Proposed zoning changes catch flak at public meeting in Northampton

Last modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012

NORTHAMPTON - City planners faced a barrage of questions when they presented proposed zoning changes that would make it easier for most property owners to add to residential units at a packed public meeting Wednesday.

The changes would give more flexibility to residents living in zones known as Urban Residential A, B and C, who currently face many restrictions that prohibit the creation of more units or additions, said Carolyn Misch, senior land use planner. The zones include about two-thirds of the city's homes in the more densely populated areas in and around the downtown, as well as the villages of Leeds and Florence.

The proposed changes include reducing the lot size, frontage and open space required per unit so additional units can be added or new lots created. The degree of change varies per zone, Misch said, explaining that in the URA zone, each lot can still only hold one unit, although the lot size requirement has been reduced from 12,000 square feet to 5,000.

Forty-five residents of the three zones attended the Wednesday meeting, the second of two on the topic.

Resident Buck Deggendorf questioned if there was a real need for the changes. "This seems to be driven by the independent homeowner who wants to expand their residence from a single-family unit to multiple units, so there must be a backlog of requests for those," he said. "Of the 11,880 households in these three zones, how many requests do you really have?"

Misch estimated that over the years, there have been between 20 and 30 requests, but she and Planning Director Wayne Feiden argued that they never hear from some people such as those who cannot afford to buy or rent the "oversized" houses in the zones, but would be able to move there if they could rent out part of the house, or rent a unit themselves.

She also reminded residents that the 2007 Sustainable Northampton plan, created with community input, identified these changes as part of a goal of allowing for more growth in urban areas to preserve the outlying areas of the city. "As a community, we said, 'We know there is a pent-up demand,'" she said. "We said, 'As a community, we want to build more sustainably.'"

Resident Pauline Fogel inquired about the design review process, explaining that she was concerned about the appearance of second egresses that would have to be constructed for additional units. "There's going to be fire escapes coming off everywhere," she said.

Feiden said that although the Planning Board could not refuse a permit to add a unit on the grounds of appearance, it could condition the permit, such as requiring the homeowner to plant a vegetative screen.

Ward 3 resident Mac Everett said he was concerned that the changes would increase traffic in neighborhoods like his. "I can understand this would reduce traffic to the periphery, because there would be more development in town," he said. "But it seems like we're already suffering from a), a high volume of traffic, and b), a number of trouble spots where people go way too fast."

Misch said the department's thinking was that since the areas are "walkable," there will be fewer cars and fewer trips because the downtown is accessible by foot.

Polly Normand, who owns a rental property on Fruit Street in URC, said a lot of tenants want to live there because they can access the downtown and don't need a vehicle. "A lot of my tenants don't have vehicles, so it doesn't increase traffic if I add a unit and the tenants don't have a car," she said.

Misch said it was nearly impossible to estimate the number of additional units that could be added through the changes, because each lot is unique and may or may not qualify for more units.

Gerald Budgar, president of the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association, said the city should hold well-publicized meetings in each ward to discuss the changes before going any further. "These changes have the potential to dramatically change the face of the city," he said.

James Nash, a member of the Zoning Revisions Committee that suggested the changes, told residents that the proposal may not be as big a deal as it seems on paper. "Take these recommendations, walk your property, walk around your neighborhood and look at what the actual impact might be," he said. "Now it's up to people to figure out if this is something they want."

Misch said the Planning Board will consider public opinion when deciding whether to recommend the proposal, or an amended version of it, to the City Council.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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