Neighbor files lawsuit over Dewey Court project in Northampton

  • Creatas  Creatas

Staff Writer
Published: 1/9/2020 10:56:05 PM
Modified: 1/9/2020 10:55:27 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The fate of a proposed development at the end of Dewey Court remains uncertain.

A three-story apartment building with 15 residential units is proposed for 34 Dewey Court — the end of the dead-end street — but in August, a neighbor filed an appeal in state Land Court in response to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals approving one of several permits the developer needs from the city.

Currently, the 1.3-acre property includes a heavily wooded space and a single-family home, which the developer plans to keep and turn into a “community space” for apartment residents, city documents say. Benjamin Lewis of Dewey Court Properties LLC is listed as the applicant for permits in documents submitted to the city. Lewis did not respond to an interview request.

Mark Moggio, who filed the lawsuit, owns two properties on Dewey Court that he rents out, one of which abuts the proposed development’s site. He’s concerned about increased traffic and trees being taken down, and says the project does not fit in with the neighborhood.

“The neighbors are concerned about the amount of traffic the project is going to be bringing in,” Moggio said. Dewey Court, which has about a dozen lots on it, connects to South Street, an intersection Moggio said is “dangerous as it is now.”

An assessment from The Berkshire Design Group submitted to the city on behalf of the development company asserted that the project will have “minimal impact on traffic operations.”

Moggio said a number of households on Dewey Court are contributing money toward his legal fees. “I don’t think that any of the neighbors are opposed to any development down there per se,” he said, “but it’s overdevelopment in our eyes.”

There’s also an issue with the zoning code that Moggio’s lawyer, John McLaughlin, said should prevent the project from moving forward.

Because the property is at the end of a dead-end street, it technically has no frontage. Residential areas require 50 feet of frontage and the city interprets frontage as the area along the street, not at the end of it, said Carolyn Misch, assistant director of the city’s Office of Planning & Sustainability. That makes 34 Dewey Court a nonconforming lot.

When making changes to nonconforming properties, the Zoning Board of Appeals must decide if the change to the property is “going to be essentially worse for the community and neighborhood than the existing nonconforming conditions,” Misch said. But, she continued, “There is another part of our zoning that says you can make a change for certain aspects of a nonconforming property by going to the Zoning Board, but only if it doesn’t increase the required parking that’s required by zoning for the use.”

Essentially, she said, “It says if your use requires additional parking, you can’t do your project.” The same applies if the site needs to add to elements such as lot size, Misch said.

McLaughlin said the Zoning Board of Appeals should not have granted the permit because of that zoning provision and because the development will be more detrimental to the neighborhood.

“To me, I was like I can’t believe this,” McLaughlin said of the finding. “Either the city wants to help these big-box developers … Or they didn’t just see it,” he said of the zoning provision.

Over the summer, a number of people living on Dewey Court and other nearby streets wrote letters to city officials expressing concerns similar to those of Moggio.

Some also wrote letters in support. Pamela Schwartz, a resident on a nearby street, sympathizes with the residents’ concerns, she wrote in a letter to the city. But the former city councilor also said she supports the project, “To make more housing available to more people, to be an overall more green community, we need to make room for more housing units close to the city center … we should continue to support each other and share in the responsibility of meeting our housing crisis.”

Katy Wight, who works at Edward Elgar Publishing on Dewey Court, wrote that “most of our hires are unable to find housing in Northampton and end up living (and spending their paychecks, putting down roots, and contributing to the community) in other towns.”

Changes ahead

The city is making moves to amend the zoning. “The whole nature of this case is that it pointed out a defect in our zoning ordinance,” said Alan Seewald, city solicitor and the lawyer for the Zoning Board of Appeals in the Land Court case. “We recognize the defect and there’s legislation to correct it moving through.”

Misch said a proposed zoning change would get rid of the restriction on making changes to non-conforming sites requiring additional elements such as parking.

The Planning Board was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning amendment at its Jan. 9 meeting, and it has also been submitted to the City Council.

For now, the court case in on hold, Seewald said. “I think that we’re all waiting to see whether or not the City Council passes the amendments. We’re just holding it in advance until then.”

McLaughlin said his case will be affected by an amendment. “If the city changes the finding ordinances,” he said, “then I don’t have a case.”

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