I Go to City Council Meetings #42

Election reforms, Community Preservation Act funds, upcoming zoning bylaw changes

By Brian Z. Zayatz

On December 17th, 2020, the Northampton City Council held their 23rd and final regularly scheduled meeting of the year. All councilors were present.

During public comment, Jose Adastra spoke against the recent anti-homeless rhetoric he’s been seeing on social media, and which the Gazette recently published. Adastra asked that the Council do more to keep the city’s unhoused community safe, which he specified did not mean offering police support, since when they call the police, the police threaten to arrest them. Instead, he suggested working to find long-term housing and other resources for them. “If something bad happens to them,” he said, “we’ll remember as long as we’re alive.”

Emily Coffin of Ward 1 also spoke. She came to the meeting anticipating the unveiling of the Policing Review Commission’s first report, which has been delayed until January. Instead, she said she was noticing a lot of budget transfers on the agenda, and asked that the Council consider the many requests from the public to reallocate the funds that were cut from the police budget in June towards something that would be of service to the community. Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) addressed this later in the meeting.

The meeting opened with an update from Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra (At-Large) regarding the several amendments City Council approved to the city charter regarding elections. City Solicitor Alan Seewald drafted language for these amendments, which is now being reviewed by MA House of Representatives counsel. The amendments will then come back to City Council for approval, then to the state legislature, and then will require the approval of city voters. 

Solicitor Seewald was on the call to inform the Council that there were “policy decisions” that had to go into the language regarding ranked choice voting, as there are a number of possible ways to structure RCV for elections in which there will be more than one winner (for example, At-Large City Councilor). He recommended separating RCV into its own amendment to be studied further, and pass the rest of the amendments in the short term. He also noted that a commission in Amherst studied exactly this issue and produced a 53-page report detailing the different available options, and that Easthampton implemented partial RCV while dealing with just this issue.

Councilor Dwight asked if Seewald had spoken to Bob Boulrice (who championed RCV in last year’s Charter Review Commission) to ask his thoughts. Seewald answered in the positive, but noted that Boulrice’s experience is with the Cambridge model, which has been disfavored for years now. He also noted that he thought the city might need new software or equipment implementing RCV. Councilor Dwight responded that he did not object to Seewald’s recommendations, but hoped to work quickly to get language approved so that it could be on November’s ballot for approval.

Solicitor Seewald suggested that the best way to deal with this might be to form a committee, saying he “loathe[s] to give people more meetings to attend,” but was “not sure how else to do it.” No action was taken by the Council on this issue; Councilor Sciarra said she hoped to have language to review by the time of their next meeting, and that they would take up the question of RCV then as well. Solicitor Seewald said that with the holidays coming up, he wasn’t so sure the House counsel would finish reviewing the language in time.

Mayor Narkewicz also announced that he was reiterating the Board of Health’s guidance not to gather with family for the holidays, since most Covid cases are linked to small gatherings. Presumably, gathering at one of the many restaurants that are still open in Northampton to do many of the same activities one would do at home must be safe, as the Board of Health has taken no steps towards closing them during the current surge.

CPA Fund financial orders

The financial committee, and then the full Council, heard a number of orders allocating money from the city’s Community Preservation Act funds. The first order that came up was for $50,000 for the conservation fund, which is for time-sensitive real estate acquisitions of farmland or open space. Councilor Dwight opened discussion by asking Sarah LaValley from the Office of Planning and Sustainability to explain how these funds were allocated and used, since it seemed some members of the public were conflating CPA funds with the general fund. 

LaValley explained that the CPA is a unique piece of legislation in Massachusetts that allows communities to set up a fund using no more than 3% of annual property tax revenue to be matched by the state that can be used for open space and recreation, conservation, and affordable housing, with each of these three categories receiving at least 10% of these funds. The funds cannot be used for other purposes.

Following this explanation, Councilor Jarrett asked if it would be possible to open up conversation about funding priorities. By his calculation of previous years’ spending, only 16% of CPA funds went towards housing, with 23% going to historic preservation and 61% to open space and recreation. The forthcoming allocation of $50,000 towards affordable housing was the only one so far this year, representing 10.5% of funds. He asked LaValley how the public could engage around priorities.

LaValley corrected his earlier figure, saying spending on housing last year was 19.8%. She said that public hearings on the Community Preservation Plan would take place in early spring 2021, and that the regular meetings of the Community Preservation Committee take place the first and third Wednesdays of each month, and have a public comment section. She also explained that the Community Preservation does not initiate plans for housing, rather it funds applications from organizations like Habitat for Humanity. Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) chimed in that whenever an application for an affordable housing development comes in, they “strongly lean” towards funding it.

Councilor Rachel Maiore (Ward 7) asked about how other local communities have looked into using CPA funds for short term rental relief, and whether that would be possible in Northampton, and whether it would be some sort of social service agency that would apply for funding and then administer those funds. LaValley answered in the positive, and said that “we reached out to agencies who do that sort of thing,” and they said they had enough money from the Community Development Block Grant program.

During discussion of the allocation to the Affordable Housing Fund, LaValley explained that these funds are used to cover “soft costs” such as predevelopment or environmental side assessments associated with projects that are in the works, which include a 20-unit development on Laurel St as well as two smaller ones. Councilor Nash asked what happens to the money if it’s not used, and whether they could allocate more money to this fund in the future to encourage affordable housing developments. LaValley replied that the money stays in the fund for three years and that she thought it was likely to be used within the year. She also said they had considered allocating more, but the CPC recommended $50,000.

All CPA fund allocations were positively recommended and approved by the full Council, and include in addition to the two mentioned above $85,000 for emergency repairs to the Smith Charities building; $55,000 for rehabilitation of the salon and lobby at the Academy of Music; and $160,000 for the acquisition of 53 acres for conservation at Pine Brook near Fitzgerald Lake.

Upcoming zoning bylaw changes

The Council also referred a slew of amendments to zoning bylaws regarding two-family dwellings to the Legislative Matters Committee and the Planning Board. Councilor Nash asked what the Council was going to do about outreach, since the changes are fairly significant. Councilor Karen Foster (Ward 2) suggested creating an “easily digestible” document for public release, and Councilor Dwight suggested Carolyn Misch might already have something. Councilor Jarrett said he would forward what he already has on the issue.

There will be a joint hearing regarding these changes via Zoom on January 14th. Both the Planning Board and Legislative Matters Committee will be present, and will vote separately on whether to positively recommend the changes following the hearing.

Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor to The Shoestring. 

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