Thursday, November 09, 2006

A productive and drama-free evening

Back to the business of the Town, rather than the World.

To start the meeting, Anne Awad of the Select Board moved to put the remaining articles back in their numerical order, overriding the various rearrangements we made October 30th. The vote in support of the motion was unanimous.

Article 6: Saving the Kimball House on North East Street – this article sought to authorize the Select Board to enter into both a compensation agreement and a mitigation agreement with the State’s Department of Agricultural Resources to make amends for the highly-unusual effort to remove previously-designated Agricultural Preservation Restriction land from that status in order to compromise with the new owners of an historic property. They had wanted to demolish their 200-year-old house and replace it with a new one, but after much hew and cry have agreed to preserve the building’s exterior and some of the surrounding landscape, provided they could instead build elsewhere on the property. Because the spot they desire is APR-protected, the Town needs to get that development-preventing restriction removed, something the State does not take lightly. Hence, both compensation (to the tune of $211,000, based on the assessed value of the land being removed from APR for the new house) and $100,000 of mitigation (as penalty and disincentive to other communities that might consider removing an APR) are required. Of the $211K compensation, $50,000 has already been appropriated by TM from Community Preservation Act funds; the property owners have contributed another $25,000; and an 11-acre parcel that will be added to APR is valued at $8,000, leaving an outstanding balance of $128,000. This must be paid by the Town within five years, and the State has required that obligation be backed by the “full faith and credit” of the Town, meaning there is no way to avoid paying it – at the end of five years, it would be taxed back to us if unpaid. The $100K of mitigation also is due within 5 years, and while still required, lacks the “full faith and credit” vow, and can be cash, land, or a combination thereof.

Mr. Hubley introduced the article, reading a letter from the DAR about how they wouldn’t do this for just any town, but Amherst has been exemplary in creating APR land and has made a compelling case for why this house should be saved.

Jim Wald, vice chair of the Historical Commission spoke on that committee’s position, which amounts to “we must save this house.” This committee first got involved via the demolition request by the owners. There are less than a handful of brick houses from this era left in Amherst. It is special because it has never been modernized or repurposed as a business or student housing; the house and surrounding farm are a complete geographical and economic unit from the early 1800s; the big house shows that farmers were successful and well-esteemed. Much work by many has gotten us this far.

The Conservation Commission and Farm Committee both support this in the name of historic preservation. The Select Board supported it, 4-1. The Town Manager explained the whole complicated situation quite clearly, and emphasized that you only get one chance to save a house like this. The Finance Committee voted 3-1 not to recommend the article, though they were torn and an earlier vote had been to support. Their concerns were the high price and the debt obligation.

Much thoughtful discussion and questioning ensued. A member of the Community Preservation Act Committee explained that there is a mandated 10% minimum of CPA funds that must be put toward historic preservation every year, and we typically do more than that. He explained that with the CPA surcharge increase approved by voters this week, that 10% will be around $60,000 per year, which is higher than the $45,000 annual amount the debt would require if no gifts or land were part of the deal, assuring the body that the funding was comfortably within the means of CPA. Another person was concerned that this was a slippery slope and that we might be setting a precedent where we will be obligated to people who threaten to demolish historic homes. There were questions about if CPA didn’t want to fund this in future years (seems unlikely, says CPAC) and Finance Director John Musante explained that even if the town had to pay all of it from taxation, it would amount to an average of $7 per household per year for five years. The “minority report” from the dissenting Select Board member was that it was too much money for what the Town “gets;” if the house burned down we’d have spent the money for nothing. She also warned of unknown potential needs competing for CPA funds.

Eventually the vote was called. It was a counted standing vote – 102 Yes, 32 No.

This was an interesting issue and the vote definitely broke along very different lines than those that often divide the body. Standing votes give instant feedback about who is voting how, though except for watching video of the meeting, no permanent record of the vote exists.

I voted in support. This is one of those rare votes where you really do only get one chance. If TM did not approve this, the house would be demolished, and that’s it. It’s not like a defeated zoning proposal that could come back to Town Meeting in the future. One shot – keep it or lose it. I’m glad we kept it.

Article 10 sought to create an Agricultural Commission. All relevant boards and committees supported it. This amounts to a name change for the Farm Committee, and because it would be created by TM, only TM could dissolve it, as opposed to the Select Board now holding that power. The State is encouraging towns to have these, giving them more clout and more grant opportunities. The Ag Commission would be strictly advisory, just like the Farm Committee is now; it would have no binding authority. A few questioners wanted clarity on small details, and then we voted nearly unanimously in support.

Article 11 was about potential zoning changes in the Main and High Street area, but the final plan and recommendation are still in the works, so the Planning Board asked that it be referred back to them and it was.

Article 12 was another potential zoning change related to updating the farmland conservancy overlay district to bring it back into compliance with its original intents, but it too is still being worked on, and again the PB requested and received its referral back.

Article 13 was another zoning change, this one seeking to remove the Wetlands District designation from the zoning bylaw. The Planning Board argued that: it was obsolete in so far as the locations it designates don’t match up with current wetlands; and it is illegal because its criteria amount to a “floating” zone, one for whom hard lines can’t be drawn on a map, which violates the regulation that all zoning be approved by a 2/3 majority of TM. The PB said that wetlands laws and protection processes are very strong and binding and the existence of this designation or the lack thereof, neither strengthens nor weakens wetland protection – it just confuses the issues.

Those opposing the change argued that it is misunderstood and should be enforced, and that contrary to claims it hasn’t been used in all its time on the books, it actually appears on many maps. They argued that the designation is intended to “give teeth” to the conservation regulations and serve as a red flag that property owners should consult with the Conservation Commission.

These arguments were countered by those saying that just because the designation appears on maps, it doesn’t mean it is “used,” – they just keep being carried forward on maps, but they are not a determinant of the existence of wetlands. It was also argued that the suggested interpretation that the designation notifies owners to seek Conservation Commission consultation has that process backwards.

Ultimately, arguments from the Planning Board and Planning Department that this is not a useful or used designation, arguments from Town Counsel that the designation amounts to an illegal “floating zone,” and arguments from the Conservation Commission that this designation has no impact on their work, proved more persuasive than the arguments in opposition. With a motion to refer this back to the Planning Board defeated, a tally vote on the main motion which required 2/3 majority passed with 107 Yes votes and 23 No votes.

The meeting adjourned until Monday, November 13 at 7:30 p.m.


Richard Morse said...

I would call your attention to the final article of the night. There was some interesting maneuvering to and fro by the members of our Select Board, which led to some difficult explaining by Mr. Weiss. I think that there are some political tealeaves to read there. If I'm not mistaken, Mr. Hubley voted "yes" on Ms. Gray's motion to refer back the matter to the Planning Board, but the others did not. Hmmmm.....

rob Kusner said...

Tea leaves can indeed be difficult to read.

Since this proposal first came forward, Aaron Hayden and I have discussed how to deal with this reponsibly (we were engaged in that very discussion before the November 1 meeting, which is why I arrived after my SB colleagues that evening).

We agreed -- and Aaron alluded to this in his public remarks -- that one way to accomplish most of the "notice" functions of the Wetlands overlay district would be to include the provisions of Section 3.263 in the "standard conditions".

Had that been done first, this article would almost surely have been supported by many more folks, including me (Mr. Hubley can speak
for himself - I too was surprised by his changing
position), but there were clearly enough folks

Anonymous said...

Of course the FPC (flood prone conservancy) Meadow Street disaster was the 1,000-pound gorilla in the room everyone ignored during the wetlands discussion. Hey, at least our town attorney learned something while generating $125,000 in legal fees that have thus far produced a 0-1 record with the courts.

You Know Who

Anonymous said...

Dear You Know Who:
Not fair to blame our town attorney: he tried his darndest to keep the gorilla at bay. After the vote, it became his sad duty to defend it.

Your friend.