Innovative zoning change could bring more amenities to Amherst housing

AMHERST – Zoning amendments are on the town ballot every year, and they usually don’t get much attention, often being “housekeeping” items that align town ordinances with that of the state.

But the Amherst Planning Board has been working on one zoning amendment since November 2013 intended to bring more diversity and more amenities to senior and affordable housing.

Right now, the town’s zoning ordinance allows for several different kinds of alternatives to standard zoning: elderly housing, affordable (workforce) housing, open space development, and planned residential development. The process for each one is different, but each one involves increases in density as a reward to developers for building needed housing or saving open space.

If voters on March 10 approve a new amendment, called integrated innovative housing, the approval process for all four will be joined.

Best of all, said board Vice Chairwoman Sally Wilkins, increases in density will be based on the amenities, such as sidewalks, parks and handicap-accessible units, a developer builds into a project.

The new amendment would also encourage developers to mix housing types, for example affordable with elderly.

“We have been trying to encourage this for years,” Wilkins said, and it would be the way a more natural community develops, instead of having people segregated.

Right now there is no provision in the zoning for affordable senior housing, for example. The town’s largest senior housing is Summerfields, off Route 122. If the developer had wanted to scatter some affordable units among these relatively expensive houses, he could not have done that.

A sub-committee has been working all summer on the amendment, Wilkins said, and the board has published information in a mini-guide it made available at the town deliberative session.

The proposed amendments can also be accessed through the town web site.

The board had expected opposition to Amendment 6 from developers, she said, but they have seen the amendment and “they all seem to think it’s workable.”

It could be the first zoning change of its kind in New Hampshire, she said, and the state Planning Office wants to talk to Amherst planners about it if it passes.

“This could become a model,” Wilkins said. “The demographics of New Hampshire are changing. It’s a graying state, and we need sensible places for people to live, people who don’t want to go to Florida and don’t need a giant house.”

Zoning amendments typically are voted in, but this year, Wilkins said, the board is worried that this amendment will be the victim of “collateral damage” from opposition to a petition zoning amendment, that would change the zoning of Lot 2-2 from residential/rural to industrial. The lot is located at the edge of the Bon Terrain industrial area, and some people are concerned that the change is for the purpose of putting a natural gas power plant there.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or