Mandi Jo Hanneke
Planning and zoning are some of the most divisive concepts in town. What do we want our town to look like? Where do we want development? What types of business or residential uses should that development include? These are areas fraught with tension and emotions, especially in Amherst.
Right now, as was pointed out by John Hornick, at a recent forum on housing in town, Amherst has at least 5 separate volunteer entities that have responsibility for these issues: (1) Town Meeting; (2) the Select Board; (3) the Planning Board; (4) the Zoning Board of Appeals; and (5) the Conservation Commission.1
Take the Master Plan for example. It’s the long-term document that sets forth the goals for conservation, development, and housing in Town. The Planning Board is tasked, by law, with creating and adopting it. The most recent one was adopted in 2010 after more than 1000 residents participated and gave input in a process that began in 2006.
Despite all of the effort that went into the creation of the plan, there is no requirement that the document go any further than the Planning Board. Town Meeting, the body that enacts the bylaws that govern development in Town, never actually votes to adopt the Plan. In fact, it never becomes known whether Town Meeting even supports the Plan.
Therefore, members invariably state during warrant article discussions that (1) the article violates the Master Plan and should be rejected, or (2) while it conforms with the Master Plan, the article should be rejected because the Master Plan is not what the Town wants because Town Meeting never adopted it. This is a problem.
The Charter solves this problem. It requires the Town Council to adopt the Master Plan and any changes to it, with or without amendment. This means that the Town Council and the Planning Board will be on the same page. And, the Charter requires that residents be involved in the process early and often, just as they were in the last process. (See Chapter 2 of the Master Plan for a list of resident engagement efforts.)
That’s all well and good, but how do we make sure the Master Plan gets implemented?
Well, since policy making is the purview of the Town Council, no longer will the policies originate in a body that doesn’t have the authority to enact the bylaws needed to implement that policy.
In addition, the Charter requires that all bylaws in front of the Council addressing a matter dealt with in the master plan be forwarded to the Planning Board. The Planning Board is then required to make a recommendation to the Council and explain whether the proposed measure conforms with the master plan.
This will bring attention to all decisions affecting planning and zoning and give the experts the opportunity to address whether proposed measures will further the Master Plan or thwart it.
Of course, the Council’s ability to deliberate will help the process. It can discuss a proposed change, and if it sees flaws, the Council can amend the proposed measure, then postpone discussion until the appropriate people have time to weigh in on the amendments.
The Council can keep this cycle going until all pertinent information has been received, all amendments have been thoroughly vetted, and all residents of the Town have been able to comment. It’s an important cycle that is missing in the current form.
The other big change is that the Planning Board will now be appointed by the Town Council, a body elected by the people, instead of the Town Manager. This brings the Planning Board one step closer to the voters.
Other items stay the same. All zoning bylaws will require 9 affirmative votes for passage, a hard 2/3 supermajority, not the “soft” supermajority currently required (2/3 affirmative votes of those present and voting2). In addition, state law requires the Council to adopt zoning changes by a ¾ majority (10 members) if a written protest is filed with the clerk of the Council prior to the vote signed by owners of 20% or more of the area of the land proposed to be included in such change or of the area of the land immediately adjacent extending 300 feet therefrom (see M.G.L. Ch. 40A Sec. 5).
The Charter helps the Town connect the planning dots, ensuring that the various volunteers tasked with planning and zoning obligations actually work together to implement the vision of the Town. It’s something that’s missing in the current government.
1Town Meeting passes zoning bylaws. The Select Board initiates policy proposals, appoints the ZBA, and confirms the Manager’s appointments to the Conservation Commission and Planning Board. The Planning Board conducts studies on land use, including development, housing, transportation, economic development, and zoning, issues permits under Site Plan Review standards, reviews all proposed zoning bylaws, and is charged with drafting and adopting the Master Plan. The Zoning Board of Appeals issues permits under the Special Permit standards, and acts on other matters pursuant to M.G.L. Ch. 40A. The Conservation Commission is responsible for matters related to the conservation of land and land management.
2On November 17, 2016, Town Meeting passed a Zoning bylaw with such a “soft” majority: There were 96 “yes” votes, 44 “no” votes, 11 “abstentions” and 101 members not voting or not present. Only 38% of Town Meeting members actually voted “yes”, yet the 2/3 requirement was still met.