Amherst councilors stall new zoning priorities

  • Amherst Town Councilor Darcy Dumont. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 04, 2021

AMHERST — Zoning priorities that could create more affordable housing and diverse neighborhoods in Amherst, and promote development in the downtown and village centers, could be endorsed by the Town Council in early January.

But even though the Community Resources Committee unanimously advised the council to adopt several zoning priorities based on contents of the master plan, councilors recently delayed acting on the recommendations until their Jan. 4 meeting after some members argued there hasn’t been sufficient review or input from residents about overhauling Amherst’s zoning.

“I believe the process through which the proposal has evolved is inappropriate and possibly violates the (town) charter,” said District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont, who used a councilor’s prerogative at a meeting earlier in December to delay the vote.

An affirmative vote wouldn’t enact any zoning changes, but rather would instruct Town Manager Paul Bockelman to direct Planning Department staff to draft zoning amendments and bylaws consistent with the priorities that would then be reviewed by the Planning Board.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, chairwoman of the Community Resources Committee, said no revisions to town zoning are being voted on yet. Instead, the council would be supporting a plan that would lead to concrete zoning proposals and detailed community impact reports.

“It’s hard to do an impact report when there’s nothing to actually analyze,” Hanneke said.

Hanneke said some of the strategies are drawn straight from the master plan, such as allowing two-family homes in all zoning districts and reducing the lot sizes for homes to create denser residential occupancy near services and public transit.

Actual zoning changes would need to go through a public hearing process and be adopted by a two-thirds vote by the 13-member council.

The first set of zoning priorities being considered in early 2021 would improve downtown zoning and “unlock” housing development through concepts such as revising the demolition delay bylaw and removing caps on the number of units in an apartment building.

The second set of zoning priorities, over a six-month to yearlong window, would change village center zoning by determining what sorts of businesses to allow or encourage, and “unlock” housing development by encouraging duplexes and triplexes.

At Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she appreciates that the town has a more thorough process for reviewing zoning proposals than under the previous charter, when proposals were developed by the Planning Board and then brought to Town Meeting for votes.

“This is more open, this is more clear, than our previous process was,” Brewer said.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said future meetings and hearings of the Planning Board and Community Resources Committee will discuss zoning amendments in advance of any council vote.

District 2 Councilor Patricia DeAneglis said she would prefer to have a public dialogue before adopting the priorities. DeAngelis said she worries about unintended consequences and wants to learn more about how they might affect the economic and social diversity of the community.

This public dialogue was also supported by District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen.

“We are talking about a list of recommended changes that have the potential to alter the appearance and character Amherst downtown, village centers and all residential neighborhoods for decades to come,” Schoen said. “These aren’t small conceptual changes — they were very specific.”

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said using the master plan as a guide is problematic when there is not agreement on terminology, such as the concept of density.

“Density in itself is not a good, at least not in our downtown,” Pam said.

But District 3 Councilor George Ryan said getting priorities in place is about starting a process, and there will be ample opportunity along the way for feedback from residents.

Not yet being a homeowner, District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said he looks forward to making zoning changes that increase housing production.

“The sole reason I ran was because of housing — I was motivated by trying to increase housing affordability,” Ross said.