It’s crunch time on Town Council and tempers are flaring

By Sarah Marshall

A new Town Council will be sworn in less than five weeks from now, meaning that the current Council has little time in which to conclude any business it does not wish to refer, or pass on, to its successor. And given the holidays, time is even shorter. Council is thus squeezing in extra meetings in an effort to bring some projects, particularly revisions to several zoning bylaws, to a conclusion. Some Councilors and members of the public are very unhappy with this schedule and/or with the proposals, as was made clear at the Town Council meeting this past Monday.

Town-owned lot proposed as a site for a parking garage

This blog has avoided zoning issues in part because of the daunting complexity and jargon that make coverage a challenge, but we feel compelled to write about them now because of the huge investment that town staff, elected officials, volunteers, and residents have made this year on debating, critiquing, researching, refining, and discussing the arcane rules that determine so much of the look and feel of our town, as well as the political impacts of the zoning efforts.

First, a quick overview. Revisions to four zoning bylaws are on the table, three of which are causing heartburn: the definition of a “mixed-use” building, an “overlay” that would permit a parking garage to be built on the Town-owned lot next to the CVS lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect Streets, and parking requirements for new constructions outside the Central Business District. All proposed zoning bylaws must be “read” twice during Town Council meetings, at which point they can be voted on. This past Monday, the first readings of these proposed bylaws occurred; the second will occur on Monday, Dec. 6.

Second, some highlights of public comment. Many residents have been closely following the development of these bylaws, which has occurred over this past year in numerous public meetings of the Town Council, the Council’s Community Resources Committee, and the Planning Board. Residents of District 3, in particular, feel threatened by the potential for a parking garage on the east side of North Prospect St., opposite a local historic district. In fact, District 3 residents were asked by one of their Councilors, Dorothy Pam, to lodge comments in opposition to what she termed a “Thanksgiving coup.” I listened to much of the public comment and heard accusations of “shenanigans to make sure that you can avoid having representative government,” a “rush to judgment,” a “lack of process,” and “disenfranchising voters.” Some commenters opined that the current Council, as a lame duck, is wrong to undertake any action that is not an emergency and should let the incoming Council make the decisions. (This last comment reminds me strongly of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s excuse for refusing to give Supreme Court-nominee Merrick Garland a hearing in advance of the 2016 presidential election.) Others claimed that the process short-cut provisions of state law or our town charter.

Presumably, similar comments had already been received by email, because Council President Lynn Griesemer opened the readings of discussions of the proposed zoning bylaws with what seemed a prepared statement. My transcript of her remarks follows:

There is no bylaw that we are voting on to approve tonight. All bylaws require two readings. This is the first reading for all four that appear on the agenda, even the one we’ve seen twice before, and all we’re doing is extending the date again.

However, before moving on, I’d like to share a few observations that are reflective and supportive of our town government today, tomorrow, and long into the future. They in no way reflect how I, as one of 13 Councilors, will vote on any bylaw.

We’ve heard several comments prior to this evening and tonight regarding a desire to delay any further action on zoning amendments, in fact, all actions, until the next Council is seated. These comments include various stated reasons:

  • This is a lame duck Council and we should not do anything for the remainder of our term.
  • The public has spoken through the election, thus creating a mandate. 
  • There has been insufficient time, research, and consideration given to these zoning articles.
  • And, finally, that we have not honored various state laws, charter requirements, and rules of procedure.

Regarding point one, does that mean that all Councilors only serve for one year and 10 months and that no legislative action should take place between an election and the seating of the next Council? This is not what the voters wanted when they voted for the Charter – they wanted a year-round government. If we are not going to take action now then we should have stopped taking at least certain actions last winter when we started lining all of these zoning articles up. The first ones we discussed were way back in December of 2020; the Planning staff came to us on February 22, 2021. In addition to that, since November 2, we have taken or are scheduled to take many important votes – on the budget guidelines, on establishing the CRESS and DEI Departments, on evaluating the Town Manager, and setting Town Manager goals for the coming year – most of which the next Council can change. We have a job to do, and refusing to take timely action is not in the best interests of the community.

Regarding point two, the creation of a mandate. Occasionally, we see a true sea change that might prompt us to take the extraordinary step of delaying action. However, the argument that “the people have spoken” seems to me requires some close examination. We have elected six outstanding new Councilors – that vote was confirmed just this past week. And, while it is true that two of the Councilors who have advocated to rezone the CVS parking lot were not reelected, they were defeated by a total of 50 votes and lost in one in each of their two precincts. Other incumbents, though not all, who were reelected or unopposed, to the best of my knowledge did not campaign for or against zoning changes. And the chair of the CRC committee, who argued and voted for the zoning changes in CRC, received the second highest number of votes in her town-wide election.

It is quite possible that residents in different neighborhoods hold different views on this issue. For example, the residents who do not live downtown are the ones most likely to need and use a garage. That’s OK. Our job is to take the community-wide view.

Regarding the concern of insufficient time, research, and consideration, I refer you to the second attachment to the Future Agenda Items [page 8 in this document] that is in your packet. It is the step-by-step process for each bylaw under consideration and includes the date of each step starting with the initial referral. Two of the bylaws – Mixed-use and Parking and Access (related loosely in this case as Apartment Definitions) – [were] presented in a list in February of 2021. They were referred by this Council for hearings by the Planning Board and CRC on June 28, 2021; the rezoning of the CVS parking lot was introduced to the Town Council on May 24 [and] was referred to the Planning Board and CRC for hearings. Each has been developed, vetted, and legally reviewed – including the involvement of our professional and well-qualified planning staff, Planning Board hearings, in three instances heard and reheard by CRC, and reviewed by the Town’s attorney. We do not lack information and turning back the clock at this point would be a disservice to the many residents and staff who’ve brought us to this point. We need to do our work and vote YES or NO, and move on. 

Finally, in the process of bringing these bylaws forward all state laws, the Charter, Council Rules of Procedure, and practices of the relevant bodies have been followed. Having said that I encourage the Town Planning staff to seek comments on the Planning Board reports and repost them in time for our next meeting. My request to all of us and to the residents is let’s agree to disagree; but we do not want to compromise democracy in the City known as the Town of Amherst based upon which side of the issues we fall on.

In my view, the current workload for Town Council and staff, while heavy and unwelcome, is not surprising at the end of a legislative session. (And as some have suggested, the charter could be amended so that a new Council is seated promptly after election results are certified, shortening the lame-duck session and moving it away from the holiday season.) Public hearings, readings, and votes must occur within windows of time set by law. Referring the current zoning proposals to late January or beyond would require the clocks to be re-set, launching new hearings, readings, reports, etc. and demanding yet more time from staff, Council, and residents.

To be sure, Councilors are not happy to have five-hour meetings on a routine basis, let alone extra meetings during the holiday season, as some complaints and sharp exchanges suggested. At the end of Monday’s meeting, Councilor Cathy Schoen, for instance, protested against the length of meetings, only to be challenged by Councilors Griesemer and De Angelis to assist by making her own comments briefer. Councilor De Angelis asked councilors in general to limit their comments to what is most important and not to say the same thing six times for emphasis. Councilor Pam noted that the lengthy meetings and interference with the holidays discourage potential candidates for Council.

Councilor De Angelis then deplored the “attitude” held by some councilors against other councilors as well as things said and done against Councilors Ryan and Ross. She said that, while she did not always agree with their views, neither George Ryan or Evan Ross deserved the treatment they were getting from some councilors and members of the public.

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