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Editorial: Town Meeting breaks logjam on creative zoning

Most Town Meeting members in Amherst long ago accepted the value of zoning changes that guide development into settled neighborhoods to preserve open space. This month, the body was finally able, after years of trying, to reach the two-thirds majority needed to adopt several — but not all — of these sensible changes.

Last week, the session approved changes that put the vigor back in the notion of village while recognizing realities in today’s commercial real estate market. The body agreed in a 119-56 vote to accept one aspect of broader zoning changes that failed to secure a super-majority in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

That change is relatively small and technical, but could be significant. For the first time, the town will allow residential housing units on the ground level of mixed-use buildings. For instance, a project that includes office or retail space will be able to include apartments on the first floor, provided they are located on the back sides, away from the “business streetscape.”

Also, the change will make it easier for developers who plan projects of 10 or fewer apartments on upper floors to win site-plan approval from the town’s Planning Board. That spares them having to slog through a special permit application before the Zoning Board of Appeals.

And then this week, Town Meeting backed other changes planners believe will promote the creation of housing in village centers. One measure allows denser development in the town’s village center and general business districts.

Another changes the way maximum heights on mixed-use buildings are determined, which may enable developers to include more housing.

Amherst struggles with a housing shortage. Taken together, the zoning revisions should make it easier for developers to create housing in commercial areas. And it jibes with the town master plan’s goals of growing from the inside out by increasing density in places where residents and businesses built many years ago. That’s a far better option than sprawl. Without smart zoning changes like this, Amherst’s land use could someday resemble suburbia.

Town Meeting backed one of the changes despite calls for more study, a resort Town Manager John Musante aptly labeled “paralysis by analysis.”

On Monday, in the body’s final session, another proposal failed to reach the two-thirds majority. The 110-67 vote came after members heard from residents of North Amherst concerned that the change would subject their neighborhood to an influx of even more student housing.

Opponents there managed to defeat form-based zoning and other changes in 2011 and 2012.

The Planning Board held that this year’s proposals were less comprehensive than the measures for North Amherst and the Atkins Corner village centers that lost out earlier.

But the changes pursue the same goal of guiding development where it has already taken place — through settlement patterns centuries old.

It makes sense. For Amherst to find its future, it needs to learn from its past.

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