By George Ryan
Now that the new Council has chosen a Council President (Lynn Griesemer) and Vice-President (Ana Devlin Gauthier) and Griesemer has made appointments to the four standing Council committees, I thought I would dust off my crystal ball and look ahead at some of the key issues and challenges that will face the Town and its elected representatives over the next two years. In today’s post I discuss two issues, and subsequent posts will address other pressing challenges.
A new elementary school. The Elementary School Building Committee and the Amherst School Committee are conducting outreach to get community input on a proposal for a new elementary building that will combine the Fort River and Wildwood school populations.
Funding for a new or renovated school will come from two sources: a grant from the funding agency, the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA), and money from the town that will be borrowed and paid back over 30 years. The town’s portion will exceed what can be paid for from its cash flow or regular budgets, so a “debt exclusion override” is anticipated. Such debt is temporary, raising property taxes only while the debt is repaid. It does not permanently increase the Town’s tax collection.
If the MSBA approves the school proposal, Town Council will to vote to put on the ballot a debt exclusion for voter approval. At the moment, the best guess for when such a vote would take place is March/April of 2023. A majority vote on the Council would put a debt exclusion on the ballot, and if a majority of voters approved it, a super-majority of Councilors would be required for the actual borrowing.
It will be critical that Council votes unanimously to put the debt exclusion on the ballot. But equally critical will be the willingness of the Council to convince Amherst boters to approve it. It is always a tough sell to persuade voters to increase their taxes. There is no question that Amherst needs a 21st-century school – the question that will likely be answered in the coming year is whether this Council will take a strong position in support of our children’s future.
Addressing the Housing Crisis. It is no secret that there is a housing crisis in Amherst. Demand far outstrips supply, the cost of rentals has skyrocketed, it is increasingly difficult for first-time home buyers to find homes they can afford, and conversion of single-family and two-family homes into student rentals continues to be a lucrative option for many investors.
In response to this crisis, Town Council adopted a Comprehensive Housing Policy in September 2021 that identified five primary goals in the area of housing. The first two involve promoting more pathways to home ownership by increasing the supply of diverse housing types and increasing the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing. The question is whether this Town Council will take steps to begin to address these challenges.
The policy identified strategies for increasing housing supply, but it will take leadership from the Council (combined with pressure from the community) to ensure action. Some possible priorities for the Council:
- While it is easy to blame the University for our housing crisis, there are real possibilities for collaboration with UMass for off-campus housing development employing the P3 model (public-private partnership) now in use on campus. Will the Council pursue this?
- There are also real possibilities for redevelopment in the center of Town that could provide substantially more housing units for senior citizens as well as transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness. Will the Council explore this?
- Money has been set aside for consultants to create design guidelines for future development in our downtown and village centers. Will that happen soon?
- And there are zoning reforms that could increase housing opportunities: allowing duplexes by right in all residential zoning districts, raising the current cap on the number of units allowed in apartment buildings, and adopting some form of overlay district in the BL (Limited Business) zone adjacent to our downtown to increase density and create more affordable units. These were high priorities for many of us in the previous Council. Will there be the same sense of urgency in the new body?