For many Amherst residents, the big issue in the recent race for town supervisor centered on development – and how it should be controlled. The controversy stems from two hotel projects about a half-mile apart on Main Street, the Wyndham Garden hotel and residences at South Forest Road and the Hyatt Place Hotel near the Youngmann Highway.
Residents wondered about Supervisor Barry Weinstein’s vote for tax breaks for the Wyndham project. Weinstein said that without the tax abatement, the town would have been left with another distressed, empty property.
After the fuss generated by the Wyndham hotel, Weinstein joined the opposition to the Hyatt hotel.
Weinstein won re-election solidly, but opponent Mark Manna, heavily funded by critics of the Hyatt project, scored some points on the development issue. He remains on the Town Board, serving his last two years of a four-year term.
Resident unrest on this issue should be a cautionary sign to town leaders. Amherst has a master plan and strong planning codes and should follow those guidelines.
However, there is also a Planning Board and a Zoning Board of Appeals that critics contend too often allow developers to end-run zoning codes. “The zoning codes allow for a round peg to go into a round hole. People go to the Zoning Board of Appeals to put their square peg in a round hole,” Manna often stated during the campaign.
In the case of the Hyatt project, a number of variances were granted, some of them completely at odds with town planning. In the biggest example, a two-story height limit was waived, allowing Iskalo Development to go ahead with a 77-foot-tall hotel that will loom over a residential neighborhood.
In the latest legal action in the case, State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski rejected two lawsuits against the Hyatt hotel.
Residents are also appealing a prior ruling that upheld the decision by the Zoning Board of Appeals to raise the two-story height restriction. Arguments in that case are expected next month.
The Town Board appoints the five Zoning Board members, who serve five-year terms and provide a process for anyone who feels unfairly treated by the Town Board on rezoning issues. It is a mechanism for appeal and, as Weinstein said, the American way.
But as practiced in Amherst it is often a way to bring development to places in town it wasn’t meant to be.
Weinstein says he has voted against more rezoning requests than anyone on the Town Board. He says he’s for smart growth, and it’s hard to argue against that. However, town codes are designed to direct that growth to the appropriate parts of town.
Variances that render town planning meaningless should not be routinely granted. The Hyatt hotel may end up being built after all, but it has managed to reopen the conversation about development in Amherst.