources Committee, was most vocal in expressing concerns. She used a hypothetical example of the possible development of a flag lot near her own home, observing that Varner might vote against a project because his decisions would defer to abutters.

“The written answers, the way I read them, do not include enough of an open mind for a body that is quasi-judicial,” Hanneke said, elaborating that Varner might pre-judge applications he hasn’t seen based on opinions he believes matter the most.

Voting no, with Hanneke, were District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg and District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne.

Bahl-Milne, too, said Varner placing emphasis on abutters’ views means he might ignore other members of the community, such as college students.

“To identify and focus on only one group, in my opinion, is against the values we are setting as leaders in the community, that we want to really listen to all the stakeholders and make decisions based on listening to different perspectives,” Bahl-Milne said.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam voted in favor of Varner’s appointment. “I find it very interesting that you ask a person for their thoughts and opinions, and if they give them, they get punished for them,” Pam said.

Also voting in favor were District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub, District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, District 4 Councilor Pam Rooney and At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker.

“I think there should be a diversity of positions and points of view on all of our governing boards and commissions,” Taub said.

DeAngelis, though, said such diversity could put needed projects at risk, observing that 28 studio apartments for extremely low-income individuals are being built at 132 Northamtpon Road, even though abutters spoke against it.

“I find that to be very disturbing,” DeAngelis said. “I still remember some of the comments that were made by abutters and landowners, with one saying, ‘I don’t want those people walking down my street.’”

Schoen said the ZBA position is really a one-year understudy role, and Varner could bring a different set of eyes to Zoning Board applications. “I think he deserves to be on the board for one year as an associate,” Schoen said.

The Town Council previously reappointed Karin Winter and Eric Cochrane as associates, Sarah Marshall to begin as an associate and Steve Judge and John Gilbert to remain as full members. Three associate positions remain vacant.

Judge, as chairman, wrote a letter to councilors endorsing Varner’s appointment, writing that if his views are out of the mainstream he might not be a good fit, but also that safeguards are in place, including that the chairperson appoints associates to panels that will make decisions, and that Varner could be removed after a year.

“It is critically important that the ZBA have the ‘bench strength’ of Associate Members to fill in when Full Members are absent and to develop expertise in the jurisdiction and subjects considered by the ZBA,” Judge wrote.

Varner wrote in an email Thursday that he had not officially been notified by town officials about the decision.

“My candidacy for a one-year appointment to a relatively obscure position as one of the alternates who may or may not ever be called to sit in for a regular ZBA vote seems to have morphed into a proxy fight over some of the issues Amherst is grappling with,” Varner wrote.

Varner also expressed concern that abstentions, for this purpose, were considered votes against him.

The vote on Varner’s candidacy came after the Town Council, in a 6-4 vote, waived a requirement to its policies requiring interviews for appointments. Varner was abroad and unable to attend the interview session, which had been scheduled before his submission of a community action form.

Hanneke said the Community Resources Committee may go through a search process again to fill the vacancies on the Zoning Board.