Amherst moving to let downtown restaurants expand outside

Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2020

AMHERST — Recognizing that restaurants need assistance to return to close-to-normal operations, Amherst officials, working with the business community, are developing a series of temporary protocols to support their recovery.

The reopening plan, presented Monday to the Town Council by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Building Commissioner Rob Morra and Planning Director Christine Brestrup, shows a path forward for restaurants to quickly expand outdoor dining areas by making use of public ways and private property.

In a memo, Bockelman wrote that a temporary zoning bylaw will “expedite the reopening of retail businesses, including restaurants, to more quickly emerge from the economic disaster created by the pandemic.” 

For restaurants with limited indoor capacity, Bockelman said the warm weather months give them the opportunity to increase seating areas in ways that maintain social distancing.

“Speed is of the essence,” he said.

In addition to the temporary zoning bylaw, the new protocols would allow the town manager to have discretion in allowing sidewalks and other public ways to be used by restaurants and other retailers, and encourage the Board of License Commissioners to expedite approval of expanded premises for serving food and drinks.

The Town Council will consider and vote on the proposal as soon as mid-June, following a joint hearing with the Planning Board set for June 10 and a review by the Community Resources Committee.

In the Business Improvement District alone, which covers a 1.2-mile stretch of downtown, Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said there are more than 47 restaurants. But they have been devastated by being limited to takeout and curbside pickup during the state’s stay-at-home orders, and have also been crippled by the early semester closing of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College.

“We need to do everything we can to bring these businesses back, as they are the lifeblood of the town,” Gould said.

Gould said the proposal represents “bold and decisive action” by town officials for extending a lifeline to a business community in a town where unemployment is creeping close to 40%.

Under the plan, the idea is to temporarily relax permitting for 180 days by adding a new section of the zoning bylaw, Bockelman said. This would allow a restaurant owner wanting to use a portion of a private parking lot or a section of town sidewalk or town property for seating customers to get permission to do so quickly.

Morra explained that all restaurants, retailers and personal care businesses are required to obtain land-use permits that can often take up to 70 days to receive due to the length of a hearing process and filing decisions.

Morra said the administrative approval process he would oversee will be much faster and will be conditioned with an expiration date.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.