INFOGRAPHIC Save Historic Cushman presents 122 concerns about proposed Retreat student housing project

Friday, August 08, 2014
AMHERST — Even though opponents of a large-scale student housing project have challenged in Land Court a developer’s right to build the 123 units, town counsel is advising the Planning Board to proceed with hearings on the definitive subdivision plan.

“I am quite confident that this case (in Land Court) will still be pending when the Planning Board has made its decision,” Joel Bard, an attorney with Kopelman & Paige, a Boston-based law firm, told board members Wednesday.

At the second session of a hearing on the definitive subdivision for the 641-bed project known as The Retreat at Amherst, Bard said the proposal by Landmark Properties of Athens, Georgia, is not a social dormitory or similar use.

The units will be used primarily by college students, but the project should still be considered under the town’s zoning bylaw that allows cluster subdivisions in the outlying and neighborhood residential zoning districts, Bard said.

A few dozen residents again packed the Town Room at Town Hall for the hearing, which also included a presentation by a consultant working on behalf of Save Historic Cushman, a group opposing the development.

Thomas Houston, president of Professional Services Corp. of Foxborough, explained that a major concern is that zoning bylaws are supposed to foster development in keeping with the character of neighborhoods. Landmark proposes to construct both single-family units and two-family dwellings on 147 acres of steep woodland. A reduction in project density, Houston said, “is reasonable and required.”

In a memo containing 122 points of concern, Houston provided details about significant violations of the town’s design standards for streets, and explained that land clearing would extensively alter the site. There could be 5,600 truck trips to remove soil from the site over a period of 350 days, Houston said.

A 4,162-foot-long dead-end street raises concerns about blocking of emergency vehicles and poor traffic circulation, in general, Houston said. “No regulation I’ve seen allows a dead-end street of more than 4,000 feet in length,” he added.

Houston also argued that vehicular traffic will be substantially higher than estimated in the traffic study Landmark commissioned. He said comparing the project to a traditional apartment complex such as Puffton Village is not reasonable because The Retreat would be leasing by the room, rather than by the unit. The Retreat is also farther from the University of Massachusetts campus, the school many of its tenants are expected to attend.

Meanwhile, Planning Board members got insights into details of how the actual project would look on the ground from Christine Brestrup, a senior planner for the town. Among features that could be problematic, she said, are extensive steep slopes, including a 40-foot drop adjacent to one unit.

There also would be tall retaining walls, some as high as 28 feet, next to roads in the project. Brestrup said the board may want to require that railings be placed on the walls so people do not jump from them.

The Planning Board is expected to continue the hearing on the project Sept. 17 and must render a decision by Oct. 26.