Friday, November 09, 2007

Inching forward

Not so quick this time, but progress was made.

It started off pretty late. The constable’s announcement of the quorum came at about 7:40, and we didn’t start until ten minutes after that. Tough to know what to do about that. People sitting around me were grumbling about the Moderator, but it’s not like he’s up there goofing off – he’s dealing with people who have questions and procedural issues. If he cuts off all that discussion and bangs the gavel as soon as the quorum is called (which should occur at 7:30 – a late quorum is entirely “our” fault as members) then presumably those same questions and procedural issues will need to be dealt with during the course of the meeting. And we had some pretty good examples of that last night too. Maybe forcing such stuff to be dealt with during the meeting instead of right before would put more pressure on people to handle their issues ahead of time – earlier in the day, or days prior – instead of reinforcing the notion that “TM always starts late, so it’s fine for me to be part of that delay.” It really is a self-perpetuating problem – people come late because they know the meeting typically starts late, so that means we don’t achieve quorum until late, and any delay beyond that just makes it all worse. Alas.

Article 8 – CPAC money for Town Hall. We already authorized money for the Town Hall repairs and restoration last spring. This article was about using Community Preservation Act funds instead of straight Town tax money, allowing State matching funds to reduce the amount required from taxation. This issue has gone around and around in recent months – Was this a legal and appropriate use of CPAC funds? Was it “fair” to make this a Historic Preservation CPAC expenditure, thus redirecting the Historical Commission’s CPAC share away from other planned preservation projects? Once the former was decided in the affirmative and the latter achieved an acceptable compromise, this was pretty much a done deal. So many parties were involved in the negotiations on the issues leading up to this article that even Town Meeting didn’t stand much chance of derailing this. And it didn’t. The various parts – $100,000 from the CPAC fund balance for the south stairs and clock tower repairs; $295,000 in borrowing against future CPAC funds for the rest of the exterior masonry work (except for the money that has already been spent – this is the kind of nitty-gritty stuff that has been keeping folks busy on this issue;) and the vote to reduce last spring’s appropriation accordingly, all passed nearly unanimously with only the usual handful of obstinate Nos.

Article 9 – Fair Trade. Yuri Friman talked about the benefits of Fair Trade and the benefits to Amherst of declaring itself a Fair Trade town – only the fourth in the country and the first in Massachusetts: it’s good for the farmers and crafters; it gives them direct access to international markets and earns them better prices for their goods; it promotes sustainable farming and safe labor practices; and it can help draw attention and tourism to Amherst. The article sought to encourage Town purchasing of Fair Trade goods where possible, for the Select Board to promote Fair Trade purchasing, and for the Select Board to consider forming a Town committee devoted to Fair Trade in the future. There was much support, a hint of opposition (a member felt that it wouldn’t make a difference in a greedy world and that it might represent more expense for low-income people,) and the vote to pass it was, again, nearly unanimous with a couple of random Nos.

Then we embarked on what would be the main focus of this Town Meeting: zoning.

We have a lot of zoning articles, with a lot of details, and rather than my describing them all, I recommend you check out the incredibly thorough Planning Board reports to Town Meeting on the Town web site.

We began with Article 10 – which would establish a Research and Development overlay district (part 1) and apply it to parcels on the west side of University Drive between Amity Street and Route 9 (part 2.) The point of the overlay district is to allow certain research and development activity to occur there by right, through Site Plan Review. That means it requires approval via the Planning Board’s Site Plan Review process, which entails: the notification of abutters; a public hearing; conforming to all the necessary criteria in the Zoning Bylaw, as identified by the Planning Board; and earning the 2/3 majority vote of that body. It is by all accounts a rigorous process, but at the end of it, a project that meets all the requirements can proceed.

The R&D uses in question are currently possible under Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Special Permit is a similar and equally rigorous process, but it requires unanimous approval by the three-member panel, and can end in rejection. The ZBA determination allows more discretion. An applicant can come out of the process without the ability to proceed.

What has been identified as the key issue by those who know such things – actual applicants, the Town Manager, and economic development experts – is that the Special Permit requirement is a deterrent to businesses. Without the certainty that their project can proceed – even if it has to be modified far beyond their original intentions – they don’t even bother to try. The Special Permit requirement is said to be an obstacle to obtaining financing because banks don’t want to risk the loss of all the up-front money required to design the plans and pay the professionals to shepherd a project through that approval process if there is no assurance it will proceed. So such businesses reportedly go to other communities where they don’t face that risk.

The point of the articles being proposed by the Planning Board, at the behest of the Town Manager, as he explained so well at the meeting, is to encourage the kind of appropriate business growth and development in Amherst that will help to grow the tax base and reduce the burden on residential property tax payers to cover the growing expense of providing the services our community values. More money from businesses means less money from the rest of us. The less expensive our property taxes are, the more diverse our community will be. And the more new revenue we can bring in, the less we have to cut our schools, Town services and libraries.

To encourage this kind of business growth and economic development, the proposed zoning changes generally seek to eliminate the deterrent and obstacle of Special Permit where appropriate.

“Where appropriate,” or perhaps “if appropriate” is the crux of disagreement on these issues.

In case you missed this development (what do you mean you don’t read every word of the Select Board recaps? That some are quite tardy is another issue entirely…) my husband is a recent appointee to the Planning Board.

So back to TM. Larry Shaffer gave a powerful endorsement to all the articles that will be put forth by the Planning Board. (Those of you paying attention know that not all the upcoming articles originate there, but that will be a topic for a different post.) The Planning Board explained Article 10 and its support. The Select Board gave its unanimous (!) support, as did the Finance Committee. The ZBA did also, though that got rather confusing once ZBA member Hilda Greenbaum spoke against it – more on that later.

Mary Wentworth offered an amendment that would support the creation of the overlay district, but would require that the uses allowed there be by Special Permit rather than Site Plan Review.

The Moderator had to decide whether this amendment was within the scope of the article – seeing as how it essentially rendered the article moot. He ultimately decided that it was, because it would allow for a lesser change than the article sought, rather than a greater change, which would not be allowed as an amendment.

Lesser indeed. The point of the article, you’ll recall, is to make the change to Site Plan Review, and to remove the obstacle that is Special Permit within this proposed overlay district. There is no point in making the overlay district if it has the same use rules as are required outside of its boundaries. An overlay says that in this defined geographical area, we think there is good reason to make the rules a little different. (Often they are used for resource protection, making use rules stricter than a particular zone otherwise requires because it has been determined that different rules are needed to protect the water supply, for example.)

And so this point was made by many, perhaps best by Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, who said that if Mary’s amendment were to pass, it would add a bunch of words to the Zoning Bylaw, but no change. Similarly, another Jonathan – O’Keeffe – said that the amendment should be rejected, and Town Meeting should have a straight up or down vote on the article. Because supporting the amendment was the same as rejecting the article. I don’t know if Mary’s proposal was the result of confusion or an attempt to confuse, but either way, it was a procedural mess.

And with it, more wackiness ensued. As mentioned, Hilda Greenbaum voiced strong opposition despite her previous ZBA vote and erroneously claimed that abutters and other tenants in a building with R&D use would lack an appeal process. (Um, actually the ZBA is the appeal process, as are the courts. Again – confused or attempting to confuse?) Following the rejection of Mary’s amendment we also had surprisingly blatant fear-mongering from Rob Quinn (Site Plan Review could lead to defense work, nerve gas and weaponry being developed right here in Amherst!) and one of those classic “Atlas Shrugged” TM moments: when Ben Grosscup complained that Site Plan Review would render research and technology “disconnected with and unconstrained by democracy” (it’s an approximate quote – I take copious notes, but I don’t record TM.)

On the plus side, the discussion clarified nice and early this whole Special Permit vs. Site Plan Review thing that will continue to be a factor in future articles. Andy Churchill gave a particularly fine presentation on this point, debunking the “SunEthanol as Special Permit success” myth (it was a success, but it shouldn’t have had to be that difficult, and that company vigorously supports the change to Site Plan Review.) Other excellent and welcomed support came from Larry Shaffer and Paul Bobrowski, as well as Gerry Weiss, who tried to reassure the reluctant that the process leading to these recommendations has indeed been good and thoughtful, and should be endorsed.

And Diana Stein, bless her heart, pointed out that research and development can be used for good, not just evil. Green energy, she noted as example, requires R&D.

When all was said and done, Town Meeting passed Article 10. We passed an actual zoning change designed to encourage economic development. Amazing, but true.

But we’re not done yet. The University Drive stuff is considered the “least controversial,” so imagine the battles that lie ahead. Prepare for more stalling and confusion, and lots of “We already passed the University Drive changes – let’s not get all crazy now.”

And count how many times you hear: “Not before the completion of the Master Plan,” and the new “sure-we-want-development-but-not-this-development” buzzword: brownfields.

Or maybe this is the dawn of a new era at Town Meeting. I doubt it, but I’d love to be wrong.


Anonymous said...

No matter what happens to the rest of the zoning articles -- and I do hope for success this time! -- I think that at least current Town Meeting members (including me!) will have learned a great deal about our Zoning Bylaw and its mysteries. Credit for this education goes to the zoning forum held by the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, but also to Jonathan Tucker for his excellent contributions -- at the forum, during TMg. debate and in the form of really clear and useful handouts for the back table.

Gavin Andresen said...

Yes, three cheers for Mr. Tucker! He may just replace Guilford Mooring as my favorite town employee...

Unknown said...

I don't mind that the hostes of this blog neglected to mention the name of the member who presented the Select Board's (unanimous and ultiimately prevailing!) position on Article 10, or the member who is also the chief proponent for using brownfields redevelopment as a tool to improve our local economy: that would be me, her "favorite" Select Board member, the author of this posting.

But I would like to know what purpose is served by demonizing this brownfields effort, an effort backed not only by the Town Manager (who has considerable experience in brownfields redevelopment), but also by local developers?

Not only does brownfields developement make good environmental sense, it makes good economic sense. It restores sites which are un-
or under-utilized. It locates businesses in places
served by water and sewer and rail and public transit. And it enhances nearby business activity.

This could be the first effort in many years which has a decent prospect of getting us out of the zoning gridlock so decried by the hostess of this blogspot. There are dozens of brownfields sites in town; the top three alone have as much developable area as that in our PRP and LI zones combined! What is gained by dismissing an idea like this at the very moment it is being embraced here in Amherst by the public, and by developers, financiers and government officials at all levels?

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Your points about brownfields are excellent Rob, and I don’t disagree. My point is that I see the topic becoming a new “instead of,” and not a new “also.”

As has been said many times, there is no single solution to our structural deficit. We need to pursue every reasonable possibility. Continuing to lobby the State for additional aid has value. Pursuing more money from the colleges has value. Seeking brownfield redevelopment opportunities has value. Making thoughtful zoning changes to encourage appropriate economic development has value. These are not mutually exclusive options. In my opinion, the unknown potential of the brownfields is simply not a valid reason to oppose any of the other zoning articles. I hope you’ll agree.

And shucks, all the Select Board members are my favorites – how could I choose just one? :-)

Anonymous said...

A ZBA member's "oops" mass mailing on Friday morning post-Town Meeting, intended for Mary Wentworth's eyes only, is a revealing insight into the true backroom politics of Amherst.


Dear Mary:

I wanted to send you an email early this morning before we left for the day but didn't have your email on this newer computer. I totally support your attempt to give abutters some veto power over uses that are ill-defined and ambiguous. I have spent hours since the warrant came out trying to see how they would work in practice--Barbara Ford, Carolyn and I have been working together to avoid the whole issue of posting public meetings for telephone calls, emails and lunches. Jane joined in after the public meeting but again we had to be careful about open meetings and passed all messages through Carolyn as a conduit. C. is in the difficult position of going against her boss! She feels, parenthetically, that giving PB special permit power was the worst mistake she ever made and I tend to agree--checks and balances are good for democracy.

Barbara and I both put our motions to Harrison (mine for art. 11) in emails to which he replied just minutes before I had to leave to TM with all my motion sheets prepared. I had to rewrite them for him while trying to feed supper to LSG who was not happy about this. Harrison was his obnoxious self last night.. he sent Barbara a very nasty, naughty, naughty email because she proposed just what you did: SP are beyond the scope of the article and she should know better. It was actually Jane's proposal and I hadn't thought changing the board from PB (SPP) to ZBA (SP) would be an issue.... HIS MIND WAS ALREADY MADE UP!!! PB or nothing...

He was also nasty in cutting off Lou who should have had 5 minutes for each motion and got cut off at 3. NO one picked up that the clock was set wrong and I wasn't about to interrupt while struggling to hear. Long and short, Mary, you are a very intelligent lady whom I respect very much... but we need a new moderator who doesn't wear his biases on his sleeve.

And I am truly sorry i couldn't go on the bus ride (I watched on TV) because we can't get home from synagogue at 1 pm. I guess you got that email??? Keep trying, best, hilda

Unknown said...

I believe the hostess will be pleasantly surprised (if not perfectly pleased) by the zoning compromises
we've worked out for this fall, as well as about
where the brownfields redevelopment efforts are heading, and I hope she will also embrace the latter as a priority for Amherst, for the Pioneer Valley, for
the future of the planet... (OK, I'm getting carried away here ;-)