Amherst TM nixes rezoning for Jones Library project

Town Meeting nixes move to ease library expansion

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 5/17/2016 12:10:27 AM

AMHERST — A deeply divided and often contentious Town Meeting on Monday rejected rezoning the Amherst Historical Society’s property so a portion of the land could be used for an expanded and renovated Jones Library.

The 93-91 tally fell 30 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to alter the zoning at the 67 Amity St. site from general residence to general business. The change is needed if the Jones is to acquire a portion of its neighbor’s property. Otherwise, any land acquisition would put the Strong House Museum site out of compliance with town zoning.

The decision, which came after more than an hour of debate, hampers the $50,000 planning and design process, library trustees president Austin Sarat said following the vote.

“Town Meeting authorized trustees to engage in planning and design,” Sarat said, referring to an April 2014 vote in which Town Meeting approved spending $25,000 for this work. “What Town Meeting did tonight was to, in essence, rescind its own vote.”

While Town Meeting turned down the rezoning, members afterward agreed to change the zoning on a nearly 6-acre parcel on University Drive from office park to limited business. That measure passed 117 to 57, meaning a potential development of townhouses geared for college students might proceed.

The defeat of the Amherst History Museum rezoning narrows what can be done with the Jones Library as Finegold Alexander Architects of Boston examine how to expand the building from 47,000 square feet to 68,000 square feet.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said Finegold Alexander have until October to come up with cost estimates and designs for a project, submitting a proposal to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in January.

John Kuhn, principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects, said the rezoning made sense for the library project. “It’s more compact, more efficient, and probably more economical, as well,” Kuhn said.

Instead, the building program and preliminary design will likely now have to obliterate the Kinsey Memorial Garden, which forms the rear of the library.

Sarah McKee, a former president of the library trustees, urged members to vote against the rezoning.

“This would involve demolishing more than half of the Jones Library building, built just over 20 years ago,” McKee said.

But more importantly, McKee said she was concerned with breaking the will of Laura E. Emerson, who left the Strong House in 1904. Emerson’s will states that no additional buildings be erected on any part of the property.

Select Board member James Wald, who serves on the historical society board, said a “reasonable deviation” in the terms of the will would benefit the museum.

Bonnie MacCracken of Precinct 6, a member of the history board, explained the need to partner with the library. “Our collection has grown and grown and we need to look toward the future,” MacCracken said.

Mandi Jo Hanneke of Precinct 5 said she supported the rezoning to bring consistency between the Jones and Strong House properties. “To me it makes sense to have them both zoned the same,” Hanneke said.

Another former president, Merrylees “Molly” Turner, said downtown would be losing green space with the rezoning, as well as a buffer for homes in neighborhoods. “I think this residential area needs protection,” said Turner, of Precinct 1.

Carol Gray of Precinct 7, another former trustee, also argued that rezoning would destroy the landscape. “It’s like a public park surrounding our library,” Gray said.

Sarat disagreed. “One of the options would impinge on the garden space, so the irony is that the vote encourages a plan that would limit green space,” Sarat said.

Matter of fairness

Much of the contentiousness centered around a decision by Moderator James Pistrang to limit the scope of those speaking about the article to the advantages and disadvantages of rezoning or, as he described it, “not on the pros and cons of the entire library project.”

Pistrang’s reasoning was that the library project is a debate for the future, and that there are other opportunities to debate the merits.

But the debate quickly seemed to stray into territory Pistrang had declared off-limits when Kuhn said it would be impossible to rearrange the existing space to meet Amherst’s needs.

“This has been a very carefully programmed process and 68,000 (square feet) is about as tight as you can get to give Amherst a library that will serve it into the future,” Kuhn said.

During Gray’s response, Pistrang used his gavel to repeatedly halt her when she ventured into speaking about the project, attempting to show the vacant spaces in the building through photographs displayed on an overhead projector.

“It’s only a matter of fairness to allow a counterpoint,” Gray said.

“It may seem like fair play, but it’s not my ruling in this case,” Pistrang said.

This caused members to continually call for points of order when others strayed into speaking about the library project, with periodic booing.

James Oldham of Precinct 5 said Pistrang’s mandate hurt the debate. “You are neither saving time, nor facilitating discussion,” Oldham said.

Alan Root of Precinct 5 was even more critical. “I think you can do better,” Root said.

“I promise I will always try to do better every day of my life,” Pistrang said.

Unlike the history museum rezoning, Town Meeting successfully rezoned a parcel on University Drive, situated between Newmarket Center and 100 University Drive, that has been used for farming,

The rezoning would allow a company known as UMass New Build LLC, whose principal is Trey Wills of Virginia’s Wills Companies, to construct townhouses on the site.

Sarah la Cour of Precinct 9, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said this will broaden options for the site, possibly for housing, La Cour observed that the office park zoning has been on the site since 1978 and yielded no projects.

Abigail Jensen of Precinct 4 said the site is close to town center, the University of Massachusetts campus and shopping, and is ideal for homes. “We do need more housing, there’s no doubt about that,” Jensen said.

The vote came over objections of abutters, including nne Marley, who owns the office building at 100 University Drive. Marley said student housing built next door would harm the commercial office tenants in the building.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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