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NORTHAMPTON — A citizens’ petition that asked to adjust the zoning guidelines for the city’s Central Business-Gateway district officially passed the City Council during the body’s regular meeting on May 2.

The zoning change, which was approved unanimously, bans automobile dealerships in the gateway district after councilors argued that the change would better align with the city’s future climate resiliency and sustainability goals.

“I think our job as a council is to codify our stated values, and auto dealerships in any part of the gateway district really aren’t in keeping with our climate regeneration plan,” said Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore.

The vote comes a couple weeks after the citizen’s petition, which was signed by 16 registered voters in Northampton, was presented to the Planning Board and City Council Committee on Legislative Matters during a public hearing on April 11.

The petition was in response to a recent proposal from Cosenzi Automotive Realty Limited Partnership to build a 14,200-square-foot Volvo automotive dealership on 171-187 King St., which currently sits vacant and is part of the Central Business-Gateway district in question.

Despite the petition and the council vote, the proposed Volvo dealership is not affected by the new zoning change, meaning the owner of the property can still apply for a special permit for the dealership. According to City Council President Alex Jarrett, this is because the owner filed a plan that freezes the prior zoning in place for their property for up to three years.

The new zoning instead means that all future proposed auto dealerships are not allowed.

During the April 11 joint meeting, the Planning Board sent a negative recommendation for the zoning changes back to full council with a vote of 4-2. Legislative Matters, meanwhile, sent a neutral recommendation back to the council with a vote of 2-1. Maiore, who showed her support for the zoning change during that meeting as well, was the lone one to vote no for the neutral recommendation.

At-Large City Councilor Marissa Elkins, one of the two Legislative Matters members who initially voted for the neutral recommendation during the April 11 meeting, said she was undecided during the April 11 meeting but eventually expressed support for the zone change by the time the May 2 meeting rolled around.

“While I’m less persuaded overall about cars being outside of the sustainability goals, what I do see is that by definition the way cars are sold is that it’s just as a general matter going to be hard for car dealerships to conform with our form-based zoning,” Elkins said.

The Central Business-Gateway District is one of the three districts in the downtown area. The other two are central business core and central business side street.

According to Carolyn Misch, the planning and sustainability director for the city, the three downtown districts are part of the city’s form-based code that was adopted by the Northampton City Council in 2022 for downtown Northampton and Florence Village Center. The code was adopted so the zoning better represents the individual characteristics of different parts of the downtown area.

The gateway district in particular encompasses a section from North Street to King Street to where the rail trail shared-use path that crosses at Stop & Shop. There’s also a gateway section on Pleasant Street to Hockanum Road down to where the Interstate 91 exit is.

Misch said that the gateway district allows residential, retail, office, housing and mixed uses.

“Those are all part of the choices that an investor can avail themselves of when they’re looking at developing in the gateway district,” Misch said.

Several members of the public spoke in favor of the zoning change during the May 2 City Council meeting including Benjamin Spencer, one of the residents who spearheaded the petition, which needed at least 10 signees before going in front of the council.

“I’ve had an opportunity to meet with several of the councilors and then other folks in town;
It’s been very rewarding,” said Spencer. “I really have learned a lot during this process about this process and about the Gateway District and sustainably Northampton and a lot of our goals and I’d just like to thank you all for your thoughtfulness on this matter.”

Carla Cosenzi, the owner of the 171-187 property and the co-president of Tommy Car Automotive Group, spoke against the zoning change during public comment, arguing that her $5 million investment in the property “goes beyond mere business endeavors, and embodies [her] commitment to enhancing the vibrancy and prosperity of [the] community.”

“In my opinion, implementing a blanket change in zoning seems unnecessary considering that businesses will still be required to obtain approval from the Planning Board,” Cosenzi said. “By making such a decision, we’re essentially placing limitations on ourselves as a city.”

According to its website, TommyCar Auto Group encompasses a myriad of dealerships in the area including Country Nissan, Northampton Volkswagen, Genesis of Northampton, Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley and Country Nissan.

Although the council voted for the zoning change, many of them commended Cosenzi for her investment and commitment to the community.

“Thank you for buying that lot, and I really hope that something happens sooner rather than later with it,” said Ward 2 City Councilor Deb Pastrich-Klemer.

As of press time, there was no public hearing scheduled for the Volvo dealership.

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