Amherst board nixes permit to convert owner-occupied home to rentals near high school

Name hereSTAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

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By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 11-22-2023 6:11 PM

AMHERST — Concerns over an owner-occupied rental home’s two units and five bedrooms being converted to exclusively rental units, potentially changing the character of a downtown neighborhood, appears to have stymied a real estate transaction.

With Charles Dana and Ruoqi Zhong seeking a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals to convert a two-unit, owner-occupied duplex at 62 Taylor St. into an entirely rental property, members of the Zoning Board of Appeals advised the Leverett couple that they weren’t likely to achieve the four-member threshold needed for approval.

At an Oct. 9 meeting, Dana and Zhong withdrew the application without prejudice, after board members worried that this could be the next in an increasing number of rental properties in the neighborhood that is located close to the high school.

Board member David Sloviter cited quality of life issues, observing that the number of police calls to non-owner occupied rentals is greater than when an owner lives on site and has a vested interest in the property.

“This is about, in my mind, simply the transition of family homes to student housing, and we have seen the damage,” Sloviter said.

Dana said he wants to invest in a local rental property, as he and Zhong have done before moving to the area from Chicago.

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“Our interest in the property is to maintain it as a safe property,” Dana said. “We’re looking to be good stewards.”

Zhong and Dana had planned to buy the home from Angela McMahon and Justin Serpone, of Hadley.

McMahon said she purchased the home in 2017 and over the course of a few years, after her family and other relatives lived there, decided to utilize as a rental, not realizing the previous permit had expired and that she would be in violation of town zoning.

“My husband and I decided to sell the house, and as part of the sale was when we realized there was not a permit on it,” McMahon said.

Zoning Board Chairman Steve Judge said he was on the fence with approval of the special permit and, like Sloviter, is concerned that the home could be a tipping point, even though Taylor Street isn’t immediately next to the University of Massachusetts campus.

Sloviter said despite best intentions of some property owners, an enormous factor in deteriorating neighborhoods is when homes are made into full rentals, even if those living there initially are not causing any issues.

“I have no confidence that the three quiet girls with one car are going to be followed by three more quiet girls with one car,” Sloviter said. “Who knows? Nobody puts an ad in the paper to get eight raucous drunks into their house, but it seems a lot of them manage to do that.”

Board member Sarah Marshall said she is concerned about making an arbitrary decision, noting the board may have approved a similar conversion in a different neighborhood. “I wish we had some principles on which to evaluate these,” Marshall said.

Board member Everald Henry said there is a need for rental homes in town, and that this property could be ideal for a young family. He suggested finding a way to put restrictions on the future tenants.

But Sloviter said it was uncertain what sort of limits could be placed that wouldn’t run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.

With no approval imminent, Dana said that he would withdraw the application for now.

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