Amherst neighbors balk at duplex conversion of old farmhouse

The owner of this home at 180 North Whitney St. is seeking a special permit to renovate and add a second home in the side yard to provide a total of eight bedrooms in the two buildings. Neighbors are opposed.

The owner of this home at 180 North Whitney St. is seeking a special permit to renovate and add a second home in the side yard to provide a total of eight bedrooms in the two buildings. Neighbors are opposed. Google

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-13-2024 1:27 PM

Modified: 05-14-2024 9:43 AM


AMHERST — The possible conversion of a home at 180 North Whitney St. into a non-owner-occupied duplex is prompting residents who live near the circa 1900 farmhouse to oppose granting a special permit to renovate the existing building and add a second home in the side yard to provide a total of eight bedrooms in the two buildings.

With the Zoning Board of Appeals set to take up the special permit request from 180 North Whitney LLC on Thursday, May 23 at 6:15 p.m., a petition is circulating asking the panel to turn down the project unless the property owner lives in one of the two dwellings.

“This is not in character with the neighborhood, it will harm the neighborhood, and we ask you to deny the special permit,” reads the petition submitted by resident Benjamin Bailey. The petition describes about how the character of the area would change, based on experience over the past several years, when 174 North Whitney was converted into a three-unit rental and 164 Red Gate Lane was converted to a rental last fall. Both have had quality-of-life issues including loud parties and numerous vehicles parked nearby.

The 180 North Whitney property was acquired by the limited liability corporation last November from Francis R. Fox Jr., whose family has long owned the site, for $420,000. The principal for the LLC is Mathena Morrissey, whose address is on Blackberry Lane in Amherst.

“We all chose this neighborhood because it is a family neighborhood, where children play in their yards and can easily walk to school, and neighbors stop to chat while they’re walking their dogs,” the petition reads. “Because the neighborhood adjoins Wildwood, the middle school, and the high school estates, it is ideal for families with children. The economics of non-owner-occupied rental properties in Amherst means that the eight tenants in a conversion to two-family would be $1,000-per-bedroom students, not families with children.”

Bailey said so far the petition has been signed by 40 residents between Red Gate Lane and North Whitney Street, where he lives.

The property is within District 4 and both Pamela Rooney and Jennifer Taub, the councilors who represent those residents, are sympathetic to the concerns about investors buying up Amherst housing stock. In fact, both councilors have been worried about zoning proposals, such as one proposed and withdrawn last year that aimed to address the so-called “missing middle” of working family housing.

“One form of protection for our neighborhoods is the stipulation that some of these opportunities for increasing density on a property are allowed if owner-occupied,” Rooney said. “Noise and disruptive behavior are rarely a problem if an owner is present.”

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Rooney said what she has observed is that any new construction, unless subsidized, is built for, and marketed to, student tenants at what she terms “very high per-bed rates.”

“Investors love college communities for this reason: They are guaranteed an infallible supply of tenants wanting to live as close to the campus as possible,” Rooney said. “So, pressure for student housing in Amherst is far greater than in even the surrounding communities. Amherst is a good investment.”

Taub, too, said she is seeing housing for students priced at $1,000 or more per bedroom per month in these conversions.

“What we are seeing is that when LLCs and other investors take advantage of ‘in-fill’ and convert single-family houses to duplexes and triplexes, it is almost never to provide much-needed rental housing for families, retirees, and other members of the local workforce,” Taub said.

That means both a shrinking school-age population and fewer families who depend on town services year-round.

“The result is that families and other long-term residents are being pushed out of town by the increasing number of absentee-owned student rental houses as we’re spending tens of millions of dollars on a new school and renovated library that are intended to serve the very demographic that we’re driving away,” Taub said. “It makes no sense.”

The proposal is the third in recent weeks coming before municipal boards where concerns are being raised about the possibility of new non-owner-occupied apartments. In late April, the Local Historic District Commission expressed concern about plans for a three-unit, 10-bedroom home to be built behind an existing home at 98 Fearing St. That site, while close to the University of Massachusetts campus, is in the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Local Historic District.

Earlier in April, the Zoning Board of Appeals wouldn’t approve a modified special permit so rooms in a non-owner-occupied home at 50 McClellan St. can be rented out unless more specifics are provided about the mandated on-site resident manager. The homeowners, who have been renting rooms as they continued to live in Amherst, are planning to move to Ashfield.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.