Apartment complex for Amherst Motel site approved

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2017

AMHERST — A new apartment complex received a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday, despite threat of legal action that the project was out of its jurisdiction and continued concerns from neighbors about its large size.

The three-member panel voted unanimously to issue the special permit for Aspen Heights, and to set a series of more than 100 conditions that the Austin, Texas developer must follow. Plans call for demolition of the Amherst Motel at 408 Northampton Road, and construction of a three-story, 137,000-square-foot building that will include 115 apartments with 295 bedrooms.

Thomas Reidy, an attorney with Bacon Wilson, PC in Amherst, said he believes the project satisfied worries by reducing its size from 131 apartments with 422 bedrooms in a four-story, 180,000-square-foot building.

Reidy called it a marked shift from the project that had neighbors at Greenleaves Retirement Community in Amherst and Windfield Senior and Family Estates in Hadley concerned about putting too many tenants on the property.

“I think we’ve finally come to something that the board can support, that the applicant can support,” Reidy said.

In fact, Zoning Board Acting Chairman Keith Langsdale said the aging Amherst Motel has been deteriorating.

“What we have here is an improvement of the property,” Langsdale said.

Among the conditions approved by Langsdale and members Joan O’Meara and Thomas Simpson were providing 16 apartments at below market rate, having fences and a treeline that will act as a buffer, offering a shuttle to bring people to and from the property, and prohibiting idling vehicles in the 240 parking spaces.

One of the conditions mandates that the apartments be marketed broadly. Langsdale said a website advertising Aspen Heights specifically to college students isn’t helping with the perception that it will be student housing.

Reidy confirmed that the project will be a multi-family complex and that the advertisement was a mistake.

But Harry Miles, an attorney with Green Miles Lipton, LLP of Northampton, told the Zoning Board that the project may not be a lawful application for a pre-exiting, non-conforming use under town zoning.

First, Miles said that using the so-called “split-lot” doctrine is illegal, because the project is taking advantage of zoning in two towns, with half of the parking located in Hadley.

In addition, Miles said that the Amherst Motel has been a motel, not an apartment, and can’t expand unless it has been damaged by fire or other disaster.

“I would submit from a legal perspective this project has a number of problems it needs to resolve,” Miles said.

Reidy said Hadley has already provided permits for the parking and Amherst’s building commissioner told the applicant there was no problem with its filing.

“If it was an issue before, we would have known about it,” Reidy said.

“We believe we have submitted a lawful application,” Reidy added.

If there are no appeals, the developer is looking at an April start for construction, including two months to demolish and then 13 months to build.

Besides communication from neighbors objecting to the project, the board also received an email from Susan Malone, a town health inspector, who said the developer should plan for assisting some of the residents who make their homes at the Amherst Motel.

“They are a vulnerable population of low income, fixed income elderly and ill people with few options for alternative housing,” Malone wrote.

Reidy said there’s only a limited amount that can be done to help them, though no one should be put out on the street.

“That’s not the intent here at all,” Reidy said.

Langsdale acknowledged that traffic in and out of the complex will be a major issue and suggested that residents appeal to Hadley officials to see if corrective action can be taken on Route 9, especially at the main entrance and exit from Campus Shopping Plaza. There, U-turns for westbound vehicles are prohibited.

“Anything that gets built on this site is going to add traffic, that’s just the way it is,” Langsdale said.

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