Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Zoning Priorities

The Amherst Planning Board Zoning Subcommittee is going to meet today to get feedback on their list of priorities for next Town Meeting. Here's what I'm planning on saying:

Yay infill! Concentrating development where there is already existing infrastructure (roads, plumbing, transportation, businesses) should be a no-brainer; it's gentler on the environment and puts less stress on Town services.

Yay downtown/village center development! Putting businesses closer to where people live and work should also be a no-brainer.

Yay Mullin Rule! I had to look this one up-- the Mullin Rule makes it a little easier for projects to make their way through the permit approval process; if a board member misses a meeting, they can still vote on the approval as long as they promise that they thoroughly reviewed the meeting they missed. Making the permit approval process more predictable is a good thing.

Boo recreational facilities in residential development. The proposal was to require 1,000 square feet of "recreational space" per unit for developments that have more than four units (with a bunch of exceptions, and lots of verbiage defining "recreational"). This was referred back to the Planning Board last Town Meeting, and the more I think about it the less I like it. Why am I opposed? Let me count the ways:
  1. It would encourage sprawl. I thought we were aiming for denser development in general, because that will mean less pressure to develop in outlying areas.
  2. It will not solve the underlying problem. The real problem is a lack of competition in the Amherst rental market. Vacancy rates in Amherst are under 2%; a rental market with a healthy amount of competition should have a vacancy rate in the 6-8% range.
    With little competition landlords can keep rents high and improve their properties as little as possible. So we get expensive, run-down rentals with no recreation facilities.
  3. If the recreational facility requirement is just a pro forma hoop that developers jump through to get a permit, then they'll do nothing to maintain them over time. Every development will end up with a sad, rusty swing set and a couple of weedy horseshoe pitching pits, put in just to satisfy the recreation requirement and then promptly forgotten.
Oh, and I'll probably mention my pet zoning peeve-- the silly, antiquated rules for home businesses, although it probably doesn't have much practical effect on life here in Amherst, and shouldn't be a high priority.
Update after the meeting: I'm wrong about the recreational requirement increasing sprawl; apparently Amherst already requires un-built, un-paved space of at least 1,000 square feet per unit, so basically the change would require that some of that empty space be turned into "recreation" space. I still don't like it for the other two reasons, and because it goes against the KISS principle. Amherst zoning is way too byzantine already and needs an overhaul (as the head of Amherst's planning department, Mr. Tucker, mentioned at tonight's meeting).

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