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Amherst Town Meeting to weigh restricting rental units

An increasing number of properties being converted to off-campus housing for college students is prompting the Planning Board to bring a zoning amendment to fall Town Meeting that would restrict the rental of single-family homes.

Possibly the first local legislation of its kind in the state, the measure would require a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals if a property owner chooses to rent to a group of up to four unrelated housemates.

A conflicted Select Board decided Monday against taking a position on the issue. The board will have further discussion about the zoning amendment later this month. Town Meeting begins Nov. 19.

Planning Board member Robert Crowner told the Select Board that his panel, which was deadlocked 4-4 on whether to recommend the article, sees it as an interim step before rental permit regulations are presented to the annual Town Meeting next spring.

“This is an attempt to make sure somebody is putting an oversight on that,” Crowner said.

The Planning Board and a group of residents calling itself the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods are working toward a registration system in which rental properties would be recorded by the town and regularly inspected.

In its report, which will go to fall Town Meeting, the Planning Board writes, “the impacts of introducing increasing numbers of student rentals, too often unmanaged or poorly managed, into existing residential neighborhoods have been marked and largely negative.”

This would put more restrictions on single-family homes before they can be converted into rentals, possibly reducing the likelihood of limited liability companies purchasing homes for conversions to rentals.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said such an article could have major repercussions on every property owner in Amherst and could serve as a drag on potential home sales.

“To me this article feels like the step of last resort,” she said.

O’Keeffe said property owners may find it harder to sell their homes if they or the potential owner need to get a special permit for the property to be rented.

“That strikes me as an incredibly radical change,” O’Keeffe said.

Select Board member Aaron Hayden also expressed concern about the potential effect on property values and wondered if the town has enough staff to enforce such permitting.

But board member Diana Stein said she has seen an erosion in the town’s housing stock because there is no such regulation. She pointed to the accelerating rate of conversions to non-owner occupied rental properties, with Board of Assessors data presented by the Planning Board showing eight conversions in 2009, 10 in 2010, 13 last year and 20 so far this year.

Select Board member Alisa Brewer said she sees both sides of the argument. “If we’re trying to send a signal, this is one heck of a signal to outside investors,” Brewer said.

Select Board member James Wald said a home near his residence in North Amherst has been rented to four unrelated people, but it has been a positive experience for both neighbors and the homeowner.

Denise Barberet, a member of the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, said in an email that the Select Board is wise to proceed cautiously with the proposed zoning amendment.

“My concern is that you establish two classes of residences, which may well be subject to change with some frequency, especially in this economy and this housing market, and I’m not sure anyone has really thought out what implications this may have for real estate transactions,” Barberet said.

Meanwhile, the Planning Board is proposing two additional amendments for Town Meeting, one that creates different use categories for duplexes depending on whether they are owner occupied or not, the other clarifying the process for converting single-family homes into two-family dwellings. Both the Planning Board and Select Board are supporting these amendments.

In addition, the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods has four petition articles that are expected to be voted on, including discouraging demolition of existing dwellings, requiring special permits for subdividing homes in residential neighborhoods, requiring owner occupancy for conversion of single-family homes to multi-family homes and enhancing the nuisance house bylaw to include additional penalties for property owners.

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