Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I didn't forget

Apparently holidays and meeting recaps don’t mix well, so let’s hope Town Meeting finishes up before Christmas.

Here's a scaled-down account of last week’s session, lest I end up two meetings behind.

Bad start: I could hear the gavel bang and the meeting come to order while I was still at the Select Board meeting in the music room.

Gets better: Once I was checked in and settled, a dashing fellow from the Planning Board was speaking to the dismissal of articles 13 and 14 – which proposed changes to the allowed uses in the Professional Research Park zone – due to the new compromise Article 1 of the 11/28 Special Town Meeting.

Gets worse: Gerry Weiss offers an “apology” for saying at the previous meeting that banks are more inclined to finance a project with Site Plan Review approval rather than Special Permit. He’s called a couple of people who disagree with that. Let the equivocation begin.

Dismissed: With Vince O’Connor of the “Coalition for Sustainable Neighborhoods” praising the spirit of cooperation of the Planning Board, its Zoning Subcommittee, and the Planning Department staff, 13 and 14 were unanimously dismissed.

Recused: Harrison Gregg recused himself as Moderator for Article 15 which dealt with property owned by his employer, Amherst College. Jim Pistrang was the sole nominee to fill that interim role, and was elected by unanimous vote of the body.

The gist: Article 15 was originally two parts. The first part sought to expand the General Business district a block to the east, to include Spring Street up to Churchill Street. The second part sought to allow inns, hotels and motels by Site Plan Review in the General Business district, instead of by Special Permit. The proposed expansion the business district would be a tiny and reasonable change and might help to save an historic house owned by the Masonic Lodge for which the most attractive use to that organization under the residential zoning is to demolish it and make a parking lot. The inn/hotel/motel change would make it easier for Amherst College to proceed with planned expansion of the Lord Jeff, and would be a step toward encouraging lodging downtown by making it a “by right” use, rather than an exception, in that district. Planning Board member Jonathan Shefftz presented this article and spoke to these points.

Motion A: Expanding the General Business district seems simple enough and is endorsed by the Select Board, the Finance Committee and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Not so fast: Vince O’Connor moved to divide the motion into three parts, separating the different affected parcels. OK then. He said he supported Motion 1 – rezoning the Masons’ house, and opposed Motion 2 – rezoning a house with rental apartments. What about Motion 3? Stay tuned.

Best points: Frank Wells said Town Meeting would be overstepping its knowledge base to make new zoning proposals from the floor. Jonathan Shefftz spoke to the Spring Street expansion being proposed as a cohesive unit, and said that no consideration or public input had been given to idea of rezoning some but not all of the parcels in question. Gavin Andresen said that while TM is often uneasy about zoning changes, he was optimistic about the potential for Spring Street, and spoke of the recent pleasant surprise of an auto parts store becoming a hot tub place, noting also that such an enterprise isn’t vulnerable to Internet competition.

Results: Motions A1 and A2 pass easily, which means that one side of the Spring Street block is rezoned to General Business.

Here we go: Vince then sought to have the proposed rezoning of the four parcels on the other side of the street – the Lord Jeff and three other buildings owned by Amherst College – referred to the Planning Board, Select Board and Town Manager. He wants to use them as leverage to pressure Amherst College into giving the Town money. Nothing says Town-Gown partnership like applying the big squeeze.

Voices of reason: Jim Brassord from Amherst College spoke to the fortunes of the college and the downtown rising and falling together. Isaac BenEzra spoke to the folly of approving the first two parts of this now-divided motion without approving the third, saying one can’t be “half pregnant,” and emphasizing the need to work with the colleges on efforts that expand the tax base and provide jobs. Larry Kelley said that encouraging expansion of the Lord Jeff makes sense both because it will increase its assessed value and because it will increase the opportunity to collect lodging taxes.

Results: The motion to refer failed. Rezoning of the Amherst College properties passed.

Hotels, motels and inns, oh my: The ZBA moved to divide this motion, separating inns from hotels and motels. The Select Board supported allowing inns by special permit but moved to refer the hotels and motels part back to the Planning Board.

Throwing spaghetti at the wall: Everyone supported the inn part because inns can only be in buildings that are at least 75 years old, while hotels and motels would require the dreaded “new construction.” It was suggested that Site Plan Review shows less concern for abutters and other opponents. Various scary hotel situations were invoked: Look at Route 9! Look what happened with the new hotel proposal in Northampton! Hotels and motels are chains! We also had pictures of pretty downtown buildings that are now gone, to make room for such outrages as the fire station and the post office. (Imagine what horrors lurk if we don’t keep everything as-is – the gas station could become something charming. The CVS or Brueggers buildings might be improved. And heaven forefend – the big Bank of America building… no, no – change is just too dangerous.)

Oh the irony: Select Board member Hwei-Ling Greeney gave every impression of being confused by and mistaken about the details of the proposed change to Site Plan Review, saying that she found in the fine print of the Zoning Bylaw that it would apply to the Limited Business, Commercial, and Business-Village Center districts as well. While she described her concerns about that, her colleagues Gerry Weiss and Rob Kusner displayed overt frustration which I found to be incredibly disrespectful and inappropriate. We are all allowed to be wrong, for goodness sake. Except that Hwei-Ling wasn’t even wrong. Through another oversight on the part of the Planning Board, language about confining the change to the General Business district somehow didn’t make it into the final version of the article, though it had been included other places and had been the clear intent throughout the process of the article’s creation. Egads. These errors aren’t doing the Planning Board any favors in the “you can trust us because we’re thorough and rigorous” department.

Motion to refer: This motion failed in a close tally vote – 76 in favor, 81 opposed. I voted to oppose.

Fixed: We voted to amend the article to add the language about the General Business district to both the hotels/motels part and the inns part.

Back to the Hotels/Motels: At this point and previously throughout the evening, people spoke in favor of the change from Special Permit to Site Plan Review: Lodging can be new, small and nice. There is plenty of protection in the Zoning Bylaw, the SPR process and the Design Review Board to prevent something awful or huge. Wouldn’t it be nice if guests could stay in downtown Amherst and walk to shops and restaurants? Years ago, the Carriage Shops was a motel (who knew?) and that didn’t spell doom for Amherst. The theme of the zoning proposals is encouraging economic development, and this would be a simple, logical low-risk way to do that. We are trying to change the Special Permit message that says: no, we don’t really want that.

Another tally: The change to allow hotels and motels in the General Business district by Site Plan Review failed to meet the 2/3 requirement, with 100 Yes votes and 54 No votes. I voted Yes.

Inns are OK: The vote to approve allowing inns in the General Business district by Site Plan Review passed overwhelmingly, with just a handful of Nos. And I voted Yes for that as well.

The meeting adjourned just after 10:30, after considering one article. We meet again Wednesday, November 28th for the “Special Special.”


Larry Kelley said...

So both Aaron Hayden, Planning Board Chair and Moderator Harrison Gregg recused themselves from the rezoning article that benefits The Lord Jeff because they are Amherst College employees.

BUT Selectman Rob Kusner, Umass professor and Selectperson Elisa Brewer with a husband in the same lucrative boat can vote to gift Umass $200,000 in free water? Hmmmm