Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Amherst Adopts Master Plan

After one final, unexpected delay: success! Amherst adopted its first new Master Plan in over 40 years, thus coming into compliance with state law and enabling us to pursue smart growth and regulate development in a fair and sensible manner.

Here is Scott Merzbach's story from the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
Amherst's master plan now in place
By smerzbach
Created 02/08/2010 - 05:00
AMHERST - A document to help guide municipal officials in protecting open space, promoting housing and commercial development initiatives and ensuring various services remain intact is now in place.

The master plan, developed over the last several years in response to concerns the town's phased growth bylaw might be ruled illegal, was adopted Wednesday by the Planning Board in an 8-1 vote. Board member Denise Barberet was the lone dissenter.

Its adoption will allow officials to formulate and make decisions based on what the community really wants, rather than just hunches, said Select Board member Aaron Hayden, who served as a clerk to the Comprehensive Planning Committee.

"What the master plan process did was to take those hunches and test them with real people," Hayden said.

The 10-chapter document was written following a public component, with sessions to gather input scheduled at all times of day and night, and meetings even held in different languages with interpreters. "We really wanted and worked hard to engage every segment of the citizenry in Amherst," Hayden said. "No other planning process has involved the public at such a high level."

A draft of the document was turned over to the Planning Board in November 2008. The board held a public hearing a month later and then had a subcommittee spend the last year revising the document.

Jim Wald, former chairman of the committee, said he found remarkable consistency in what people want to see in Amherst. One core concept is that village centers should be the focus of development, where people can live near and walk to the services they need.

The plan also has an emphasis on social service provision and meeting the needs of all community members through diversifying and expanding the tax base and providing a range of housing options, from affordable units to housing to housing for the homeless, said Cheryl Zoll, executive director of the Amherst Survival Center, in an email. Zoll served for a period as vice chairwoman of the committee. "Knowing the concern for the full spectrum of the community that went into crafting these goals, I'm optimistic that Amherst will become a place even more able to support the diverse needs of its residents," Zoll said.

The master plan, Wald said, will be a point of reference for the town moving forward when it has hard choices to make. "I think the plan gives us a rational and respectful way to talk about those choices," Wald said.

A land-use map that accompanies the plan raised concern from Carol Gray of South East Street. Gray said she was worried the circles on this map, indicating all the village centers, need to be more narrowly drawn or else open space and farmland would be jeopardized by development. "What concerns me is this map has the circles where village centers are taking up half the town," Gray said.

Planning Director Jonathan Tucker said the circles don't indicate change will happen, but only say "this is where the conversation will take place."

An immediate impact of the master plan adoption is not likely.

Elisa Campbell of Pine Grove said it is unfortunate that many of the choices offered in the document have previously been made over the last 40 years. With open space already more limited, the concepts of in-fill development, while preserving historic buildings, may not be welcome in some neighborhoods, and money to execute some ideas might not be available. "I hope we will do the best we can. I still think it's a good thing to have," Campbell said.

Wald said certain things in the plan, such as how fire protection services are provided, possibly through a new fire station, will cost money, but some zoning changes and other ideas will not need financial support from the town.

If nothing else happens, the town should be able to revise the phased growth bylaw, which was amended in 2004 to be tied to the completion of a master plan. "This gives us the legal foundation we're required to have to implement zoning bylaws that regulate growth," Hayden said.

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