Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Planning Bodies Continue to Grapple With Village Center Rezoning

The Zoning Subcommittee (ZSC) of the Planning Board again took up the question of village center rezoning for North Amherst and South Amherst at a public hearing tonight

Although I was unable to arrive for the start of the session, the tenor and basic content were the same as that of previous sessions: objections from a vocal group of residents concerned about what they view as the encroachment of commercial uses into current residential areas, and in particular, the growth of rental housing that they fear (especially to the extent it might attract students) would alter neighborhood character. Controversy centers both on proposed uses and on the new application of form-based codes, an overlay zoning that regulates appearance rather than uses.

Members of Town staff and the Subcommittee attempted to address the questions and argued that the concerns were exaggerated—or simply misplaced, to the extent that they involved issues not properly within the domain of zoning, as such.

The Zoning Subcommittee voted 2-1 to recommend the proposed rezoning to the Planning Board as a whole, which is now taking up the issue. Voting in favor were Jonathan O'Keeffe and Rob Crowner. Bruce Carson voted against it only on procedural grounds: He strongly supported the measure and simply felt that it would be more effective to deal with it at a Special Town Meeting this winter rather than at the Annual Town Meeting early next month.

Update (post-10:00 p.m.)

After three hours of public comment and internal debate, the Planning Board recommended the warrant article to Town Meeting by a vote of 5 in favor, 2 opposed, 1 abstaining.

During public comment, the Planning Board sought first to encourage reactions to the South Amherst/Atkins Corner rezoning proposal, given that almost all discussion to date has focused on North Amherst. As in meeting of the ZSC, a representative of Atkins Farms/Fruitbowl spoke strongly in favor of the measure. At the ZSC hearing, a representative of the large nearby Applewood retirement community, which is also eyeing an expansion, had likewise spoken in favor of the measure. Negative reaction came chiefly from residents Seymour and Alice Epstein, who restated the contents of an open letter to the ZSC: They fear that increased density could have a fateful or even fatal effect on the life of abutters: noise from a nearby shooting range would impair the mental development of children, construction would threaten the existence of the Eastern Brook Trout, and the impact of traffic in the two new roundabouts was unpredictable; hence any rezoning should be postponed until after the actual vehicular circulation could be measured and studied. Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, although noting the thorough preparation that had gone into the zoning proposal, also said that the Board would welcome the submission of any empirical documentation on the issues in question.

The North Amherst discussion added little that had not been said in any of many previous meetings: Residents repeated their insistence that they were not opposed to development as such and proceeded to articulate their opposition to proposed altered uses or density in the village center area. As in the past, the main theme, repeated in several variations, was opposition to rental housing—in particular, anything that might become undergraduate rentals—as well as opposition to commercial or even mixed-use development in areas now predominantly residential. Paola Di Stefano summarized the contents of an open letter to the ZSC and other Town boards and officials by several residents: the belief that there is already too much rental housing in North Amherst, opposition to any zoning designation other than Neighborhood Residential (the current proposal is for the more flexible Village Center Residential) on Montague Road north of Mill River and on the residential stretch of Cowls Lane, "without exceptions for previous or present business use" (emphasis in the original). The letter and petition moreover note the pain of the signatories arising from the fact that the consultants had not adopted the particular vision of the neighborhood that these residents themselves had proposed.

Only a very few residents—notably several members of the North Amherst co-housing project, which was the object of fear-mongering when it was in the planning stages but is now considered a model of dense and sustainable development—spoke strongly in favor of the project and density and intensified and diversified use in general. Architect Laura Fitch, for example, welcomed the opportunity to address and redress what she called "the zoning mistakes of the 1970s."

In a quasi-new twist, it appeared that the objectors might be placated if the controversial areas of Montague Road and Cowls Lane would be removed from the plan—though this would of course seem to vitiate the purpose of the measure, which is to intensify appropriate development in the village center. A number of other town residents—including some from other precincts—expressed these and other concerns.

Planning Board deliberation was fairly limited. Members attempted to clarify regulations and definitions and address the numerous objections. Rob Crowner and Jonathan O'Keeffe, for example, noted that attempts to exclude certain logically appropriate portions from the Village Center simply because residents objected to the designation made little sense. After all, they reasoned, the whole idea behind a "center" is that it is encompasses a certain critical mass of territory and population.

There followed some deliberations as to whether it made sense to proceed with a vote at November Town Meeting. Did the public adequately understand the measure? Was it too complex for Town Meeting to grasp? Should it be divided or further modified? Should discussion be postponed to a Special, later Town Meeting, in order to satisfy public doubts and criticism?

Noting that the Planning Board had already held close to 40 meetings plus 5 or 6 public hearings, a visibly frustrated Planning Director Jonathan Tucker declared, "the notion that somehow Town Meeting members would not have had the chance to educate themselves" is simply "not credible." Everyone is busy, but "then it's our responsibility" to inform ourselves as best we can. "Anyone who contends that this process has not been adequate is deluded."

Planning Board member and contrarian Richard Roznoy thereupon spoke up: "If a 'delusional' can ask a question..." He repeated his longstanding complaint that the proposal did not adequately address transportation needs, specifically, public transit. (His dedication to complete streets and other sustainable transportation policies is self-evident: he arrived dramatically on his bicylce just in time for the end of North Amherst planning charrette last summer, in helmet, and yellow and black jersey and spandex pants, in order to comment briefly on this topic before the meeting dispersed.) In Roznoy's view, the "transportation flaws are just too major" and "cannot be rectified."  Vice Chair Jonathan O'Keeffe asked: was it not true that the basics were there and could always be modified? Mr. Tucker read from the relevant portion of latest draft in order to demonstrate that transportation was indeed adequately addressed. Stephen Schreiber pressed Roznoy on which public transit was being excluded, saying "This is a huge step in the right direction, and I don't see how this precludes public transportation." Roznoy, it became clear, (a) did not consider the mere option or even presence of public transit adequate (e.g. he seems to have insisted not just on bus routes, but also on designated bus lanes, even though this may not be compatible with the engineering or aesthetic of a rural village center), and (b) truly prefers light rail—which, as Mr. Schreiber noted, many of us may want, but few if any of us will live to see.

Mr. Roznoy concluded by saying that he is prepared to be described as "delusional" and to explain his vote at Town Meeting, The latter, it should be noted, is no idle threat. A year ago, the Planning Board brought forward the long-awaited Development Modification Bylaw, which the Town had been eagerly awaiting for many years as a replacement for an old anti-sprawl measure, which, court decisions suggested, was unconstitutional. Indeed, the ticking clock on the expiration of this old Phased Growth Bylaw was perhaps the only factor that lent any common sense of urgency to a Master Planning process that had dragged on for a decade. At that Town Meeting, Mr. Roznoy, in effect offering an unofficial personal minority report, spoke strongly against the Bylaw, arguing that it was so complicated that he could not understand it. The measure, which faced strong opposition from others likewise opposed to or confused by its provisions, went down to defeat.

In the end tonight, the Planning Board voted 5 to 2 to 1 to recommend the Village Center Rezoning measure to Town Meeting,

• Voting in favor were Rob Crowner, Connie Kruger, Jonathan O'Keeffe, Stephen Schreiber, and Chair David Webber.

• Bruce Carson, as at the ZSC, voted against, but only because he preferred a Special Town Meeting as the forum. Richard Roznoy, as expected, opposed the measure because of its presumed inadequacies regarding transportation.

• Sandra Anderson abstained, like Mr. Carson, not due to content, and instead out of preference for a different procedure (voting schedule or forum).

(Circumstances permitting—always a big "if—I will try to elaborate on these concerns if I am, as I hope, able to prepare a more thorough review of the issues prior to Town Meeting.)

[update: corrected a few typos]

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