Planning Board Rejects Florence Center Cumberland Farms
NORTHAMPTON — A proposal to build a 3,600 square-foot Cumberland Farms convenience store and gas station in the heart of Florence Center was rejected 9-0 by the Planning Board Thursday night, only hours after the Zoning Board declined to close a special hearing on whether strip-mall parking was a grandfathered use at the site.
The project needed two special permits and site plan approval from the Planning Board. The ZBA finding was requested because parking lots in front of new buildings aren’t allowed in the General Business zoning district. In addition, the proposed lighting exceeded brightness standards set in the current zoning.
The prominent site, which currently contains a defunct Mobil station, anchors the corner of Main and Maple Streets in the village of Florence, several miles west of downtown Northampton. The incongruous gas station stands in contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, which features 19th-century brick commercial buildings with entrances on the sidewalk. An adjacent two-family house would be torn down and two lots combined to make way for the brightly-lit new convenience store, which would be open 24 hours a day.
Those who spoke at both public hearings expressed concerns about traffic, aesthetics, pedestrian safety, and lighting.
“There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic in Florence. We walk everywhere,” said Lucy Longstreth, a teacher at the JFK Middle School. When school gets out in the afternoon, the streets are full of children and teenagers; the traffic generated by a convenience store-gas station at that corner would be unsafe for walkers, she said.
Steven Shea, a trustee of the Timothy Shea Trust, owners of the Bird’s Store block on Maple Street, said the bright lighting under the gas canopies would be right at eye level for his second-floor tenants.
The Shea Trust, which also owns the Post Office block across Main Street from the site, was represented at both hearings by land-use lawyer Michael Pill.
Pill said the proponents’ attempt to separate out the non-conforming parking as the primary use on the site was highly unusual, and would make for an interesting appellate case that could even make its way to the Supreme Judicial Court. And since Cumby’s was planning on demolishing the existing service station and mini-store, they’d be destroying the primary use under the zoning, he said. Pill also said the inclusion of a second parcel where a two-family house currently stands should block any argument that the project is grandfathered.
Pill advised the ZBA and the Planning Board that they possess broad discretion under the law.
Senior Planner Carolyn Misch seemed to agree with Pill in principle, telling the ZBA that even though it was the narrow parking issue that triggered the zoning hearing, the board had the right to evaluate the project on its overall merits.
But MacConnell argued that the ZBA’s purview was a narrow one. “You have to determine one thing — whether the parking is substantially more detrimental than what’s there now,” he argued.
MacConnell said the reason the store could not be placed at the front of the lot with parking and gas out back was because of a Massachusetts law requiring clerks to have an unimpeded line of sight to gas pumps. Meeting that requirement and also complying with the city’s preference for traditional streetscapes would force the “ugly side” of the building to face the street.
But councilor-elect Bill Dwight and ZBA member Elizabeth Silver noted that the law in question didn’t seem to preclude the use of video cameras to monitor the pumps, which should allow for greater flexibility in site design.
Others who questioned the wisdom of the project included Ward 7 City Councilor Gene Tacy, Florence Civic and Business Association leader Robert Ross, and Florence residents Mary Kaspar, Alex Johnson, Jodi Nicholas, and John Gunther.
Several made the point that under the old Mobil station, the non-conforming parking spaces were used for vehicle storage at an automobile repair shop, not as high-turnover spaces grabbed by folks popping in and out of a convenience store.
MacConnell, a lawyer with the firm of Bacon/Wilson in Amherst, opined that the project met the conditions of Sustainable Northampton, the city’s comprehensive plan, in that it would eliminate curb cuts, improve drainage, use LED lighting, and develop a difficult site.
Ultimately Planning Board members said the project was not consistent with the city’s overall vision. Mark Sullivan remarked that aside from issues of technical compliance with the city’s zoning and planning rules, the project was wrong for downtown Florence. “This is not the intersection of King Street and Damon Road,” he said, referring to the city’s Highway Business zone.
Others called Cumby’s a “highway business use in a general business district.”
Earlier in the evening, the ZBA had decided they needed more time to study the legal issues raised by Pill and voted to continue the hearing until Jan. 12, even though MacConnell told the board that Cumberland Farms’ option to buy the property expired on Dec. 20.
But the zoning issues before the ZBA became moot several hours later when the Planning Board rejected the Special Permit and Site Plan application outright.
Asked if Cumberland Farms would file an appeal of the Planning Board’s decision, the company’s area sales manager, Blaine Appleby, declined comment.
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