Suher says “No Dice” at Mountain Park; Seeks Highway Business Zoning for Parking Lot
HOLYOKE — Property developer and entertainment mogul Eric Suher walked into a standing-room-only Planning Board hearing at Holyoke City Hall on Wednesday night; most of the 80-90 people there were opposed to Suher’s bid to gain Highway Business zoning for an 11-acre parcel he owns adjacent to Mountain Park, his outdoor concert venue located off Route 5.
Suher said he wants to build overflow parking for up to 300 cars at the venue, and said the city’s legal department had told him the only way to do it was to request a zoning change. The parcel, located at the top of the Mountain Park access road on the east side of I-91, is currently zoned AR, or agricultural/residential.
As part of the application, Suher is also seeking to rezone a portion of his Mountain Park parcel to Highway Business; some of that property is already zoned HB.
Last month, neighbors were tipped off to Suher’s zoning request by retired neurologist Dr. Lewis Robinson, who sent a blast email to his neighbors; Robinson and his wife Martha, who live on Northampton Street, had been mistakenly identified as abutters and had received notice of the hearing.
“Nobody would have known about this otherwise,” Robinson said.
Many in the crowd were concerned that granting Highway Business zoning to Suher would open a Pandora’s box, and that he was trying to pave the way for casino development at the site.
Suher said that he had no interest in pursuing a casino at Mountain Park and wasn’t even returning phone calls from former mayor Martin Dunn and other supporters of a plan to develop a casino at the Wyckoff Country Club along I-91, south of Mountain Park. “I have nothing to do with those folks,” said Suher.
Suher, however, did not completely close the door on the idea. “I do have some substantial holdings; some great land… Someone would need to make a very convincing argument to me as to how or why I should be a part of that,” he said. “It is my land and I woud hope to make a decision along with the residents and along with the neighborhood.”
Others among the 20 or so people who spoke Tuesday questioned the motives of city officials in even considering Suher’s application. “This is a classic case of spot zoning,” said Gordon Alexander of Northampton Street. Just because parking can’t be built with a variance under Residential zoning is no justification for granting the parcel Highway Business status, he added.
Madison Avenue resident Mimi Panitch, a former Conservation Commission member, argued that Suher was aware of the parcel’s residential zoning when he bought it, and should have reasonably known that there would be opposition to building a parking lot there: “The so-called NIMBYs opposing this are in reality opposing a transfer of value from the neighborhood to the Mountain Park Corporation.”
Some speakers said that granting Highway Business zoning to allow for parking would open a can of worms. “What happens 20 years down the line when Eric sells the property — do we get a WalMart?” asked Fairfield Street resident Caroline Levin. Several other residents cautioned that once a zoning change is made it stays that way forever.
Tuesday’s event was a continued joint public hearing of the Planning Board and the City Council’s Ordinance Committee.
Suher himself is a neighbor to both Mountain Park and another 20-acre property he’s developing at nearby Castle Hill. He owns a home on Jefferson Avenue, and is refurbishing a 4,800 square-foot historic mansion on eight acres at 160 Mountainview Road, which he said he plans to live in.
While Suher said that his objective was to comfortably accommodate 30 concerts a year drawing 3,000 to 5,000 patrons, some neighbors feared that his end-game involved producing mega-shows where 20,000 music fans would descend upon the neighborhood for days at a time. “Unless we can ensure that this won’t migrate from the Willie Nelson model to the Phish model, please don’t approve this,” said Lawrence Osborn of Brookwood Road.
Suher reiterated that his only goal is to provide safe and convenient parking for his concerts, adding that if he could do so without having to apply for Highway Business zoning — which requires a two-thirds vote of the City Council — he would have already done so.Others cited Suher for not providing the city with long-range plans for his venture at Mountain Park.
“The problem is, we really don’t know what we’re getting,” said Osborn. He told Planning Board members that they should require a “site plan, a business plan, a traffic plan, and an environmental plan” before even considering Suher’s rezoning application.
For his part, Suher maintained that his project development meets high aesthetic and environmental standards, and that Mountain Park represents “a huge benefit for Holyoke.”
Suher said that his proposed parking lot would not be visible from I-91 or from Northampton Street (Route 5), and that the impact upon the nearest home, a half-mile away, would be insignificant. He admitted that there was a traffic back-up after one of his concerts last summer, but said that “lessons were learned” about how best to handle events.
At the poorly run hearing, run by Ordinance Committee Chairman Diosdado Lopez, petitioners repeatedly failed to identify themselves when speaking, and at times talked to each other rather than through the chair. At one point a Mountain View Drive resident engaged in direct verbal sparring with Suher for several minutes until Lopez restored protocol.
After about two hours, Lopez said the joint public hearing would have to be continued; the date picked was Dec. 14. At the request of the Planning Board, Suher agreed to bring in additional documents, including site plans and environmental and engineering reports.
Suher also agreed to conduct a site visit for the Planning Board on Nov. 23.
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
audio recordings by Mary Serreze
© Northampton Media 2010