Amherst seeking third-party review of Retreat plans

In anticipation of definitive subdivision plans and site plan review documents being filed by developer Landmark Properties LLC of Athens, Ga., the Planning Board, working with Planning Department staff, intends to hire a technical consultant to provide both an expert and disinterested view on the project, said Planning Board Chairman David Webber.

The state’s subdivision law allows for this third-party review, to be paid for by the developer, Webber said.

“It’s supposed to allow us to have a qualified third opinion on how roads should be built, utilities should be installed, those specific issues,” Webber said.

This is needed, he said, because the ability for the planning staff and the volunteer board to thoroughly review a residential cluster subdivision on this scale is limited. Most projects reviewed by the board tend to be much smaller, including more modest residential subdivisions and various commercial and mixed-use projects, Webber said.

The Retreat is a controversial 641-bed project, aimed primarily at University of Massachusetts students, planned for the Cushman section of Amherst that would be constructed on nearly 147 acres owned by W.D. Cowls Inc. The land is bordered by Henry Street, Market Hill Road and Flat Hills Road.

Webber said he expects that the consultant will “work behind the scenes to analyze the plans.”

Hiring a consultant was discussed in December, when the board held a preliminary subdivision hearing and provided Landmark a number of directives on what should be changed in the preliminary plans before they are returned.

Following that nearly five-hour meeting, the Planning Board unanimously recommended shorter streets, fewer cul-de-sacs and less perpendicular parking.

The science and engineering analysis by the consultant will supplement a staff-generated review, known as the development application report, said Senior Planner Christine Brestrup. The Fire Department, town engineer and Department of Public Works will also review the project plans.

Webber said the request for proposals document, which remains in draft form, asks for an independent review of the site’s current and future physical and environmental conditions, including roads and layouts of homes.

The document is expected to be finalized at a future Planning Board meeting before being advertised.

Once applicants submit statements of interest, a committee made up of two Planning Board members, planning staff and possibly residents will evaluate and select. The consultant will be ready to go once Landmark puts its filings in with the town clerk.

Meanwhile, the Conservation Commission is also expected to hire a consultant for its review of the project, which is likely to take place prior to the Planning Board hearings. The consultant for the commission will focus more on the wetlands and wildlife impacts caused by the project.

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