Fran Volkmann: Planning Board Needs to Consider Proposals in their Broader Context

Fran Volkmann is a former member of the Northampton City Council and the Planning Board. In Tuesday’s Gazette, she expresses concern about how the Planning Board handled the Hilton Garden Inn proposal. Many of the issues she mentions also arise with Kohl Construction’s condo proposal for North Street.

The zoning ordinance lists a number of aspects of a project that the board should take into consideration in evaluating a proposal. These include reaching answers to the following questions:

  • Does the project create a harmonious relationship of structures and open spaces to the natural landscape, existing buildings, and other community assets in the area?

  • Does the project protect adjoining premises against seriously detrimental uses?

  • Does the project preserve the views, light and air of the abutters?

  • Does the project unduly impair the integrity of character of the district?

  • Is the project in harmony with the overall purposes of the zoning ordinance (Section 350-1.3)?
These questions are what we might think of as “forest” questions – broad, comprehensive questions that address the overall impact and desirability of a project…

At its meeting on Thursday night, the Planning Board addressed only a few of the many “tree” questions and essentially no “forest” questions…

…At no time did it address a single idea, question, or item of information submitted to it in an extensive set of letters and public comment.

The quality of decision-making on the board may well be the single most important determiner of the quality of major projects such as this hotel. The way the board reaches decisions also influences in important ways the level of acceptance of projects by the community. And, not least over the long run, the board’s approach to decision-making determines the level of trust and confidence that the public has in the board and in the Planning Department that guides its work.

See also:

Safety Valves to Infill: The Grow Smart Northampton Plan of 2003
Northampton’s Planning Board and City Council Industry Committee endorsed the “Grow Smart Northampton” (PDF) plan in 2003. This plan, a precursor to recent Sustainable Northamption planning, does support infill. Specifically, the plan suggests, “Increase by 10 percent the density of housing in and within walking distance of downtown.” (p.13)

At the same time, Grow Smart Northampton urges a balanced approach to preserve urban green space and the quality of life downtown:

Enhance the beauty of neighborhoods and the livability of them. (p.12)

Use open space and recreation to ensure that the urban and village centers are attractive places to live, work and visit. (p.14)

Add to the city’s conservation land holdings by acquiring small green areas downtown and in villages of Bay State, Leeds and Florence. (p.14)

Promote traditional neighborhood development patterns. (p.14)

Protect important ecological resources, including surface and groundwater resources, plant communities and wildlife habitat. (p.15)

Improve the quality of residential subdivision development and preserve sensitive lands and valuable open space. (p.21)

It would be critical, however, to ensure that any extra density allowed is consistent with the City’s goals and to ensure that the character of “receiving” zones would be preserved. (p.22)

There are additional infill opportunities that can help maintain vibrant neighborhoods, provide room for growth that doesn’t consume open space and minimize future traffic impacts (p.22)
Kohl Construction asserts it has the right to place as many as 34 condo units on its 5.49 acre site. This is if Kohl is granted a special permit by Northampton’s Planning Board for a townhouse development. Northampton guidelines call for each townhouse unit to be ‘assigned’ 7,000 square feet of land. The total size of Kohl’s parcel is 238,988 square feet.  Kohl’s actual proposal calls for 31 units, which works out to 5.65 units per acre. The current typical density in the North Street area is 2-4 units per acre…

Limiting density per acre serves to protect neighborhood character, mitigate impacts on the environment and utilities, and head off parking and traffic problems. The North Street area is primarily a neighborhood of detached one- and two-family homes. In 1991, a proposed three-unit apartment house on Woodmont Road was blocked by the Zoning Board of Appeals for being out of character with the neighborhood. Much more out of character is Kohl’s proposal for 31 units, consisting of townhouses and a triplex…