Amherst Planning Board veteran pushed out


Staff Writer
Published: 9/2/2020 7:28:24 PM

AMHERST — A senior member of the Planning Board will no longer serve on the panel that reviews site plans for building projects, and which has developed zoning amendments, following a Town Council decision to appoint three newcomers.

In a nearly two-hour discussion that began Monday and culminated shortly after midnight, the Town Council voted 7-6 to support a recommendation from the Community Resources Committee (CRC) to appoint residents Thom Long, an architect and educator; Andrew MacDougall, with experience in real estate and regional planning; and Johanna Neumann, who has expertise in the fields of clean energy and sustainable communities.

Council President Lynn Griesemer, who initially abstained, cast the decisive vote in favor of the trio, meaning that Michael Birtwistle, who applied to retain the seat he has held since 2016, is off the board.

Birtwistle, in an email Tuesday, said the council has the right to refuse his reappointment, but he argues that the real motive was to remove him due to his opinions occasionally dissenting from plans coming from Town Hall, including when he spoke against the CRC’s plan to take over the process of proposing changes to the zoning bylaw and reducing the thresholds for site plan review approval to a simple majority.

“I fear that the council leadership’s intolerance of opposing points of view is leading Amherst further into government by the few,” Birtwistle wrote. “They claim to value ‘citizen input’ but, in the end, the input is ignored and those running the council just do what they wanted in the first place.”

Both oral and written comments were received by the Town Council advocating for Birtwistle, which he noted were submitted without his knowledge, and an opinion piece written by Maura and Art Keene and printed in the online Amherst Indy described the CRC recommendation as “shameful” and made in “bad faith.”

At the end of the discussion on the appointments, Griesemer called it the “most terrible conversation” the council had since its December 2018 formation.

“We’ve besmirched people’s reputations,” Griesemer said.

She added that it’s unfortunate because the committee process is fully understood and transparent.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who presented a substitute motion that would have appointed Birtwistle, described the action as essentially firing Birtwistle.

Those voting in favor of the appointments included the three CRC members, At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke and District 4 Councilors Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber; along with District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, District 3 Councilor George Ryan and At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg.

In opposition were District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz, who had cast the lone dissenting CRC vote, along with Schoen, At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer, District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont and District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam.

For those who supported the recommendation, they noted that each candidate had been vetted and had strong credentials.

Pam, though, said Birtwistle brought intelligence and insight to the Planning Board, and had attended all site visits and was well prepared.

Janet Keller, a Precinct 1 resident, told the council that she supported Birtwistle for his experience.

“I do so in light of the fact that there are three vacancies on the board, and four remaining members have a relatively short tenure,” Keller said.

The Planning Board appointments have long been a source of contention, including over the past year when the Town Council narrowly placed Janet McGowan on the board, despite concerns from members that her appointment meant the loss of experience brought by then-Chairman Greg Stutsman.

In 2010, when under the purview of the town manager, then Town Manager Larry Shaffer refused to reappoint Denise Barberet. Like Birtwistle, Barberet was in the minority on some votes and was criticized as not being a team player.

DuMont made a motion to postpone the appointment vote until the next meeting, which would have forced the Planning Board, with just four members, to cancel a hearing on the Amherst Survival Center’s plans for a more permanent shed to distribute food and groceries in the era of COVID-19. DuMont later withdrew the motion after Schreiber called it disgraceful because the delay might jeopardize the center’s mission as the weather turns colder.

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