Friday, January 30, 2015

ZBA Drones On

Crotty Hall rendering looking from the Northwest

As usual the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting last night went on for over four hours, and as is also somewhat usual they did not come to a final vote on any of the three major items discussed.  And you thought Amherst Town Meeting took forever!

First up was Stephan Gharabegian, arguably the most notorious absentee landlord in the town of Amherst.  Mr Gharabegian owns almost half the houses on Phillips Street, the most notorious street in Amherst.

33 Phillips Street

In this case he wishes to expand capacity for 33 Phillips Street, probably the most notorious house in all of Amherst.

The house is a 3-family unit meaning it can have 12 "unrelated" tenants.  But Mr. Gharabegian had, without official permit, refinished the basement for a 4th unit, thus increasing monthly rental income significantly.

And since the bootleg apartment had major health/safety violations -- no second means of egress in case of fire -- it came to the attention of Building Commissioner Rob Morra who shut down the basement apartment until the ZBA hears his case.

Which started on October 2, continued to November 6, continued to last night, and now continued yet again until June 11.

 Stephan Gharabegian addresses 3-member Zoning Board of Appeals last night

Neighbors repeatedly pointed out the detrimental impact that 33 Phillips has already had on the surrounding neighborhood (Fearing Street and Sunset Avenue) as a 3-family, so allowing it to become a 4-family will only make matters worse.

Besides, town officials should not be rewarding bad behavior, since the 4th unit was illegally created to begin with and only comes before the ZBA because he got caught.  Member Tom Ehrgood, waiving a police summary report, said the location was a "magnet for police attention."

The board was a little more receptive to another rental property with a less than sterling reputation, 164 Sunset Avenue.  They generally came to the conclusion that formalizing the house as a two family unit was reasonable, with some conditions that will be hammered out at the hearing continued to February 12.

The most surprising event of the night was a 2+ hour discussion (borderline heated) over Crotty Hall, a sleek new building proposed for 418 North Pleasant Street at the very gateway to UMass.

The Dover Amendment allows religious and educational institutes to pretty much run roughshod over local oversight except for the setback zoning requirements, which are enforced by the Building Commissioner.

In fact they are made even more stringent as the requirements in the Amherst Zoning Bylaw have to be doubled since educational and religious buildings are oftentimes HUGE and can be plopped down in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

In this case the designers did not realize that the 10 foot side setback touching Phillips Street needed to be doubled to 20 feet.  But the Amherst Building Commissioner did. 

Gordon & Crotty Hall. Dotted line top right Phillips Street property

Thus the building was totally designed, at a current investment of $222,000 (85% of which is lost if the building requires redesign), with a 10 foot side setback in mind.  Neighbors on Phillips Street are not happy.  The ZBA is caught in the middle.

Neighbors also complained that the twin building, Gordon Hall, has a noisy HVAC system that drives them crazy from April until October, and the new building will be much closer to them.

Sounding troubled, ZBA Chair Eric Beal said, "This is a hard case for me.  You relied on the 10 foot setback in good faith."

The proposed building is named for Jim and Pam Crotty, who have lived in Amherst for 40 years.

Mr. Crotty, UMass Professor Emeritus of Economics and Sheridan Scholar, spoke about bringing faculty who now work in Thompson Hall to the new building to work alongside colleagues in Gordon Hall:  "It would be superb to get this synergy between faculty and grad students."

Two members of the ZBA, Mark Parent and Tom Ehrgood, seemed convinced the extra intrusion into Phillips Street was not  "unreasonable", especially since the main UMass campus is only a snowball throw away.

Chair Eric Beal was not 100% convinced, however, and wished to see "renderings" of the new building.

The board took a five minute break so architect Sigrid Miller Pollin could pull them up from her computer.  But when the meeting resumed the renderings only showed the impact from North Pleasant Street and not from Phillips Street.

The appeal hearing was continued until February 12.  The building plan will also need review by the Amherst Planning Board for a Site Plan Approval.


Anonymous said...

Long meetings serve to exclude people with actual lives from public service.

Anonymous said...

Why would the ZBA grant a permit to anyone who flagrently flouts the law -- or can't read it? How stupid to spend $225k and not read the bylaw correctly. Why let one landlord have an extra unit when other landlords following the law and don't have them? Why does everyone else have to follow the setback requirements but not this building.

Just say no. Enforce the bylaw.