Northampton Development Review Guide
The Planning Board, Zoning Board, Historical Commission, Conservation Commission, and Central Business Architecture Board all hear permit applications at public hearings. All of these hearings are duly advertised on the city’s website within meeting agendas. Depending on the statute that applies, the city or the applicant may publish legal notices and notify abutters. Abutters and anyone else are always welcome at hearings and invited to participate.
Boards are all unpaid community volunteers, dedicating their time to serve our community. The Office of Planning and Sustainability provides assistance to applicants, community members, and the boards to ensure a legal, fair, and transparent process and to connect the regulatory process with broader community goals and objectives, as identified in city plans.
Applications and supporting materials for pending projects are available at www.NorthamptonMA.gov/Pending or Planning and Sustainability, City Hall,210 Main St., Northampton (8:45 AM to 4:30 PM). Planning staff is available to answer questions: www.northamptonma.gov/Directory.aspx?did=22.
Applications deadline is generally 30 days prior to the public hearing. Staff will not schedule a public hearing, however, until an application is complete with all the information needed so the application can potentially be acted on the same night. (Planning Board, Zoning Board, and the Conservation Commission generally meet second and fourth Thursdays, Central Business Architecture first Tuesdays, and other boards as needed.) Two weeks prior to the public hearing (some projects require a shorter public notice), public hearing notices go out.
Public Hearing notices are available at www.gazettenet.com/Public-Notices (search for Northampton) and public agendas are posted http://northamptonma.gov/agendacenter. For some projects abutters will get mailed a notice, and a notice will be posted on the property. (Notice is not mailed for continued public hearings, but they are posted at the agenda center.)
At the public hearing, the committee chair will open the hearing and the applicant will present their plans. (The public hearing will open at or after the time advertised- it will not start early). The board will then ask its questions. After that, members of the public are invited to ask questions and express support, opposition, or other comments. Written comments, including the name and address of the person making the comment, may be submitted to the board up until the time the public hearing is closed. Most public hearings are closed and decisions are issued on the same night, although some complicated projects or projects for which the board needs more information may be continued to a specified date and time.
Neighborhood input is very important and often persuasive. It does not replace, however, the board's reliance on other information and especially on city plans and regulations. For relevant reading, see: Unrepresented Democracy in Local Zoning and Planning Boards (Fall, 2018).
Approval standards are at www.northamptonma.gov/938/Permits-Codes. Public comments are most effective when they align with the standards and the boards’ authority. For special permits, the boards have broad authority and can deny projects. For site plan approval, wetlands, historic, and design permits, the boards only act on narrow technical criteria.
After the public hearing is closed, no new testimony or information can be accepted. The permit granting board deliberates and makes their decision. Planning and Sustainability staff then issues the necessary decision. Notice of the decisions varies based on statutory requirements. Notice of Zoning Board and Planning Board decisions is mailed to abutters. Abutters have the right to appeal, within strict appeal periods and procedures established by law for each permit process.
Specifics of different permit types
Planning Board and Zoning Board Special Permit: The board determines whether or not the proposed use is appropriate based on the permit criteria (both specific and general criteria. It takes five members of the Planning Board or two members of the Zoning Board (super-majorities) to approve a project. These permits are discretionary and the board may deny a project if it finds that the criteria are not met, even with conditions.
Planning Board Site Plan: This is a technical review based on the details of a project, such as traffic mitigation, stormwater, pedestrian access, but not the use itself. The board can only turn down a site plan if the project cannot meet the technical criteria. It takes a simple majority of the board members present to approve a project. Some projects require special permits and site plan approval simultaneously.
Central Business Architecture: The Committee reviews the design of buildings, not the uses.