Amherst Town Meeting approves 1st single-room occupancy project

Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2017

AMHERST — Amherst’s first single-room occupancy project, which would provide housing for low-income residents, including some transitioning from homelessness, took another step forward Monday night.

At the seventh and final session of annual Town Meeting, members voted 145-25 to amend the town’s zoning bylaw to allow all apartments, in a project where people make under 80 percent of the area median income, to be of one bedroom type.

The zoning change comes as Valley Community Development Inc. of Northampton moves forward with a single-room occupancy project, which without the change would not be possible.

But Town Meeting rejected a citizen petition aimed at removing the commercial zoning from 18 acres in North Amherst, which one Town Meeting member described as retaliation for the town’s approval of a mixed-use project including 130 apartments and 22,000 square feet of commercial space to be built on Cowls Road.

Laura Baker, real estate manager for Valley CDC, said the agency is searching for a site near downtown or in a village center where it could build the project and have on-site supportive services.

Four similar buildings already exist in Northampton, ranging from 10 to 17 units, she said.

Full-time college students would be prohibited from living in this project. “These would not be available to students,” Baker said.

Caroline Murray of Precinct 4 said the zoning change creates housing for homeless.

“Single-room occupancy has been proven to be the first step toward becoming a Housing First community,” Murray said.

But Carol Gray of Precinct 7 said a building with exclusively single bedrooms is a worry.

“This could be the Trojan Horse for things we might not like down the road,” Gray said.

Meanwhile, Town Meeting not only defeated the North Amherst rezoning, but it didn’t even muster one-third of votes.

Andy Churchill of Precinct 3 said the rezoning appeared to be targeting landowner W.D. Cowls, while Deborah Timberlake of Precinct 1 said she appreciates the development on Cowls Road that is allowing her to do more shopping and dining near her home.

In other business, Town Meeting supported resolutions that would allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, for new carbon fees to be assessed to fossil fuels in Massachusetts aimed at encouraging people to become more energy efficient, and anti-corruption reforms that would encourage legislators to get big money out of politics.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.