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Amherst Town Meeting gets tough on rentals

Voters passed zoning amendments requiring so-called converted dwellings to obtain special permits from the Zoning Board of Appeals and mandating owner occupancy or resident managers for any homes converted to multi-family dwellings. Voters also moved to enhance the town’s nuisance house bylaw.

A Planning Board-sponsored amendment to change the rules governing converted dwellings was approved by voice vote.

These revisions limit the potential changes to converted dwellings, which are typically created out of existing homes, attached garages or detached structures. Zoning Board of Appeals special permits would be required if single-family homes are converted into dwellings with two or more units.

The amended bylaw ensures that the town has clear rules in place as it continues to be affected by the proliferation of single-family homes changing into multi-family residential units.

Four amendments were proposed through petition articles by the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods.

Maurianne Adams of Precinct 10, a spokeswoman for the Coalition, said the rapid acceleration of rentals threatens multi-generational neighborhoods, property values and residential safety. These problems, she said, need to be addressed through zoning, as well as other municipal enforcement, a better code of conduct at the University of Massachusetts and construction of new off-campus housing.

Its first proposed amendment, to require special permits for creating duplexes, was defeated 99-56, five votes short of the needed two-thirds majority.

Planning Board member Robert Crowner said this article could conflict with and override existing town regulations. An effort to refer the question back to the Planning Board for further study was defeated after lengthy discussion.

Adams said the amendment was written to return to the pre-2008 situation where special permits would be required for the creation of all duplexes, even ones that are owner-occupied, and would give the town better oversight on their potential impact on neighborhoods.

Rolf Karlstrom of Precinct 10 said this loophole allowing duplexes that are owner-occupied to go through only site plan review by the Planning Board has been exploited by landlords who falsely claim to be living in homes and has fueled the growth of commercial rentals.

“The reality on the ground is that in Amherst rentals means student rentals,” said Paige Wilder of Precinct 10.

Diana Spurgin of Precinct 8 said reclaiming homes that are converted to rentals is impossible. “Precedents can be changed, neighborhoods cannot,” Spurgin said.

The coalition had more success in an amendment requiring an owner to occupy or have a resident manager at converted dwellings that become multi-family homes.

Elissa Rubinstein of Precinct 10 said this would protect family neighborhoods from unsupervised commercial rentals.

“By including a resident manger as an alternative to owner occupancy, we are balancing interests of landlords and neighbors,” Rubinstein said

Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly in favor of strengthening the nuisance house bylaw, which Melissa Perot of Precinct 1 said would bring more peace to neighborhoods.

The bylaw is a tool for police to issue fines to residents of houses who host large, unruly parties that may involve underage drinking.

The change adopted Wednesday maintains $300 fines for both first and second offenses, but gives the town the ability to collect response and administrative costs following third and subsequent offenses.

The Select Board endorsed the revised punishments, noting that the most significant one only happens upon the third offense. “We’re saying that you’re such an outlier that you’re just not getting it at that point,” said Select Board member Alisa Brewer.

Property managers and owners will also be held responsible, just as their tenants are, upon multiple responses to one home.

The bylaw continues to give the police department and town officials discretion in how they deal with the owners, after concerns were expressed by Police Chief Scott Livingstone.

“I felt a number of property owners may have been penalized when they shouldn’t have been,” Livingstone said.

Town Meeting referred to the Planning Board the fourth coalition article, which would limit the demolition of homes. The measure was designed to prevent in-fill development and protect community from what some refer to as McMansions.

Planning Board member Stephen Schreiber said if the bylaw were passed, it would encourage sprawl development and put serious restrictions on housing projects that fit the master plan.

Moderator exits

As fall Town Meeting concluded, moderator Harrison Gregg announced that he would not seek re-election next spring after presiding over 19 years of Town Meetings.

Gregg’s retirement announcement was followed by a three-minute speech in which he expressed his thanks to the town manager and Select Board, as well as his love for Town Meeting, referencing a speech he made 11 years ago when elected president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association.

“I love the way every issue has at least two sides, and sometimes five or six,” Gregg said. “I love remembering people’s names, and guessing what they will say.”

After a long applause, with some hoots and whistles, Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe thanked Gregg for his “extraordinary service all these years.”

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