Balance, not labels, needed in our debate over development

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.

Kendrick Place brought in new tax revenue as well as complaints

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.

6 thoughts on “Balance, not labels, needed in our debate over development”

  1. Good column, Nick. I neither love nor hate the two new buildings on the North end of town. But given student population growth at UMass more apartments will need to be built near campus. These buildings not only generate much needed tax revenue, they house students who would otherwise be forced to rent in neighborhoods like mine (Orchard Valley) where frat house-style living is undermining the family-oriented life we enjoy here. UMass houses almost 60% of its students on campus, a very high rate comparable to the national average. More density downtown has always been a priority of our town Master Plan. Should we make sure new buildings have reasonable setbacks, inviting ground-level commercial space, and affordable unit set asides? Of course. But we still need to move forward with the plan to increase living space downtown.

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  2. What I do not understand is why Amherst Town leadership opposed a parking garage for decades while local businesses left town, some moving across the river to Northampton where a downtown parking garage was built to encourage and support local business. Yet, more recently town leadership approved two downtown apartment buildings with insufficient parking for all units, presumably exacerbating the parking problem for local businesses. I would like an explanation from town leadership as to why no parking garage has still been approved but those apartment buildings were allowed to be built.

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    1. I can’t reply for current Town government, but from my perspective as an Amherst planner for 32 years, the answer is (at least) twofold.

      First, the zoning regulations, including the amendments that Town Meeting passed to help focus new mixed-use development downtown, made the two buildings in question land uses by right through a Site Plan Review permitting review. The Planning Board could influence the projects’ designs, but could not impose a significant set of additional requirements on the projects Both properties were in the General Business (B-G) District, in which the provision of on-site parking was not required. Additionally, the groundwater level on the sites was relatively high (both are in a saddle of lower land between two higher points, through which Tan Brook is culverted below-ground), so putting additional parking underground was not an option.

      Secondly, the same dedicated tribe of naysayers who scuttled the first attempt at the elementary school project also previously scuttled or severely limited the community’s attempts to build an adequate downtown parking garage, anywhere. The initial designs for the Boltwood Walk parking garage was slated to have two levels above ground as well as a below-ground level. After years of neighborhood objections, multiple procedural challenges, paying for lawyers to address lawsuits, citizen interference with the state budgeting process–all the same NIMBY tactics that have obstructed the library project–the only parking garage the Town could afford, after appropriating even more money for it, was a surface layer and a below-ground level, which evened out to only a few dozen more parking spaces than had already been there. Amherst got in its own way.

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  3. I would bet that Amherst gets less tax revenue, as a percentage of the tax base, from commercial taxpayers than any other municipality in the Commonwealth of similar or larger size. So the question is: is that fact essential to the quality of life that we enjoy in town? If we had a commercial sector that was, say, twice as big (doubling a small percentage), would that destroy anything we loved about Amherst? It seems that we’ve agreed, somewhere, that that is the case.

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    1. Actually, Amherst still has a unitary tax rate–it applies the same tax rate to commercial properties that it does to residential properties. Not all communities do that. In the end, quality of life depends on what the community is willing and able to pay for. Part of the reason the 1000+ participants in the Master Planning process agreed by consensus that new development should go into existing centers through redevelopment and infill was precisely to avoid destroying what they loved about Amherst. But communities that do not allow reasonable levels of growth do two things–they stagnate in terms of the ability of new residents to call the community home, and, by freezing land use, they steadily increase the cost of living for existing residents, pricing out median and low income households and families. The question is not whether a community grows and changes. The question is HOW it grows and changes.

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