Residents ask Amherst to remove commercial zoning of Cowls land near North Square project

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2017 8:03:33 PM

AMHERST — A group of residents want the town to remove the commercial zoning on some 18 acres on Cowls and Sunderland roads in North Amherst owned by W.D. Cowls, a request the development company calls illegal spot zoning that is both “punitive” and “goofy.”

The land is located near a separate 6-acre parcel, also owned by Cowls, where a mixed-use project including 130 apartments and 22,000 square feet of commercial space is slated to be built.

The project, called North Square at the Mill District, was recently approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals, though it is now the subject of a Hampshire Superior Court lawsuit.

Some residents who may be affected by the North Square project are petitioning the town to remove similar commercial zoning on portions of Cowls’ land nearby, which includes six parcels totaling 18.5 acres.

Melissa Perot, a Summer Street resident and Town Meeting member who signed the petition, said neighbors are trying to promote more sustainable use of land following the “over-densified” project, from Beacon Communities Development of Boston, that wasn’t scaled back by the Zoning Board despite objections from residents about the height of its buildings and the traffic it will generate.

The petition calls for changing the commercial zoning to outlying residential zoning on five properties, including .98 acres at 28 Cowls Road, .62 acres at 24 Cowls Road, .71 acres at 30 Cowls Road, .74 acres at 32 Cowls Road and .46 acres at 56 Cowls Road, and changing 15 acres between Sunderlaad Road and Route 116 from commercial zoning to low-density residential zoning.

Three of the parcels are vacant land, while the land at 24 Cowls Road has a rental home and a warehouse, and the properties at 32 Cowls Road and 56 Cowls Road each have rental homes.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones said in an email Tuesday that Shutesbury attorney Michael Pill will outline concerns to town officials, including that the rezoning is illegal spot zoning, and there is potential financial liability to Amherst should the zoning be passed by a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting.

Jones said maintaining the commercial zoning is consistent with its use for more than a century, including a parcel donated by Walter Dickinson Cowls to Amherst that was used as the Amherst Sunderland Street Railway Depot, the installation of tracks along the road for the trolleys to run and other commercials uses over the decades, including aspects of the sawmill.

“This area has been consistently used for industrial and commercial operations by Cowls for over 120 years,” Jones said.

“To pick out parcels in the center of the historic commercial district and down-zone them to residential is punitive and goofy and absolutely contrary to the town’s master plan,” Jones added.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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