Video: November 13 Planning Board Meeting: Hazards Mitigation Plan; Zoning Revisions Committee; Hotel Northampton Complaint; Hospital Hill Diverging from Vision of Planned Village; Comments on Notre Dame Charrette Website

Here is a complete Google video of the Northampton Planning Board meeting of November 13, 2008. The video is 2 hours and 49 minutes long.

Here are selected highlights of the meeting:

Discussion of the Proposed Local Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan (PDF)
0:00:00-0:15:50… Summary of planning process and highlights of plan

0:15:04-0:15:28… Planning Board member George Kohout and others note that for some time, a desire to replace the old flood control pump engines at the wastewater treatment plant has come up every year, but as of yet the funds to implement this have not been secured.

0:40:27-0:51:47… NSNA member Adam Cohen raised the issue of wetlands buffer zones, since Northampton’s new Wetlands Ordinance is cited in the Hazards Mitigation Plan as a hazard control measure. It is NSNA’s contention that the new Wetlands Ordinance encourages development too close to wetlands in in-town zones (as close as 10 feet). Not only does this put the wetlands environment and water quality at risk, it exposes structures to damage from flooding and moisture intrusion. George Kohout observed the frequency of severe storms has been increasing in recent years, which is correct. [Cohen claimed Massachusetts had the second highest increase in the US, trailing only Rhode Island. It actually also trails New Hampshire. However, the essential point remains.]

Planning Board chair said the issue of wetlands buffer zones protecting structures (in addition to protecting the natural environment) was a new perspective on the subject to him.

Senior Planner Carolyn Misch claimed the new Wetlands Ordinance represents strong protection for wetlands relative to the rest of the state, and in places is even stronger than the buffer zone regime it replaced. [With respect to the in-town portions of Northampton, we and a number of others disagree.]

Planning Board member Jennifer Dierenger terminated the discussion of wetlands buffer zones with a motion to close the public hearing.

In a last comment, George Kohout said the Wetlands Ordinance is a dynamic document subject to future modification based on new data and public opinion.

Zoning Revisions Committee
The Board wants to move forward with selecting members for this committee, perhaps emulating some aspects of the selection of the Best Practices Committee. The complexity of the task will vary with the number of applications received. Planning Board members Stephen Gilson and Katharine Baker will take charge of the process. [Interested in serving on this Committee? Don’t wait, make your interest known to the Planning Board.]

A Property Owner Would Like to Rezone the Old Pro Brush Buildings in Florence from General Industrial to Special Industrial
The owner imagines he might sell/rent some of the space to artists as live-work space. You can’t do this in a General Industrial zone. Carolyn Misch asks, would the Planning Board like to co-sponsor legislation with Councilor David Murphy to rezone this parcel to be Special Industrial? Teri Anderson, Northampton’s Economic Development Coordinator, is said to object to residences in industrial zones. She doesn’t object to artists merely working there. The matter may hinge on whether the zone has a reasonable prospect of attracting “harder-core” manufacturing. Some Planning Board members feel that prospect is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

George Kohout said that a lack of parking around the parcel is a significant consideration.

Members of the Board debated whether the question should be put to the Zoning Revisions Committee. That could delay it by several months. Stephen Gilson expressed concern that the operation of the Planning Board as a whole could bog down if too many matters are referred out to the Zoning Revisions Committee. Ken Jodrie envisions the ZRC should be conceived as “support” for the Planning Board.

Francis Johnson feels the Zoning Revisions Committee may not be operational until June. Other Board members felt it might not take that long.

The Board voted to co-sponsor legislation to rezone the buildings to Special Industrial.

Discussion of Facilitating the Establishment of Renewable Energy Generating Facilities (Alternative Energy)
Requested by Chris Mason, Northampton’s Energy Coordinator. Francis Johnson expressed concern about biomass burning. The matter will be put before the Zoning Revisions Committee.

Hotel Northampton Would Prefer Not to Allow Pedestrians to Cross Its Parking Lot from Adjacent Streets

An attorney for the Hotel Northampton sent the Planning Board a letter of complaint. The Board requires the Hotel to allow pedestrians to cross its parking lot from adjacent streets. A pedestrian fell and hurt herself in the parking lot this summer. The Hotel is concerned about its liability. The Planning Board was unsympathetic to the Hotel’s position.

Members of the Planning Board Are Displeased with How Hospital Hill/Village Hill Is Diverging from Their Vision of a Planned Village

The Citizens Advisory Committee will meet to discuss Hospital Hill on November 17. Members of the Planning Board expressed concern that by the time Hospital Hill proposals come to them, they have too much momentum to be changed much.

The Planning Board had envisioned Hospital Hill would be a planned village with mixed uses (housing, commercial, retail). What’s actually evolving appears to be a “huge subdivision” with different levels of housing.

Ken Jodrie: “We’re going to be under tremendous pressure to approve exactly what they [Kollmorgen] come here with… or we’re going to be criticized for being anti-development, and killing a cash cow…”

Stephen Gilson expressed concern that the number of school-age children who may come to live at Hospital Hill may impose a substantial economic burden on the city, especially in light of the large percentage of housing slated to be “affordable”, possibly up to 50%. Gilson: “My worry is we create an area up there that the city can’t afford.”

[Carolyn Misch noted later that 50% affordable housing was a very large percentage.]

2:10:11… Jodrie: “We have an awful working relationship with this developer [MassDevelopment]… They’re going about this in a way that’s not working with us at all… I’m extremely disappointed in this process… It’s MassDevelopment who’s not listening to us [as opposed to the Citizens Advisory Committee]. They don’t hear what we tell them about what our interpretation of this village is.”

Misch suggested more communication between the CAC and the Planning Board.

George Kohout expressed dismay at how the proposed Kollmorgen facility will sit with respect to the street adjacent to it.

Francis Johnson expressed frustration with how CAC meetings have dwelt on minute parts of the plans for Hospital Hill. He does like how the plan preserves beech
trees and provides for greenways.

Kohout would like more information sooner about how plans for Hospital Hill are evolving.

Misch said MassDevelopment would like to move forward on their plans to tap road-building funds that are now available to them.

2:22:10… Jodrie: “…the developer is not complying with our vision of what a village ought to be… We need to tell the developer directly that they’re not going to get these approvals when they arrive here regardless of what the CAC says.”

2:25:25… Baker: “It does seem as though there are these end runs like there was with the police department [regarding their new police station] where they come to us finally and say, ‘Well, this has already been approved and there’s been all these other hearings and you know, you just can’t raise that anymore.'”

2:26:35… Dierenger: “I think that we have to fight that pressure… What I’m sensing here is that this is what MassHousing is doing. They have this strategy of going to CAC, getting their approval and then things fester politically and then the pressure mounts for us to just approve what everyone already thinks is a foregone conclusion ’cause CAC approved it… We know that’s not true. We know what our purview is. We know what we have control over… [Resisting the pressure is] going to suck, but…we’re not the CAC.”

A discussion ensued about how Francis Johnson, who is also a member of the CAC, should convey to the CAC the sentiments of the Planning Board. Johnson stated he conceives of himself as an independent presence at the CAC (independent from the Planning Board).

2:36:34… Johnson: “There was testimony that there would be substantially fewer children than there would be in the normal number of housing units.”

2:36:44… Gilson: “Yeah, but you can’t vote on that. You can’t restrict people with children from moving into a neighborhood… They’re two-bedroom houses. You can stick four people into a two-bedroom house.”

Gilson expressed a preference for shifting more housing to market rate as opposed to “affordable”.

Misch said 50% affordable “is a huge number”.

Johnson agreed that 50% affordable was excessive for the new housing units being proposed.

Here are MassDevelopment plans that Johnson circulated at the meeting:

Brief Discussion of the Latest Designs from the Notre Dame Urban Design Studio
Some Planning Board members felt the charrette website was hard to navigate, also that it is hard to zero in on details in the designs or see what’s new. Baker: “They really want feedback.”

# # #

Agendas and Best Practices
As you can see, the above meeting covered a wide variety of subjects. On the city calendar, however, the agenda only called for the following:

7:00 P.M. Public Hearing on


The discussion of the Hazards Mitigation Plan comprised less than half of the actual meeting. Public participation is impeded if meeting agendas don’t accurately reflect the actual topics discussed. NSNA’s Adam Cohen was the only member of the public (or the media) to attend Thursday’s meeting. If the full range of the items discussed had been widely known beforehand, perhaps attendance would have been higher. The Valley Advocate, for example, has shown a keen interest in Hospital Hill. The Hotel Northampton might also have wanted to send a representative.

See also:

Public Meeting of the State Hospital Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC)
Monday, November 17, 2008
7:00 PM
J.F.K. Middle School Community Room
100 Bridge Road, Florence

[In the Planning Board video, there was some confusion about the location of this meeting. Call the Mayor’s Office to confirm the location.]

The State Hospital CAC will hold a public hearing on a request by MassDevelopment, the lead developer of the former Northampton State Hospital property, to revise the master plan for the north campus to allow up to 100 additional residential units. The original redevelopment plan for Village Hill was approved by the CAC in 1999. A revised master plan was approved in May 2008.

More info, including a copy of the draft proposal, is available here:

[Thanks to Councilor David Narkewicz for circulating the above notice.]

Gazette: “Public’s comment sought on Village Hill” (11/15/08)
MassDevelopment, the lead developer on the site, is proposing to build up to 100 additional new housing units on the north campus of the former state hospital grounds. If approved, the additional units would bring the potential number of residential units for the entire project to 327. “This is the first step in a bigger process,” Mayor Clare Higgins, committee chairwoman, said of the proposal. “There are still other public processes that have to be gone through.”

Thus far, 122 residential units have been built or are under construction at Village Hill Northampton. Another 101 residential units remain to be built on the north campus under the current master plan.

New Hazards Mitigation Plan Reflects Weakened Protection for Wetlands
Northampton Wastewater Treatment Plant – Hockanum Road— the flood control pumps, fairly old and showing signs of wear, are especially vulnerable to failure and, if they failed, could create severe damage to both the plant and the surrounding low lying neighborhood.” (p.45, emphasis added)

Mike Kirby: “The Meadowbrook Chronicles Part One”
The Meadowbrook story has many important facets. Of particular interest to us are the consequences that can follow from building homes near wetlands…

The developers built 255 units of affordable apartments there. They crammed them in everywhere they could, pushing them up into the bluffs, and close to the creek and wetlands. No backyards to speak of. One third of the buildings were built within 50 feet of the wetlands, 63% of the buildings are within the customary 100 feet of wetlands.

None of the buildings have cellars under their apartments. If they have cellars, there are people living in them. The cellar floors in the basement apartments in Buildings #4 and #2 are lower than the surrounding swamp. Some slabs have cracks in them. People have been flooded out. No moisture-proof barriers between the surrounding earth and the foundations. Moisture and mold percolate up into people’s apartments via the chases that hold utilities. If you wonder why low-income children are afflicted with a whole host of respiratory diseases, you have to look no further than the children of the floor level and basement apartments of Meadowbrook…

Gazette: “Council adopts wetlands ordinance”
At-large City Councilor James M. Dostal proposed an amendment Thursday that called for increasing the 10 feet no-encroachment zones in urban residential districts to 50 feet because of serious concerns about homes flooding, saying “We shouldn’t be building there…”

Adam Cohen, of North Street and an organizer of the North Street Neighborhood Association said he believes a 50-foot no-[en]croachment zone would be better for the city’s urban residential districts. That, he said, represents “consumer protection for homeowners.”

The Republican: “Wetlands ordinance approved”
At-Large Councilor James M. Dostal, who opposed the ordinance along with Ward 7 Councilor Raymond W. LaBarge, said he was concerned about flooded basements and people being flooded out in concentrated development areas near downtown.

Valley Advocate Critiques Sustainable Northampton Plan
Reviewing the diagram of the planned single-use sprawl [on Hospital Hill] a mile and a half from downtown, the mayor remarked on how well the architect used urban design principles by packing a lot of homes into the design. Density of construction is, of course, only one principle of urban design, but without regard for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, packed housing can also be a ghetto.

Video: Third public “in-process” presentation and feedback session for Design Northampton Week
Here is a complete Vimeo video of Design Northampton Week’s third public “in-process” presentation and feedback session that took place on September 11. It’s one hour and 32 minutes long. Notre Dame students presented ideas for revitalizing King Street between Bridge Road and North Street. They also made suggestions about Hospital Hill (Village Hill), particularly the part Kollmorgen is slated to move to. Click to see the existing and proposed designs for Hospital Hill (Village Hill).

Video: June 26 Planning Board Meeting Discusses Hospital Hill, Citizens’ Advisory Committee, Northampton Soccer Club
Discussion of evolutions at Hospital Hill (Village Hill) with respect to Kollmorgen’s proposed new plant and other changes

  • “The project still has to meet all the design guidelines.”
  • “There’s a lot of components that definitely have to come back to you.”
  • “If they meet the design guidelines, you’re limited to finding they meet the design guidelines. If they don’t meet the design guidelines, then anything goes.”
  • “I’m not necessarily opposed to Kollmorgen or any big, industrial type thing up there, I just want it to be done in a way that meets the village concept.”
  • “Conceptually, it’s OK with the CAC.”
  • “I was surprised it happened without us knowing about it.”
  • “My feeling is it’s going to be like an armed camp up there, and I think it would be really desirable for them to design it so that they didn’t feel that the parking lot had to be secure; could be a little bit more of a village walking places.”

Valley Advocate: Northampton: No “Village” at Hospital Hill (6/12/08)
The footprint of Kollmorgen’s proposed development (130,000 square feet), though, will take up more than half of the allotted industrial space, biting right into the juiciest real estate and changing everything. With the vote, the new road has been eliminated from the plan…

Kollmorgen’s relocation effectively ends the fantasy of anything remotely village-like emerging on the hill. Rather than a church steeple at the crossroads of this New England hamlet, there will be a tower for constructing periscopes surrounded by barbed wire.