Amherst councilor holds up vote allowing parking garage

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2021 8:18:46 PM

AMHERST — Decisions on zoning changes to create a parking facility overlay district in downtown Amherst, and to require mixed-use buildings to have a minimum amount of commercial space on the ground floor, are being delayed at the prerogative of a town councilor.

At Monday’s Town Council meeting, where four zoning amendments were being considered, District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont requested the postponement of two of the items.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Tuesday that both zoning changes pushed off are on the agenda for a Town Services and Outreach Committee meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, though he added there is uncertainty whether any votes will take place that evening.

The zoning changes are also on the agenda for a “four town” meeting Saturday at which regional school matters, including the assessment formula that will determine how much each community pays toward the regional budget next year, are being discussed by representatives from Amherst, Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham.

To adopt the zoning amendments, nine of the 13 councilors must vote in favor to achieve the necessary two-thirds threshold under state law.

The town charter also has a provision that after an initial postponement is requested, four councilors as a bloc can ask for a second delay. Were this to happen, Bockelman said the vote on the zoning changes would take place Dec. 20. 

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she was frustrated that DuMont’s actions threw the processes of voting for or against the zoning amendments into chaos.

The Town Council unanimously approved the first zoning amendment brought before it, which will extend temporary Article 14 through Dec. 31, 2022. This allows outdoor dining and other pandemic-era protocols to remain in place to support local businesses.

Councilors also voted 12-1, with only DuMont voting against, to approve a series of new parking and access requirements for dwellings.

The delayed bylaws generated the most conversation, with concerns from North Prospect Street residents about the new overlay district that would apply to the town-owned parking lot between North Pleasant and North prospect streets to accommodate downtown’s second parking garage.

Harry Peltz of North Prospect Street said that the rush to rezone, without support from neighbors, will harm the town rather than help it.

Ira Bryck of Strong Street said a parking garage would disrupt the quiet enjoyment of the neighborhood. 

Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Claudia Pazmany, though, spoke in favor of the need for parking for businesses.

With respect to the changes to mixed-use buildings, councilors appeared supportive of requiring 30% of the ground floor area to be commercial.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said having about half of the ground floor nonresidential is a good thing, though an amendment to bump the requirement up to 40% narrowly failed, 7-6.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke pointed to a retail analysis, done before the pandemic, that found requiring too much commercial space would create empty storefronts, and these vacancies would prove detrimental to downtown and village centers. Hanneke said the analysis showed there is a demand for about 12,000 to 15,000 square feet of commercial space townwide.

If the bylaw is approved, District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said it would improve on the existing rules, which don’t require any minimum percentage of commercial area in mixed-use buildings.

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