Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Of PURDs and turtles

Last night’s meeting had none of the high-blood-pressure elements of last Wednesday, thank goodness.

We dealt with only one article – Article 22 – and I’ll quench your suspense right off by telling you that it was defeated. Of course, being Town Meeting, it took us close to two hours to do that. This was the article seeking to rezone property on South East Street from Outlying Residential (R-O) with a Planned Unit Residential Development overlay (PURD) to Low Density Residential (R-LD) with removal of the PURD, for the purpose of preventing a condominium development that is already in the works. Except that it really couldn’t prevent the condo development. And that point was the crux of the evening. Despite the earnest pleas of the petitioners and their supporters, it seemed that most TM members were already swayed by the fact that this development is in process– plans have been filed which effectively freezes the zoning on this property for eight years. So even if TM had been persuaded that a zoning change were desirable, it would have had almost no effect on the current development plans, unless litigation and other issues stall this project beyond its zoning deadlines.

Sure, there were lots of other details bandied about. The Planning Board opposed the article, 6-1. The Select Board supported it, 3-1-1. Supporting arguments focused on the development density being inconsistent with the area, significant drainage issues on the site and how they might affect both the rail trail and the abutting farmland; protection of turtles and frogs in the vernal pool that forms there; how there is no sidewalk or public transportation infrastructure in the area and the traffic is bad. Opponents of the article including the property owner/developer, talked about the zoning freeze; the history of TM’s support for the current zoning; the potential for higher-impact cluster development on this property; the risk of the town being sued if TM changes the zoning at this juncture; the implicit bargain made in the zoning change-conservation land swap in 1992 and the perils of going back on that bargain; general benefits of high-density residential development vs. low-density etc. Most of this stuff was already known and already considered ahead of time.

To me, compelling new points on either side were few: Pro – The town needs access via this land for fire equipment and other heavy machinery to protect conservation land. Con: Pointing out that the land abuts the rail trail and is perfect for the future condo dwellers to bicycle into town, to UMass, etc.; and the development is being aimed at the 55+ set, so low school impact is expected.

That was really it. The tally vote was 78 in favor, 115 opposed, and I was among the opposers. Now we have a week until the budget articles begin.

Tidbits from the meeting:

We did get another refrain of the “No zoning change before the Master Plan!” argument, this time from the developer. I had hoped that if this point were raised this week, it would be more in irony than in actual opposition.

Late in the discussion, a motion was made to dismiss the article, which created a confusing stir about whether dismissal was the same or better or worse than opposing the article outright. From the perspective of the court system and how it interprets dismissal votes on zoning issues, it seemed they were roughly equal. Many thanks to Jeffrey Blaustein, who said that he would vote against dismissal because its effects were ambiguous, and would oppose the article. I think he gave many of us who opposed the article a clear path to follow.

I feared that people might be swayed by the argument that since changing the zoning would have little effect, let’s go ahead and change it. I think that would have been a terrible symbolic vote and precedent, and would have been strong litigation fodder for the development opponents. But that didn’t happen.

Many “Points of Order” tonight. People had a lot of concern about fairness, neutrality and propriety.

Despite my steadfast opposition to this article, the vote felt kind of bad. Pitting our collective neighbors against each other – those who live in the contested area, and the property owner who lives elsewhere in Amherst, necessitated that one side would be unhappy with the results. That’s life, I know, but I do feel bad for the petitioners.

I know you’re just dying to know—this time I sat on the left (moderator’s left, audience’s right) in the middle of the fourth row from the front.

While we toiled away diligently on this, elsewhere in the universe the Red Sox hammered the Orioles. And I missed every inning.