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Amherst Town Meeting member raises questions about planner

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AMHERST — A Town Meeting member claims that the town’s planning director intentionally kept the contents of a transportation study focused on the North Pleasant Street corridor between the University of Massachusetts and downtown Amherst from the Planning Board, even as it was considering a site plan review for a large-scale mixed-use development in town center.

John Fox, a Fearing Street resident and former tax lawyer who has previously raised concerns with the Planning Department at Town Meeting sessions, this week submitted an 11-page, spiral-bound memo titled “The Secret Gateway Transportation Study” to the Select Board that outlines what he describes as “significant misrepresentations” made by Planning Director Jonathan Tucker in an email memorandum to Planning Board Chairman David Webber and Senior Planner Christine Brestrup last December.

“We have to expect that when they tell us about facts that they are credible,” said Fox, who lives in a neighborhood close to the so-called Gateway corridor. “Everyone suffers if officials are saying things that are false and misleading.”

Fox said Tucker informed Webber and Brestrup in the memo that the town did not have a draft copy or a final copy of the Gateway study in hand last fall when the Planning Board reviewed Kendrick Place, a five-story, mixed-use project at the corner of Triangle and East Pleasant streets.

However, Fox contends that the town did have a copy in draft form following a presentation by a consultant, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. of Springfield, to Town Manager John Musante, Tucker and other officials Nov. 29, 2012. A hard copy of the final draft was released by UMass in March 2013, with Tucker getting a copy in November 2013.

The study examined the existing conditions of the corridor, as well as nearby municipal and campus streets, and the potential impact of development that could include 290 residential units, 159,290 square feet of retail space, 47,970 square feet of office space and a 100-room hotel.

The consultant makes three recommendations in its report. Two are already planned by UMass as part of its campus master plan. They are creating a new east-west connector road between Lincoln Avenue and North Pleasant Street south of Massachusetts Avenue and establishing a pedestrian corridor along Phillips Street, through the redeveloped Lincoln Apartments and along an extension of Sunset Court from McClure Street to Lincoln Avenue.

The third recommendation is to adjust the signal timing by eight seconds at the intersection of Triangle and East Pleasant streets, coincidentally the same location where Kendrick Place is under construction.

In the report, the consultants write, “While widening was considered and converting the intersection into a roundabout, concerns over physical impacts to abutting properties and Kendrick Park outweighed any benefits from significantly altering the intersection. Based on the build analyses presented earlier, no other additional roadway, pedestrian, or bicycle improvements are recommended.”

Tucker on Thursday referred to Musante all questions about Fox’s document.

Musante said he is not concerned about Fox’s accusations, adding that Tucker is a long-time employee who, along with Brestrup, works with the Planning Board in reviewing projects, preparing zoning amendments and handling planning issues.

“I have full confidence in the professional planning staff and the support professionals like Christine Brestrup and Jonathan Tucker provide to the Planning Board and wider community,” Musante said.

Musante said he met with Fox about his concerns after questions surfaced about the timing of the Gateway transportation study. In addition, Tucker presented a time line of the study that Musante, in an email to Fox, said “demonstrates how reality can be different from a story constructed out of individual emails.” In this time line, Tucker notes that an inquiry by staff into the status of the Gateway study was made in April 2013 and was “told it would be completed soon, and was still in process.” A second inquiry by staff was made in the fall and the document was received Nov. 12.

However, former Select Board Chairman Gerry Weiss said Fox’s investigation illustrates a larger problem and supports something he observed while he held that office. In 2007 during discussions of the Haskins View subdivision proposal on East Leverett Road, Tucker presented an opinion from town counsel that the town’s subdivision control bylaw, which prohibited having subdivisions with lots where wells and septic systems are on the same parcels, might not withstand challenges.

Tucker informed the board that the concern was that there could be legal liability if the board “effectively creates a situation through the subdivision regulations where the town says they can’t do a subdivision.”

Weiss asserts that no such legal consultation had occurred, which prompted an apology from Tucker at a subsequent meeting.

“I don’t think it’s good to have a man in a position where you don’t know if he’s misleading you,” Weiss said.

Details of investigation

Fox, who said he has spent more than 100 hours looking into the details, began working on his investigation in January, when he filed a request under the Massachusetts Public Records Law to obtain documents, including emails and text messages, associated with the Gateway Transportation Study. He said the town charged him more than $100 to locate and photocopy the documents, all of which are emails.

Fox discovered that the study, commissioned by UMass officials to examine both build-out and no-build scenarios on North Pleasant Street, was completed by March 2013. Despite this, Tucker’s memo to Webber and Brestrup said that prior to the Kendrick Place hearing, “It might have been useful if the town had either the draft or the final Gateway Transportation Study in hand at that point, but it did not.”

In another email to Fox, Tucker wrote: “If the issue of the applicability of the Gateway traffic study to the permit under review had been raised during the permit process — which it was not — I would have responded that a version of the Gateway traffic study certified as final had not been conveyed by UMass to the town.”

Webber would not comment on Fox’s document. But he said it is accurate that his board did not see the completed study until December, two months after the decision on Kendrick Place was approved Oct. 2, 2013.

Webber said it is impossible to know in hindsight whether having the final report, or even a draft version, would have changed the outcome. “Our decision on Kendrick Place was made on the information presented to us,” Webber said.

Webber observed that the board waived a traffic impact study for the project because, while it includes more than 100 beds on its upper floors, only four parking spaces are on site. As a project in what is known as the municipal parking district, the developer is not required to provide on-site parking, with residential and commercial tenants relying primarily on municipal parking lots and on-street parking.

While Fox would not offer an opinion as to how release of the draft study might have affected the Kendrick Place decision, he said, at minimum, it might have been useful for board members. “Obviously Tucker didn’t want them to have it,” Fox claims.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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