amherst, massachusetts, Uncategorized, zoning

Climate change in Amherst, or the perils of terraforming

Elevated levels of uncombusted natural gas (methane/CH4) would contribute to global climate change, says the EPA. The extremely unelevated level of natural gas in Amherst is certainly changing the local climate; the business climate, that is.

Last year Berkshire Gas announced a moratorium on new connections in Amherst and Hadley, as the Springfield Republican reported. Some people claim the moratorium is nothing more than a wretched ruse to intimidate locals into submitting to Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion, putting us in a choke-hold until we cry “uncle.”  One aggrieved customer is suing the gas company and, according to the Amherst Bulletin, looking for proof of the plot via the discovery process.

Plot or not, without natural gas new restaurants will not open and existing ones cannot expand in Amherst’s downtown area, where there is no space for propane tanks. The same goes for any other enterprise that needs natural gas. Unless and until Berkshire Gas lifts its moratorium, businesses will have to adapt to Amherst’s nongaseous climate. So business owners would likely find it helpful if the Town government chose to make that climate a tad more (not less) stable and predictable.

I have no doubt that our Planning Board hopes to do just that with its proposal to define with greater precision the term “mixed use” in the Town’s building standards. Encouraging mixed use development is one of the goals in Amherst’s Master Plan (see 2.5 D; 3.2; and LU.2C) and the Planning Board’s hope is consistent with that goal. Whether the proposal is consistent with that goal is another matter altogether. After all, if you wish to deter an activity, burden it with complicated regulations that require expensive legal advice to ensure compliance.

For example, the current building standards do not dictate how much of a mix constitutes mixed use (hence the urge to redefine the term), whereas the proposed new standards would prohibit residential purposes from taking up more than 40% of the gross floor area of the main floor of a mixed use building, including amenities, service areas, and stair/elevator towers, and bar more than 25% of the residential units in any one building from having four or more bedrooms. Why 40%, why 25%, and would a developer need a lawyer in order to comply?  I don’t know, I don’t know, and I should coco.

Drafters run the risk of defining a term to death, and I fear this definition will leave mixed use fighting for breath in Amherst, particularly after Town Meeting has had its way with the proposal.

All of which brings to mind NASA’s definition of terraforming, i.e. “the process of transforming a hostile environment into one suitable for human life,” which in turn reminds me that, all too often, well-intentioned efforts to engineer a favorable business climate in Amherst end up looking like Matt Damon doing this.

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