Thursday, May 11, 2006

Twilight zoning

Wow. Where to begin?

How about with nominations for sainthood for Paul Bobrowski and Jonathan Tucker?

The ability of both of these men to be calm, composed, unflappable and respectful in the face of unrelenting brain-busting frustration was positively inspiring.

Yes, tonight TM began addressing the zoning articles, and the concerned citizens of Amherst successfully deployed every weapon in their arsenal to delay, confuse, complicate and defeat anything that hinted at change.

Let’s take it from the top.

This time I sat on the right side of the auditorium (moderator’s right, audience’s left) in the middle of the third row from the front.

The meeting is called to order. We have the swearing in of one new member, a series of announcements about the TMCC election and info available on the town web site, various explanations and reminders about procedure, and some info about the process the zoning articles go through before and after Town Meeting deals with them.

Then a procedural motion is made to put article 20 after article 18, making the order of tonight’s articles 18, 20 and 21.

So we commence with Article 18. Paul Bobrowski from the planning board speaks to this article which simply fixes an out-of-date reference in the overview of section 6.0. Unanimous vote to support, nice and quick.

Article 20 – the fun begins. Bobrowski explains with patience, charts and relevant examples the details and intention of this article. It seeks to rationalize the lot requirements for mixed-use buildings with dwelling units located above ground floor businesses in different zoning districts. The intent is both to bring existing non-compliant buildings into complicance, and to be able to “mirror the downtown density” in other appropriate areas. The Select Board is in unanimous agreement with the recommendation. But wait – one TM member wants to separate part of the motion so that it can be voted on separately. That is a privilege of a TM member, when different parts of a motion can be logically separated. Weird, but OK. Now the questions about the charts – mostly concerns that this change will allow for potentially much greater density than both the current rules and the current non-compliant situations. Bobrowski explains that his numbers represent a “theoretical maximum” for the number of units that could be allowed under the change – but there are many other factors that determine maximum units – myriad other aspects of zoning that would only diminish the maximum. This requires frequent repeating and reassurance, as does the notion that no plan is in the pipeline to exploit the zoning change and max out these mixed-use buildings. Let’s separate the motion even further – we can vote on the same zoning changes for each zoning district separately! Nope, sorry – that fails the “logical separation test.” We don’t understand the article – explain it again. OK, here it all is again. And then the introduction of the evening’s fugue theme: we can’t make zoning changes when we are just beginning a Master Plan Process! Better yet – this is too darned confusing – let’s refer it back to the Planning Board. No, let’s keep being obtuse about it! Does this little paragraph determine the town’s entire zoning strategy? Umm, no, actually the zoning bylaw is massively long and complex and detailed. Finally we vote. I vote in support of the article. It passes.

Now for the part that was separated out before. It pertains to raising the building height limit in some districts to 40 feet, from 35 feet. This does not increase the number of stories a building could have, but primarily allows for peaked roofs, church steeples and the infrastructure requirements of modern building (HVAC systems, etc.) But then there’s the threat of greedy landlords tearing down historic buildings so they can build things five feet taller! And yet, somehow, we vote and support this section of the article as well. (Need I note that I too voted in support?)


On to Article 21. But no – not yet! Someone who was absent Monday with a really good excuse is mad that he missed out on information and doesn’t know what’s going on. Our wise and patient moderator explains that in fact, proceedings did not grind to a halt in this member’s absence. Now we can proceed with 21, which deals with rezoning several parcels on South East Street at the College Street intersection from primarily Neighborhood Residence, to primarily Village Center – Business. Bobrowski explains that it rationalizes zoning with property lines, it encourages the kind of mixed-use business and residential Village Center development that both broadens the tax base and makes for nice living, shopping, eating, etc. When development applications come in, the permitting process will take care of getting the sidewalk/drainage type infrastructure upgrades that are desired. The Select Board wants to refer it back to the Planning Board. They have concerns, among them (cue the strings, here comes our theme again) we can’t rezone when we are starting a Master Plan Process! Also, they want to hear not just from the property owners, but also the residents of the rentals; they want to impose “contract zoning’ to require certain infrastructure upgrades from the property owners; they are afraid the zoning would allow for hotels, rooming houses, apartments and other “more intense” residential uses. But most of all, they are obsessed with the notion of the remnants of an historic common that is part of the public way, over which they have jurisdiction. No amount of reassurance from Mr. Bobrowski or Jonathan Tucker, Town Planning Director, can assuage the ambiguous concerns about the historic common. The Finance Committee is in unanimous support of the article. The Public Works Committee takes no position but says something about pending CPAC funds for studying the common situation. Bobrowski rebuts each concern and element of opposition, and we’re ready to vote on referral back to the Planning Board. Too close, so a tally vote is called for, and ultimately the motion to refer back to the Planning Board is defeated. Back to the main motion. The non-planning experts weigh in on their personal whims and fancies for how the parcels should be zoned. Buildings and intersections are referenced that have nothing to do with this article. Rob Kusner of the Select Board talks about a situation in Bellingham that was exactly the same as this one, where they used contract zoning to make the builder of a power plant provide resources for another project in town. Huh?!? Several people point out that this is an excellent opportunity to be pro-business, to encourage a broader tax base, etc. But beware, points out another – some of those new businesses might compete with existing businesses! And lest we forget – the Master Plan Process. Eventually we vote again, and again Baer “Tally Vote!” Tierkel extracts accountability from the members by putting our votes on record. All changes to the zoning bylaw require a 2/3 majority vote, and this one was defeated. I supported it.

It is nearly 10:00 now, and I’m hoping that we’re done for the night, but the moderator keeps us on task and moves on to Article 23. Ugh. The PRP article.

This is the one to fix the Professional Research Park zoning designation to allow these “quiet businesses” to do business with clients on site, if they are primarily by appointment. More excellent explanations from the Planning Board. Surprise support from the Select Board (4-1), unanimous support from the Finance Committee. You would think that this has “no-brainer” written all over it. You would be wrong. Despite all the support, it was not sufficient to garner the 2/3 majority needed, thanks to the novel argument that there is plenty of empty office space around, so no more office space is needed. I hope that same argument doesn’t prevent potential new restaurants. I mean, heck! – we have plenty of places to eat around here – we don’t need any more. Besides new ones might have the nerve to compete with existing ones – no, wait, it’s late, and I’m blurring the various contrarians. So another tally vote fails. And by the way – I supported this one too.

Quite an experience. I had to blog this one tonight, or else I wouldn’t sleep. But wait, how can I go to bed now, when we’re about to begin a Master Plan Process …


Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie,

Thanks for summing it up for all of us who are too tired to do so!

I wonder what all these folks who are using the "let's wait for the master plan" defense will be saying once the master plan says exactly the same thing that the planning board has already put together....

I can't wait for that tap dance.

Anonymous said...

I watched at home while you, my husband and other hope springs eternal gluttons for punishment attended TM.

Some say watching TM on ACTV is too boring. On the contrary, it's positively interactive. I scream at the TV and nobody listens. That's pretty much like being there isn't it?

The only pitfall is fighting the inevitable urge at 10pm to drown my sorrows in a box of cookies right before bed. Instead, I look forward to giving my husband a sympathetic hug when he comes through the door. He usually says "Not tonight dear, I have a headache!".

Steve Dunn said...

Oh My God! This is a great summary of the May 10th TM! Brilliant! Inspired! I laughed. I cried. Better than Cats. Better even than coverage by the Amherst Bulletin! I hope everyone interested in Amherst politics learns about your blog. Keep it up!

BTW, you mentioned me in your blog... I'm the lone member who had to be sworn in.

Best Regards,

Steve Dunn

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Thanks to all of you for stopping by and commenting!

Anon 1 - you're right about the Master Plan thing. I would like to know if any of these people using it as a stall tactic even supported the concept, allocating the money, etc. I'm kind of doubting it.

Anon 2 - Good for you for watching! You deserve the cookies after all that -- particularly a session like this past one. But save a few for your husband.

Steve -- welcome to TM! "Better than Cats" cracked me up -- haven't heard that in a while.

Thanks again! And please consider passing the site link along to others -- the more people we can get thinking and talking about the process, the better. And you TM-ers -- why aren't you starting your own blogs yet? It's free, it's easy, and it can let us create a network of diverse opinions and analysis that would really serve and engage Amherst citizens. Do think about it.


Jonathan Tucker said...

Dear Ms. O'Keefe:

Thank you for your kind words.

Although I cannot speak to your characterizations of aspects of this last Wednesday evening's Town Meeting, your narrative summary was well-written, highly entertaining, and presented your perspective vividly. [Like father, like daughter--MacDougals (Coull) were always skilled with words.]

It is heartening to see Amherst citizens (of any and all viewpoints) caring so deeply about the community and its governance.

Those who have an interest in the master plan should consider participating directly in its creation. Although the Planning Board has final statutory responsibility for approving the finished plan 18-24 months from now, it will be up to the ciizens of Amherst to make sure that this master plan is indeed theirs, and represents their intentions for the community's future. Significant aspects of the master plan (including an overhaul of the Zoning Bylaw and Map which govern how the community grows) will need to need Town Meeting approval in order to be meaningfully implemented.

Those who participate in the creation of the master plan will have a much better idea of what's at stake when it comes time for those future zoning articles to be voted on.

Thank you again,

Jonathan Tucker