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Hyatt Place hotel in Amherst clears zoning hurdle

A decision by the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals to approve all nine variances for the controversial Hyatt Place hotel project at the Youngmann Highway-Main Street interchange has surprised some town officials and dramatically increased the chances that the $15 million, six-story hotel will receive final approval from the town next month.

The existing site plan for the project appears to comply with all town laws, and any exemptions needed by the developer were granted by the zoning board early Wednesday morning after a marathon meeting that ran more than five hours.

“They had more discretion over the site and scope of the project than the Planning Board [will],” said Assistant Planning Director Gary Black.

The hotel project will go before the Planning Board on March 21 for final site plan approval.

Supervisor Barry Weinstein said he spoke with all the zoning board members about his concerns about the project’s height, given the strong opposition of nearby residents to a hotel that exceeds the town’s 65-foot height limit for commercial properties.

“I told them my feelings, and most of them ignored me,” he said.

More than 60 red-clad Snyder residents showed up at Town Hall Tuesday night to protest the proximity of the six-story hotel to their neighborhood.

Many residents said they were disgusted, angry and sorry to have to beg the board for consideration.

Several also said they were saddened that Iskalo Development, which has created attractive and context-sensitive projects elsewhere in Amherst, has refused to consider scaling back the Hyatt Place project despite repeated neighborhood pleas.

“Even one floor would be something,” said Livingston Parkway resident James Reynolds. “Obviously, we would love a three-story – I would love a two-story – building. But every story less than that six is significant to us.”

He urged the zoning board to deny Iskalo’s variance requests so that neighborhood residents would have more leverage to negotiate for a smaller project.

Paul Bohdan Iskalo, head of Iskalo Development, told the board that the Hyatt Place project will strengthen the Main Street economy and save and restore the historic Lord Amherst Hotel.

The current project is more modest than what could have been built there, had his company decided to raze the Lord Amherst and build something larger, he said.

“I recognize that nothing I’ve stated here tonight will change the opinion opponents have about the project, or Iskalo Development for that matter,” he said. “All we can do as an organization is put forth the best hospitality campus it can possibly be.”

Though many of the variances were related to minor parking and signage issues, opponents strongly objected to raising the 65-foot building-height restriction and replacing natural berms at the edge of the property along the Youngmann with parking spaces and sound barriers.

The height variance requested would raise the height restriction to 77 feet, 4 inches, to accommodate a signature hotel roof line feature at the front of the building facing the Youngmann.

The zoning board approved all the variances with little comment or discussion and few, if any, follow-up questions for Iskalo. Only the building height variance request resulted in a split 3-2 vote, with Chairman Matthew Plunkett and board member David Pollack voting no.

The few dozen residents who hung on until nearly 12:30 a.m. to hear the final votes of the board left quietly, though a few muttered “shame on you” as they exited.

Livingston Parkway resident Michele Marconi called the board a “rubber stamp” group that chose to bypass any discussion of whether the project changes the community’s character. Some of the homes within the line of sight of the proposed Hyatt Place hotel are worth half a million dollars or more.

Iskalo representatives pointed out that hotels already stand at many of the interchanges along the Youngmann. They also said the company is moving forward with a six-story building, as opposed to one with fewer stories, because that’s the Hyatt Place prototype and a design supported by smart-growth models.

Green space, landscaping and setbacks for the hotel are already greater than what town laws require, Iskalo said, and the land has always been zoned for commercial business.

Plunkett, the zoning board chairman, said Wednesday he didn’t poll any of the board members regarding their vote and defended their relative lack of public comment, questions and debate at the meeting.

“We had had volumes of information provided to us in advance,” he said, adding, “Just because there’s no discussion doesn’t mean that board members didn’t give careful thought to the issues that came before them.”

As for the future, Marconi said residents may still seek a residential rezoning of the natural area known as Mike’s Pond, which separates the Iskalo property from the homeowners on Livingston Parkway and could affect the setback requirements for the hotel.

Opponents also plan to appear again before the Planning Board to challenge the project. “One would hope they would give it a fair review,” Marconi said. “I am not optimistic.”

Weinstein said he will be interested to see whether Iskalo seeks any tax breaks for the hotel project from the Amherst Industrial Development Agency. He has forwarded all opposition letters that the board received to the agency.

“I anticipate that this is coming before the Amherst IDA,” he said, “and I want them to see what’s going on.”