Form-based zoning code
The City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to approve a package of 14 zoning ordinances related to the so-called “form-based” code, which affects the central business district in downtown Northampton, as well as Florence village center.
The changes, which the Office of Planning & Sustainability worked on for four years, merge design standards with expanded uses for properties in those districts. Among the desired impacts are additional multifamily housing, allowing residential units on the ground floor of commercial buildings and creating more spaces that are attractive for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The Ranked-Choice Voting Committee appointed in May 2021 presented its report to the City Council on Thursday. The committee, composed of Chair Robert Boulrice, Vice Chair Catherine Kay and members Bill Dwight, John Crowley and Mark Ventola, recommended the procedure the city would use for tabulating votes in the system known as ranked-choice voting. That allows voters to rank all candidates in order of their preference rather than selecting just one candidate per office. The system has been used for decades in Cambridge, was adopted more recently by Easthampton and is awaiting approval by the state Legislature for use in Amherst.
This is the final piece of legislation resulting from recommendations made by the Charter Review Committee that I chaired in 2019. During our deliberations, we heard strong support from the community to adopt ranked-choice voting in municipal elections to encourage a broader field of candidates and promote more diversity in office-holders. It would also eliminate the need for preliminary elections. In 2020, 68 percent of the voters in Northampton supported a statewide referendum on ranked-choice voting (it failed statewide by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent).
The City Council’s committees on City Services and Legislative Matters, as well as the Northampton Board of Registrars, will review the Ranked-Choice Voting Committee report before a vote by the full City Council, which is expected on May 19. If approved, special legislation would be filed for consideration by the state Legislature. The final step would be asking Northampton voters to approve a local referendum to adopt ranked-choice voting.
Listening session on proposed closing of VA Medical Center
2nd District Congressman James McGovern will sponsor a listening session from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, at VFW Post 8006 in Florence to hear from veterans and their families about the potential impact of closing the Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds. McGovern will also discuss his efforts to reverse the recommendation made March 14 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to include the medical center in Leeds among the three facilities that would be closed nationwide. That recommendation is subject to a lengthy review.
McGovern led members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation who sent a letter Friday to VA Secretary Denis McDonough that reads in part: “Of particular concern is that many veterans would now need to travel at least two hours round trip to receive care at VA medical centers in West Haven, Connecticut, Eastern Massachusetts, or Albany, New York. Due to health status, advanced age, or lack of public transportation, far too many of the approximately 21,000 veterans who currently receive care (at the medical center in Leeds) would be unduly burdened.”
On March 28, I was among local officials and state legislators who attended a “Save the Northampton VA!” rally organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association outside the facility on Route 9 in Leeds.
Special legislation protecting tenants from brokers’ commissions
The City Council Committee on Community Resources will hold a virtual community forum via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. Monday, April 25, on proposed special legislation prohibiting the charging of rental commissions to prospective tenants.
The proposal arises from a report titled “Unlocking Opportunity: An Assessment of Barriers to Fair Housing in Northampton” issued in 2019 by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, working with the Northampton Housing Partnership. The report found that two-thirds of the landlords in the PVPC study used rental brokers whose commissions – most at least 60 percent of monthly rent – are paid by tenants. The report determined that they “constitute significant barriers to fair housing in the city.”
Approval by the Legislature is needed before the city can ban landlords and brokers from charging tenants those commissions, and establish fines of up to $1,000 per violation. Tenants could still choose to engage a broker and pay a fee for that service.
The order seeking special legislation will also be considered at 5:30 p.m., Monday, May 9, by the City Council Committee on Legislative Matters.
COVID-19 vaccine clinics and test reporting
The Northampton Health Department has scheduled clinics during April offering the second booster dose of COVID-19 vaccines. The clinics are Mondays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, 127 Spring St., Florence; and Thursdays from 2 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. at the second-floor kiosk in Thornes Marketplace, 150 Main St., Northampton.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention last month recommended the second booster dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for people over 50 who received a first booster dose at least four months ago. People who received a primary and booster dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least four months ago also may receive a second booster of either Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
While this month’s clinics focus on boosters and second boosters, the Health Department still offers primary doses of any of the vaccines for people ages 5 and older. Appointments for the April clinics are encouraged and may be made online at
https://www.northamptonma.gov/2219/Vaccine-Clinics or by calling the Health Department at 413-587-1214.
Also, the Health Department is now encouraging residents to report positive results from at-home COVID tests to improve the data collected about the spread of the disease. People who are seeking guidance or assistance with isolation and quarantine may contact the public health nurse Vivian Francis at 413-587-4919. She says, “At-home tests are incredibly beneficial in their ease of use, rapid results, accessibility, and affordability. They greatly improve your ability to monitor your own health, and protect yourself and those around you. However, individuals who test only at home are not included in COVID-19 surveillance and we know that this is contributing to a potentially steep undercount of COVID-19 activity in our communities.”
Test results may be reported online at https://northamptonma.gov/2104/Covid-19-Information or by calling 413- 587-4919.
Month-long Arbor Day celebration
The city is celebrating Arbor Day all month with tree plantings and a giveaway of tree whips. Those free seedlings without branches will be available at City Hall from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, April 29, and from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, April 30.
There will be 600 free tree whips for residents to plant on their property to help improve Northampton’s urban canopy. Tree Northampton volunteers will provide fact sheets with information about planting and caring for trees from the six species available: Lincoln Douglas Fir, White Oak, American Sweetgum, Bald Cypress, Serviceberry, and Red Mulberry.
The city’s Department of Public Works and Urban Forestry Commission, as well as Tree Northampton and volunteers organized by the Northampton Rotary Club sponsored tree plantings April 9 and 16 on Greenleaf Drive and Hawthorne Terrace, and at the Jackson Street School and R.K. Finn Ryan Road Elementary School. I enjoyed spending Saturday morning planting trees at Jackson Street School as part of a team of about 30 volunteers, along with my colleague Rachel Maiore of Ward 7 and School Committee Vice Chair Gwen Agna, a former principal at the school.
Northampton Rehabilitation and Nursing Center redevelopment
Laura Baker, real estate development director for Valley Community Development Corp. of Northampton, which proposes to redevelop the former nursing home at 737 Bridge Road into 60 units of affordable housing, offers the following update:
“I am writing to keep you abreast of happenings at 737 Bridge Road, the former Northampton Nursing Home. Valley Community Development engaged a contractor who has completed boarding all broken windows and doors; began clean-up of detritus on the site; and installed temporary fencing on the rear of the building (the historic locus of vandalism and unauthorized entry). Security cameras will be installed to deter further vandalism as well. Landscaping spring clean-up should begin shortly.
Please continue to be in touch with any questions or concerns. Laura Baker ([email protected]) or 413-586-5855, ext. 100.”
Intersection at Jackson and Prospect streets and Woodlawn Avenue
I am communicating with several neighbors who are concerned about safety issues for pedestrians and bicyclists since the four-way stop signs were installed at the intersection of Jackson and Prospect streets and Woodlawn Avenue.
We are seeking suggestions for traffic-calming measures that might be proposed to the Transportation & Parking Commission.
I invite anyone with ideas or who wants to work with other residents on this issue to contact me.