Guest columnist Janet Keller: Let’s work together and put first things first

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Residents from all over Amherst wrote 80 letters to town councilors as of Jan. 4, asking them to clarify how rezoned areas would look and function before they adopt 12-plus zoning changes submitted by the Community Resources Committee.

Writers expressed concern that proposals would increase density throughout Amherst and weaken the ability of permitting bodies to ensure that new development serves the well-being of residents and local businesses. Those letters can be read on the town of Amherst website.

Council President Lynn Griesemer has promised public participation; and constituents are looking for the council to provide specific details and ways to inform and involve the public now. They are asking councilors to schedule public forums, provide ways to share planning information and constituent comments online; and to consider concerns and negotiate with those who would be affected before any rezoning.

Writers are asking for easily accessible maps, drawings, photos of buildings, setbacks and landscaping, that would allow constituents and public officials to compare conditions before and after rezoning. A great way to begin would be to post rezoning related documents on a dedicated webpage and to schedule public forums now.

Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne’s draft Amherst Housing Policy Community Engagement Plan can be a good model, provided that engagement is implemented, and a final housing policy is enacted before, not after, zoning changes that would impact neighborhoods and downtown for generations.

A glance at some of the rezoning proposals gives a glimpse of what’s at stake. One proposal would allow apartments where they are now prohibited — in Residential Neighborhood (RN), Rural Outlying (RO), Rural Low Density (RLD), Flood Prone Conservancy (FPC) and other zones in town. Many parts of town targeted in this proposal are in wet and flood prone areas that lack roads, water and sewer lines and treatment plants in contravention of master plan recommendations.

Other rezoning proposals would increase building heights and lot coverage in the same areas. Taken together, the zoning changes would drive sprawl into working farms, residential neighborhoods, and habitats of statewide importance instead of preserving these areas as recommended in the master plan.

Writers are asking for ample parking and green space in all development; and for affordable housing in all developments with more than 10 units. They’re seeking protections for historic buildings, design standards that fit Amherst’s historic New England architecture and small town vibe; and provisions for wide sidewalks for accessibility and for outdoor dining downtown.

Some stressed the need to ensure that massive blocky buildings with narrow sidewalks, and little or no parking or green space, don’t drive out varied restaurants, entertainment, arts, and businesses that would enliven downtown as envisioned in the master plan.

They want to know whether councilors will require owner-occupants if proposals to rezone neighborhoods for duplexes and triplexes are adopted, or whether such buildings will be allowed throughout town without requiring home ownership, opening up more neighborhoods to greatly expanded student rental housing.

Some suggested that town officials need more time to factor in the national, regional and local decline in retailing as well as pandemic-related changes in the local economy and higher education before any rezoning.

The Planning Board Zoning Subcommittee has already asked to have their rezoning work posted on the town website and to allow for citizens’ questions and comments as the board begins to analyze the first three rezoning proposals.

Now we look to the Town Council to collaborate with constituents to fulfill its promises to work with citizens to build a better version of one of the best places to live in the Valley.

Janet Keller, former Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Planning & Policy Chief, and Rhode Island Energy Office Deputy Director, served on Amherst Town Meeting and the Amherst Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative.