Residents Express Concerns about Rezoning at Ordinance/Planning Board Meeting

Here is a YouTube video of the complete May 13 meeting of Northampton’s Committee on Elections, Rules, Ordinances, Orders & Claims, followed by a joint meeting of the committee with the Planning Board. Here is the agenda of these meetings. This video was recorded by Ruth McGrath.

The joint meeting with the Planning Board begins at 0:53:44 on the video. At issue were proposed ordinances intended to advance higher density urban residential zoning. While some residents spoke in favor of the ordinances, others expressed concerns about parking, reduced public input into larger proposals, and large projects that could alter neighborhoods that residents are presently satisfied with.
Below is the text of remarks by Adam Cohen (a member of NSNA) and Jim Nash (a member of the Zoning Revisions Committee, which issued its final report in 2011). 

Comments by Adam Cohen

My name is Adam Cohen. I live on North Street.

I understand that EDHLU [the Economic Development, Housing and Land Use Committee] recommends that Special Permits be required for developments of 7 units or more.

I support this and encourage you to lower the Special Permit threshold to 5 units.

Larger developments have often been controversial, and it seems clear that residents want more input into these projects, not less. It serves the purpose of Smart Growth to accommodate this.

When residents are ignored, when big, ugly projects spring up next to them, you can’t blame them for wanting to sprawl out to the suburbs, using large lots to insulate themselves from adverse change.

This new zoning is not simply about ratifying neighborhoods that were laid down a century ago. For most people today, cars give them critical access to jobs, shopping, and resources in the region. Scarce parking is already an issue on some streets downtown and in Florence Center.

The final report of the Zoning Revisions Committee called for no change in the off-street parking requirements in URA, B and C with respect to 1-4 family homes. These requirements are one space per 500 square feet for each unit.

By contrast, the proposal before you calls for one space per one thousand square feet of Gross Living Area. So in some cases, the off-street parking requirement would be cut by as much as half. This is overly aggressive. It would be better to reduce the off-street parking requirement gradually over a period of years, so the process could be paused if problems arise.

More generally, I’d be reassured if I felt the city was advancing the pro-resident parts of the Sustainable Northampton Plan with as much zeal as the pro-developer parts. In particular, we need more attention to expanding the tree canopy in the infill receiving areas. To me, that means measuring this canopy by ward every year, passing a Significant Tree ordinance to protect the city’s old and large trees, protecting the trees that currently buffer properties, and committing to planting a specific number of new trees every year.

Thank you.

Comments by Jim Nash

Hello, my name is Jim Nash of 18 Montview in Ward 3.

During my time on the Zoning Revisions Committee, I heard a common theme from the citizens of Northampton. People were open to infill development as long as the character of their neighborhood would remain unchanged. Citizens were generally okay with neighbors adding a room, an apartment, sub-dividing a large home, even building on an empty lot.

However, many people voiced a worry that easing our zoning regulations would invite projects that did not fit our neighborhoods, more specifically, multi-unit developments shoehorned into lots without regard to neighborhood layout.

This proposed UR zoning package provides insufficient safeguards around the design and dimensions of multi-unit developments. Furthermore, should this proposal pass as written with decreased frontage requirements, the number of infill opportunities for multi-unit developments will increase markedly. Controversial developments such as that which polarized the North Street neighborhood will soon be coming to neighborhoods throughout the city.

You have undoubtedly heard the analogy that our current zoning would not allow us to build infill models like Cherry Street or Graves Avenue as they are today. This is true. But it is also true that the zoning proposal before you falls well short of this goal as well. Were Graves Avenue an empty 2.5 acre lot, no developer would be required to create the public street we enjoy today.

So what will we get?

In Ward 3, we live with the results of lax design and streetscape regulations. We have multi-unit developments with no sidewalks, that face parking lots and driveways, that have backyards where the side-yard should be, that have front-yards that face neighbors backyards, that have homes on one side of the street and a wood fence or retention basin on the other. Where public space ends and private space begins is anyone’s guess. This is poor urban design. We know this and yet this package does not regulate it, it promotes it.

There is much to like in these proposals. The majority of UR property owners, those who own one to four family homes, will enjoy greater latitude with their investments. However, moving forward with this zoning package without inserting strong regulations for multi-unit developments is a breach of the public trust from when the infill discussion began, that our neighborhoods would be protected.

In this zoning package I find such safeguards severely lacking and ask that you not approve them as written.

If you share any of these concerns, communicate them to your City Councilor as soon as possible.