Amherst’s Form-Based Zoning Debate Brings Contention, Confusion

By Daniel Nott

On October 19th, about forty local Amherst residents met at their town hall to debate and ask questions about the future of their town—by way of a zoning regulation amendment. The debate has brought together a very diverse group of concerns about development, and a fair amount of confusion.

Fundamentally, the campaign is about updating and altering the zoning regulations for the North Amherst Village Center and Atkins Corners in South Amherst. According to the proposal, the amendment would allow North Amherst and Atkins Corners to be developed using a format called “Form-Based Zoning,” which would create  “Village Centers” with a carefully regulated mix of commercial, residential, entertainment, civic, and recreational uses. The amendment outlines six different street forms that would be implemented based on what is appropriate for the location. Passage of the zoning amendment could bring in new and updated amenities, in an area where some of the sidewalks and roads appear to have fallen by the wayside.

Much of the debate and contention is based in North Amherst, particularly on Montague road, where some residents feel that the changes will push families out, and pull more college students in. College housing is generally easy to spot in North Amherst, and is a frequent source of contention between some long-term town residents and providers of student housing. Particularly in areas such as Meadow Street, many of the houses are garnished with cars parked in front lawns and the couches on their porches.

In addition to the controversial nature of the development proposal, there is also the problem of education on the issue. The confusion is understandable. The group of student journalists who attended the planning board meeting were invited to take a collection of literature and public statements on the issue, which contained over a hundred pages.

A selection of the information regarding the Form-Based-Zoning debate in Amherst.

As the meeting started following opening formalities, some of the Amherst Planning Board members commented on details of the 97-page amendment as it stood. Richard Roznoy said that the board was missing a great opportunity by not elaborating on public transportation. Constance Kruger complained that the definition of “condominium” was not precise enough. Bruce Carson recommended postponing the process to give more time to consideration.

Then came the community members.

Seymour Epstein has lived in South Amherst for 50 years. He said there was a shooting range by his house that causes a lot of noise, and proposed a state law that says no gun club can shoot on a person’s property. But he said the NRA would never allow it. When the planning board Chairman asked him to stay on topic, Mr. Epstein said that because of the shooting, the proposed land was too noisy for development and could cause cognitive deficits in developing children, before taking his seat again.

Mr. Epstein’s wife, Alice, then stood up to highlight the need for consideration on what types of construction would be appropriate for the area. A board member replied that a “special permit” is required for any potentially objectionable business.

North Amherst resident Valerie Cooley admitted she was skeptical of the proposal, but denied a board member’s alleged characterization that she was “anti-change,” just for having questions. “You’re asking us to accept zoning changes that don’t guarantee us anything,” she said.

Others felt strongly that the proposed re-zoning amendment would greatly benefit North Amherst. One resident stood up to quickly state he strongly favors the amendments, because he believes having dense village centers will improve their quality of life.

Amherst resident Melissa Perot also felt strongly that North Amherst needed development and revitalization, calling the section of town a “food desert” because of the lack of nearby access to groceries. However, she expressed skepticism toward the process taken by the planning board and voiced concern that the development would bring in more multi-family block housing.

As the public forum continued, community members gave voice to their perspective, and it was clear that there was confusion as to what the changes will eventually entail.

One community member pointed to a section in the amendment that outlined guidelines for parking garages, asking how that complied with goals to reduce traffic as described by the Amherst Master Plan, which was adopted in February 2010.

A board member responded that they were only stylistic guidelines, and there were no plans to build any parking garages in North Amherst or Atkins Corners.

Jim Bernotas, who owns a machine shop, was worried that his business would be barred from operating under the new zoning regulations, which a board member assured him was not the case.

Toward the end, community member Ludmilla Pavlova stood up and said that the proposal is too confusing, noting that the amendment is 97 pages long and is filled with form-based zoning jargon that most people should not be expected to understand.

Jonathon O’Keefe replied that there was a public information meeting— two actually, where the public could go to get information.

However, Board member Richard Roznoy replied that more words may only make it more confusing, and that what was needed was to maximize conceptual understanding of the case.

The Amherst Planning Board’s Zoning Subcommittee will be meeting  Wednesday, November 2nd, at 5:30, which will be followed by a Planning Board meeting at 7:00. Both meetings are open to the public.

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