A look back and a look forward

By Nick Grabbe and Sarah Marshall

The Amherst Current is marking its first birthday this week with a look back at the past year and with news about the future.

First, we want to thank our subscribers, occasional readers, contributors, and commenters. It is indicative of our reliance on others that the two most widely read posts of the past year (“A civil conversation” and “Remembering Baer Tierkel”) were not written by either of us. Contributors have written on a wide range of issues and have enriched the conversation.

Nick Grabbe and Sarah Marshall

For most of the past year, we posted twice a week, with occasional extra posts, more than 125 in all. In addition, we provided updates in certain categories on the left side of our home page. Some of these, such as “Fact Check” and “Recent House Sales” were closely followed by readers. Even our bios, “About Us,” attracted over 1,000 views.

But far more widely read was “Election Update,” which became the go-to place last fall to find out about candidates filing papers, logging 2,322 views. The “Candidate Information” page also provided up-to-the minute resources for voters. November’s election, which was one of the reasons we started this blog in the first place, was a central focus for us. We published eight posts on candidates and seven on the Jones Library referendum.

The Amherst Current was the first outlet to provide the results on Election Night and we provided 21 next-day comments from knowledgeable observers. We supported a “yes” vote on the Jones Library referendum but did not endorse any candidates.

We also wrote numerous explanatory posts designed to make complex issues easier to understand. These dealt with the spike in house prices and the squeeze on student
rentals, energy conservation at the Jones Library and the new elementary school, and why property taxes in Amherst are so high. We explained parking, potholes and Public Works, plus climate mitigation projects, Town budgeting, and hydroponics, and we also followed political campaign finances.

Nick decided to refrain from further commenting on local issues as of Jan. 1, returning to the neutral stance he adopted in his 32 years at the newspapers. He then wrote a four-part series on famous writers who lived in Amherst and a three-part series on the history of journalism in town. Sarah’s goal for the last year was fostering a better understanding of how Town government works and how the public can participate. Lately, she focused on the elementary school building project.

But now it is summer! Until the fall, the Amherst Current will be posting less frequently, only as events warrant and as issues arise. (We will still add notices of interest to the “On our radar” page and keep up “Recent House Sales.”) We’ll be following progress towards and comments on the override vote on the new school building, expected in March, to see if the debate is less contentious than it was six or seven years ago. In the fall, we’ll decide what the future holds for this blog.

As always, you can reach us at theamherstcurrent@gmail.com and all our posts are still available (click on a category of interest in the menu or scroll through “all posts”).

It has been a privilege to serve the Amherst community by providing more perspective on the issues that matter to all of us.

Applewood residents make strides to eliminate pesticides

By the members of HAL

Picture a white-haired senior citizen dashing outdoors, coffee cup in hand, trying to be dignified as she asks the person spraying her garden to STOP.

This was the beginning of the HAL (Healthy Applewood Land) group here at Applewood, an independent living community in the slope of the Holyoke Range in South Amherst.  It was also the beginning of our first project:  to stop the use of pesticides for the health of the soil, the birds, the humans, in fact for all living things here.

Nearly two years later, that project has been successful and for the first summer, the grounds here will not be treated with pesticides to kill broad-leaf plants.  Instead, the lawns are flourishing with dandelions, violets, and more.  A significant step.

Removing pesticides from the earth and air enables pollinators to flourish. As E.O. Wilson, the American biologist, has said, “If all of mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, then the environment would collapse into chaos.”

Broad-leaf lawn plants for pollinators (Photo credit Anne Cann)

What are pollinators and why are they essential? Pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps and hummingbirds, are essential for the functioning of our terrestrial world. They convey pollen to the stigma of a flower, thus pollinating plants that are the basis of almost all food chains for most living things. Creatures, including us, eat the plants directly, or eat other creatures that eat the plants.

Pollinators are keystone species. Many other species depend on them. They maintain the integrity of the ecosystem.

Plants are not optional. Nearly every living thing depends on plants for life. With the help of pollination, plants turn sunlight, water, soil, and air into food.

How We Can Help Support Native Bees.

While the non-native honey bee is the most familiar pollinator, native bees are often adapted to the specific needs of local plants, making them very effective pollinators. We need to encourage native bee populations. Each of us can help support native bees in our own gardens and grounds by:

  1. Creating a diversity of plant blooms, mostly native, that provide pollen and nectar from early spring to late fall;
  2. Providing nest and egg laying sites by leaving open ground in our gardens for nests and leaving leaves, twigs and stems over the winter and beyond for homes for pollinators (note that native bees dwell mostly in ground tunnels, not hives, so allowing them to have ground cover is crucial);
  3. Avoiding the use of any pesticides;
  4. Providing a source of clean water;
  5. Sharing this important information with others who visit our gardens, so that visitors will carry the idea along and assist in supporting native bees and other pollinators in their own gardens.
Ground-dwelling native bee (Photo credit Anne Cann)

The HAL group has also introduced Applewood residents and its neighbors to the basic concept of why native plants are key to a healthy local environment. The plants and insect life of caterpillars that live off the plants have evolved together and in turn become food for the young nestlings of a large majority of our native bird populations.  By successfully lobbying to eliminate the use of pesticides on our extensive lawns, we have taken Step 1, and are now linking that progress to promoting the use of native plant species in our garden spaces, since native plants are the required primary food source in the food web. 

“Every person on earth depends entirely on the quality of earth’s ecosystem,” says- Douglas W. Tallamy, a professor of entomology and environmental science and author of Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard and The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.

Other topics the HAL group has introduced at Applewood are healthy soils, the role of fungi, and nighttime light pollution.

HAL began in March last year when seven women gathered because of their alarm over the spreading of toxic pesticides on gardens and lawns outside their apartments. With a wealth of experience in environmental activism over lives ranging from 79 to 90 years, they adopted a strategy of resident education, leading to a survey on whether to continue landscaping practices designed to groom putting-green-style lawns.

At Applewood, many residents are environmental activists. They have joined together in various groups that meet regularly and have specific missions. The Climate Change group delves in to the multi-issues of this serious problem.  HAL, the Healthy Applewood Land group, focuses on pesticide elimination, healthy soil, pollinators, and native plants. The Sustainability committee deals mostly with recycling, while Gardens & Grounds is a hands-on group that works on landscaping.

All of these groups are active, with many residents belonging to more than one. There is a great deal of overlap and cross-communication, and our executive director, Lou Iannuccilli, has been supportive of efforts to protect and restore the natural environment on the Applewood grounds.

Coming to Applewood from as far away as Montana and Georgia, all seven members of HAL contributed to this article and are long- time environmental activists. Well- known in this area for their work are Anne Cann, who has served on the Hitchcock Center board and as a Friend of the Orchard Arboretum at Applewood, and Judi Pierce, who retired from Mass Audubon as a regional director and continues to volunteer at Nasami Farm nursery and Kestrel Land Trust. Other members of HAL are Fran Bancroft, Carol McNeary, Lenore Miller, Val Parsegian, and Mimi Sauer.

Landfill solar project installed

By Elisa Campbell

At long last, after much work, several projects are coming to fruition in Amherst this spring or summer.

Solar collectors on the old landfill north of Belchertown Road: The panels of solar photovoltaics are fully constructed and installed. They are not yet connected to the grid – that process is controlled by the utility and some communities have experienced long delays. However, on June 14, I saw workers installing poles and wires, so work is progressing. We’ll be ready when Eversource decides to flip the switch!

Eversource workers working near the photovoltaic array at the North landfill (Photo credit Elisa Campbell)

As I reported last winter, projects like this are done by private companies through a contract with the town. Town government will officially be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project, and will get credit for the power generated there. That’s expected to be 4 megawatts, which covers about two-thirds of the Town’s energy use for buildings, lights, etc. The company building (and owning) the project will pay the Town $78,000 a year for 20 years as rent for the land; some of that will be in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes.

Conservation restriction to protect the Grasshopper Sparrow: As you may remember, the town first applied to put collectors on both closed landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road) in 2015. During the studies about whether the closed landfills were suitable for arrays of photovoltaics, it was discovered that Grasshopper Sparrows, an endangered species, were nesting on the closed landfills. In order to both protect the sparrows and allow the installation of solar panels, the Town committed to an enforceable Conservation Restriction (CR) on the south landfill to protect it as nesting habitat for the Grasshopper Sparrow.

The CR has yet to be completed, but this spring the town has been installing the fence around the perimeter, as required. The work to establish the exact location for the fence revealed that the cap over the landfill in some places extends farther than was originally thought. In the future, it will be put around the restricted area, with a viewing platform so people can see the grassy area (and, I hope, both the sparrows and bobolinks, which also nest there). The perimeter path will be on the current terrain in a space 5 feet wide.

Trail and fence near the restricted area on the South landfill (Photo credit Elisa Campbell)

Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator,  and Dave Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager, have met with all the abutters on the west side of the landfill to clarify property boundaries and the limits of the cap. The CR will not interfere with the sledding hill that is entered from Wildflower Drive.

The Kestrel Land Trust will hold the Conservation Restriction, which means Kestrel will make sure that the rules are followed. Kestrel holds Conservation Restrictions on many conservation areas and other land that is officially protected throughout the Connecticut River valley and nearby hills. 

As Ciccarello said, neither the solar installation nor the reservation for the sparrow would have happened without a formal Conservation Restriction.

Dog Park (Photo credit Elisa Campbell)

Dog park: The dog park on Old Belchertown Road is nearing completion. Fences and some structures have been installed, and newly planted grass is growing. There are two sections for different-sized dogs. When the dog park opens (it is hoped that will be in late July) it will be open to all dog owners.

Writers who lived in Amherst showed reality of native tribes

This is the last in a series of four posts about 14 famous writers featured in the Amherst Writers Walk. See end for links to previous posts.

By Nick Grabbe

Three writers who lived parts of their lives in Amherst made major contributions to our understanding of Native Americans.

This is the house at 249 South Pleasant Street, where Helen Hunt Jackson grew up.

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) lived at 249 South Pleasant Street until her early teens. The house, which is across from Amherst College, was built in 1830. Jackson was born Helen Maria Fiske two months before Emily Dickinson, and the two writers became friends later in their lives.

Jackson lost her parents when she was a teenager, and after leaving Amherst, she lost her husband and her two sons. She expressed her sorrow in poetry that was published anonymously in the Atlantic and other magazines. She also wrote several novels, using pseudonyms instead of her real name. Her novel “Mercy Philbrick’s Choice” is thought to depict Amherst, disguised with the name “Penfield.” She remarried in 1875, changing her last name for the second time. She lived in Colorado, but returned to Amherst to visit Dickinson in 1876 and ’78, urging her friend to submit a poem to a journal. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson avidly sought publication of her writing.

In Boston in 1879, she heard a lecture by Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe that awakened her to the injustices suffered by indigenous people. She worked as an agent for the Department of the Interior, and then she exposed the violation of treaties and documented the corruption of government agents and settlers in her 1881 book “A Century of Dishonor.” This time, she used her real name, and she sent copies to every member of Congress.

Helen Hunt Jackson

But she’s best known for her 1884 novel “Ramona.” It focused on an orphan of mixed parentage and the struggle for land in Southern California. “Ramona,” which was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s monumental “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” had sold 600,000 copies by the mid-1940s. Focusing on oppression of native tribes and Mexicans, it was so popular that tourists sought out the places it described. “Ramona” was made into a movie starring Loretta Young in 1936.

Jackson wrote a 56-page report on the treatment of native tribes in Southern California, and a bill incorporating her recommendations passed the Senate but died in the House. On her deathbed, she wrote to President Grover Cleveland urging him to address “the wrongs of the Indian race.”

She also corresponded with W.E.B. Du Bois during the final two decades of her life. She died the year before Dickinson did.

Charles Eastman (1858-1939) was the first major Native American author to write about the tribes from their own perspectives, and the first Native American to be certified in Western medicine.

Charles Eastman

He grew up in Minnesota as a Santee Dakota but also had English and French ancestors. He graduated from Dartmouth (where there’s still a fellowship named for him) and received a medical degree from Boston University.

Eastman (also known as Ohiye S’a) was a government physician in Pine Ridge, S.D. when he witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre. While caring for the wounded, he met Elaine Goodale (1863-1953), a poet, social worker, educator and Massachusetts native. They were married in 1891 and had six children.

In 1902, Eastman wrote his first book, “Indian Boyhood.” Describing his 15 years of training in hunter/warrior ways, it was very popular and was translated into many languages. It also portrayed the harsh realities of famine, disease, confrontations with other tribes, and conflicts with white settlers.

The house at 850 Belchertown Road.

After Eastman had a dispute with a government agent, in 1903 the couple left the Dakotas and moved to Amherst, where they lived at 850 Belchertown Road. He led a project to choose surnames for Sioux to protect their property rights, renaming about 25,000 people.

Elaine started helping him with his writing. Charles wrote short stories about Sioux customs, articles for the Boy Scouts of America magazine, and a book about religious beliefs of the native tribes (though he converted to Christianity). He was one of the founders of an organization that sought to improve conditions on the reservations and protect the tribes from injustice.

In 1914 Eastman published “Indian Scout Talks,” a guide for Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls on how to make bows and arrows, tepees and canoes, and how to survive in the wilderness. He managed one of the first Boy Scout camps. In a 1915 book, he provided an overview of the history, customs and beliefs of the native tribes.

Elaine Goodale Eastman

Elaine Goodale Eastman managed her husband’s many public appearances and wrote books of her own, but they received less recognition. She started a day school on the Dakota reservation in 1886 and was appointed superintendent of Indian education for the Dakotas in 1890. She published books of poetry, several novels, and a biography of the founder of a school for Native Americans. Her memoir of her time as a teacher, “Sister to the Sioux,” was published posthumously.

Charles and Elaine Eastman separated in 1921. One possible reason was tension stemming from Elaine’s belief that the native tribes should seek assimilation with white society, while Charles emphasized observing their cultural traditions. Charles Eastman published no major works afterwards, which is perhaps an indication of how much Elaine’s help contributed to his success.

Upon Charles’s death, Elaine Goodale Eastman acquired his manuscripts and published his work on Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with Lewis and Clark. She is buried in Northampton.

This is “Fort Juniper” at 170 Market Hill road, where Robert Francis lived for 47 years.

The last house on the Amherst Writers Walk is at 170 Market Hill Road, where poet Robert Francis (1901-87) lived. The two-room house, where Francis lived simply for 47 years, is known as “Fort Juniper,” because of that tree’s near-indestructibility.

Francis moved to Amherst in 1926 and taught English at the high school but only lasted there a year. He supported himself by writing, for such publications as the New Yorker and Saturday Review, and by teaching violin.

Robert Francis

He wrote six volumes of poetry, a novel and an autobiography called “The Trouble with Francis” that touched on his frugal lifestyle and his struggle for recognition. “My specialty has been not to earn much but to spend little,” Francis said.

His poem “The Pitcher” is popular with baseball players and coaches. His last book, which included his journals from 1931 to 1954, was called “Traveling in Amherst.”

His friend Robert Frost called Francis “of all the great neglected poets, the greatest.” Like Frost, Francis wrote poems about nature and filled them with hidden meanings.

Robert Francis gave readings at the Jones Library, laid out an herb garden in back of the building, and had a study on the third floor. Special Collections has his correspondence and personal effects, as well as essays Francis wrote in The Atlantic and Christian Science Monitor.

It is remarkable that so many celebrated writers have called Amherst home at some point in their lives. As a writer myself, I have felt buoyed by this tradition, and by becoming more acquainted with the people in this series. By visiting these houses and learning about these writers, to paraphrase Thoreau, I have traveled widely in Amherst.

The Amherst Writers Walk was created by the Historical Commission. Other posts in this series:

Part One: Ray Stannard Baker, Eugene Field, Mary Heaton Vorse and Norton Juster

Part Two: Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd

Part Three: Howard and Lilian Garis, Shirley Graham Du Bois and Noah Webster

New 3-story elementary school to be built at Fort River site

By Sarah Marshall

In a unanimous vote, the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) decided Monday morning to nominate a new, 3-story building at the Fort River School site that will consolidate the Wildwood and Fort River schools as the “preferred solution” to the Massachusetts School Building Association. Once the choice is submitted over the next few weeks as part of the Preferred Schematic Report, DiNisco Design architects will begin designing the building in detail.

The principal reasons for choosing the Fort River site over the Wildwood site were less disruption to students and staff during construction, and more outdoor space available to the school and community.

Three different votes preceded this unanimous decision.

Before voting on the preferred solution, the ESBC voted to eliminate the addition/renovation options (8-1 with 3 absent and one unable to vote because of technical problems). Chair Cathy Schoen explained that this vote, taken at the previous committee meeting, was valid, even though she had thought at the time that a quorum was not present. The chief reason was the high costs of such a project, nearly the cost of an entirely new school.

Second, the committee voted unanimously to prefer a new, 3-story option at either site to a 2-story building.   Reasons for favoring 3- over 2-story options were the smaller footprints (a particular concern at Wildwood), more efficient travel within the building, and the small-school feel allowed by locating paired grades on separate floors. All options would have been designed to fulfill the Amherst School District’s educational requirements, the zero net energy bylaw, and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Third, the committee voted 8-5 to choose the Fort River site. Reasons given by those who favored the Wildwood site included more manageable vehicular traffic, more and safer pedestrian routes, adjacency to the Middle School, distance from a flood plain, and lower cost.

But once the site was chosen, the committee voted unanimously to recommend a new 3-story building at Fort River.

All committee members, including the Superintendent of Schools, the Town Manager, school principals, the Town’s finance director, Amherst School Committee members, Town Councilors, and community members pledged their full support – in advance – to whichever project was ultimately chosen, and reiterated their support after their votes. They committed to building support in the community for the override through education and outreach.

Several members of the public, including more Town Councilors and Amherst School Committee officials, expressed their delight, enthusiasm, and support, as well as their sincere thanks to the ESBC for its extraordinary effort in bringing the community to this point.

Chair Cathy Schoen stated that the committee will have no difficulty in completing the report to MSBA well in advance of the August MSBA meeting, at which it will evaluate our preferred option.

The Orchard Arboretum: a little-known Amherst gem

By John Armstrong

Located between Spencer Drive, Russett Lane, and McIntosh Drive in South Amherst lies a six-acre plot of Amherst Conservation Land.  The middle two acres of this plot comprise the Orchard Arboretum, home to more than a hundred labeled trees and shrubs, an ADA-accessible pathway, and inviting benches.  It includes a hillside, at the top of which a path leads to the Holyoke Range trail system. The Arboretum is a place of great beauty and tranquility.

Orchard Arboretum is open year-round, except when there are snow and ice on the walkways, and spring is a particularly good time to visit, with dozens of  trees and shrubs in flower.  Among the trees are a few survivors of the 20th-century apple orchards that once blanketed South Amherst.

Photo credit Anne Cann

The Arboretum originated in 1994. Early in that year a condo development was proposed for the six-acre plot.  But a coalition of Applewood residents and Upper Orchard condo owners, with significant help from philanthropist Janet Dakin and the Kestrel Trust, raised $175,000, bought the land, and donated it to the Town.

Since then, there has been a succession of different arrangements for developing and managing the Arboretum, culminating in the present Friends of the Orchard Arboretum, which is made up of volunteers from the Applewood retirement community, the Upper Orchard condos, and volunteers from elsewhere in town.  In co-operation with the Conservation Department, the Friends manage the planting, pruning, mowing, and leaf-clearing that are key to the maintenance of this lovely place. The Conservation Department manages the four acres that are not part of the Arboretum.

The list of‘original trees, plus the trees and shrubs planted since 1994, now contains over 150 items, representing 65 species and 25 families.  Almost all these specimens are labelled with their binomial Latin and common English names.

Photo credit Anne Cann

The benches and a large proportion of the trees in the Arboretum have been donated in memory of former Applewood residents.  Other trees and the collection of flowering shrubs have been selected and planted by the Friends of the Orchard Arboretum.

Each March the Friends solicit tax-free contributions to an Orchard Arboretum account at the Town. These funds are used to enhance and maintain the Arboretum.  Donors include many residents of Applewood as well as Upper Orchard condo owners and other Amherst supporters.

Arnold’s Promise witch hazel, an early bloomer. Credit Anne Cann

This long-standing arrangement between the Conservation Department and the Friends of the Orchard Arboretum is a good example of constructive cooperation between Town government and Amherst citizen groups.

Over the years, conservation and wildlife projects have been conducted in the Arboretum, including: a pruning practice for UMass horticultural students; bird walks led by Hampshire Bird Club members; an ongoing study of “Backyard Birds” by Nestwatch Springfield; and a number of programs sponsored by the Kestrel Trust.

Local groups wanting to plan an event in the Arboretum will find it useful to co-ordinate with the Friends’ steering committee. (Write to J. A. Armstrong, Friends Treasurer, at 301 Spencer Drive, Amherst). Groups that are considering charging for an event must apply to the Amherst Conservation Commission for permission.

The Arboretum has been an especially popular destination during the pandemic.  The Friends of the Orchard Arboretum look forward to seeing many more repeat visitors.

Photo credit Anne Cann

The six acres do not include parking, but parking is available on the bordering streets. The Conservation Department requires dogs to be on a leash at all times in the Orchard Arboretum.

John Armstrong, a life-long gardener, and his wife Elizabeth have lived in Amherst since 1995. They moved to Applewood in 2015.

When will my road be paved? And why is a bear on my deck?

By Sarah Marshall

There is always something interesting going on in Town government – seriously! Within the last several weeks, Town staff and councilors hosted two eye-opening presentations that I summarize here: one on how our roads are prioritized for repair or reconstruction, and another on the bears that call Amherst home.

First, the roads. This blog recently shared a post on potholes, but many of our roads need more than a few patches. How does the Department of Public Works (DPW) decide what roads need major repairs? Is it a political process? Town Engineer Jason Skeels explained how DPW “takes the politics out of paving” at a meeting in April.

Every few years, the Town hires StreetScan to deploy a vehicle like the one shown above, outfitted with fancy cameras, GPS, and data-logging equipment. Like Google’s cars that accumulate data for Street View, this vehicle photographs the condition of Amherst’s 100+ miles of roads in detail. Below is a view of a road from the rear camera.

Sections of each road are rated as shown in the chart above, with “Pavement Condition Index” ratings color-coded from Failed to Excellent. The ratings are overlain on a map of Amherst’s roads, as follows. (A similar, but out-of-date, map can be found on DPW’s Highways web page.)

Overall, this year’s data indicate that about 43 percent of Amherst’s roads are in poor or very poor condition and the balance are in fair to excellent condition. As the map indicates, many of the roads in poor shape are small, neighborhood roads.

The cost of fixing all of the roads in short order is prohibitive. Each year, DPW develops a list of roads or road sections to be prioritized for different types of repair, ranging from crack sealing to complete reconstruction. This list is based on the PCI and traffic data – not on complaints – thus largely insulating the decisions from pressure from individuals or neighborhoods. Depending on the funds available, any constraints on those funds (for example, Town’s general revenue versus state funds versus Community Development Block Grants), and the estimated cost of the work, the Town solicits bids and proceeds to conduct as much of the work as can be funded. In the table below, for example, projects at the bottom will be undertaken if the money stretches that far.

DPW has a fairly good idea of how quickly roads will deteriorate in the several years between StreetScan updates, so it can prioritize projects two or three years out. It is reluctant to make those lists public, however, since people’s expectations may be dashed if funding is inadequate or some roads deteriorate faster than expected and priorities are altered.

So when will your road be repaired? If your road is in yellow, orange, or red and is heavily used, sooner rather than later, if funds allow. If your road is green, you can expect crack-sealing to keep it in good condition. But if your yellow, orange, or red road is less traveled by (like mine), you may wait longer. And complaining probably won’t help, although you can always request a pothole repair.

Now, about that black bear on your deck: she has learned that you put out birdseed. Dave Wattles of MassWildlife told a virtual audience earlier this month that there is no such thing as a “bird” feeder – rather, you or your neighbors put out “wildlife” feeders. Perhaps you only want to see birds, but the seeds and suet are calorie-dense foods sought by many animals. Bears will learn the locations of feeders and return repeatedly. What’s more, the sows (mothers) teach their cubs where to find the wildlife feeders, and the offspring will return on their own after they have left the sow’s care.

Bears also learn where other human-associated foods can be found, such as garbage in cans or dumpsters, chicken coops, and beehives, all of which are increasing in our area. Given the bears’ strength, garbage should be kept in the home until the morning of trash pick-up or placed in bear-proof receptacles. Electric fences around beehives and chicken coops will deter bears without harming them (or humans) but must be maintained. Information about protecting hives and coops can be found here.

Over the last year, a sow with three cubs repeatedly roamed through Amherst, even through downtown neighborhoods, and concern and interest among residents prompted the on-line talk (view it here. Dave explained how MassWildlife tracks bears throughout the state. In brief, staff tranquilize animals after catching them in barrel traps or tracking them to dens, assess their health and weight, and fit them with ear tags (if grown males) or GPS tracking collars (if grown females). The collars give location data for females every 45 minutes, enabling maps such as these:

Each color represents a different sow and shows the home range through which she moves. These home ranges can include areas even more urbanized than Amherst. We also see that home ranges can overlap. The map above does not include data for the Amherst sow, but that is shown here, in green:

Dave emphasized that the bears are not aggressive and are not a problem. Relocating them is fruitless, because either they will promptly return or other bears will move into the area. MassWildlife’s goal is for the bears to live off naturally occurring food sources. We can help by removing the wildlife feeders – or using them only when bears are likely to be hibernating, approximately December through late February – securing garbage containers, and protecting chicken coops and beehives with electric fencing. In the absence of these human-provided foods, bears will spend less time in neighborhoods and get off your deck.

Four more renowned writers who once lived in Amherst

This is the third in a series of posts about the Amherst Writers Walk, a self-guided tour of the houses where 12 renowned writers lived. Here are links to Part One and Part Two.

By Nick Grabbe

When they moved to Amherst in 1950, they were the most popular and prolific writers of children’s books in the U.S.

Howard Garis

So when Howard Garis left his house at 97 Spring Street and walked around town, groups of children would often follow him and ask him to tell them a story, or just stare at him. That’s because he was the famous author of more than 15,000 Uncle Wiggily stories between 1910 and 1962. They were collected in 79 books and had sold over 15 million copies by then.

The books are still available and have been translated into many languages. Uncle Wiggily Longears is an engaging elderly rabbit who wears a top hat, uses a cane, and gives children a sense of optimism and adventure. Howard Garis (1873-1962) was so famous in 1950 that his arrival merited an announcement in the local newspaper.

There were 79 Uncle Wiggily books.

Uncle Wiggily board games and toys sold in the millions, and the name entered popular culture. An Uncle Wiggily book is featured in “Forrest Gump,” and the familiar name has been used by a rock band and a chain of Baltimore ice cream shops.

Garis’s earlier publishing achievements were broad and astounding, but didn’t gain him the fame and fortune of the Uncle Wiggily stories. That’s because he and his wife Lilian Garis (1873-1954) were ghostwriters for a syndicate that gave them measly compensation, considering the popularity of their books.

Garis wrote the popular Tom Swift books about a boy scientist and tinkerer; Apple Computers co-founder Steve Wozniak called Tom Swift his role model. He also wrote the Baseball Joe and Camp Fire Girls books and many others, using a variety of pseudonyms. It is said that he worked every day but Sunday and could turn out a book in six to eight days. He wrote over 300 books for the syndicate.

Howard and Lilian Garis both wrote books about the Bobbsey Twins under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope. The books feature an upper-middle-class family with two sets of twins, ages 12 and 6. There have been 72 books in this series over 75 years (1904-1979), and the Garises wrote the first 27 of them.

Lilian, a former suffragette, met Howard when they both wrote for the Newark Evening News. Lilian wrote hundreds of books between 1915 and the early 1940s, about girls named Judy Jordan, Nancy Brandon and others. She also wrote books under her own name, as did Howard.

But Lilian Garis fancied herself an expert on stocks, and she invested their savings in the market, which crashed in 1929. The Uncle Wiggily books secured their financial security.

Lilian Garis

Their son Roger was also a writer, and had some success in magazines and scripts for early television. But he struggled with mental illness and difficulty getting out of the shadow of his famous parents. His daughter, Leslie Garis, wrote a poignant memoir in 2007 called “House of Happy Endings” about growing up in the house on Spring Street in the 1950s with her parents and grandparents amid her father’s mental disintegration. It shows how deep sadness can lie behind a facade of idyllic serenity.

The Garis house on Spring Street is now the headquarters of Five Colleges, Inc.

The house, on the corner of Spring and Dickinson Streets, was known as “The Dell” and was frequently visited by poet Robert Frost, a close friend of Howard Garis. It was built in the Craftsman and Revival styles. It is now the headquarters of Five Colleges Inc.

Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), who married W.E.B. Du Bois when he was 83 and she was 54, was a notable writer and activist also. When her husband died in 1963, she gave his papers to the University of Massachusetts and was a visiting lecturer there. She lived at 30 Boltwood Avenue, now the Lord Jeffery Inn, in the 1970s.

Shirley Graham Du Bois

While a student at Oberlin College, Du Bois wrote and produced an opera in 1932 called “Tom Toms: An Epic Story of Music and the Negro.” It attracted 10,000 people to the first performance, 15,000 to the second, including the Ohio governor. She is said to be the first African American to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. The score was lost but was rediscovered in 2001.

Between 1932 and 1975, Du Bois wrote six plays and 14 books, including biographies for young adults of botanist George Washington Carver, poet Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington. She wrote a play called “It’s Morning” about an enslaved mother contemplating infanticide. She used theater to tell black women’s story from their perspective.

Du Bois was also one of the first field secretaries of the NAACP and organized branches all over the country. She defended people protesting racial injustice on a military base. Because she was a member of the Communist Party, her work didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. She ultimately emigrated to Africa, dying in Beijing, as a citizen of Tanzania.

One of her last novels, “Zulu Heart,” included a sympathetic portrait of whites in South Africa despite racial conflict there.

The third house on this part of the Amherst Writers Walk isn’t there anymore. Noah Webster, the dictionary pioneer and standardizer of the American version of English, lived at 46 Main Street from 1812 to 1822.

Dictionary pioneer Noah Webster

Webster wanted Americans to have a national identity separate from England’s, but that was difficult because in the late 18th century there were many regional dialects.

In 1783 he published what became known as “The Blue-Backed Speller.” It taught children spelling rules and simplified words. He took the “u” out of English words like “colour” and “honour,” removed a “g” from “waggon, kicked off the “k” in “musick” and reversed the final letters of “theatre” and “centre.”

Webster spent almost 30 years compiling his dictionary. He introduced distinctly American words, many derived from native languages, such as skunk, squash, hickory, opossum, lengthy, Congress and caucus. In all, he added about 5,000 words to the language. He died in 1843 without having sold many copies, in part because it cost $15 to $20, which was then an enormous amount.

Webster also was an advisor to George Washington, wrote his own edition of the Bible, and counted houses in major cities, leading to the first census. There’s a statue of him on the Amherst College campus.

The Amherst Writers Walk began in a course at the University of Massachusetts on public history. It was realized by the Amherst Historical Commission, funded by Community Preservation Act funds, and installed by the Department of Public Works in 2021,

Welcome, Spring!

By Elisa Campbell

At this time, when so many members of our own species seem to have become completely insane, I have found it even more calming and delightful to see wildflowers and turtles doing what flowers and turtles do.

Because I live within walking distance of the Rail Trail, and the mix for forests, meadows, swamps, and streams along it between Station Road South East Street is so diverse and beautiful, that’s where I usually go. As I write this, there are Trout Lilies and Wood Anemone starting to bloom, beaver activity, ducks, geese, and herons in the larger bodies of water, and numerous Eastern Painted Turtles seeking logs and other places to soak up the sun they need to warm themselves. In mid-April I saw 18 turtles between the two entrances to the Rail Trail by the Ken Cuddeback Trail. We have more turtles than logs for them to sun on – those beavers should get busy!

Trout lily. Photo by Elisa Campbell

The Rail Trail is officially the “Massachusetts Central Rail Trail/Norwottuck Branch.” It’s part of a rail trail intended to cross the whole state, using mostly former railroad rights of way. The right of way, the construction, and the maintenance are a part of our state parks system, within the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

In Amherst, we have another DCR park in town – the Mount Holyoke Range State Park. Given the size of towns in Massachusetts, that park extends over five towns – Amherst, Belchertown, Granby, Hadley, and South Hadley. From the ground, or looking at the Range from a distance, we tend to imagine that the whole Range is protected by the state park, but it’s not. I recommend you go to the DCR website and download the map of the park to familiarize yourself with what is protected and by whom. Much of the Range in Amherst is protected by the town, as conservation areas. Some of my favorite places aren’t officially protected at all, but nevertheless have some beautiful wildflowers, including Round-leaved Hepatica and Marsh Marigolds.

Town of Amherst

There are many trails on or over the Range. The Ken Cuddeback Trail going up past the water tower above Bay Road continues to Rattlesnake Knob, with two different views:  one east toward Long Mountain, Belchertown, Pelham, and even the tall hills east of Springfield; the other view north over Amherst and Hadley, up to Vermont and, on a clear day, Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts.

Muskrat in Hop Brook. Photo by Elisa Campbell

Or, from west to east, you can hike on the New England Scenic Trail along the ridge line over Mount Norwottuck from the Notch on Route 116 to Harris Mountain Road. The Sweet Alice Trail near Kestrel Land Trust’s new headquarters on Bay Road is less strenuous and beautiful. Bring a map if you don’t want to risk taking a wrong turn and a longer hike than you had in mind!

While we in Amherst are lucky to have many other conservation areas in town – and even more in nearby towns – I want to focus right now on those managed by DCR, because DCR needs our help. For decades the agency has been underfunded, losing operating funds and staff to take care of our state forests and parks. The underfunding has been even worse since the Great Recession after the collapse of the housing bubble more than a decade ago. DCR’s operating budget in the current fiscal year is $4 million less than it was in FY2009 – not counting inflation, actual dollars allocated. It has 300 fewer employees than in FY2009.

Hepatica. Photo by Elisa Campbell

The state is currently in good financial shape; in addition to federal money given to states to help them deal with the consequences of the pandemic, we have a surplus of state taxes. Now is the time to make up, to some extent, for the terrible cuts to DCR during and after the Great Recession.

The Massachusetts House budget includes an increase for DCR, so the next step is to advocate for strongly for a larger amount in the state Senate.

We owe it to these places we enjoy so much, and to our fellow humans who also enjoy these places

Pied-billed grebe. Photo by Elisa Campbell

Envisioning Amherst as a model of rural economic revival

By Kristin Leutz

With students back and campus life in full swing, it may be easy to forget how the pandemic rocked our town’s economy. We faced the stark possibility of a seismic shift in our economic bedrock, and while we’re emerging from the moment of crisis, we must prepare to thrive in the face of disruptions in our future.

Whether from climate change, economic upheaval, or future pandemics, we are likely to face serious challenges to the jobs and economic foundations we’ve known here in Amherst. Now is the best time to envision how Amherst could serve as a model for how college towns should develop resilient and sustainable local economies.

Photo credit Hospitalityonline.com

Amherst should be thinking now about who will live and work here in the years to come. Our population growth is flat, our housing is experiencing the real estate inflation that is happening in many places, and development of any type is the subject of perennial debate in town, often making new projects tricky to launch here. Our tax base places ever more pressure on the fragile model of funding critical public infrastructure via property tax revenue.

Meanwhile, the active citizens in town tend to favor debates about a new parking garage, rather than engaging in planning and dialogue about long-term steps we should take now to envision a thriving rural town in the coming generation.

Today, the largest employment industry sectors here are education, health care and social services. Will our workforce continue to grow and meet the needs of these legacy industries? Or will we fail at the challenge of attracting new, diverse people to town? Today, we are producers of highly educated, talented workers who spent their educational years here, only to finish and depart the Valley to find jobs elsewhere. Tomorrow, we could create pathways to prevent brain drain and encourage educated workers to stay after school or return to work and raise families here in greater numbers. To do this, we need to aim our sights toward a revival that could center college towns like Amherst in the dawn of a new form of economic development. 

The picture tomorrow in Amherst could be entrepreneur-centered, a mecca for talented people who benefit from reskilling programs through our higher education institutions, apprenticeships at local companies and nonprofits, and incentives for students who create businesses and stay here to grow them. As other college towns have done, we could also offer incentives to remote workers who could choose our town and find friendly shared workspaces, and speedy, affordable internet.

We don’t have to search for ideas on how to make this happen. The Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) at Cornell University convened representatives from college towns across the U.S. with national thought leaders in innovation and economic development to discuss the post-pandemic future of college towns. Among their recommendations was to focus on innovation by developing clusters of “complementary” businesses and workers in Amherst that can support the future of work in industry sectors that are already strong here today.

If we dream accordingly, we might envision how, with the amount of talent and investment in higher education in this town, Amherst could become a hub for EdTech development. Or with the amount of open land and farms, coupled with a Ph.D Food Science school and Ag Tech experts, perhaps we could lead in AgroTech innovation? Entrepreneurship and innovation-focused economic development are key to this forward-looking thinking.

Currently, the proposed town budget has allocated $750,000 towards investment in economic development. Thankfully, due to excellent collaboration between our local Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce, our net small business presence in town is steady, as new places tend to fill vacancies in town when old favorites close their door. They will work with the town to allocate those dollars. Yet, this amount of investment is barely a start to truly catalyze, support, and fund small business owners and future high-growth entrepreneurs.

The town has been without a professional dedicated to economic development. Even if this kind of resource is restored in this budget, such a professional would have to hit the ground running to meet deferred needs and coordinate with the regional economic ecosystem. The staffs of the BID and the Chamber are mighty and wonderful, but they are small and working on tight budgets to meet current needs. Who is giving them resources, time, and talent to effectively build for the future? Our regional Economic Development Council is working across a diverse and wide stretch of the Pioneer Valley and cannot focus on Amherst as a priority. 

As involved town citizens, we are the ones who can step in to become more active and engaged. We should educate ourselves on the proposed budget and encourage the town to make this investment for us so we can find ways to plug into these efforts to lend our own expertise and lived experience to the process of building the future economy. 

What should we ask as we dive into this process? Is Amherst a friendly place in which to start a new business? Does it attract and retain a talented workforce ready to spend and live in ways that build collective value? Do we take the fullest possible advantage of the fact that we host a large land grant public university with one of the highest nationally ranked business schools? Do we have the right kind of access to capital and technical support to help bridge the systemic inequities that place barriers to entrepreneurship for underrepresented populations? When we think about what it might take to begin making shifts to prepare for changing economic futures, we need to ask these questions and more.

Isenberg School of Management at UMass

Now is the time to get involved.  Visit the Engage Amherst website. Sign up to attend the public budget hearing on May 16. Sign up for a Chamber of Commerce event and meet local business owners to find out how you can help their daily challenges. And if you have skills a business owner could use, consider volunteering to become a mentor. Everyone has a role to play in our future economy.

 

Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd lived nearby but their lifestyles were far apart

This watercolor by artist Victoria Dickson shows how she imagined the Dickinson Homestead to look in 1880, just before Mabel Loomis Todd moved to Amherst.

This is the second in a series of posts about the Amherst Writers Walk, a self-guided tour of the houses where 12 renowned writers lived. Here’s a link to Part One.

By Nick Grabbe

Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd lived in houses that were only one block apart, and while the two women were a study in contrasts, their connection resulted in a major contribution to American literature.

One woman stayed in her family’s house during most of the second half of her life, while the other was a world traveler. One woman was known for extreme social distancing, while the other was gregarious. One woman was modest while the other was attention-seeking. One woman was virtually unknown in her lifetime but is now recognized internationally as a major poet, while the other woman, who was gifted in many areas, is little known today.

And even though Mabel Loomis Todd was key to bringing Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the world’s attention, and carried on a 13-year love affair with the poet’s married brother, the two women never met face to face.

The basics of Emily Dickinson’s life are well known. Born in 1830 to a prominent Amherst family, she retreated to a severely sequestered life sometime after age 30. She never married or had children. She wrote about 1,800 poems, but only a few were published in her lifetime. She died in 1886. Her poems were discovered, edited, and published in three editions in the 1890s.

The Emily Dickinson Museum includes the house at 280 Main Street, where she lived, and The Evergreens, the house just to the west, where her brother and his family lived. The museum was visited (before the pandemic) by about 15,000 people every year. Built in 1813 by the poet’s grandparents, the Dickinson Homestead may have been the first brick house in Amherst.

About 15,000 people a year visited the Emily Dickinson Museum before the pandemic.

Many people around the world know about Amherst because it’s where Emily Dickinson lived. Her life has been the subject of a play (“The Belle of Amherst,”) a novel (“Miss Emily,”), a coming-of-age TV series (“Dickinson”), a movie (“A Quiet Passion”), many books and countless scholarly essays.

Here’s how the museum’s website summarizes Dickinson’s image and influence:

“Often caricatured in popular culture as a white-clad recluse who poured out morbid verse in the sanctuary of her bedroom, Emily Dickinson was a serious artist whose intellectual curiosity and emotional intensity are revealed in concise and compelling poems that capture a range of human experiences.”

Emily Dickinson

The Dickinson Homestead is currently closed for renovations and restoration, but may reopen this summer. The museum is now engaged in fundraising for the final phase of the work, which will include the kitchen, laundry and servants’ quarters.

Programs related to Emily Dickinson continue. This Saturday at 11:30 a.m., there will be a virtual reading and walk to mark the 136th anniversary of her death. Volunteers will read from her works, and poets will share Dickinson-inspired poems they have written. At her grave at West Cemetery, “we will share reflections and a light-hearted virtual toast.” The annual walk used to be in person but, as a virtual event, it reaches many more people around the world.

Interest in Emily Dickinson remains high almost two centuries after her birth. When the museum invited people to create postcards with greetings to the poet (“The World Writes Back”), it received about 1,000 (many of which are shown on the website) from 21 countries. The website includes a virtual syllabus, Spotify playlists, printable coloring sheets, and even a color-by-numbers Emily Dickinson portrait.

There has been much speculation about Emily Dickinson’s life. Did she suffer from epilepsy or some other medical condition? Did she have a love affair with her married neighbor, William Smith Clark (a theory advanced by Ruth Owen Jones of Amherst)? Why did she retreat from the outside world? No one knows for sure.

But we do know that her life intersected with that of Mabel Loomis Todd, who moved to a house at 97 Spring St. in 1881 when she was 25. (In 1907, the house was moved to 90 Spring St.) Emily Dickinson was 51 at the time, and her brother Austin, a respected lawyer, was 53.

This house on Spring Street was the home of Mabel Loomis Todd.

Mabel Loomis Todd was an accomplished singer, painter, writer, editor and lecturer. She traveled to Japan, Russia and Chile, and may have been the first Western woman to hike up Mt. Fuji. She wrote or edited 12 books and hundreds of articles, and gave lectures all over the country. She was a co-founder of the Amherst Women’s Club and the Amherst Historical Society. A play about her life, “A Woman of the World,” was staged off-Broadway in 2019.

She seems to have had an open marriage with her husband, David Peck Todd, a professor of astronomy at Amherst College and an expert on eclipses. In her diaries, she recorded her many sexual encounters with both her husband and with Austin Dickinson. A Washington Post story about these liaisons was headlined “Amorous in Amherst.”

Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd exchanged love letters, went on private trips, and spent time together in Boston. A book by Dickinson scholar Polly Longsworth called “Austin and Mabel” (UMass Press, 1999) details their affair, which lasted until Austin’s death in 1894.

She came to the Homestead to play the piano and sing for Austin and his sister Lavinia. Emily apparently heard Mabel sing but didn’t make an appearance. The two women exchanged notes and conversations between rooms. Mabel wrote in her diary, “She writes the strangest poems & very remarkable ones.”

Mabel Loomis Todd, “Woman of the World”

Mabel sent Emily a painting she did of an Indian Pipe flower, and Emily wrote back in appreciation, “Dear Friend, I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept this Humming Bird,” and included a poem called “A Route of Evanescence.”

Mabel referred to Emily Dickinson as “a lady whom the people call the Myth,” and wrote that she “seems to be the climax of all the family oddity.” When Dickinson’s poems surfaced after her death, Mabel Loomis Todd was one of the few people who recognized her genius.

The poems had “a wonderful effect on me, mentally and spiritually,” Mabel wrote. “They seemed to open the door into a wider universe than the little sphere surrounding me.”

She spent nine years assembling the poems and editing them, regularizing some of Dickinson’s unorthodox syntax and punctuation, changing some rhymes and adding titles to conform to contemporary literary tastes. Since then, scholars have largely restored the original versions.

The Jones Library’s Special Collections Department includes some of the books that Mabel Loomis Todd wrote, plus her diaries on microfilm (the originals are at Yale). The library has a copy of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems, illustrated on the cover with Mabel’s Indian Pipe painting. The Amherst Historical Society has her swimsuit, dresses and some of her artwork.

Mabel Loomis Todd contradicted the image of a prim 19th century woman with few options outside the home. She died in 1932, in Maine, and her daughter donated land there to the Audubon Society, forming a wildlife sanctuary six miles east of Damariscotta. Her husband, who was frustrated in his attempts to view eclipses and tried to communicate with Mars, was institutionalized in 1922 and died in 1939. Both are buried in Wildwood Cemetery.

Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though different, were both extraordinary women who defied the conventions of their times. Their lives came together over poetry and their sensitive outlook, noticing beauty and the subtle details of life.

Amherst artist Victoria Dickson, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and Cynthia Harbeson, curator of special collections at the Jones Library, provided insights and information for this post.

Opportunities and challenges at the two elementary school building sites becoming clearer

By Sarah Marshall

At a virtual Community Forum held last night, hosted by the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design led the audience through major aspects of the work undertaken so far to generate a specific proposal for a new elementary school combining the Wildwood and Fort River schools.

This update from the architectural team and its consultants comes as the ESBC works to develop the “preferred option” for a school by June 27. The preferred option, which is yet to be decided, will specify the location of the school, whether an entirely new school will be built or a renovation and addition project undertaken, and whether a new school will be two or three stories.

After a quick review of the feedback received from educators and the public at a series of community outreach events, the DiNisco team summarized the subsurface challenges posed by each potential building site. The Fort River property, very close to the Fort River, is widely recognized as wet, with much of it within the flood plain or wetlands and therefore not buildable. At that site, the groundwater table is within one to four feet of the ground surface. Interestingly, the Wildwood School, while markedly uphill of the Fort River school, also has a high water table (two to five feet below ground surface). The buildable area at Wildwood is limited by the steep slopes to the north and east of the current school. Both sites have relatively impervious but squishy soils that will not support multistory construction without improvement.

Existing Fort River school, showing wet areas

The engineering consultants described the site conditions at Fort River as not unusual for the Pioneer Valley, and pointed to the Easthampton High School, constructed about eight years ago on similar soils. Some of the engineering measures used there – which might also be called for at Fort River or Wildwood – have performed well. Options include sinking deep columns of aggregate to stiffen the soil, or pre-loading the site to compress the soil before pouring a foundation. The soils underlying the flat area behind Wildwood – created by fill cut out of the front of the property – would also require modification in order to support a building. However, the best way to manage water at Fort River is to elevate the new building, parking, and play areas by adding a layer of earth throughout.

The developable area at the Fort River site is larger than at Wildwood, but Fort River includes several athletic fields, which Wildwood does not have. Nevertheless, each site can accommodate a new multistory building or an addition to a renovated existing school, as illustrated by several conceptual designs.

All designs address numerous objectives, such as grouping spaces that the community might use (on Election Day, for example, or for a School Committee meeting) together so that access to educational spaces can be restricted. Maximizing natural light, integrating special education, and grouping classrooms by grade with shared project space are additional design goals. And all designs must incorporate the spaces for each room and function already proposed to the funding authority.

Here is one of three concepts for a 3-story building, which could be sited at either location in an east-west orientation to maximize natural light indoors. Since students must remain in the existing school during construction of the new school, the new building must be located elsewhere on the property.

Conceptual design for a 3-story building at either site. Outlines of the current schools are shown in black

Options for a 2-story design were also presented. Necessarily, such a building has a larger footprint, takes up more of the site, and must be oriented to fit. Students need to walk farther, construction cost is likely more, but more roof would be available for photovoltaic panels.

A 2-story building must be fitted to each site, away from the current buildings.

Finally, an “add/reno” concept was shown. The current Fort River and Wildwood buildings are identical, with classrooms in quads along outside walls and a windowless library in the middle, so the design envisions removing the library to make a courtyard and allow more daylight into classrooms, and putting a two-story addition at one end. The addition would contain the cafetorium (combined cafeteria and auditorium, standard now in elementary schools) on the first floor with the gymnasium above it. The old gymnasium would become the library/media center.

The vertical black line in the left drawing separates the renovated existing space (left) from the 2-story addition.

None of these designs is “the” design – we are not choosing among them. They are possibilities that satisfy the requirements of the project and can be fitted to the two sites. Over the next several weeks, these three concepts (or variations thereof) will be submitted to cost estimators, along with some construction requirements pertaining to insulation, windows, etc. and the information about site conditions. Estimates for constructing such buildings at each of the two sites, so six options in all, will be generated. Using this and other information, for example about traffic impacts, the ESBC will then choose the site and basic construction option – new or add/reno, 2 or 3 stories. There will be another Community Forum, on June 9, before the preferred option is chosen.

Game on! The Amherst Invitational Ultimate tournament returns

By Nancy Gonter Weld

After a two-year hiatus, one of the nation’s oldest high school Ultimate tournaments will take place this coming weekend, May 7-8, with 26 teams competing at the MacDuffie School in Granby. And to kick it off, professional players from the women’s Premier Ultimate League teams Portland Rising and NY Gridlock will play, with Amherst girls also competing, on Friday at 7 p.m. at the ARHS field. The play all weekend should be outstanding!

Ultimate – the sport now played worldwide – has deep roots in Amherst. There is some debate about where it was first played. Some say it was in Amherst, but others say it was someone who went to college in Amherst and then played it in New Jersey. Amherst High School’s team was started around 1988. It expanded to two teams, then the middle school added a team. The girls’ team was started in about 1997.

The tournament, begun in 1992 by the legendary ARHS coach Tiina Booth, has been managed for the last 20-some years by Jim Pistrang. At the first Amherst Invitational Ultimate Frisbee tournament, teams from Bronx Science High School took first and second place. The next year, Amherst took second. In 1995, Amherst won the tournament. Girls were added to the tournament in 1997 and again Bronx Science won. In 1998, the Amherst girls won, the first of 10 in a row.

In this 29th year of the tournament, the Amherst Regional High School boys and girls both have big legacies to live up to. The girls’ team has won 18 times out of the 23 tournaments that had a girls’ division. The boys have won 15 out of 28 tournaments played. Both teams won in 2019.

Then came Covid and two years without a tournament. In 2020, the teams did not play at all. Last year, a minimal amount of competitive play occurred under altered rules to reduce Covid spread.

Dan Kaplan, the new coach of the girls’ varsity, calls this a rebuilding year. At Amherst Regional High School, a “rebuilding year” is one in which the team is ranked 9th in the country.

So when Kaplan, an experienced coach and player, looks at his team, he sees spirited, competitive young women with a lot of integrity but not as much experience as many of the past Amherst girls’ teams that played in the Amherst Invitational.

“We have a young team and some of them haven’t played competitively together in two years. It’s a big deal for them to have two years off,’’ Kaplan said. For the seniors on the team, their last Ultimate competition was on a junior varsity team.

Still, the pandemic gave them a different perspective on playing together.

“They are not only excited about playing together. They are supportive of each other,” he said. “They are very competitive, fierce competitors. They want to improve and they want to do well. They want to win. They want to be happy. They are really mature in terms of understanding how important it is to hold themselves as role models for other teams.”

Boys’ coach Joe Costello has a strong team. Three players from the team – junior Taylor Hanson, senior Geir Hartl, and senior Louis Douville-Beaudoin – tried out for the Under 20 Men’s team that will travel to Poland this summer to play teams from all over the world. Douville-Beaudoin was selected to play on the national team.

The boys’ team could have won a college tournament recently – the Northeast Classic in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — but opted not to play in the finals because they had already played eight games in a weekend and were dealing with some injuries. They beat teams from elite colleges such as Yale and Amherst College. The team is ranked 3rd in the country by Ultiworld, a website devoted to Ultimate Frisbee.

Photo by Phyllis Clapis

The 26 teams competing at the tournament on May 7-8 include all of the nationally ranked teams from Massachusetts. In past years, teams have come from around the country, but many programs are rebuilding.

Other top-ranked boys’ teams at the tournament from Massachusetts include Lexington High School at 14th and Four Rivers Charter School (Greenfield) ranked at 16th. On the girls’ side, the Four Rivers team is ranked at 7th.

Other local teams include Northfield Mount Hermon girls, Northampton High School boys and girls, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (Hadley), and Monument Mountain High School.

Amherst has two teams in the girls’ division, both its varsity and junior varsity. In the open division, there are four teams, varsity, junior varsity A, junior varsity B, and Amherst Middle School.

For the first time, the tournament is being played at MacDuffie School in Granby, mainly because of the condition of the fields at Amherst Regional and the heavy wear caused by playing so many games in one weekend.

Events start Friday at 7 p.m. with a demonstration game featuring professional women and non-binary players as well as players from the Amherst High girls’ team. This game will be played at the Amherst Regional High School field and will also feature ARHS alumnae who have gone on to play professional Ultimate. The public is welcome and there is no charge.

AI layout at the MacDuffie School

On Saturday and Sunday, games will begin at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. The finals on Sunday will start at 1 and 3 p.m. All games will take place at the MacDuffie School on Route 202 in Granby, a quick 10.5 miles from ARHS. Parking is on a grass lot off Route 202. The tournament is free of charge.

For those who aren’t familiar with the game, check out this short video now running on Amherst Media and this one made by player Ben Feeney. Points are scored by passing the disc down a football-sized field and into the other team’s end zone. It is not unusual to see a player leap into the air or dive to the ground to catch or block a disc. It is a hallmark of Ultimate that it is played without referees. Players themselves call the fouls and when there is disagreement, they work it out through discussion of the rules.

Come to the games, and/or follow the action on social media:

http://facebook.com/amherstinvitational 

amherstinvitational2022  on Instagram

@AmherstInvite22 on Twitter

Nancy Gonter Weld, who grew up in Amherst and graduated from ARHS in 1978, got involved with Ultimate Frisbee teams when her son Elliot (ARHS class of 2015) began to play the game at Hartsbrook School, approximately in 2008. Her daughter, Livvy Weld (class of 2016), began playing when she was at the Regional Middle School and was on the girls varsity team that won the tournament in 2015 and 2016. Livvy continued to play at Smith College, captaining the team for several years, until Covid put a hard cap on the team. Nancy’s children were coached by Dan Kaplan and Jim Pistrang, both of whom are still involved with the tournament.

We need neighborhood policy; Why I like Orchard Valley

By Bob Rakoff

Enough already with the downtown! And stop moaning about open space!

It’s time for some serious talk about our residential neighborhoods.

Sometimes it seems that the only topics that town officials, the media (including this august blog!), and local opinion leaders care about are the commercial revival of downtown and the protection of ever-more farmland and open space. Last fall, when the Amherst Bulletin cut back on home delivery, I was struck by the fact that all of the new pick-up sites were downtown. No drop-offs at Atkins, no village centers, no campus centers.

I do venture downtown for specific purposes, of course: to pick up a book at the Jones, to get my new glasses at Amherst Optical, to grab a slice at Antonio’s. I’ve even been around long enough to know where to park cheaply or for free.

The Orchard Valley neighborhood. Photo by Bob Rakoff

And yet most of us — especially in these plague years — spend more time in our residential neighborhoods than we do downtown. The town’s Master Plan pays obeisance to the importance of residential neighborhoods. Among the goals of the plan are preserving and enhancing the historical and cultural “character” of our neighborhoods, with special emphasis on supporting “cohesive” neighborhoods. Besides emphasizing the maintenance of neighborhood character, the plan also calls for encouraging the development of economically diverse neighborhoods along with village centers that are well connected to livable and diverse neighborhoods.

You don’t have to know much about zoning and land use to understand that these goals are both ambiguous and in conflict with each other. In most communities, “maintaining neighborhood character” is a euphemism for keeping out unwanted elements. These could be incompatible uses and structures like commercial buildings and operations, which are mostly banned in our residential zones. But in practice, unwanted elements also include unwanted people: renters, students, children, people who don’t look like existing residents, who work at different sorts of jobs or come from different socio-economic backgrounds. We shy away from defining neighborhood character because our definitions are not always pretty or politically acceptable. And we are reluctant to admit that by protecting neighborhood character, we are likely undermining the goal of creating diverse neighborhoods.

But Amherst does have neighborhoods that come close to the ideals of the Master Plan, neighborhoods that are diverse in terms of class, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, occupancy status (i.e. rent or own), and family status. Neighborhoods that are relatively affordable. I live in one of these neighborhoods, Orchard Valley, and I believe it is the best neighborhood in town.  I want to tell you a bit about my neighborhood and my neighbors, and then ask what the town is doing and should do to support this fine neighborhood and others like it.

Orchard Valley was built in the mid-1960s. It is typical of postwar suburban-style subdivisions, with its curving streets and cul-de-sacs, buried utilities, and a limited array of house types: 3 or 4 ranch-type houses, and a single, two-story colonial model. Houses are small by current standards, topping out at around 1,600 square feet. But the street view often hides the fact that long-term homeowners have improved and added on to their homes. Half-acre lots tend to blend together in joined back yards. Only a few streets have sidewalks; kids play in the streets. There are many street-side basketball hoops, but no public facilities except for the recently restored Markert’s Pond. The emerging village center at Pomeroy Lane is a healthy walk away along busy Route 116.

Photo by Bob Rakoff

From the beginning, the neighborhood has attracted a diverse group of owners. Both staff and faculty from the university and colleges, along with school teachers, nurses, small-business owners, tradespeople, writers, psychologists and other professionals who live side by side. On my little street alone (which my grandchildren affectionately call Tracy Semicircle) we have racially diverse neighbors from all walks of life and from all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Japan, Canada, the Philippines, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Israel, as well as native-born Americans of European, African, and Hispanic descent. Some households are multi-generational, and some families have occupied their houses continuously from the beginning of the development. Yet these relatively affordable houses do come on the market and sell quickly. In recent years, many new, young families have moved in, attracted by a lively neighborhood culture, the renewing presence of children (and babysitters!), a fine local school, and the fact that the neighborhood reflects the incredible diversity of the town.

The neighborhood has also attracted some absentee owners, who are able to price other buyers out of the market and pack many student renters into these relatively snug dwellings. We have not had the big problems of other parts of town, but this is a worrisome development that current town programs have not been able to address.

Photo by Bob Rakoff

What makes Orchard Valley a thriving, cohesive neighborhood is the sense of a shared life that many of us experience. Successive generations have created a common life defined by the activities of daily and seasonal life: child-rearing, biking, hoops, shared tools and projects. This is a neighborhood of all-season walkers, so we know the names and habits of the neighborhood dogs, cats and kids. People look out for each other. New households and families are quickly assimilated into neighborhood routines.

So, here’s a desirable neighborhood that comes close to meeting the goals of our Master Plan. What should the Town be doing to preserve and enhance the character of this neighborhood? Do we need new public facilities like a playground or more sidewalks? Do we need new Town services like sidewalk plowing in this walk-crazy neighborhood, or a town fund to purchase houses for resale to owner-occupants, keeping them out of the hands of absentee landlords? How about revival of the PVTA bus route that serviced the neighborhood and reduced our dependence on cars?

Pomeroy St./Rt. 116 intersection

The point here is that town decision-makers need to go beyond the rhetoric of “neighborhood character” to fashion programs that actually support and enhance neighborhoods like mine, neighborhoods that come close to the goals of cohesion and diversity of class and race. Does your neighborhood reflect those goals (looking at you, Amherst Woods)? What would help make it so? Let us know.

Live-music site opens this week

By Nick Grabbe

The Drake, the music and performance space making its debut this week, received 2,000 entries in a lottery for 200 tickets to one of its first shows.

Organizers of The Drake predict an enormous benefit to downtown businesses from customers coming to Amherst for the music (see the end of this post for changes in restaurants and other businesses).

And The Drake will host numerous free concerts, open mic nights, a variety of musical styles, and monthly fundraisers for local charitable organizations.

It’s the biggest splash on the downtown scene since the rebirth 16 years ago of the Amherst Cinema, a community effort led by Meg Gage and Barry Roberts. For The Drake, Roberts has teamed up with Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Business Improvement District (BID), and architect John Kuhn.

Gabrielle Gould and Barry Roberts in front of the graffiti that inspired The Drake’s name.

Located at 44 North Pleasant St., the rebuilt site of High Horse, The Drake will have a “soft opening” this Tuesday with a free jazz concert at 7:30. Here’s a link to The Drake’s scheduled performances.

When the BID was forming 10 years ago, community outreach revealed that many people wanted a downtown music venue, Roberts told me in an email. They said they’d like to stay on this side of the river and enjoy entertainment if it were available.

“We understood that if they were to stay here that they would spend money on food and drinks as well,” Roberts said. “After the BID was formed, we always kept this in mind as something that was missing in our downtown. I think this is one of the many things going on in the downtown that will be a real game changer to make our downtown more vibrant.”

The Drake’s web site has posted videos of musicians performing there during the construction.

Big names. The first major concert at The Drake will be this Wednesday, when Dinosaur Jr. performs. The rock/punk group, formed in Amherst in 1985, has produced 13 albums and is “one of the formative influences on American alternative rock,” according to Wikipedia.

Dinosaur Jr., an influential rock band that started out in Amherst, will be at The Drake this Wednesday.

Founder J Mascis will perform in his home town. The appearance has merited a mention in the popular online magazine Brooklyn Vegan, and Gould anticipates a blurb in Rolling Stone. “This tiny venue is getting exciting national press,” she said. But don’t try to get in; this is the concert that necessitated a lottery for the privilege of buying $40 tickets.

Other big names coming to The Drake during the opening week will be jazz violinist Regina Carter this Thursday and singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright III on Saturday.

Economic driver. Many people who come to shows at The Drake will also patronize restaurants, bookstores and other businesses, Gould said. The majority of people coming to the music series on the town common last summer got takeout from an Amherst restaurant.

“This town has a lot more to offer than just the Five Colleges,” Gould said. “These concerts are things that will bring people to Amherst. We want people to come here for the leaves and stay for the music.”

With The Drake opening, work on an enhanced North Common starting this summer, and ultimately a renovated and expanded Jones Library, pressure on downtown parking is likely to increase. Gould said she’d like the Town Council to issue a request for proposals for a new parking garage in the town-owned lot between CVS and North Prospect Street, now that it has made the zoning appropriate.

Free/charitable events. Tuesday’s free concert, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop with sax player Gary Smulyan, will include an open jam session afterwards. On May 9, the Amherst College Music Department will present chamber music from 5 to 7 p.m. and jazz from 8 to 10, also for free, and on May 18, ARHS students will perform jazz. On June 5, pianist Jee Won Park and cellist Eddie Aaron will give a free concert. On the second Tuesday of each month, there will be an open mike night.

On May 24, The Drake will hold the first of its monthly “FEED BACK LIVE” nights, raising money for the Amherst Survival Center. Tickets are $35 and include a dinner catered by a local restaurant (Mexcalito on May 24, music by the No-Nos). Future beneficiaries include the Mobile Food Market, Not Bread Alone and the Food Bank of Western Mass.

Architect John Kuhn said it has always confounded him that Amherst has never had a live-music venue, and has ceded that role to Northampton for many years.

“This is about to change with the opening of The Drake, and it’s about time,” Kuhn said. “The energy and excitement behind this venture is palpable, and is finally a project that has universal support and little, if any, controversy, so rare for this town. We hope to be a venue for all ages and all musical tastes. We are opening at the tail end of a pandemic, at a time when people are clamoring to attend live shows again.”

Gould outlined some other changes in restaurants and other downtown businesses:

  • The Humble Peach, a vegan bakery, will open at the former Henion’s space in about a month;
  • Coronation Cafe, a breakfast-and-lunch place, is due to open at the former Bart’s location;
  • The Amherst Oyster Bar will take over the spot formerly occupied by Judie’s;
  • Ricelicious has opened on Boltwood Walk, and a “speakeasy” called Archive is due to open at the former Pruddy’s/Twisters site near Sweetser Park;
  • Gould is seeking a meat and fish market and an Irish pub for the first floor under The Drake;
  • A major brewery located next to Miss Saigon will be announced this Saturday;
  • La Veracruzana has added Hawaiian food called “poke” (POH-kay) in back;
  • Amethyst Jewelry has opened next to Art of Intimates on Main Street;
  • Archipelago has bought the former Pub, with its future use uncertain, and the housing development on Spring Street is due to be ready by the fall;
  • With The Pub, Rafters and Charlie’s gone, The Spoke has doubled its space;
  • A restaurant called Protocol is due to open at 1 East Pleasant;
  • A Chinese restaurant is due to go in the Lone Wolf spot;
  • Here’s a link to a post from last September about downtown business changes.

UMass Amherst announces plan to be carbon-neutral by 2032

By Sarah Marshall

Today, on the 53rd Earth Day, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced the campus’s commitment to becoming a carbon-neutral campus, using only 100% renewable energy, in approximately 10 years. Describing himself as an eternal optimist, the Chancellor said he is convinced that the University can take meaningful steps to help prevent a climate crisis.

The flagship campus is not only the largest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Amherst, but the largest contributor of any public entity in the Commonwealth, accounting for about 20% of GHG emissions from public facilities.

The Chancellor and others described the University’s action this morning in the Student Center Ballroom. The program, called UMass Carbon Zero, has been in development for two years and was driven by student demand. Carbon Zero builds on earlier University accomplishments in green energy and sustainability, as well as its considerable academic, engineering, and policy expertise. Three UMass buildings, for example, already use geothermal systems for heating and cooling, including the police station on East Pleasant Street and Crotty Hall on North Pleasant Street. This blog has previously reported on the solar canopies at several UMass parking lots.

The two largest components of the plan to eliminate GHG are (1) replacing the steam-based heating system, which uses fossil fuels, with a low-temperature hot water system powered by green energy produced on campus or purchased, and (2) using geothermal heat storage and extraction – at 500 to 800 feet below ground – to prevent energy losses. Other components include increasing the energy efficiency of the campus’s 300 or so buildings, improving the campus’s ability to track energy use, and expanding solar generation.

Crotty Hall uses a geothermal system.

A pilot project will undertake these infrastructure changes in a collection of 40 buildings at the southwestern part of campus to demonstrate proof of concept and refine plans for converting the remaining buildings to these new systems in several waves of construction and renovation. This is a task of enormous complexity and cost.

Benefits are expected to be significant, not only in decreased energy use and operational costs and increased thermal comfort. The changes will also position the University at the forefront of efforts to meet the Commonwealth’s climate change goals and serve as an inspiration and source of experience, research, and graduates who can fan out to other sectors of society and drive change. The University aims to lead by example.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

I asked Chancellor Subbaswamy what this announcement means for Amherst, and he stated that not only will UMass’s plan have a huge impact on GHG emissions in town, but its efforts can inspire and instruct other local institutions, in part by announcing a target date for carbon neutrality. However, as a very large, public institution, UMass will need to secure funding from a range of sources that perhaps colleges with deeper pockets do not require.

The Carbon Zero project includes not only a physical transformation of campus but engagement across campus, involving students, staff, and faculty, in an interdisciplinary program called the Living Lab. Envisioned as distinguishing UMass among other universities also aiming for sustainability, the Living Lab intends to develop internships, training opportunities, new courses, and outreach activities to promote climate change mitigation.

UMass already offers more than 500 courses pertaining to sustainability, and aims to involve all departments, from Fine Arts to Public Health and Social Sciences to campus operations. A major goal is to develop a “carbon-literate” work force that will be the next generation of scientists and policy makers.

It is my hope that, as Carbon Zero gets underway at UMass, our own Town-sponsored efforts to mitigate GHG emissions can benefit from the expertise and experience located just up the street.

Community responder director has already had ‘huge impact’

By Nick Grabbe

Two weeks into his job as director of the new community responder program, Earl Miller learned that his sister had died suddenly.

The programs and interventions he plans to create in Amherst could have had an impact on her life if she had had access to them, Miller told me. “The best way to pay tribute to her is to do a good job here,” he said.

Miller received support from Fire Chief Tim Nelson and others as he dealt with his family crisis. Now, after a month in Amherst, he’s working on ways to help others who are experiencing difficulties in their lives, in situations that have previously been handled by the police.

His ground-breaking program, called Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service or CRESS, has been endorsed by the Town Council, Town Manager Paul Bockelman and other leaders of Amherst’s government. At the same time, the program faces some challenges as it seeks to become what Bockelman calls “a third leg of public safety” along with the Police and Fire Departments.

Earl Miller is the first director of CRESS, Amherst’s new community responder program.

“Mr. Miller knows our regional community and has lived through many experiences. He knows first hand what it takes to help and be helped,” Bockelman wrote to the Town Council. “Mr. Miller has written about racism and the movement to undo psychiatric oppression.”

CRESS will respond to nonviolent calls with an emphasis on approaching community members through an anti-racist and behavioral health lens, according to Miller’s job description. It’s estimated that a third of the calls that police have responded to could be handled by the unarmed CRESS responders.

“They will respond to situations that don’t involve violence or serious criminal activity such as minor disputes and disturbances, loitering, mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespass, truancy, wellness checks, youth and schools,” his job description reads.

CRESS was one of the recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group, which was formed two years ago, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Miller said he watched all of the working group’s meetings.

He will be hiring an assistant and eight responders, who will undergo training in de-escalation of conflict, mediation, and CPR. They will then work in shifts 24/7, except for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 to 9 a.m. He said he hopes to have the program staffed by mid-June.

Miller, 35, is a native of Holyoke and currently lives in Agawam. He previously worked for the Department of Mental Health and the Center for Human Development in Springfield. He has two daughters, 11 and 14, and the younger one already loves Antonio’s and will be in the Adventures camp here this summer.

“He’s had a huge impact already,” Bockelman said.

Kinsey Memorial Garden at the Jones Library

For example, he met with Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, who sometimes has to deal with people who cause disturbances. Miller asked when these disturbances most often occur so that the responders can walk through the library at those times. He spoke of writing a grant to hire a social worker for the library, helping to staff the future teen room, and arranging for a mobile health clinic, Sharry said.

“He also talked about restorative justice,” she wrote in an email to me. “I explained that our dream is to never have to trespass anyone ever again; those are the people that need us the most. He agrees, but also said there does need to be a line; if someone hits someone else, that calls for a one year time out.”

Miller has also spent some time in the high school, where a series of fights in hallways and bathrooms recently prompted five parents to ask the Police Department for help. He met with Principal Talib Sadiq and spoke at an assembly, and also spent time at the middle school. “I want to provide a model for kids when conflict happens,” he said. He shook every hand in one lunchroom.

He has also met with Police Chief Scott Livingstone, who has pledged to work collaboratively with CRESS. “The Police Department is committed to making this as good as it can be,” Miller said. “Folks over there want to be part of the solution.”

One of the challenges CRESS will face is developing clear guidelines for the dispatchers who answer calls for help and will have to decide whether to send a police officer or a community responder. In some cases, the response will be clear, but there will be “a ton of gray area,” Bockelman said. Domestic disturbances might seem to be CRESS’s turf, but they can be dangerous even for police, and the responders need to feel safe, he said.

Dispatchers will need clarity on whether to route calls to the Police Department or to CRESS.

Another challenge will be operating an entirely new program with few models or clear ways to measure success. Miller, who will be based in the Bangs Center, must cooperate with the Police Department but also answer to the working group, which wanted more funding and coverage for CRESS.

Miller was asked if CRESS is “set up to fail.” “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought that,” he said. “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

If CRESS is to become a long-term alternative to the police, a year from now there will be a funding challenge. The current $936,000 budget includes only $130,000 of town money, with the rest coming from the state and federal governments, money that’s unlikely to be available again. This is not a “defund the police” program, and Bockelman said he expects no decline in demand for the Police Department’s services.

The debate over continued or expanded funding for CRESS could be happening at the same time as a vote on raising taxes to help finance construction of a new elementary school. Major financial commitments to a new fire station and public works headquarters are also on the horizon.

Amherst Regional High School

“There will be difficult conversations ahead, but we’re all in this together,” Miller said.

He received a warm reception from 40 people as Bockelman introduced him at a public get-together at the Bangs Center Friday. “The reason I took this job is I saw the work you put in and I agreed with the mission because it was meaningful to me,” Miller said.

Student housing and behavior: assessing problems and solutions

By Nick Grabbe and George Ryan

The presence of the University of Massachusetts is a net plus for Amherst.

Yes, we receive inadequate state support for the financial cost of being UMass’s host community, and yes, long-term residents and students sometimes come into conflict. We live here because of the cultural opportunities, economic stability, international flavor, and progressive politics that come with a university town.

But we have some housing problems. Neither UMass nor the Town of Amherst has built enough housing to satisfy the demand, and Town Hall’s ability to monitor student houses and identify problems with them has been insufficient.

Some graduate students arriving in mid-August found that lots of other students were seeking to rent the same off-campus room or apartment. And the tight real estate market has pushed the average sale price of a single-family house in Amherst past $500,000 over the past year, making home ownership unaffordable for young families and those with moderate incomes. (See “Recent House Sales” on this blog.)

Some investors have bought houses and rent them to groups of students, because you can get as much as twice the rent from them as opposed to families. Many of these student tenants are experiencing their first taste of freedom and haven’t yet learned how to be good neighbors. Many students maintain different hours and have different habits than long-term residents.

And with warmer weather, mid-April to mid-May in Amherst has been the peak season for complaints about student behavior.

Many of the houses on South Whitney Street are now occupied by students. Photo credit: Sarah Marshall

But newspaper stories about student misbehavior have exaggerated the problem, and in recent years complaints to the police have actually declined. Three bars have closed down. Most students are well behaved, and many landlords are careful who they rent to and take good care of their rental properties. Both groups are tarred by the stereotypes of the out-of-control student and the greedy landlord.

The Town Council is trying to address some of the problems with student housing by updating a 2014 bylaw that requires off-campus landlords to register their properties. The current system has flaws: some landlords disregard the bylaw, rentals are inspected only after complaints, and it doesn’t distinguish between different types of housing.

This post seeks to define the problems that some residents see with student housing and to outline solutions that have been proposed.

Some people say that UMass should house more undergraduates on campus. In fact, it houses about 60 percent of them on campus, a higher rate than other state universities. And most students living in owner-occupied or professionally managed off-campus housing do not cause problems for neighbors. The bulk of the complaints involve students living in houses owned by absentee landlords.

This screen shot from the Town’s website shows a street where many of the houses are rentals.

As we outline the problems and potential solutions, feel free to describe others in the Comments section. How can we meet the need for student housing without compromising the character of long-term residential neighborhoods?

What’s the problem?

Noise. The Amherst Police Department and UMass officials have worked together for many years to address this annoyance, and deserve a lot of credit. The imposition of $300 fines for problem houses has deterred misbehavior. Bars have closed and pot shops have opened. But that doesn’t help residents who are awakened by a party at a student house, and the options for dealing with loud, late-night pedestrians are limited. Student riots and mass gatherings downtown, once a major problem in Amherst, are less common now.

High rents. Demand for rental housing is far outpacing the supply, allowing landlords to increase rents. Higher rents incentivize the conversion of single-family homes to student rentals. Monthly rentals for one-bedroom apartments at 1 East Pleasant and North Square are $1,950 to $2,000.

Visuals. Some permanent Amherst residents are bothered by seeing multiple cars parked on lawns, beer cans and pizza boxes strewn about, trash overflowing the bins and young people playing beer pong. The outward appearance of student houses doesn’t seem to be as big a problem as it used to be.

Lack of housing diversity. Many Amherst residents think more housing should be built for lower-income and elderly people. But to achieve this, a developer has to see a market for such housing and own land with the appropriate zoning, or the Town has to spend a lot of money to build and manage it. The new transitional housing being built on Northampton Road is an exception and a step forward.

Health codes and fire safety. Without regular inspections, it’s hard for Town government to identify houses with substandard conditions or smoke detectors that have been disconnected.

Diminished property values. With the sale prices of houses exploding, this may be more a perception than a problem. But a family who wants to sell and is surrounded by student houses won’t get nearly as much from another family as they would from an investor who plans to be a landlord.

Traffic and parking. More students means more cars on the road and more competition for parking spaces, at least for nine months a year.

What’s the solution?

Here are some proposals that have been made for dealing with these problems, here and in other college towns.

Higher landlord registration fees. They are a flat $100 a year, no matter whether you supervise one rental or 100. Higher fees may seem an obvious solution, but they could cause more landlords to ignore the bylaw. A Town Council subcommittee’s proposal would increase the annual fee to $250 for non-owner-occupied rental housing (and a $150 inspection fee), and it is scheduled to go before the Finance Committee this Tuesday.

Regular inspections. This also seems an obvious solution, but it would require spending more public money on inspectors. Could that money come from higher registration fees? In Bethlehem, Pa., Lehigh University shares the cost of salaries for code enforcers. Could UMass be persuaded to do the same?

Stiff penalties for non-compliance. Landlords might be more likely to register their properties if they knew that they could face hefty fines if police respond to a noise complaint and find the house to be unregistered. It could be like getting caught driving an unregistered car.

Licenses. We could require landlords to apply for licenses that could be suspended or revoked after a certain amount of code violations or student misbehavior. Some towns in Minnesota have limited the total number of rental licenses in certain neighborhoods in order to encourage home ownership and to restrict investor-owned rentals.

Tighter occupancy limits. Amherst has a limit of four unrelated people living in a house, but this bylaw is widely ignored and rarely enforced. A proposal to lower the limit to three could run afoul of laws banning discrimination based on family status, and could bring a legal challenge. A former town attorney declared our unrelated-housemates bylaw legally questionable.

Minimum distances between houses. Student houses in Reading, Pa. cannot be located within 500 feet of each other, and State College, Pa. has limits of 675 and 720 feet, depending on the zone. The goal would be to avoid “tipping points” in neighborhoods where most houses are student-occupied.

Neighborhood overlay zoning. This would define the physical characteristics of a district surrounding UMass, covering such things as height and density. San Diego has an overlay district that requires family housing to be compatible with surrounding lower-density, single-family development. This might encourage development of larger apartment buildings on major roads, such as the Archipelago buildings on the northern end of downtown.

Construction has started on a new apartment building next to 1 East Pleasant. Photo credit: Sarah Marshall

Town Hall as real estate broker. When a house that could become a student rental comes on the market, the Town of Amherst could outbid speculators and then resell it to new families or moderate-income residents. But this would require a lot of public spending and supervision.

Build more housing. If we are serious about responding to the intense demand pressures, we could increase the supply of housing overall, particularly in that sector of the market that is the main driver – housing aimed at students. We have made substantial progress in the past few years. Continued new construction in the downtown and in village centers, in accordance with the master plan, will be a key element in any serious attempt to address the housing shortage, and rental conversions.

Get the University to do more. UMass already does a lot and it is probably not going to increase its debt load and build more on-campus housing. But it might be open to a public/private partnership along the lines of what is being built at the corner of Massachusetts and Lincoln Avenues. Such a proposal would require the help of our state representatives. It would help the Town by decreasing the demand pressure by providing badly needed student housing located not in or next to a residential neighborhood, and it would help the University house more students closer to campus without increasing its debt load. The challenge for the Town would be to get such a deal structured so that it includes tax revenue for the Town. The current project on Massachusetts and Lincoln does not do that.

Some of the information in the “Solutions” part of this post is based on research done by Karen Black, CEO of May 8 Consulting, a social impact consulting firm in Philadelphia.

Aging and dementia: Looking at Amherst through a different lens

By Sarah Marshall

I bet you know someone with dementia. I know several people with dementia, Alzheimer’s in many cases, and it is painful to see these wonderful people fade, cognitively. And I have a sense of the emotional, physical, and financial tolls these diseases inflict on family members.

If you don’t know someone with dementia, I bet you know someone who, due to advancing age, is having more difficulty with mobility, vision, or hearing. That person might even be you! Few of us will be fortunate enough to age without experiencing these limitations directly.

Photo by Eduardo Barrios on Unsplash

How well do you think Amherst’s infrastructure and programs serve residents with impairments due to aging or dementia? Is Amherst “friendly” to these sectors of our community? Will you be able to continue your daily activities if you join these fellow residents in disability? Is your current home a good option for “aging in place?” Can you continue to live independently? Will you want different services from the Town?

These are some of the issues being explored by the Age and Dementia Friendly Community Project. A working group, led by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), has been meeting monthly since January. The three main phases of work are to gather information about how friendly Amherst is to people with disabilities of aging or dementia, to devise an action plan for making us friendlier, and to make and monitor our progress. The goal is to produce an Action Plan for the town by the end of December.

During the first phase, the working group is conducting numerous outreach efforts to residents of any age, but particularly those at least 55 years old, via an on-line survey, paper questionnaire, and in-person assistance with the survey. The goal is to hear from a diverse set of residents. Thus, the group will reach out to people at apartment complexes, the Senior Center, the Survival Center, the libraries, congregate meal sites, churches, the farmers’ market, community events, and other locations. Questionnaires have been printed in Spanish and Portuguese, and volunteer translators for other languages are sought.

If you haven’t yet taken the survey (it took me eight minutes to complete), you can do so here, before the end of April. Links to the survey in languages other than English are here. Hard copies are available at the Bangs Center and the Jones Library.

Why become an Age and Dementia Friendly Community now, you may wonder, Is there some urgency? Approximately 10% of Amherst residents are at least 60 years old. About 30% of Amherst residents over 65 live alone, and about 12% of residents over 65 suffer from dementia of some kind. Nationally, the population of people who are at least 65 years old is expected to exceed the 18-or-under population by 2035. The presence of the university and colleges, and related factors, may accelerate this trend in Amherst. Many older residents would like to continue to live in Amherst, if that is feasible.

What makes a town friendly (or not) to people with dementia or disabilities of advancing age? This slide, from a presentation by Becky Basch of the PVPC, gives a broad answer:

But, to be more specific, an age-friendly community must address inclusivity and accessibility in many aspects of public and private life, such as:

  • Housing – e.g., availability of smaller, one-level units, local long-term-care options, safe neighborhoods;
  • Transportation – e.g., public and private, by several modes including walking, signals that give adequate time to slower walkers to cross streets, and loud signals for the hard of hearing;
  • Outdoor spaces and buildings – e.g., accessible, signage visible to the vision impaired;
  • Communication, information and technology – e.g., are appropriate means used and available to people with a range of skills;
  • Access, equity, and inclusion – e.g., local workers trained to work with impaired customers, support groups;
  • Civic participation and employment;
  • Public safety – e.g., personnel who know where residents with dementia live and how to respond to them; and
  • Services – e.g., health, community, business.

After the survey concludes, the working group will schedule monthly public meetings to get ideas and feedback on these topics. The first is likely to be held in May; in-person and virtual modes are under consideration.

Other Pioneer Valley communities participating in this Age and Dementia Friendly Community initiative include Belchertown, Hadley, South Hadley and Northampton, all at different stages of the process. You can read Northampton’s draft community assessment and action plan, which identifies assets, challenges and recommendations, here, and South Hadley’s here.

As the dates for public discussions of the topics listed above are announced, we will post them on our “On our radar” page.

Amherst’s new live performance venue, the Drake, opens April 28

By Sarah Marshall

In case you missed it – the Drake announced that its grand opening will be Thursday, April 28. Celebrated jazz violinist Regina Carter will kick off the first series with performances at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. The following evening, Israeli artist Gili Yalo will combine Ethiopian, soul, funk psychedelic, and jazz styles, also in two shows. On Saturday, April 30, famed signer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III headlines. Fever-pop duo Home Body and Nova One will electrify the room on Sunday, May 1. Tickets available at www.thedrakeamherst.org.

Courtesy the Drake

On Tuesday, April 26, the Northampton Jazz Workshop will feature Gary Smulyan with the Green Street Trio at the Drake’s soft opening, a free event. The Jazz Workshop will be at the Drake every first and third Tuesday of the month, featuring a guest artist and an open jam session.

Located on the second floor of the Amherst Bank Building at 44 N Pleasant (formerly home to the High Horse), the Drake’s space has been completely transformed with state-of-the-art lighting and audio installed by Klondike Sound, and a Steinway Grand piano courtesy of Amherst College. The venue is open to all ages. For 21+ patrons there is a full service bar featuring craft cocktails, wine and beer. The venue will feature both seated and dance floor configurations and will be available to rent for private events.

Courtesy the Drake

The Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is the driving force behind this venture, whose mission is to bring arts and culture to Downtown Amherst. The Drake will present nightly entertainment from nationally and internationally recognized performers under the purview of Laudable Productions, known for presenting successful music festivals, concerts, and other cultural events across the Pioneer Valley.

Envisioned as a true community based venture, The DAF is collaborating with the Art and Music departments of Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Amherst-Pelham Regional High School to offer students, faculty, and alumni musicians the opportunity to perform live in an intimate space. Once a month, proceeds from the new “FEED BACK LIVE” series will be donated to a local nonprofit. Many community and education forward series will be announced soon.

Founded on a vision of diversity and inclusivity for both performers and audience, and adopting its name from the original Drake, a storied Amherst bar which closed in 1985, the Drake will welcome local residents of all ages and attract visitors coming to hear top talent in an intimate and familiar space.

Net-zero energy schools are old news in Kentucky

By Sara Ross

Hello reader,

I’m writing to you as a parent of kids in the Amherst schools, a “townie” who returned (proud member of the class of 1993), an inhabitant of a net-zero home for the past decade, and as someone whose day job is to make change so that the transformational power of our public schools is fully activated in our race to address the climate emergency.

I’m not an engineer or an architect; but I have spent countless hours learning from the best in those professions as they work to make schools safer, healthier places for kids today and in the future. In a skate-to-where-the-puck-is-going-to-be way, that means ensuring that schools are equipped to pursue their core mission – to educate our children – on a planet characterized by rapidly changing climate. This affects the buildings and grounds where they learn, the buses they ride, the food they eat, and the learning agenda.

King Open in Cambridge, Mass is a net-zero school. Photo credit: Sara Ross

Given that background, it may not surprise you to hear that I have been excited to participate in and support the important work of our Elementary School Building Committee and the Net-Zero Subcommittee (as a resident, not a member).

My goal is to translate the jargon, share with you some of what I’ve learned from working on these issues with leaders from across the country, and to infect you with the same confidence and excitement I have for this project!

Here goes.

What is a net-zero energy building?

Simply put, it is a building that produces at least as much renewable (clean!) energy as it consumes on-site.

Net-zero buildings of all types are cropping up across the country, but schools lead the way as the most prolific among the building types achieving net-zero status. The first net-zero energy school was built over a decade ago in Kentucky.

How do you make a net-zero energy building?

There is no magic here, but there are a few core elements that are important to get right. Put simply, the formula is:

Step 1. Put the building in the right place. 

Step 2. Design a simple form and build it well. 

Step 3. Reduce the amount of the energy needed to operate the building and make sure it runs on electricity alone (no more burning fossil fuels!). 

Step 4. Engage the occupants on how to be energy-smart.

At this point, you can calculate how much energy the building requires. The standard way to measure this is energy use intensity (EUI). If you are new to EUI, you are not alone! Just think of it as the building equivalent of miles per gallon (except in the case of EUI, lower is better).

Energy use intensity is expressed as how many units of energy (kBtu) are needed to operate the building for a year. In order to compare buildings of different sizes, we normalize the measure by the square footage of the building. A typical school building in Massachusetts uses around 60 kBtu per square foot of building space per year. Our target for the new elementary school is to do steps 1-4 so well that we only use 25 kBtu per square foot of building space per year.

And that leads us to . . .

Step 5. Install enough solar energy on the site (most cost-effectively done on the roof) to meet the energy bill that remains after we’ve done our very best on the earlier steps.

Et voilà!

An EUI of 25 is a good goal. Other schools in Massachusetts have achieved this target. It’s also the target that our utility, Eversource, requires us to achieve in order to earn their financial support through the MassSave program.

Why are net-zero buildings important?

First, they are budget-friendly. Net-zero buildings cost less to operate and protect our budgets from the wild swings in the price of heating oil or natural gas that have been a financial hardship for many families this winter. Second, net-zero buildings are a joy to inhabit. They are full of natural light. They are devoid of the hot and cold zones that characterize many old, leaky buildings. They are mechanically ventilated to ensure a consistent supply of fresh air. With well-insulated walls and high-performance windows, they are delightfully quiet. Lastly, with buildings responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the Commonwealth, net-zero buildings are an important part of achieving our town, state and national climate goals, all of which target a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050.

Net zero schools enjoy all those benefits and more. In fact, our non-profit joined with other national leaders in making the case that schools are, in fact, the most important buildings to make net-zero

In the world of schools, net-zero energy is not a new concept, and has been widely embraced across the country and political spectrum. With evidence that net-zero schools do not necessarily cost more to build than conventional schools, the only thing standing in the way of all new schools being net-zero is awareness and a very human desire to keep doing things the way we have always done them.  

There is no doubt in my mind that Amherst can build a net-zero energy school that reduces the cost of operating our school buildings, creates a healthy and safe place for generations of Amherst’s young people to learn, and does our part to address the climate crisis. Don’t believe me? Just ask the residents of Bowling Green in Kentucky. 

‘Tis the season — for potholes

By Nick Grabbe

So you’re driving down Leverett Road, approaching Cushman, when – BUMPITY-BUMPITY-BUMP – you hit the brakes to avoid putting your car’s suspension at risk.

Or you’re tooling along College Street and – KA-CHUNG! – one of your tires descends into a big hole in the pavement.

It’s pothole season. There’s been a “bumper crop” this year, says Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring. “Everything just exploded in mid-February.”

As annoying as potholes are for drivers, they’re just as irksome for the DPW. Crews often fill potholes only to see them reemerge after a rain, and DPW staffers field angry calls from drivers who want immediate action.

Here’s a list of the Top Ten Things To Know About Potholes, according to Mooring.

  1. They’re a problem all over the state. By one estimate, Massachusetts ranks fourth in the U.S. in pothole complaints per mile of road. Potholes occur when ice melts, causing the pavement to contract, which leads to gaps that trap water. The cycle of freezing and thawing weakens the road surface.
  2. Road salt makes the problem worse. It keeps water from freezing and makes it easier to get into cracks. It isn’t good for trees, water supplies or car bodies, either. “People expect to have black pavement when the snow stops,” Mooring says. “Maybe we need to wait 12 hours and let the pavement melt on its own.”
  3. You can report potholes. Go to the “See, Click, Fix” feature on amherstma.gov or call Public Works at 259-3050. You can talk to a staffer, and if you’re particularly insistent, she can refer you to Mooring. The DPW sends out at least two crews a day to fill potholes, but it’s strenuous work, and after a while they have to return to headquarters for more asphalt.
  4. There’s a funding squeeze. The pothole budget is about half what it used to be, and the price of asphalt and gasoline has risen. Asphalt was $45 a ton when Mooring became DPW superintendent 20 years ago, and now it’s $95. Sometimes the DPW has to take money from other budgets to fill the gap.
  5. You can file a claim for damages. Say you blow a tire driving over a pothole. You can seek compensation from the Town’s insurance provider. But this typically works only when someone has reported the pothole and it hasn’t been fixed in a reasonable time. There have been about 10 such claims so far this year.
  6. It’s another impact of climate change. Snow doesn’t cause potholes; this year there’s been half the usual amount. It’s the increased freezing and thawing that causes problems. This week, with very cold nights followed by 60-degree temperatures and rain today, the weather has been perfect for pothole formation.
  7. The solution is to repave the roads. The DPW is spending about $2 million this year to repave and reconstruct roads. This amount has been increasing, but there’s still a backlog of roadwork that Mooring estimates will cost about $20 million. Amherst has been underfunding roadwork for many years.
  8. Several roads are due for fixing. Bids have gone out for work on the east side of Bay Road, Leverett Road, Meadow Street, Russellville Road, a section of Pulpit Hill Road, Harris Mountain Road, and part of Kellogg Avenue. The bids from private companies will determine how much actually gets done this year.
  9. Electric cars get a free ride. A lot of the money to repair roads comes from the gasoline tax, which drivers of electric cars don’t pay. Mooring calls them “freeloaders.” This is a national problem and the gas tax and road repair formulas need to change, he says.
  10. They bring costs, and risks. Driving over a pothole can cause you to wreck a tire and put stress on your suspension. And who hasn’t seen a driver swerve to avoid a pothole, creating a hazard for all vehicles in the vicinity.

Mooring had some other interesting news:

Guilford Mooring, Amherst’s DPW superintendent
  • Town officials are close to a deal on a site for a new $20 million DPW facility. It will involve paying a lot of money to a private landowner after neighbors objected to a site offered for free by Amherst College.
  • There’s been a lot of coughing and sneezing in the current building, which was built in 1919. There are leaks in the roof and one wall is covered with mold. “I feel like I’m a sinking ship,” Mooring said.
  • The town manager is expected to make a decision next week about whether to take down a silver maple tree on the corner of Sunset Avenue and Fearing Street. It’s in the way of a housing development but some neighbors want it to stay.
  • The state roadwork on Northampton Road will involve putting in a new water line that will improve the quality of water in the Dana Street/Blue Hills Road area, which can get stagnant and discolored in the summer.
  • With the sole trash hauler raising its pickup rates, about 50 additional households have canceled service and bought stickers to gain access to the transfer station/recycling center. About 1,300 people now buy these stickers.

Remembering Baer Tierkel

Editors’ Note: The Amherst Current invited readers to share their thoughts and feelings about Baer Tierkel, who died last Thursday at age 61. He lived in Amherst from 2003 to 2019. A brief report on the ceremony at Wildwood Cemetery on April 12 appears in the Comments section.

Baer was a mindful, heartful genius, who inspired and helped me and many people. On July 4, 2018, I met him for guidance in my political campaign, and took the photo shown below. He provided a deep understanding of the issues in town while enjoying his beverage at Amherst Coffee and playing music. He had the capacity to be deep, wise, funny, and helpful all the same time! We were both practitioners of mindfulness, which fostered a deep connection, not just between us but also with other people in the community whom he introduced me to. Baer inspired me and so many others to live life wholeheartedly, and when it’s time to leave our physical bodies, to do that with love, humor, and grace. – Shalini Bahl-Milne

Baer galvanized many parents of young children — most of us too insular and over-focused on our own families — to consider the idea that we might change local government if we joined Town Meeting. Later, he joined the Survival Center and managed to transform the distribution of monthly food supplies. While taking a tour, I saw him working alongside high schoolers to restock shelves and thought, “If Baer can give a few hours a week, so can I.” As it turned out, he volunteered every day. “I’m the son of a grocery man. I grew up keeping nice shelves. I love doing this stuff,” he told me. I volunteer to this day because Baer showed me that the joy in giving a little is multiplied when you give more. – Cammie McGovern

You knew when Baer was in the room. He had a contagious energy that he exuded. My heart goes out to Alison and their children as they feel his absence. Most of my memories of Baer are from local Amherst politics, where we were often aligned. When I ran for Select Board, he met with me to check out my positions and then signed on to my campaign committee. He offered to set up my web site and I remain grateful for his support. Baer generously contributed his time, skills and resources to so many causes he believed in. He will be missed. – Connie Kruger

When I was new to Town Meeting (and Town), Baer was a welcoming presence – always there with a cheerful “hi,” an update on the happenings in Town, and an invitation to gather with other residents after long nights. He was generous with his time – designing campaign literature, offering advice to first-time candidates, and encouraging “the younger generation” to get involved. He loved Amherst and believed in its potential. We didn’t know each other well, yet I knew Baer would be there if I needed advice or had any questions. — Mandi Jo Hanneke

When we worked on political campaigns, Baer had a unique way of drilling down to the essential connecting message. He was so skilled at identifying the authentic heart of what an individual or group was trying to communicate, understanding what the voters were in fact actually really concerned about, then stripped out the extraneous detail — of which some of us always had a lot 🙂 — and somehow found a way to present an eye-catching and often humorous message, yet still very sincere and true to our core values. Our community is poorer without him to help us tell our story. — Alisa Brewer

Thank you for changing this town: sharing your business brain when I felt lost; introducing me to a life-changing bff; and for the enlightened outlook and spirit you manifested sharing your story over the past year. You will inspire us forever to be better thinkers and doers. – Cinda Jones

What a wonderful spirit Baer brought to all of us. He showed us how to live each day to the fullest, and made us feel more alive and more hopeful about it all. If we all close our eyes and listen hard, I think we might just hear the distant sounds of a jam session happening where he is. So much love to you and the kids, Alison, and to all his co-conspirators here in the Valley and beyond. Thank you for including us in the journey. — Carol Sharick

Baer and I worked together on the Amherst for All campaign. The term “year-round democracy,” to describe the vision of a responsive, accountable town council that met and deliberated year-round, was his turn of phrase. Baer was a creative thinker, an iconoclast, someone who believed in walking to the beat of his own drum, especially if it had a good beat. He didn’t care if anyone else had ever played that particular song before. He loved his friends, he loved a good campaign, he loved live music and he loved this town. I will miss his spirit, warmth, twinkling eyes, warm smile. – Johanna Neumann

I don’t remember the first time I met Baer, but early on he suggested we start a business together because, as he put it, “between you and me, I think we know everyone in town.” For sure, everyone knew Baer. He convinced many of us to join the “rationalistas” on Town Meeting, brought people together over the poker table, and shared his encyclopedic knowledge of music with us all. His, and Alison’s, Zen acceptance of what was happening to him left me in tears, not that I would ever show them, not when being with Baer was so much fun. – Nina Wishengrad

I’m absolutely certain that if there’s any justice in the cosmos, Baer is reincarnated as a Red Sox center fielder who changes “Sweet Caroline” to “Iko-Iko” and chats between innings with fans about what’s really important in life. – Scott Goldman

When I think of Baer I think of music, celebration and good people.  Baer had vision and radiated joy. Everywhere you went in Amherst where something new and fun was happening, Baer was there, often as the architect. He truly gave so much to our town. Baer will be missed. – Kate Atkinson

Once his “joy & possibility computer analysis” pointed the family van to Amherst, he arrived and uplifted the town. Baer loved Amherst, and he brought tremendous life to every single happening he joined or organized, and with Oliver Broudy it was my privilege to work with Baer to bring life to “Amherst Live,” a living and breathing on-stage showcase of local personalities, fixations and apocrypha celebrating our town’s many selves. Baer had a big life and sought to enlarge ours. He represented the best of energies and ambitions for our town, his friends and his family. – Thomas Porter

I didn’t know Baer that well, but we played guitars once or twice at house parties. We talked about playing together, and then he got his diagnosis… Last time we communicated, he sent me a really nice home-mixed version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Sitting Around Waiting to Die.” I don’t think I realized at that time that he had already gotten a death sentence. I asked him how he mixed that clip up. In his own gracious way, Baer told me everything he had learned about home mixing boards, and the best, cheapest one. – Jon McCabe

Back in the ’90s, I worked with Baer at PeopleSoft in the Bay Area, and by sheer coincidence we moved to Amherst about a year after he and Alison did, and for many of the same reasons. I was quite familiar with Baer’s creative thinking, larger-than-life personality, and contagious enthusiasm – he had started a rock band at PeopleSoft – so I wasn’t surprised that Baer became passionate about making Amherst better and roped so many friends (including me) into town politics. – Ellen Lindsey

Baer’s essence: Sincerity, Heart, Optimism, and Wit. Baer’s utterly sincere, heart-wrenching, uplifting, and hilarious posts on CaringBridge written over the past year of his illness have taught me more about dying and death than all the books on the topic. For this I am deeply grateful. Love to all the Curphey-Tierkel family from ours. – Ali de Groot

Andy Churchill, Baer Tierkel and Clare Bertrand when they wrote a monthly Bulletin column.

Baer was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met: a software guy with a Buddhist-hippie streak, an endless curiosity, and a special ability to connect people. He brought data, accountability, and clear communication to Amherst politics: among other things, creating a spreadsheet to track the votes of Town Meeting members. He recognized that busy people with kids and jobs were underrepresented in our government, so he recruited them to participate. He co-wrote a Bulletin column with me and Clare Bertrand (shown in photo above) that presented a centrist viewpoint. And when it became clear that the current system wasn’t working, he threw himself into marketing for the new charter campaign. He made participating in Amherst fun. And he truly loved the place. – Andy Churchill

Baer and Alison were the first couple we met when we moved to Amherst in 2003. We had both recently moved here and connected through close common friends on the West Coast. They arrived at our door to go to dinner and then to a drum show up at Amherst College. There was an instant connection. This introduced us to their family’s sphere of joy-filled kindness, love and laughter that has been shared with so many others. Our friendship lasted all these years – so many wonderful memories! Words cannot express our gratitude and sadness. – Margaret Shea O’Connor

Baer was a transformative soul, who wholeheartedly embraced Amherst and acted on his vision of what he thought was possible. He was a positive political force and increased participation in Town Meeting while it existed. He left his mark on the Survival Center, and he was an inspiration in the creative Amherst Live programs. We wish we had known him better personally and planned to. Sadly, his sudden health problems interfered. Alison knows that we will always have the Panhandle. We will always have fond memories of Baer’s joie de vivre. His life and dying are an inspiration. – Jeff and Marilyn Blaustein

I was lucky to enjoy many lively gatherings, delicious meals, and electrifying performances with Baer (often organized by Baer!). I also turned to him for advice: Buy or rent? How to grow my business? How to vote in local elections? (I would create ‘crib sheets’ from our discussions and carry them into the polls.) It became a joke between Scott and me: What would Baer do (WWBD)? In the wake of this loss, I find myself applying this question to larger issues of joy and service from Baer’s outstanding example of A Life Well Lived. WWBD, indeed. – Meg Bouvier

August, 2018. Fresh Grass, MASS MoCA. We hadn’t planned to meet, yet there we were, lawn chaired side by side as dusk settled its purple light and Trampled by Turtles did their thing on the big stage. A train went by, mournful and eternal. I swear the conductor waved. Fare thee well, curious child. — Mat Lebowitz

I met Baer in 1983. We were housemates for five years in Watertown. My fondest memories: sitting with Baer in those incredible Section 34 bleacher seats, row 1, seats 1 and 2. Funny how I never got a chance to sit in seat 1. Baer was a main character in 34. Me, a frequent visitor. Beware, if you ventured into 34 and stood up for the “wave”! Last time I saw Baer before his diagnosis was Sept. 8, 2019, section 36, seats 1 and 2, versus the dreaded Yankees. Alison was watching and has a video of us sitting in the bleachers! — Michael Cellucci

In quintessential Baer fashion, we met in the waiting room of the Cooley ER and went on to become close friends and business partners years later. While he jovially tried to improve everything he touched in the public sphere, from town politics to local businesses, he also quietly worked to improve himself. In the end, Baer’s inspirational ability to meet death with grace and humor was the direct result of years of mindfulness work, to temper his reactive nature, something he was proud of and immensely grateful for. May his generous love inspire each of us to do the same!– Mike Giles

I’m in NYC on Halloween 2019 with Woody Sherman and Baer to see Dead & Co. at Madison Square Garden. This is big for me, returning to MSG, where I saw the Dead for the first time in 1979. As we’re leaving for the show, Baer pulls out this mask and says, “Here ya go, Scottie, put this on.” When I did, things changed – walking through NYC, dancing at the show, after parties, walking back to the hotel – was a Halloween blast wearing that mask. That was one of Baer’s gifts – making good things great with wisdom and love. — Scott Auerbach

What’s up with . . . ?

By Sarah Marshall

Today, I bring readers up to date on two projects that have been highlighted in this blog over the past few months.

What’s up with the Jones Library renovation and expansion project?

Town Manager Paul Bockelman confirmed during a recent Community Chat that all lawsuits have been resolved, no appeals were filed, and that there are no legal impediments to proceeding with the project. Austin Sarat, President of the Jones Library Board of Trustees and chair of the Jones Library Building Committee, expressed hope that the energy previously directed at debating the project will now be focused on making the improved library the best it can be for the town. The goal is to hold a ribbon-cutting in the spring of 2025. The Building Committee has begun to meet and its first order of business will be to review the schematics designed by Finegold Alexander Architects that were released and discussed last year. Ken Romeo of Colliers is the Owner’s Project Manager.

Two subcommittees have begun work (agendas, etc. can by found here). A Design Subcommittee will work closely with the architects and make recommendations back to the Building Committee and up the chain of authority. In addition, an Outreach Subcommittee will:

  • Keep the community informed via in-person gatherings as well as the Library/Town websites, Engage Amherst, Library/Town social media, and email blasts;
  • Hold listening sessions in order to gather community input;
  • Respond to questions or concerns raised by the Jones Library Building Committee;
  • Make design recommendations to the Design Subcommittee.

Various sectors of the community may be specifically targeted at certain points or for certain purposes. For example, middle and high school students may be invited to contribute ideas for the Teen Room.

The cost of the project is fixed, so increases in construction and borrowing costs will necessitate design changes as the project moves forward. As for fundraising, the Capital Campaign Committee is still progressing toward its original goal of $6.6 million, half of which is to come from the community. So far, it has secured $1.5 million in local pledges and $1 million in CPA funds. It has submitted applications to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and the Beveridge Foundation for significant funding, and will continue to seek grant opportunities. Amherst College also recently donated $100,000 to the campaign.

The much-loved Kinsey Memorial Garden will need to be moved. The Jones Library Trustees and the Kestrel Trust, with the support of David Kinsey’s widow, Carol Pope, have agreed to move plantings and other items to Kestrel property on Bay Road, either this fall or next spring. Possibly, the Historical Commission will need to consent to this arrangement.

Finally, the Town Manager noted that, contrary to rumor, the Massachusetts Attorney General is not investigating the project’s contracts.

Remember to visit our Jones Library page for links to project information.

What’s up with the Elementary School Building Project?

The goal is to open the new school in the fall of 2026. A significant milestone was reached earlier this month when the Preliminary Design Program (PDP) document was submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (the document is huge – you can download sections of it here).

Much of the PDP is documentation of existing conditions, both of the Fort River and Wildwood sites and of the two buildings. The PDP also includes the Education Program and the Space Summary, both of which incorporate feedback from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), community, faculty and staff, Town Council, and the Amherst School Committee. Submission of the PDP initiates a conversation with MSBA about the information therein. For example, the MSBA or the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education might want additional information about or request changes to aspects of the Educational Plan or Space Summary.

The PDP also indicates that only the combined school options (for 575 students) will be evaluated going forward, because the 165-student, Fort River-only options could not satisfy the goals of the Educational Program. Now that sixth graders will attend school at the Regional Middle School beginning in the fall of 2023, the combined school will house grades K-5. A total of four construction options will now be explored, namely 100 percent new construction or renovation plus addition at one site or the other.

Between now and June 27, the four options will be fleshed out, with schematic building and site designs, plans to satisfy the zero-energy building bylaw, and more detailed costs developed in a document called the Preferred Schematic Report (PSR). This process will culminate in a vote for proceeding with one of the four options. The MSBA will vote in August on the PSR. After that, the next phase continues to develop the schematic design, project cost, and MSBA reimbursement rate. Next winder, Town Council is expected to vote to put a debt exclusion (override) to the voters in early spring of 2023.

Clearly, development of the PSR will be the focus of tremendous public interest. Will we renovate an existing school at Fort River? Build entirely new at Wildwood? Choose another option? Which site is better from a geotechnical respect, such as depth of groundwater, ability of soils to support a large building, etc.? Where and how can increased traffic be best handled? What will be the balance between maximizing daylight with lots of windows and reducing heat loss through windows? What will be the tradeoffs between capital costs and operating costs of the various building systems? The ESBC will be refining a list of criteria by which the four construction options can be assessed, and also planning opportunities for public outreach.

Remember to visit our Elementary school building project page for links to more information.

Houses of five famous writers visible on brief walking tour

By Nick Grabbe

Many famous writers have called Amherst home, and the Amherst Writers Walk is a self-directed tour of 12 houses they lived in. This post is about five of these writers, who lived in four houses that can be seen in a 30-minute walk. A later post will be about other writers whose houses are on the tour.

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

118 Sunset Avenue

When Ray Stannard Baker moved to Amherst in 1910, he was 40 and already a famous writer, with a reputation for exposing corruption and inspiring reform through his magazine articles. He had also published a book that was the first examination of America’s racial divide written by a prominent White journalist.

Baker came to Amherst with a secret identity. Starting in 1906, he published a series of articles and books, using the pseudonym “David Grayson,” that became very popular and were translated into many languages. The narrator of these books is an educated man who lives on a farm and likes to walk around preaching a gospel of kindness and hospitality. There was intense speculation about who wrote the “David Grayson” books, and in 1916 Baker admitted that it he was the author. At the time, these books were much more widely read than the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost.

Baker was close to Woodrow Wilson and traveled in Europe during World War I as an unofficial envoy of the President. In 1919, he headed the American press bureau at the Versailles peace conference, and later wrote a multi-volume biography of Wilson that won the Pulitzer Prize. He wrote most of it in the Jones Library.

Baker was a library trustee from 1929 until his death in 1946. The library has 300 books and 9,000 manuscripts in its Baker collection. At UMass, there is both a Baker Hall and a Grayson Hall. The house at 118 Sunset Avenue is now Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity.

Here’s Baker, writing as David Grayson:

The great point of advantage in the life of the country is that if a man is in reality simple, if he love true contentment, it is the place of all places where he can live his life most freely and fully, where he can grow. The city affords no such opportunity; indeed, it often destroys, by the seductiveness with which it flaunts its carnal graces.”

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

43 Sunset Avenue

In 1916, the same year Baker revealed that he had written the David Grayson books, Robert Frost (1874-1963) came to Amherst College to give a reading of his poems. He joined the faculty in 1917 and lived in Amherst off and on until 1938. He lived in this house on Sunset Avenue from 1931 to 1938. Earlier, he lived in a house on Main Street that was moved to make way for construction of the police station.

The cantankerous Frost quit his teaching job at the college in 1920 after a dispute with the president, but returned in 1923. From 1926 to 1938 and from 1949 to 1963 he had a more informal relationship with Amherst College. Frost regarded teaching as a distraction from writing his poetry, which gained world renown for portraying the New England landscape and people in ways that evoked universal themes.

Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes, and in 1961 read a poem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

The Amherst College library is named for Frost, and there is a statue of him on the campus. The Jones Library has 12,000 letters, manuscripts, photos and audio recordings in its Frost collection. You can listen to a reading Frost gave at UMass in 1961 here. The 47-mile Robert Frost Trail runs between South Hadley and Wendell.

The house where Frost lived at 43 Sunset Avenue is now privately owned. Here is the final stanza of Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

“But yield who will to their separation,/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight./Only where love and need are one,/And the work is play for mortal stakes,/Is the deed ever really done/For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

219 Amity Street

A childhood spent in the intellectual ferment of Amherst can inspire future writers. Eugene Field (1850-1895) and Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) were journalists who spent parts of their young years in this 24-room house on the corner of Lincoln Avenue. The house is now divided into apartments.

Field wrote for newspapers in Kansas City, Denver, St. Louis and Chicago. He was known for his light, humorous articles, which were reprinted in papers all around the country.

But he is best known for writing poetry for children, including “Wynken, Blinken and Nod,” a lullaby-like poem that has inspired marble statues, paintings and a Disney short film. He was so beloved in the Midwest that there are more than 30 elementary schools named after him. There’s a statue of him in Denver. Called the “Poet of Childhood,” Field also wrote (anonymously) a book about a 12-year-old boy who was seduced by a woman in her thirties.

The Jones Library houses articles, correspondence and manuscripts written by Field.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night/Sailed off in a wooden shoe,/Sailed on a river of crystal light/Into a sea of dew./’Where are you going, and what do you wish?’/The old moon asked the three./
‘We have come to fish for the herring-fish/That live in this beautiful sea;/Nets of silver and gold have we,’/Said Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”

Mary Heaton Vorse, who spent part of her youth in the same house (at a different time), was a child of wealth who traveled extensively with her family. As an adult, she became a journalist who advocated for women’s suffrage, civil rights and pacifism.

She covered numerous strikes, including by textile workers in Lawrence, Mass., Passaic, N.J. and Gastonia, N.C., auto workers in Flint, Mich. and coal miners in Kentucky. She also participated in labor protests and was put under surveillance by the FBI. She was a war correspondent in Europe in 1918-19.

In 1962, she was the first recipient of the United Auto Workers’ Social Justice Award. She was widowed twice and lived her later years in Provincetown, where she continued her advocacy of progressive causes.

Vorse described herself as “a woman who in early life got angry because many children lived miserably and died needlessly.” Here’s something she wrote in her 80s:

When I was young, Life said to me, ‘Here are two ways – a world running to mighty cities full of the spectacle of bloody adventure, and here is home and children. Which will you take, the adventurous life or a quiet life?’ ‘I will take both,’ I said.”

Photo credit Betsy Krogh

259 Lincoln Avenue

Norton Juster (1929-2021) was fighting boredom while serving in the Navy in 1954, so he started writing stories for children. In 1961, he wrote “The Phantom Tollbooth,” with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, about a boy named Milo who is bored with the world and drives his car through an imaginary tollbooth and experiences a series of adventures. Feiffer, who later became a famous cartoonist, described his friend as “mischievous.”

Juster said he was inspired by a conversation he had with a boy about infinity while waiting in line at a restaurant. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has sold over five million copies and been adapted into a stage musical.

Juster was also an architect, like his immigrant father, and was a professor of architecture and environmental design at Hampshire College from 1970 to 1992.

Unlike these other writers, many current Amherst residents have had personal interactions with Juster. When he signed my son’s copy, he didn’t just write his name but also wrote “To Alex.” Juster also wrote “The Dot and the Line,” which is commonly used in schools and, like “Tollbooth,” has been adapted into a film.

Juster lived in the house on Lincoln Avenue from 1982 to 2007. He describes the inside of it in detail in “The Hello Goodbye Window.” The house is now privately owned.

The Amherst Writers Walk grew out of a UMass course on public history, was created by the Historical Commission, and funded through the Community Preservation Act. Here is a link to the commission’s website on the Amherst Writers Walk.

What is a good downtown plan?

By Jonathan Tucker

In “A civil conversation, Part 3,” Meg Gage listed some crucial requirements of a good plan for downtown Amherst. They were:

“Setting goals based on a vision”
Whose vision? While I believe that there could be consensus (or, at least, consent) over basic characteristics for the form and function of a downtown, there is unlikely to ever be (and, in Amherst, there never has been) agreement or consensus about most of what that should include. For instance, limiting the height of downtown buildings to the 2-3 stories typical of the 19th and early 20th century would inhibit the ability of Amherst’s extremely confined and small downtown to provide meaningful amounts of downtown housing, diverse retail, or any of the rest of the uses the community has said it wants.

For another instance, despite people’s general impression, Amherst’s downtown boasts a highly diverse range of architecture that reflects the community’s historical evolution and change. Every new architectural form–including the 1889 Town Hall–was in its time greeted with dismay and disapproval. Form-based zoning for downtown Amherst should not dictate the replication or even overweening evocation of historical styles, but should instead emphasize compatibility. Time passes, needs change. Communities need to change with them.

“Clarity about values”
Again, whose? There are always multiple individual voices – usually raised in alarm or dismay – whenever a private or public entity tries to actually put those values on the ground. These Civil Conversations would not be either needed nor happening if that were not true. The Amherst Master Plan is the closest thing the community has to a genuine expression of collective community values. But many will always fight against efforts to bring the Master Plan’s objectives to fruition, usually on the grounds that some imagined perfection has not been achieved. If the community wants what its Plan offers, it needs to proceed to accomplish those objectives anyway.

“Establishing the exact need”
Not only impossible, but, in the process, misleading. Human needs and the setting within which they arise change constantly. The community can (and has) take frequent snapshots of need (housing, employment, transportation, parking, food and retail goods availability, etc.). But trying to measure exactly how much affordable housing (for instance) downtown Amherst needs or will need is by its nature an exercise in speculative generality, not least because it could be very different in a matter of months, depending on wider changes in the economy, etc. Assuming that “exactness” can be achieved creates an unreal expectation.

“Evaluating options for meeting the need including size, location, who is served, etc.”
This is already done, in two ways, through the market analyses conducted by private developers and the studies undertaken by the public sector. In the end, there can be no perfect option, only options that are more flawed or less flawed in terms of everyone’s expectations. Amherst as a community is diverse and rarely agrees with itself about what its needs are or even should consist of. And there are, properly, limits on what the public can dictate to private property owners.

“Creating a business plan – reviewing research and other information about viability, cost of building, operating budget, etc.”
Again, the best the public sector can do in evaluating something like a redevelopment plan for an area is to spend a lot of money and more time than anyone wants developing potential scenarios based on current-day expectations and market conditions, which are themselves destined to be outdated within a few years, if not sooner. There is a persistent myth that studying something and conducting due diligence on economic, physical, and social feasibility (which the public sector absolutely is obliged to do) will then produce a given, mutually-agreed-upon outcome that will come into being by the time anything is built, completed, and operating. That is never true. A downtown plan is a great idea, but all such planning and projective speculation can do is provide a ‘ballpark’ sense of goals and objectives, and a greater familiarity with the moving parts, so that the community can adjust as time passes. Which it will.

“Getting input from everyone who will be affected while there are still options from which to choose.”
Including the option of stopping things, which has for so many years in Amherst seemed to be the principal motivation for insisting on options and choices? For all forms of development there are existing, legally mandated avenues for public involvement and input. None of those can possibly obtain “input from everyone who will be affected.” In some cases, extending public permit processes too widely and over too long a period of time can violate both the rights of those doing the development (public or private) and corresponding land use law.

The best that public process can do (and most often does) is to provide a reasonable opportunity for the immensely diverse cohort of humanity that constitutes “everyone who will be affected” to involve themselves. The purpose of public process is to serve the interests of all those involved. All those involved includes the development rights of property owners and the broad public interests that thoughtful development can serve, as well as those who feel aggrieved by change they do not like.

In the end, the perfect remains the enemy of the good. No development, however thoughtfully and carefully planned, responsibly permitted, and competently executed, will perfectly meet the expectations of all of those who believe their interests are involved. That is why community planning exercises and permit processes have a structured beginning and a reasonable end. People have a right to do useful things with their property and communities have a right to reasonably direct how those changes can occur. But unless that process is in fact reasonable, it is not legitimate.

Jonathan Tucker, an Amherst native who now lives in Northampton, worked in the Amherst Planning Department for 32 years and was planning director for 10 years. He staffed the Planning Board, Design Review Board, Historical Commission and Redevelopment Authority. He served on task forces focused on housing, parking, transportation and conservation.

Public money for private property owners? Yes!

By Sarah Marshall

This Monday, the Town Council will hold a public forum on the Community Preservation Act Committee’s (CPAC’s) grant recommendations for the next fiscal year. Later in the evening, the Council is scheduled to vote on most of the recommendations.

Almost all are likely to be approved, in my estimation, but two of CPAC’s recommendations have triggered concern among Councilors, specifically grants for repairs to the Alice Maud Hills House and the Conkey-Stevens House. At the heart of the concern is whether public money should be awarded to private property owners, either non-profits (such as the Woman’s Club, owners of the Hills House) or homeowners (Salem Place Condominium Association, owners of the Conkey-Stevens House). As chair of CPAC, I enthusiastically support both projects – indeed, all the project recommended to Council. (Note that this blog post is my own opinion, not approved by CPAC.)

Alice Maud Hills House

Both properties are listed in the National Historic Register and are within local historic districts. The Alice Maud Hills house, at 35 Triangle St. but facing Main Street, is a neighbor (more or less) to the Emily Dickinson Homestead and the Evergreens. The Conkey-Stevens House, at 664 Main St., is a one-of-a-kind Second Empire structure in East Amherst. Both buildings require exterior work that exceeds the financial capacities of their owners.

It is helpful to understand the Community Preservation program before saying more about these two particular projects – but if you are already familiar with the CPA, you can jump ahead.

Conkey-Stevens House

Where do the CPAC funds come from? Amherst citizens repeatedly voted to tax themselves – three times since 2001 – in order to participate in the program enabled by the state’s Community Preservation Act. Property owners pay a surcharge, or tax on the property tax, of 3% (the first $100,000 of assessed value is exempt). That is, for every $100 assessed in property taxes, an extra $3 goes into our Community Preservation Fund. The Commonwealth contributes additional dollars yearly to the participating cities and towns; the precise amount varies, year to year, but the state matched 39% of the Town’s FY2021 collection to the fund for FY2022.

Why did voters agree to raise their own taxes? Because voters support the goals of the program, which are to fund projects addressing affordable housing, historic preservation, acquisition of open space, and development and improvement of recreational amenities.

Hickory Ridge

Over the past 20 years, approximately $18 million in CPA money has been invested in numerous Amherst projects. Examples include:

  • In the Community (i.e., affordable) Housing category, the purchase of land on Belchertown Road, funding for the Valley CDC project at 123 Northampton Rd. (“East Gables”), conversion of market-rate rental units at Rolling Green Apartments to affordable units, and grants to Amherst Community Connections’ transitional housing initiatives;
  • In the Open Space category, funds for the redesign of the northern part of the Town Common, contributions to the purchase (completed just last week) of the Hickory Ridge Golf Course, purchase of land (now under conservation) such as the Szala and Keets-Haskins properties, and funds for improvements to trail networks;
  • In the Historic Preservation category, preservation efforts at Town Hall, funding for the Special Projects facility in the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, funds for building envelope repairs and/or foundation repairs at the Munson and North Amherst libraries, restoration of the Tiffany window at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, restoration of the Civil War tablets, and exterior repairs to the Goodwin Memorial AME Zion church;
  • And in the Recreation category, funds for the playgrounds (sometimes matched with grant funding) at Kendrick Park, the playground and spray park at Groff Park, and repairs to basketball courts and pools at Town recreation areas.

Who decides what grants to award? CPAC is responsible for soliciting, reviewing, and recommending grant applications. In the past, CPAC’s annual report was submitted to Town Meeting, but now it goes to Town Council for discussion, public comment, and a vote. Those bodies have sole power to authorize town spending. The enabling statute allows Town Council to reject a recommendation or reduce the size of a grant, but Council may not increase a grant or award funds to projects not recommended by CPAC.

Groff Park playground

Who serves on CPAC? The law directs several boards and commissions to delegate representatives to CPAC. Thus, CPAC members come from the Amherst Housing Authority, the Historical Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, and the Planning Board. The Town Manager also recruits candidates for three at-large seats.

But back to the Hills House and Conkey-Stevens House. Both applications were strongly supported by the Amherst Historical Commission. CPAC and the commission spoke publicly about the clear eligibility of privately owned properties for CPA money, emphasizing that the “public benefit” to the taxpayer, as far as the law is concerned, need only be the view of the exterior from the street or sidewalk. The commission urged Councilors to consider Amherst’s many historic structures as an outdoor museum through which citizens roam. They noted that private property owners are usually not eligible for grants to preserve their historic properties, and that the Community Preservation Act deliberately includes them.

North Amherst Community Farm’s farmhouse

No precedent would be set by approving an award to the Alice Maud Hills House. CPA grants have been made to private not-for-profit entities in Amherst numerous times. Churches, the Jewish Community of Amherst, the farmhouse owned by the North Amherst Community Farm – even the Hills House’s Carriage House – have received grants.

What may be novel in Amherst is granting taxpayer dollars to a private homeowner. The Council is concerned about a possible flood of applications, and wonders whether private owners should be held completely responsible for maintenance of their historic structures. On behalf of CPAC, I noted that all program applicants compete for funding, that many projects are not approved, and that private owners are welcome in the program. Personally, I believe that since these private owners are providing a benefit to the rest of us, and ownership of historic properties is both inherently expensive and subject to many constraints, the public should be willing to help pick up the tab occasionally.

One concern raised by Councilors is how to secure the taxpayers’ contribution to the property, should the property be sold or demolished, for example. This a reasonable concern and one that should be readily resolved by language in the agreements between the Town and applicants. As mentioned above, grants that benefit properties not owned by the Town have been made on numerous occasions already.

North Common

Readers may want to know about the other grants CPAC recommends for FY23. We recommend new grants totaling approximately $1.833 million, as well as debt payments of about $490,000 for projects voted in earlier years, and $25,000 for administrative expenses. We also recommend reserving about $533,000 for future CPA uses.

In brief, CPAC is recommending that funds be granted to:

  • the Town to assist in the purchase or rehabilitation of a property to be used for transitional housing,
  • the Town to fund a part-time housing projects coordinator,
  • the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust to enable it to fund projects as they arise – perhaps, soon, at the East Street School site and the Belchertown Road property acquired a year ago – and for a part-time consultant,
  • the Town to conduct repairs at one of its affordable housing sites, the John C. Nutting building,
  • the Amherst Historical Society so that it can conduct an engineering and structural assessment of the Museum,
  • the Town for continued repairs to the West Cemetery,
  • the District One Neighborhood Association, with the assistance of the Conservation Department, to begin work on a history trail along part of the Mill River,
  • Crocker Farm School for design work on upgrades to or replacement of a playground,
  • the Town to improve the irrigation system at the Plum Brook playing fields,
  • the Town for some trail work at the Hickory Ridge property,
  • the Town for general repairs and improvements to its trail network,
  • and to Amherst Pickleball Supporters, with the assistance of the Recreation Department, to build two or more pickleball courts.

I look forward to seeing these projects come to fruition!

Public Forum: Monday, March 21, 6:30-7:00 p.m. Zoom link: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/81560508561