Amherst proposal for zone change that implements form-based code in North Amherst and Atkins Corner fails; Dickinson Local Historic District established Reply

A proposal to adopt a form-based code in the Atkins Corners area in South Amherst failed at Town Meeting.

The town of Amherst recently voted on a number of issues relating to real estate.   They voted down a couple of zoning change proposals and approved the formation of an historic district

A shift to a form-based code, in the area around Atkins Market in South Amherst and in the center of North Amherst, was narrowly defeated at Amherst town meetings earlier in the month.   Although a majority voted in favor of both zone changes, the vote fell short of the 2/3 required to pass.

Form-based code is defined as a regulatory alternative to conventional zoning that addresses the form of buildings rather than allowable land use.

The measure in Amherst would have changed the zoning of both areas, which, as stated verbatim on Amherst’s official town website, would allow for :

  • Adding new mixed-use center districts that incorporate form-based design regulations.
  • Adding new overlay districts that apply form-based design regulations to existing or new residential or educational zoning districts.
  • Changing the boundaries of existing zoning districts in ways which enhance the village centers, improve protections for existing historic and environmental resources, and correct longstanding problems.

The argument for the change is that it would give the town more control over the look and feel of these areas.  Although both proposed zone changes would have included the adoption of a form-based code, the details of each change differed.  In North Amherst, it would have involved a change from a commercial district to a village center, whereas the Atkins Corner did not.

The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported in the case of the Atkins Corner village center: “Calling the changes long overdue, Planning Board Chairman David Webber said the package of zoning changes for Atkins Corner would create a compact, walkable village center using both traditional zoning, such as setbacks and dimensional requirements, and form-based zoning, including design regulations that control the streetscape, open space and forms of the buildings.”

In a guest column in the same newspaper, Town Meeting member Maurianne Adams highlighted her objections to the zone change for North Amherst, which lies adjacent to University of Massachusetts campus.

She contended that any zone change should not precede a housing study, stating that proponents “put the cart before the horse.”  Adams also stated that size of the area affected by the zone change was too large.  She also took issue with the potential for the door being open to an influx of student housing:

North Amherst

Located just north of the University of Massachusetts campus, the proposal to adopt a form-based code in North Amherst also failed. This was partly due to a concern over the potential for an increase in student housing.

“Finally, it seems high time for discussion with Amherst’s University of Massachusetts neighbor about whether most undergraduates should be housed on campus in professionally supervised residential complexes, or whether Amherst needs to identify locations for off-campus housing—locations that will do no harm to already fragile residential neighborhoods.”

Under the current commercial zoning in North Amherst, residential housing can only be included above commercial projects.  The new zoning would have allowed for more residential uses.

Both zoning changes had the unanimous support of the Amherst Board of Selectmen and Planning Board.  Although both changes failed to meet the 2/3 majority needed to pass by less than 10 votes, it is unknown if town officials will continue to pursue it.

Amherst also recently created an historic district in the area around the Emily Dickinson Museum, one of the town’s most popular tourist destinations.  Emily Dickinson was a world-renowned 19th century poet.

Although already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the new Dickinson Local Historic District will allow the town to restrict how a property owner within the district modifies their building.

A new Local Historic District Commission will review applications submitted to the town’s building inspector.

Historic districts are not uncommon, especially in New England.  They are a tool used to preserve the historic aesthetic of a neighborhood.

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