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Amherst Town Meeting rejects zoning change to promote denser residential development

After Town Meeting last week successfully agreed to a zoning amendment to encourage more residential development in mixed-use buildings, portions of the second part of the package failed to get the required two-thirds majority at the ninth session of Town Meeting.

The vote centering on reducing the dimension requirements for housing projects in limited business, commercial, village center business and general business zoning districts was 110 to 67 in favor, but fell eight votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

Those who spoke against the zoning change largely referred to its potential damage to the North Amherst village center, where residential projects could lead to more student rentals.

Janet Keller of Precinct 1 said she is concerned about 53 acres of open land becoming a college dormitory and the impact on an area ringed by wetlands, floodplains and farmland.

Rolf Karlstrom of Precinct 10 said the proposal is incompatible with North Amherst, where there is significant vacant land. Karlstrom said it is inappropriate to promote such density.

“Our market is unique, we’re a very small town with a very big university,” Karlstrom said.

But Sarah Swartz of Precinct 1 said North Amherst is in decline and ready for the change.

“I think this rezoning would make it beautiful,” said Swartz, observing that the village center could be a shopping destination for both residents and people who live in Leverett and Shutesbury.

“These are modest changes to help densify the traditional village centers,” said Max Page of Precinct 9

The Planning Board proposed the zoning change as a way to increase the flexibility and potential development in these districts with guidelines to make the appearance more village-like.

Planning Board member Rob Crowner said the concept was to ease housing pressure, and direct development to town centers.

“The word density can have a negative connotation in a small town, but Amherst is not a small town,” Crowner said

Town Meeting did adopt, by voice vote, a change in the way the maximum heights of mixed-use buildings are calculated, possibly allowing more residential units on upper floors and more flexibility for developers. Other changes to promote denser development in the village center and general business zoning districts passed by a 121 to 53 vote.

Members also adopted a zoning amendment that will mean more pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and require expansions to be built toward the street, eliminating commercial-strip style development in these sections of town. This passed by a 107-49 vote.

By voice vote, Town Meeting approved changes to the zoning districts where fraternities and sororities are allowed to encourage more student housing developments. These areas are on North Pleasant Street near Newman Center and on Olympia Drive.

Town Meeting also agreed to streamline the permitting process for non-conforming uses and structures. The change was brought by the Planning Board at the suggestion of Building Commissioner Robert Morra.

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