Ellen Leahy-Pile: Why can’t Amherst follow the zoning rules?

Last modified: Tuesday, February 18, 2014
To the editor:

Two student housing projects came before the Amherst Planning Board last year: Olympia Place and The Retreat. The latter is at the beginning of a long and expensive process. The first question we should ask and answer about The Retreat should be: Is the use classification the applicant has chosen correct? In zoning speak: Is this legal? A large group of Amherst citizens has asked the Select Board to get a legal opinion now.

I take Amherst Town Manager John Musante’s recent comment to the Gazette to mean that there is currently no public record of a town counsel opinion regarding the zoning suitability of the Cowls’ property to Landmark’s proposal. Our town is allowing Landmark to proceed at their own risk while Landmark looks at the suitability of the property.

Here is how suitability should work. Our zoning bylaw begins: “It is intended that every possible use be included in some category, and a use that does not readily fall into any category listed shall be included in the one to which it is most similar.” What was Olympia Place most similar to? Was it an apartment building or was it something else specially built for students? It was found to be most similar to residential use 3.326, “social dormitory or similar use related to Amherst College, Hampshire College or the University of Massachusetts.” If it had been just an apartment building, it could not have been built on Olympia Drive, where apartment buildings are not allowed.

Like Olympia Place, The Retreat is also most similar to use 3.326 because that is the only use that describes building a residential project to serve our colleges and university. The Retreat is a Landmark brand, a product built 13 times elsewhere and described many times as purpose-built student residences serving a particular state university. Therefore, The Retreat is only suitable in R-F districts. We need to follow the rules.

Ellen Leahy-Pile