What about the Master Plan?

Columnist Sarah la Cour: What about the Master Plan?


For the first time in several decades, the Town of Amherst created a Master Plan that would guide the conservation and development of our town into the future.

Started in 2006, that process was completed in 2010. Since then we have moved forward on some critical components of that plan but we have also spent the time in between discussing, over and over, what other parts of it truly mean. We cannot afford to waste any more time processing what we think people meant when it was written.

On Page 1.1 in the Introduction, it states clearly that “This Master Plan represents the community’s best effort to balance competing interests and complex and intertwined issues.” Over 1000 community members and numerous volunteer committee members contributed to this vital document. Let’s believe them and move on.

Recently, the Amherst Select Board and Planning Board invited people to provide input on their specific thoughts for downtown Amherst. Many were happy to attend and provide input. However, many others wondered why we were being asked to do this again.

The Master Plan was remarkably clear on a vision for the community and downtown. Integrated into an overarching theme of sustainability, the concept of densifying downtown and our village centers is the most commonly mentioned objective throughout the Master Plan, being specifically identified in multiple sections. That, and revising our zoning regulations to allow for densification and new business and residential development opportunities.

On page 2.3, a major Key Direction for the Community is to “Encourage vitality in the downtown and village centers.” It explains that “vitality in these areas can be pursued in a variety of initiatives including encouraging additional housing development, economic investment, expansion of cultural facilities, promotion of a mix of uses and improvements in the public realm.” The body of the Plan continues in this vein with specific goals and objectives to achieve this vitality.

In the Land Use section of the Plan, the goal is to “Identify and inventory key locations for business development and adopt land use regulations that help broaden the Town’s tax base while avoiding inappropriate businesses, big boxes, heavy industry, etc.” It continues to say that we should “preferentially direct future development to existing built-up areas.”

Under Economic Development, it tells us that we must “strengthen, diversify and grow the economic base and employment opportunities in the town through smart development in the downtown, village centers and commercial areas.” It further provides the specific objective that we “improve [the] regulatory environment to encourage business development.”

And under the Demographics and Housing section, a key strategy tells us that “the zoning for the downtown and village centers should be revised to allow for more downtown housing and higher residential densities.” Page after page discusses the same.

My favorite, however, is on page 4.9 under of the Demographics and Housing section, where it states that “The community should: … Rezone Limited Business (BL) areas near downtown to General Business (BG) or another appropriate district to make it easier to create multi-family residential units and residential units in conjunction with business.”

There, they have identified one of the biggest obstacles to every smart growth principle aspired to in our Master Plan. We will never get where we need to go unless we fix this very broken zoning district. The Master Plan identified a solution years ago. Let’s see if we can make it work.

Although the ABID did not exist when the Master Plan was completed, many of our Board members and I were directly involved in the process. Since that time, we have all worked hard to make, and keep, downtown Amherst a “vital” place that embraces business development, increases cultural opportunities and enhances our streetscape.

We believe in the Master Plan and we believe that it remains the best way forward for the Town.

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.