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Council rejects building moratorium in Amherst

  • One East Pleasant, right, and Kendrick Place, background left, are two mixed-use buildings by Amherst developer Archipelago Investments LLC. Photographed on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. FILE PHOTO



Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2021

AMHERST — The Town Council has rejected a 180-day moratorium on building permits for projects with three or more dwelling units in and near downtown Amherst, which some 900 residents had sought through a petition.

Supporters of the moratorium argued it would give more time for the town to better control so-called infill development in Amherst center, though Council President Lynn Griesemer, speaking for the 9-4 majority that voted against the moratorium, said Amherst needs to move away from being what she described as a toxic community for developers to one that is welcoming of projects that enhance the tax base and provide housing options.

“The moratorium doesn’t get us what we want,” Griesemer said, noting that 180 days is insufficient time to study and adopt a package of zoning changes.

“You know what, we’ll never figure it all out,” Griesemer said.

At the same meeting Monday night, the 13-member council unanimously adopted zoning bylaw revisions that will mandate developers include more affordable apartments in mixed-use projects.

Moratorium advocates said the Planning Department could have used the six months to examine rules related to streetscapes, sidewalk widths and green space for large projects, address building heights and setbacks required in the zoning bylaw, and mandate parking for future projects.

Recent concerns have centered on the 11 East Pleasant five-story project proposed by Archipelago Investments of Amherst, already under review by town planners, that would be constructed on a site that previously housed Cousins Market and a private parking lot. That building would join the One East Pleasant and Kendrick Place mixed-use buildings at the northern end of town.

Needing a two-thirds majority of the council, just four councilors supported the moratorium: District 1 Councilors Cathy Schoen and Sarah Swartz, District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont.

Pam, who put together an identical moratorium request with Schoen and DuMont, said she is worried about more projects that are “buildings to warehouse people.” 

“There’s a strong feeling that the zoning revisions process is out of whack,” Pam said.

Pam said there has been a rush to create zoning amendments that won’t do well for the town, and that downtown is already losing small, locally owned shops as a result of recent developments.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said the moratorium wouldn’t accomplish what its supporters are asking it to do, and At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said the measure would only be about stopping building permits from being issued. 

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said councilors understand the community wants more retail shops, but a moratorium won’t give them that. 

“Let’s remember a pause won’t get us a grocery store downtown,” Brewer said.

Following the meeting, Business Improvement District Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said she was glad the talk of a moratorium is over, though that discussion and the debate over the Jones Library expansion and renovation project could stymie the town’s economic recovery.

“As we exit a global pandemic, we need a commitment to small business, growth and diversity in our downtown,” Gould said.

Suzannah Muspratt of North Prospect Street, who advocated for the moratorium in oral comments, said she was deeply disappointed in the council’s decision, though was not surprised due to the influence of Amherst Forward, a political action committee that endorsed many of the councilors in the 2018 election.

“The council’s majority was elected with support from Amherst Forward, a PAC that has been pushing for aggressive and speedy action to remake town center in ways that fulfill every dream on developers’ wish list, but that have aroused widespread dissatisfaction among residents,” Muspratt said.  

Meanwhile, the council quickly adopted changes to the language in what is known as Article 15 of the town zoning bylaw. With this change, most residential developments with 10 or more new dwelling units would be required to provide affordable homes. For those with 10 to 14 new dwelling units, one affordable unit must be offered; for projects with 15 to 20 new dwelling units, two affordable units must be created; and for projects with more than 20 new dwelling units, at least 12% of the total unit count must be affordable.

Conventional and cluster subdivisions with market-rate homes would be among projects exempt from the requirement.