Amherst Council delays decision on rental permit changes until new year

STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-15-2023 11:28 AM

AMHERST — Revisions to the town’s rental permit bylaw and regulations, along with associated fees for applications and inspections, may not be considered for adoption until sometime in the new year, allowing town officials to address potential legal concerns and to get more input from landlords, tenants and others in town.

Even though the Town Council appeared ready to overhaul the decade-old regulations, following work done by councilors and town staff over the past two years, councilors voted unanimously on Dec. 4 to refer the issue back to the Community Resources Committee for additional study. A vote could come as soon as Monday, if the council subcommittee’s work is complete by then. Otherwise, the vote would be pushed to Jan. 8, six days after the next council, with four new members, is seated.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen, who suggested postponing the vote to January, said it would give time for a full discussion and amendments to both the language and the fee structure.

“I think because of the significance of this change we need to make sure we have enough time on an agenda,” Schoen said.

Schoen said she would like to amend the frequency of inspections, with the current plan to have about 20% of the 5,134 residential units, at 1,258 properties, inspected each year. Currently, inspections are only done when there are complaints, with property owners “self-certifying” that their rental units are habitable and up to all building and town codes.

In questioning the proposed changes, Schoen said the frequency of inspections should be compared to not sending a fire engine to every home, but only to those homes that are actively on fire.

Delaying a vote will also gives councilors time to talk to town counsel KP Law about the potential for legal action from the Amherst Landlords Association.

“To the extent we can on the 8th, we should also have an executive session, and bring in legal counsel so we can have a full discussion of privacy concerns,” Schoen said.

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District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne, who serves on the CRC, said the committee hasn’t had time to discuss the large number of emails received about the proposed changes and the implications of the threatened lawsuit.

“I do feel this is really such a complex issue and affects the livelihood of so many people, and it might have an impact on tenants,” Bahl-Milne said.

Before the new regulations are finalized, she wants to hear from all those who would be affected. “This is a huge change we are making,” Bahl-Milne said.

“It seems it would be appropriate to go back to CRC to address those concerns,” said District 1 Councilor Michele Miller.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said he would like to see the final work done as quickly as possible, so that Building Commissioner Rob Morra and his team are ready for the registration period and implementation in the spring.

Schoen said that is why she wanted the full council ready to discuss the changes on Jan. 8, but now the council committee may make more tweaks.

“What I had hoped would happen is that we’d have a fuller discussion of everybody’s concerns before it went back,” Schoen said.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said it remains undetermined if the Community Resources Committee, or the full council, can have an executive session with KP Law, due to state legal restrictions on what can be discussed behind closed doors.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who chairs the council subcommittee, said anticipation of a lawsuit is not likely to fall under those provisions, but Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he will consult with KP Law.

One of whose who offered public comment on the changes to rental permitting was Vincent O’Connor of Summer Street, a longtime renter and activist, who said he is concerned that there was no public hearing where people could react.

Specifically, he is worried about the rule to mandate one in five units be inspected annually.