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Longtime Amherst senior planner retires

  • Poster made by Jennifer Gannett, permit administrator, for Jonathan Tucker’s retirement ceremony. Submitted Photo



Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2017

AMHERST — A senior planner with a deep knowledge of Amherst history and the context of town zoning bylaws, but who came under occasional criticism for supporting changes that have allowed denser development to take place in downtown, has retired.

Jonathan Tucker, 65, left his position Aug. 18 after more than 30 years working for the town’s Planning Department, a legacy that included being instrumental in the construction of the Boltwood parking garage and the development of Amherst’s first master plan.

Tucker said in an email Thursday that he is proud of having a role in helping volunteer boards and committees to move policy priorities forward.

“In many ways, being a consistent and useful part of the community’s self-governance over a period of decades is my most significant privilege and accomplishment,” Tucker said. “So many communities in other parts of the country do not enjoy the same level of direct citizen participation in local government, and it was a privilege to be a part of Amherst’s.”

Niels la Cour, a former senior planner for the town who now works as a senior physical planner at the University of Massachusetts, said Tucker is a student of history and, having grown up in Amherst, offered special insights.

“The one thing that I always remember and appreciated about Jonathan was his encyclopedic knowledge of history, especially the history of Amherst,” la Cour said. “He would always bring the context of history into any discussion, which as a historian and someone who started my career in historic preservation, I certainly appreciated.”

La Cour said Tucker, whom he considered a friend, also had an extensive vocabulary and a “wonderful dry and sometimes biting wit.”

Tucker, who lives in Northampton, began his tenure as a municipal employee in 1985 as assistant town planner, appointed by then Planning Director Robert Mitchell. Tucker previously worked for Leverett, writing an aquifer protection district bylaw, and spent time at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Hampshire County Energy Resource Center.

“Being hired by Amherst in August 1985 was a wonderful opportunity, but it was also a constant and often draining challenge,” Tucker said.

Tucker became interim director in mid 2004, following Mitchell’s departure, and was appointed planning director in early 2006, a position in which he remained until September 2015. At that time Christine Brestrup assumed the role, allowing Tucker to reduce the demands on his time and engage in special projects as he approached retirement.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Tucker has dedicated his professional career to the town, working closely with the Planning Board and residents to create Amherst’s first master plan, hiring and mentoring staff members and interns, supporting the work of various committees and crafting land management plans for conservation areas.

“Jonathan brought a deep appreciation and respect for the town’s history and development,” Bockelman said. “His ability to produce a comprehensive and thorough analysis of a building, parcel of land, or neighborhood was legendary.”

Select Board member James Wald, a history professor at Hampshire College, appreciated the extensive documentation Tucker provided to history.

“He had many talents and interests, but in my 15 years of working with him, it always seemed to me that what he enjoyed most was researching history and sharing that knowledge and appreciation of our past with others,” Wald said.

Now a member of the Select Board, Connie Kruger spent 16 years working alongside Tucker in the planning office.

“Jonathan is really a wonderful person, kind and thoughtful, and I enjoyed my time working with him,” Kruger said. “He was very supportive, very egalitarian, and always wanted to share what he knew.”

Kruger said Tucker loves Amherst and had a dedication to keeping up and improving downtown. He also had strong writing skills, as well as a keen design sense, she said.

In an interview on the cusp of the town’s 250th anniversary, Tucker reflected on how ancestry is an important source of identity, being descended from Kelloggs, Smiths, Roots and Hitchcocks who settled Northampton, Hadley and Hatfield, beginning in about 1650, and whose relatives settled in Amherst.

“It gives me a different perspective on Amherst to be able to understand how the community arose and has evolved over all that time, and I think about it often,” he said at the time.

But critics, some of whom were Town Meeting members, expressed concern about zoning bylaw adjustments Tucker championed that have allowed projects such as Kendrick Place to be built and the One East Pleasant project to be under construction.

Those who disagreed with his work contended that Tucker focused on allowing off-campus dormitories to be built, while not addressing the influx of student rentals in single-family neighborhoods.

Kruger said it is inevitable that anyone who works for Amherst will get complaints, especially someone in his role.

“Jonathan was willing to show leadership and express opinions if he thought that was the right thing to do,” Kruger said.

Margaret Roberts, a member of the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, praised Tucker for his work on the Boltwood Walk redevelopment and his knowledge of the town.

“Jonathan has served Amherst as planning director over a period of town growth and change that has not been an easy time for the job,” Roberts said.

When he left as head of the department, Tucker was credited by many with bringing a focus to housing, open space and commercial development, doing work that led to the town receiving state grants for improving infrastructure and preserving housing for people of all income levels.

In retirement, Tucker said he will take a break, possibly doing more creative activities in theater and music, perhaps performing as a singer and guitarist, as well as doing research into local history, and more fishing and hunting.

“I am under strict instruction from several friends to refrain from committing myself to any volunteer work or enlisting myself on any community boards/committees for a full year,” Tucker said..