By Nick Grabbe
We sometimes divide Amherst residents into two camps: “pro-development” and “anti-development.” I believe that these labels are not helpful in charting a course for our downtown, and for ensuring that we have enough money to pay for public services.
Most people who are labeled “pro-development” acknowledge that we need to regulate how and where development takes place. No one wants Amherst to become like Houston, where there are no zoning laws and just about anything can be built anywhere. To take one example, most people who see the benefits of the apartment building at 1 East Pleasant St. would agree that it has an insufficient setback from the street.
And most people who are “anti-development” or are labeled as “NIMBYs” recognize that we need growth in our tax base to support our schools, public safety and other services. And it’s clear that we need more housing, too. It is so tight this fall that many UMass students have to live far away from campus because they can’t find a room in Amherst, or have to drop out of school altogether, and rents have been pushed up.
So the real difference between these two supposed camps boils down to how strict the regulation of development should be, and what types are appropriate in each part of town. We need to thread the needle, keeping our town the way we want it to be while still creating opportunities for developers to provide housing that will produce revenue and ease the tax burden on long-term residents.
And, of course, the way we want our town to be isn’t the same for everyone. It also changes over time. Fifteen years ago, the 1,000 people participating in the master plan process supported denser development downtown and in village centers while preserving open space elsewhere. Town Meeting then paved the way for two new five-story apartment buildings on the northern edge of downtown. They have been widely criticized, and this year, two of these critics were elected to the Town Council (though one race is subject to a recount).
Amherst faces a budgeting challenge: We just don’t have enough revenue to pay for all our needs and wants. The reasons this is so are related to some things we love about our town.
More than half of Amherst’s land is exempt from local property taxes, mainly because it is on a college campus or is part of a conservation area or protected farmland. We also have a very small commercial/industrial sector (just 3.6 percent of the land) to help pay for our expenses. Plus, we have high expectations for municipal services; for example, our low teacher-student ratio in the public schools. We also believe in paying our employees competitive wages, and the sharp uptick in house prices and rents this year may cause their unions to press for higher salaries, which would cause our expenditures to increase.
The inevitable result of all these factors is very high taxes, and also difficulty funding our infrastructure and budget needs. The average annual tax bill for single-family houses in Amherst this year is estimated at $8,608, a $400 or 5 percent increase over last year. (This unusually high increase is partly attributable to higher values of residential property relative to commercial property.) The estimated average annual tax bill for this year in Northampton is $6,303, and in Hadley, it’s $4,611. Think about that for a moment: Our taxes are almost double those of our neighbor to the west!
Meanwhile, state law limits any increase in the amount a town can raise in taxes to 2.5 percent, plus the amount in taxes that have come in from “new growth.” Those two five-story buildings that so many people love to hate bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue every year and have saved us from painful budget cuts.
So we need that “new growth” if we’re going to keep pace with growing municipal expenses. In addition to the debt payments from the Jones Library project, voters will likely be asked to approve an override of the state’s tax-limit law to finance the construction of a new elementary school, as soon as next year. Millions of dollars will have to be borrowed if we are going to build a new fire station and DPW headquarters. New pressures on our spending limits are also coming from the Public Safety Working Group, African Heritage Reparations Assembly and other citizen groups.
It will be challenging to fund all these new initiatives. Meanwhile, the ability of heavily taxed residents to absorb more tax increases is limited.
But we also want to retain the things that made us want to live here in the first place. No one is proposing selling off conservation areas to developers or building student housing on the town common.
It will be harder to achieve these goals if we use simplistic labels to describe our differences over development. With several proposals for zoning changes on the table, let’s debate them with both neighborhoods and the tax base in mind, and keep our focus on what’s best for the town as a whole.