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NORTHAMPTON — A citizens’ petition asking to adjust the zoning guidelines for the city’s central business-gateway district went in front of the Planning Board and City Council Committee on Legislative Matters during a joint meeting on April 11.

The petition, which was signed by 16 registered voters in Northampton, asks that the city change the zoning rules in that district to disallow the selling, leasing and renting of automobiles and/or used automobiles and trucks, new automobile tires and other accessories, boats, motorcycles and camping trailers.

Right now, the renting, leasing and selling of these automobiles; such as in a car dealership; is allowed in the gateway district by special permit from the Planning Board.

The petition was in response to a recent proposal from Cosenzi Automotive Realty Limited Partnership, the owner of the property, 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.
The applicant is seeking a special permit with a major site plan from the Planning Board, according to the project narrative. There has been no public hearing scheduled for the proposal, as of press time.

Currently, there are no auto dealerships in that section of the gateway district.
Signees of the petition and other residents who were present at the meeting named several reasons why the change to the zoning requirements should be made. Some said that allowing something like a car dealership in this district does not coincide with the city’s climate change resiliency plans while others argued there are better uses for an empty lot in the gateway district, like the one at 171-187 King St.

“I believe that this [zoning] change is in line with what the city has already planned to do in Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan,” said Joshua Singer, a resident in Northampton and one of the people who signed the petition for the change. “I believe that with the specifications listed in the current zoning, auto sales don’t really fit.”

Central business-gateway district explained

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.
Auto sales, such as the development of a car dealership, are one of the uses allowed in the gateway district, but according to Misch, an applicant needs to obtain a special permit, which is the most difficult threshold to overcome when an applicant approaches the Planning Board.

“There’s a really high mark that needs to be met in order for the board to approve it and that means it has to meet all of those form features, site layout, access, minimum curb openings and landscaping and all the factors that are part of the zoning,” Misch said. “The Planning Board has a lot of discretion to ensure that that proposed use is appropriate in that location and that an applicant may have met those criteria.”

Other car dealerships are present further up on King Street, but Misch said those are part of the highway business district and were allowed by a site plan approval, which is a lower threshold than a special permit. A site plan approval addresses the technical standards of the site rather than its use.

Public comment

Several people at the joint meeting on April 11 spoke in favor of the proposed zoning adjustment in the gateway district made by the petitioners while others claimed that a change did not seem like a logical thing to do.

“I think we do have enough car dealerships,” said Florence resident David Mintz, who spoke in favor of the proposed zoning adjustment. “I think we should avail ourselves of the opportunity to make use of available land for things that are going to enhance the spirit and vigor of the city.”

Taylor Guss, one of the 16 residents who signed the petition, explained that he would love to see a mix of housing, retail and open park space in the city’s gateway district.

“I believe this could drive more tax revenue, alleviate housing shortages and costs of others as others have spoken to and also spur more development around alternative forms of transit,” Guss said. “This type of development would align better with the gateway district zoning goals and help the city come closer to achieving its climate ambitions.”

Some residents were against the petition and felt like the current zoning is fine as is.

“[I’m] speaking against the petition largely because [Planning and Sustainability] already has levers in place that someone has to go through and satisfy in order for the city to approve it,” said one resident.

Car dealership applicant speaks

Speaking against the proposed zoning adjustments, Carla Cosenzi, the owner of the 171-187 property and the co-president of Tommy Car Automotive Group, argued that she has always supported the Northampton community by giving people jobs in her dealerships and investing in the local economy.

She noted how she invested $5 million in the King Street parcel and made it clear Volvo dealership proposed on King Street will be 100% electric. She also assured the public that the dealership will be smaller and look more like a storefront.

“What I’m asking is for you to uphold the zoning that you already have in place and give us an opportunity to present to you what a dealership could look like in this zoning,” Cosenzi said. “Just give us a chance. We just want to show it to you. And if it doesn’t work, we’re happy to look at other options.”
According to its website, TommyCar Auto Group encompasses myriad of dealerships in the area including Country Nissan, Northampton Volkswagen, Genesis of Northampton, Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley and Country Nissan.

Legislative Matters and Planning Board

Members of Legislative Matters and Planning Board carried ambivalent feelings about the petition. Almost all of them, however, commended the public and the petitioners for their engagement on the matter.

Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore, also a member of the Legislative Matters committee, supported the petition for the zoning adjustments saying that something like a car dealership does not coincide with the city’s sustainability plans.

“Car dealerships have served our community and they can still serve our community,” Maiore said. “But do they serve us here and now? I don’t see a way that they do.”

Stacey Dakai, an associate member of the Planning Board, expressed support for the zoning adjustments and expressed similar sentiments to Maiore.

“I’m feeling like [car dealerships] are not meeting the Sustainable Northampton Plan as a whole,” Dakai said.

City Councilor Marissa Elkins, who chairs Legislative Matters, said she was torn on the matter but felt that the petition was a “reactionary” piece of legislation that was borne out of discontent about a specific proposed use for a parcel.

“What I’d hate to see is for us to do a reactionary thing and change out a well-thought-out form-based zoning code and all of the policy implications behind that,” said Elkins.

George Kohout, the chair of the Planning Board, supported the amount of engagement on the matter but ultimately did not support a positive recommendation for the petition.

“I would probably vote not to recommend this change to the city but to allow the Planning Board to continue to look at projects that come forward and make them on their own merit and hope that applicants for that parcel or another parcel will bring forward some very creative designs,” Kohout said.

In the end, Legislative Matters sent a neutral recommendation for the zoning adjustments back to the full City Council with a vote of 2-1. Maiore was the lone one to vote no on the neutral recommendation.

The Planning Board, meanwhile, voted to send a negative recommendation for the zoning adjustments back to the full council by a vote of 4-2.

The full council will discuss the petition further at a later date.

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