Second in a series of posts by former Town Councilor George Ryan on issues critical to Amherst’s immediate future.
In response to the death of George Floyd and the national expression of outrage at police violence aimed at people of color, Amherst has committed itself to the creation and implementation of the Community Responders for Equity and Service Program (CRESS), a program meant to provide an unarmed civilian alternative for situations that might otherwise require a police response.
In the coming months, the Town will need to hire and train eight community responders and a director and administrative assistant to run the program, at an estimated annual operating cost of $936,000. This new program will present significant challenges, including finding and training eight qualified (ideally, bilingual) candidates, and figuring out how they can work effectively with our existing public safety personnel (Police and Fire Departments and Dispatch). The staffing challenge will be compounded by regional personnel shortages in the social services and mental health fields.
Funding will also be a challenge. For the next fiscal year, the Town will use some of its federal Covid relief money to pay for non-operating and one-time costs, along with a one-time $450,000 Public Health Grant from the State and $200,000 reallocated from the Amherst Police budget by not filling two positions that are currently vacant.
Funding in FY24 and beyond will be a much greater challenge. Unless funding for other departments is reduced, or significant new revenue identified, the Town will almost certainly need to make use of reserves. These reserves have already been earmarked in the Town’s financial plan to help fund four major capital projects. The amount of reserves needed in turn will depend on union negotiations, health insurance premium changes and other major cost increases. There are a lot of unknowns here. Costs related to salaries, step increases, and health insurance will almost certainly go up.
There also will be pressure from some to cut police positions in order to fund this program in the long term. In my opinion, it would not be wise to further cut existing public safety positions. In communities where such civilian responder programs have been created, the programs have not been funded by cutting existing public safety budgets but rather by finding other sources of revenue.
A further challenge will be the need, for the foreseeable future, for higher annual allocations to the municipal budget, as opposed to the library system and the schools. In the past, all departments including the schools were given a yearly 2.5 percent increase (the maximum allowed under Proposition 2½) but increases beyond that were shared equally. The sense among Town departments that “we are all in this together” could be lost and create unavoidable tensions.
Here are two additional issues Amherst faces.
Finding a site for Public Works. For the past three years, the Town has been unable to secure a site for a new DPW facility. This failure has many causes and no single villain. Not surprisingly, neighborhood concerns played an important role in defeating at least one attractive proposal where the Town was to be gifted the land for a new DPW site. Given the high price of land in Amherst, a free site would be enormously beneficial to taxpayers.
In the coming year, this problem needs to be resolved because, without a site for the DPW, we cannot move forward with the new Fire Station at the current DPW site. Every year of delay increases the cost or constrains what we can build. Delay also has prevented us from fully implementing the financial plan that has been created to responsibly fund four major capital projects. Perhaps we will need multiple sites for the DPW – not an ideal solution, but at least we could move forward.
Homelessness and Transitional Housing. In its Town Manager Performance Goals for 2022, the Town Council reiterated its desire for the creation of a permanent, year-round shelter for homeless individuals. The Town Manager has allocated $1 million of federal Covid relief money to address homelessness and transitional housing. (Transitional housing is temporary housing, often including support services, that helps prepare individuals for permanent housing.)
At least three possible sites in Amherst have been identified. The question is whether anything will actually happen. While an informal working group was created by the Town Manager to address this issue, its membership, mandate, and progress remain opaque. It is also unclear what the Town Manager has in mind for “transitional housing” or how (and by whom) that will be addressed.
Coming, in the third part of this series – fixing the rental registration bylaw and deciding on a downtown parking garage.
Perhaps I should not be surprised, but as the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) and the Amherst School Committee (ASC) methodically move through the process of designing a new or renovated school, some voices are already sounding the alarm about the size and/or cost of the project.
I very much want a new school (to house the Wildwood and Fort River students) that will pass muster both with the Town Council and the voters, who will be asked to support a debt exclusion override in a year or so. So it is vital to develop a proposal that is neither extravagant or unreasonable, and is strongly supported by Town Council.
But it is too early to argue that we are on course for a too-big-and-too-expensive elementary school. I hope everyone will calmly follow the process, contribute their ideas, hopes, and concerns, and avoid premature judgments.
So where are we in the process?
First of all, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) specifies the sequence of work that must be conducted in order to qualify for partial state funding for the school. While some residents may wish the process unfolded differently, it is what it is. In brief, this is my understanding of where we are and what will happen next.
MSBA will contribute money only to a school that adequately provides space for the district’s educational program. Therefore, step 1 is defining that program, and you can view the draft here. The school committee is scheduled to vote on the educational program on March 8. Step 2 (which happens in conjunction with step 1) is to propose the space required to carry out that program. (Larger spaces are fine but MSBA won’t pay for what they don’t agree is required.) The types of spaces include, for example, the core academic classrooms, special education rooms, a “cafetorium,” music and art rooms, etc.
Step 3 is making very rough cost estimates for the seven options under study (more on that below). Step 4 is choosing the preferred option – that decision is scheduled to happen in June. Step 5 is designing the building and getting a detailed cost estimate. Step 6 is securing funding through the override. We are in the midst of steps 1 and 2.
Last week, at the Feb. 8 meeting of the ASC, the DiNisco Design team presented the draft educational plan and an early draft space assessment. Most of the conversation focused on a table of space numbers that are, on their face, confusing or worrisome. One of the confusing aspects of the table is that space needs labeled “MSBA guidance” are, according to the architects, incomplete, not specific to Amherst, and not determinative. That “guidance” does not, for example, include space for some programs required by law and that MSBA will fund. By comparison, however, the draft space needs for our educational program look excessive. Donna DiNisco, principal at DiNisco Design, assured the committee that the MSBA is aware of the deficiencies of the guidance, that the parties will come to agreement about the allowable space, and that the eventual design will not exceed MSBA space limits.
Because the educational program drives the decisions about space, and the space requirements will strongly affect the cost of construction, members of the public are encouraged to submit thoughts about the draft educational program, or the project more generally, to the ESBC or the ASC in the next few weeks. You can email the ESBC chair, Cathy Schoen, and the ASC chair, Allison McDonald. Here are links to websites for the school project and the school committee.
If you want to watch the presentation and discussion of Feb. 8, begin at about minute 40 of this video. Also, see our “On our radar” page for details of a live Community Chat about the project next week.
End note: Two enrollment options are under study, per MSBA’s authorization: a 165-student school at Fort River (does not address the Wildwood school at all), and a 575-student school at either the Fort River or Wildwood sites. The seven scenarios that must be evaluated before June are:
For the Fort River-only school (165 students), the three options of renovating the existing school, renovating and adding to the school (add/reno), and new construction.
For the 575-student alternative, four options will be studied – add/reno and new construction at each site.
Recently, a study titled “Supporting and Retaining School Leaders” was brought to my attention. The report, commissioned by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, focused primarily on principals, but it could apply to any school leader, or even teachers and staff for that matter.
Being a school leader is a rewarding but difficult job. It’s a job where it feels like you have 1,000 bosses and it’s impossible to please them all.
What makes the Amherst area different, perhaps, is that there is more unrelenting opposition to decisions made that some do not agree with. Three bullet points from the report listed below illustrate that:
A Culture that Questions Decisions: Respondents all described the unique culture of Amherst as a challenge – even more so for those coming to Amherst from outside the district. Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and consensus, but that also questions or challenges most decisions. In the words of one respondent, “I fully expect that any decision I make will be questioned.”
Public Criticism Turns Personal: Respondents acknowledged that discourse and dissent are expected and welcome. What was stressful, however, was when public criticism turned to personal attacks — “behind my back,” in public meetings, and in online postings.
Outspoken Families and Community Members: While Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and dissent, most respondents described an impression that only loud voices were being heard – and getting their way. When a small but vocal group is opposed to a decision, it becomes challenging to move forward. In some cases, parents or community members feel “I know better” and believe, in the words of one respondent, “I have a right to say what I want, how I want.” Leaders find it most challenging when this “how” becomes negative and personal.
I saw this firsthand during my time on the Amherst and Regional School Committees (2010-2016). Committee meetings were often dominated by the “issue of the day,” which could range from budget cutting to racial issues to which math curriculum should be chosen.
Often, the most vocal and “loud” voices did seem to take over. Only those who feel strongly about something actually show up to those meetings, so that’s partly why. It was very important during those meetings to allow people to speak and have their say, but to guide the discussion with rules, including how long someone could speak, and that no personal attacks could be made. We used to say “Criticize the thing, not the person.” I had cards with the rules printed, which I would hand out at meetings.
What makes some of this so difficult is that sometimes not all the facts can be made public, due to employee and/or student confidentiality laws. That makes it hard to discuss the reasons why certain decisions are made. A few of the most contentious issues at School Committee meetings involved this. There needs to be some kind of solution to the problem of one-sided discussion – the neutral ombudsman solution might be one of them (more below). The public needs some sense of whether a decision was a good one or not, but sometimes cannot know the facts surrounding it.
It is worth stepping back to look at the balancing act that exists between two forces. This may get a bit off track from the main subject here, but it is closely related. I will come back to the main subject at the end.
Force #1 is the fact that a school system is a public entity, with highly engaged constituents – parents of school children – many of whom want to have a say in how their kids are educated, and who feel like they have that right, since it is a public body.
Force #2 is that educators are the experts we hire to do this job of educating our kids, and they generally know better how to do it than the constituents do. They are also the educational decision makers, since we put them in charge of education.
Both forces are not wrong. Both have a valid point of view.
In our democratic system, we have collectively made the choice to vote for people to oversee and carry out our public jobs, one of them being the job of educating our kids. So it goes like this: citizens vote for School Committee members, who in turn vote for and hire a superintendent, who in turn hires the principals and other school leaders, who hire teachers and staff.
When an educational decision needs to be made, or an issue resolved, it should go like this:
All voices should be heard and listened to with as much empathy as possible.
Those voices need to be reasonably stated. That does not mean they can’t be angry or even a bit loud. Anger is often understandable and warranted. But they cannot under any circumstances include personal attacks. And no one person should be allowed to dominate a discussion.
Then the decision makers need to deliberate carefully, putting aside as much as possible any bias that exists in their minds.
Finally, a decision is reached.
At that point, input and deliberation is over on that topic. Not everyone may like the decision, but they need to respect the fact that the process is over.
Too often in Amherst, Step 5 does not work that way, and the process is never over for some people.
It is, of course, appropriate and expected for those who don’t agree with a decision to keep working on changing minds for the next time a similar decision needs to be made. But it’s not OK to continue to challenge a decision that was made, after this process is done.
(Aside: As a School Committee member, I did continue to challenge decisions sometimes, but privately, not publicly. I recall a scheduling change at the middle school that many, including myself, thought was wrong. I felt so strongly about it that I threatened to resign from the committee in my discussions about it with the superintendent. In the end I thought that resigning would not really do any good, and I lost that battle. It happens.)
Nationally, this problem is most evident in the movement that claims that President Biden did not win the election. Locally, it was evident in those who did not like how the Jones Library vote turned out, and Town Meeting of 2016 voting no on the elementary school building plan (see end note).
I am not sure what the answer is, both for Amherst and for the country. I don’t really see people changing, at least not in the near term.
Coming back to the topic of supporting and retaining school leaders, I do think that all the mentoring ideas presented in the report are good ones.
But the report talks only about mentoring school leaders. What about mentoring the parents?
Perhaps there could be a neutral place a parent could go to first to figure out the best way to present and solve the problem he/she is having, rather than just launching into it with a school leader or teacher.
The RADAR anti-racism group I used to be part of had long wanted an ombudsman to be hired, to create a neutral place to bring complaints to. Superintendents kept resisting it. But one day when I was in Maria Geryk’s office she simply said “I am doing it” and hired Barry Brooks to be the first ombudsman. I see that office still exists, which is a good thing.
Something along these lines, a neutral counselor who could help guide parents on how best to approach school leaders and staff with issues they are having, might be helpful. But that takes staff and thus money, so I am not sure how it would affect the budget. Or possibly this already exists and I don’t know it, and needs to be more publicized.
At any rate, in these times more than ever, we need mentoring and other systems to support school leaders, teachers and staff. And perhaps we should also include the mentoring of parents.
I know how important mentoring is, because I could not have done my job on the School Committee without the mentoring I got from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, as well as from a group of former members who helped me out in the beginning.
End note: In 2016 Town Meeting voted no on funding the elementary school building plan. The article voted on was a bond authorization vote, which was supposed to be strictly about whether the town could afford the project or not, which is why it was the only vote in the process that required a two-thirds vote to pass. Instead, it ended up being a vote on the merits of the plan itself. There was no plan that did not have cons along with its pros. The “loudest voices” would speak on one of the cons and made it seem like careful consideration of all pros and cons had not been done, when in fact it had, by the School Committee and the School Building Committee. And the majority of town voters had already voted yes to raising their own taxes to implement the plan.
[Note: this is the first in a series of respectful conversations from different points of view about Amherst issues. Please send any ideas for topics to the editors.]
Meg: So, Andy, what did we get ourselves into here? I do appreciate the opportunity to dig into our different perspectives about Amherst issues and controversies. We worked well together on the Charter Commission, although we were on opposite sides of a bunch of big issues. How about you?
Andy: Hi Meg – yes, we differed on the Charter, but we’ve also found common cause on some key issues, like the need for a new elementary school. And we’re both concerned about Amherst being divided into separate, hostile camps that don’t talk (and more importantly, listen) to each other. I hope we can do better than the national scene in that regard!
Meg: Yes! But, Andy, let’s not be too chummy or this point/counterpoint isn’t going to be very interesting for anyone to read! Let’s talk about downtown. Amherst property taxes are too high – in large part because of fixed, structural facts – a huge amount of tax-exempt property in the colleges and University (later let’s talk about whether they contribute enough PILOT!) lots of conservation and APR land. So, our town leaders are looking at redesigning our downtown to bring in more taxes. But I feel there’s been quite a bit of cart before the horse in that thinking. It sometimes seems the town is willing to build anything that appears profitable regardless of the impact.
Andy: Whoa – slow down a little! There’s a lot packed into that little paragraph.
Meg: OK – fair enough. Say more . . .
Andy: It’s important to make the connection between the services residents are asking for and the revenues we have to pay for them. When I was on the School Committee I became increasingly worried about where the money would come from to pay for our kids’ education, along with all the other things we want, including public safety, roads, sidewalks, libraries, recreation, elder services, social services – the list goes on and on.
Meg: I agree, so far. We want a lot of things that are expensive!
Andy: Our ability to pay for those things is constrained, as you note, by large amounts of tax-exempt land. So, we need to do the best we can to generate revenue from the remaining parts of town. And to keep the full burden from falling on residents’ property taxes, that means we need commercial development somewhere. Our Master Plan says we should focus commercial development in the downtown and the village centers, to avoid sprawl in the rest of town. So encouraging appropriate, taxable development in downtown is important, both to support the services Amherst residents want and to keep the tax burden from going even higher. Do you agree?
Meg: Yes, I do, although we might not agree 100% on what constitutes “appropriate” development. I definitely agree the downtown is a large part of the solution. But it’s not development at any cost. We should be able to build profitable buildings that are not eyesores, don’t injure the streetscape, and house businesses where year-round residents – i.e. not only students – will hang out and spend money. Let’s encourage downtown activity that will generate income for the town, without destroying the downtown we all cherish.
Andy: Okay. Do you think others on “your side” feel the same way? Do they see development in the downtown as part of the solution? It makes a big difference if we’re actually talking about HOW we should develop downtown rather than fighting about IF we should develop it. I think there’s a lack of trust among some on “my side” about that – often it seems like people raise objections to the process or the details of a project as a way of stopping it, not because they are really interested in making it better.
Meg: I truly think the difference is more about HOW to develop rather than whether to develop. That said, my “side,” such as it is a “side,” has a wide range of opinions on the downtown. However, I believe most of the people I identify with want to use good planning tools and updated assessments of how the 21st Century economy works to create a rejuvenated and successful downtown where people want hang out.
Andy: Well, I hope those people include students, because I think they are key to our fiscally sustainable future. More on that below.
In terms of “eyesores” downtown, you may be surprised that I agree with you that 1 East Pleasant, the big building by Kendrick Park, is pretty clunky in its design. Although when I realize that it and its triangular sister (which I like) bring the town almost $2 million in taxes every three years – it starts to look a bit prettier! I do give credit to the developers, Archipelago, for figuring out how to build things again in Amherst, where most others had thrown up their hands and said, “These people are impossible.”
Meg: Have you seen the affordable housing building in Northampton at 155 Pleasant Street? It is a very large 4-story building with 23 affordable units. It is set back from the sidewalk and has an attractive design. Why can’t we build housing like that in Amherst? (Maybe Archipelago needs better architects??)
Andy: Yes, I’ve seen that building – it looks nice in that context; I wonder if it would look the same in ours. But I agree with your larger point, which is that we need some design standards to guide future development. I just want to make sure we are actually focused on generating that new development, which we are going to need to fund the services we want for our town without soaking the residential taxpayers, and not just throwing up roadblocks to make it unprofitable so it won’t happen at all.
Meg: I think most people who have raised questions about development are unhappy with what appears to be unexamined options and inappropriate building style, scale and landscape. People want to know that various options have been considered. Also, some people feel the developers and the BID are calling the shots and there’s little room for additional input and different points of view. For example, I don’t think people on my “side” are automatically opposed to a parking garage, but feel that we shouldn’t change zoning for a specific location until we’ve established the need and scale and considered all possible locations.
Andy: Okay, but I am tired of hearing for each new building, “Where is the parking?” I don’t think we want to encourage individual parking lots for each new project, and requiring underground parking for each building increases costs and makes projects less affordable. Centralized parking is a core feature of developing vibrant downtowns. I love going to Northampton and knowing that there’s a place for me to park where I don’t have to figure out in advance how long I’ll be there. It’s welcoming, and it lets the streetscape serve pedestrians, not cars.
Meg: Yes, I love the Northampton parking garage too — where the coffee is strong and so are the women! But is Amherst proposing student parking because the new buildings don’t have any? We need to unpack that. I know we each have more to say on this topic, but we’re running out of space here. In a future chat, I’d like to talk about the idea of “two sides,” more about the balance between retail and housing, the role of the arts, and form-based development. And do we have the courage to look at how the Charter that we both worked on has turned out?
Andy: Sure, and I would also like to explore our attitudes toward college students. I feel like some vocal folks in town (and I don’t believe you are one of them!) like living in a college town but would prefer if it had no college students in it. On the contrary, I feel like the students are a great resource that we should do a better job of leveraging for the town’s benefit.
Meg: Very funny! A college town with no college students! Yes, I like both living in a college town and living with students around. They make life interesting – at the peak of the recent windy snowstorm, several of our North Amherst student neighbors were in their front yard playing beer pong! So many things to talk about – all useful to unpack! Looking forward to the next round.
Andy: Okay, let’s reconvene soon for Round 2 and continue to argue about – I mean, discuss – the good, the bad, and the ugly of downtown Amherst!
Now that the new Council has chosen a Council President (Lynn Griesemer) and Vice-President (Ana Devlin Gauthier) and Griesemer has made appointments to the four standing Council committees, I thought I would dust off my crystal ball and look ahead at some of the key issues and challenges that will face the Town and its elected representatives over the next two years. In today’s post I discuss two issues, and subsequent posts will address other pressing challenges.
Funding for a new or renovated school will come from two sources: a grant from the funding agency, the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA), and money from the town that will be borrowed and paid back over 30 years. The town’s portion will exceed what can be paid for from its cash flow or regular budgets, so a “debt exclusion override” is anticipated. Such debt is temporary, raising property taxes only while the debt is repaid. It does not permanently increase the Town’s tax collection.
If the MSBA approves the school proposal, Town Council will to vote to put on the ballot a debt exclusion for voter approval. At the moment, the best guess for when such a vote would take place is March/April of 2023. A majority vote on the Council would put a debt exclusion on the ballot, and if a majority of voters approved it, a super-majority of Councilors would be required for the actual borrowing.
It will be critical that Council votes unanimously to put the debt exclusion on the ballot. But equally critical will be the willingness of the Council to convince Amherst boters to approve it. It is always a tough sell to persuade voters to increase their taxes. There is no question that Amherst needs a 21st-century school – the question that will likely be answered in the coming year is whether this Council will take a strong position in support of our children’s future.
Addressing the Housing Crisis. It is no secret that there is a housing crisis in Amherst. Demand far outstrips supply, the cost of rentals has skyrocketed, it is increasingly difficult for first-time home buyers to find homes they can afford, and conversion of single-family and two-family homes into student rentals continues to be a lucrative option for many investors.
In response to this crisis, Town Council adopted a Comprehensive Housing Policy in September 2021 that identified five primary goals in the area of housing. The first two involve promoting more pathways to home ownership by increasing the supply of diverse housing types and increasing the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing. The question is whether this Town Council will take steps to begin to address these challenges.
The policy identified strategies for increasing housing supply, but it will take leadership from the Council (combined with pressure from the community) to ensure action. Some possible priorities for the Council:
While it is easy to blame the University for our housing crisis, there are real possibilities for collaboration with UMass for off-campus housing development employing the P3 model (public-private partnership) now in use on campus. Will the Council pursue this?
There are also real possibilities for redevelopment in the center of Town that could provide substantially more housing units for senior citizens as well as transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness. Will the Council explore this?
Money has been set aside for consultants to create design guidelines for future development in our downtown and village centers. Will that happen soon?
And there are zoning reforms that could increase housing opportunities: allowing duplexes by right in all residential zoning districts, raising the current cap on the number of units allowed in apartment buildings, and adopting some form of overlay district in the BL (Limited Business) zone adjacent to our downtown to increase density and create more affordable units. These were high priorities for many of us in the previous Council. Will there be the same sense of urgency in the new body?
The Amherst elementary school building project is now in a busy and exciting stage and a lot of work is happening over the next several months. There’s a lot to keep up with and it can be hard to follow what’s going on or to know when decisions are being made! In this column, we hope to help you learn about the work that’s happening and how you can participate in the process.
Our goal is to have the elementary school open for learning in the fall of 2026. We have multiple major milestones to meet and key decisions to make along the way. Many key milestones will need to be met within the next 12 months. Three of these are:
Preliminary Design Plan: This is when we define the options we will study, including whether to build a completely new building, renovate an existing building, or a combination of renovation and addition. We’ll also outline what locations we’ll consider (including what criteria we’ll use to decide) and describe the education program for the school.
The education program provides detailed information about our students and their needs, as well as the programs and activities that we value and that will define the school. Questions such as where our specialized programs and the Caminantes dual-language program will be located will be defined in the education program.
Our goal is to complete this Preliminary Design Plan and submit it for review and approval by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) by March 15.
Preferred Schematic Report: This is when some key project decisions are made for the project, including location and whether we will build a completely new building or some combination of renovation/addition with an existing building.
DiNisco Design, the design team for the project, is currently gathering detailed information about the Fort River and Wildwood locations, assessing the condition of those buildings, and preparing preliminary estimates to evaluate and compare options.
Our goal is to decide on our preferred option and submit the Preferred Schematic Report for review and approval by the MSBA by the end of June, 2022.
Schematic Design: After the approval of our Preferred Schematic Report, our design team will prepare detailed plans for the building. This final schematic design will enable a comprehensive cost estimation and budget, and will form the basis for the MSBA’s final determination of how much of the project cost they will fund.
Our goal is to complete and submit the Schematic Design for review and approval by the MSBA by the end of December, 2022.
These three big milestones and decisions need input and feedback from our school and town community. There are multiple ways for the community to engage throughout this year. Here are some:
Visioning Workshops: these sessions enable participants to offer input to help guide the development of the education program. The aim with these workshops is to identify priorities that build on the current curriculum and aspirations for programs. Three workshops have been held in January with the community, teachers, and staff; a fourth workshop is planned for February 17.
Community Forums: forums are a way to hear updates about the project and to ask questions or provide feedback in real time. Forums will be held several times throughout this year with the first happening on February 3, this Thursday, 6:30-9:00 p.m. Here is the Zoom link for that meeting, ID: 921 7679 9133.
Project Website: the project website amherst-school-project.com is a one-stop spot to find all the information about the elementary school building project. Details about participating in the Visioning Workshop and Community Forums can be found there. It is also where to go to ask questions, give feedback, or share ideas at any time throughout the project. The Building Committee and the project team will be “listening” and responding through the tools on the website.
Public Comment: community members can offer feedback during public comment at meetings of the Building Committee or the Amherst School Committee. Find out how on the project website.
We are at an exciting phase of the project. We have the opportunity, as a community, to create and invest in an inspiring, climate-resilient elementary school building that supports excellent education both today and for decades to come. We hope that many people across the Amherst community will participate and help us make this happen.
Cathy Schoen is a member of the Amherst Town Council-District 1 and Chair of the Elementary School Building Committee. She can be reached at SchoenC@amherstma.gov. Allison McDonald is Chair of the Amherst School Committee and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the editors:The next meeting of the Elementary School Building Committee is this Friday, February 4, from 8:30-10:00 a.m. Here is the Zoom link. On the agenda: DiNisco Preliminary Findings Report to Committee: Review Existing Conditions & Site Analysis for Both Sites, Review Preliminary Alternatives Diagrams on Both Sites; Revised Priority, Evaluation Criteria/Options: Decide on Method for Ranking; Upcoming ESBC Schedule and Agendas for Preliminary Design Program Submission: DiNisco Present Plans for Feb 18, March 4, and March 11, March 11 Target Date for Committee Review and Vote on Preliminary Design Program; Report of Net-Zero Subcommittee Meeting of Jan. 13.
Please share information about the project with your friends and neighbors.
End-of-year campaign finance reports for all candidates, ballot question committees, and local political action committees were due January 20. Here are the highlights.
The two ballot question committees, Vote No – Start Over Smart and Vote Yes for Our Library, both dissolved at the end of 2021, gifting their remaining funds to the Friends of the Jones Library System Campaign Committee ($1,761 from the Vote Yes committee) and the Amherst Survival Center ($96 from the Vote No committee). Over their lifetimes,
Vote No received $5,673 in donations from at least 44 donors, while Vote Yes received a total of $12,710 in donations from at least 109 donors. (Recall that donors who give a total of $50 or less do not need to be named.)
Vote No spent $5,577 on its campaign, while Vote Yes spent $10,949.
Vote No received donations of $500 from two individuals and one additional donation of $1,000. Vote Yes received one donation of $500.
The two local political action committees (PACs), Amherst Forward and the Progressive Coalition of Amherst, did not dissolve. The Progressive Coalition (PCA) ended the year with $198 in the bank and $293 in liabilities; Amherst Forward ended the year with $3,345 in the bank and $0 in liabilities.
Both PACs endorsed candidates and spent money on campaign materials delivered to voters by mail. These expenditures are considered in-kind contributions to the endorsed candidates and must be communicated to the candidates, who must then list these contributions on their year-end finance reports. I have not seen any in-kind contribution reported by any candidate endorsed by the Progressive Coalition. Most, but not all, candidates endorsed by Amherst Forward reported in-kind contributions. Candidates and committees may amend their reports if errors are found.
Other information of note in the year-end reports:
In 2021, PCA received a total of $4,356 from at least 24 donors while Amherst Forward received $5,898 from 110 donors.
Nine people gave between $101 and $500 to PCA, four of whom gave $500. Four people gave between $101 and $500 to Amherst Forward, with no gift exceeding $104.
PCA spent $4,158 on its campaign and received $217 of in-kind contributions. Amherst Forward spent $3,916 on its campaign and received $40 of in-kind contributions.
Six people ran for the three at-large seats on Town Council. Here are highlights of the campaign finance reports for each candidate (alphabetical order; winners in bold):
Vira Douangmany Cage’s campaign received a total of $9,196 from 82 individuals, 15 of whom gave between $101 and $500, and one of whom gave $1,000. Her committee spent $8,376, and ended the year with no liabilities and $820 on hand.
Robert Greeney did not raise or spend any money for his campaign.
Mandi Jo Hanneke raised $1,580 for her campaign from at least 15 donors (largest donation, $250) and spent $1,623. The campaign reported $438 of in-kind contributions, including $99 from Amherst Forward. The campaign has no liabilities and retains $114.
Vince O’Connor’s campaign received $1,200 from at least 24 donors, spent $975, reports $232 in liabilities, and has $225 on-hand.
Andy Steinberg received a total of $2,060 from at least 18 donors, spent $1,920, reported an in-kind from Amherst Forward, and ended with $394 on hand and $2,343 in liabilities (candidate loans).
Ellisha Walker raised $4,730 from at least 47 contributors, 3 of whom contributed $500. The campaign spent $2,680, received $178 of in-kind services, has no liabilities, and retains $2,050.
Candidates for Town Council in District 3 were Dorothy Pam, George Ryan, and Jennifer Taub (winners in bold).
Dorothy Pam submitted a cumulative report for 2021. Her committee reported a total of $2,738 in contributions, but two loans by the candidate, reported in the 8th-day-preceding report, did not appear in the year-end report. The loans were not repaid or reported as liabilities. However, a third loan, which should have appeared in the 8th-day-preceding report, was listed in the year-end report. Furthermore, unitemized contributions were reported in the 8th-day-preceding but did not appear in the year-end receipts schedule. (Possibly, those donors made additional contributions and were then listed by name.) The committee spent $2,782, leaving it with $3.
George Ryan’s campaign reported a total of $3,134 from at least 28 people, as well as two candidate loans. It spent $2,746, reported an in-kind donation from Amherst Forward, and carries one liability for a candidate loan.
Jennifer Taub raised a total of $3,107 from 26 people, including the candidate. The committee spent $3,057, reported no in-kind contributions or liabilities, and ended with $50.
Candidates for Town Council in District 4 were Anika Lopes, Pam Rooney, and Evan Ross (winners in bold).
Anika Lopes received $1,505 from 17 people, including herself. Her campaign received $1,420 in in-kind contributions from four individuals (including the candidate) and Amherst Forward. The committee spent $921, retains $602, and reports one liability of $300.
Pam Rooney raised $3,969 from at least 42 contributors. Her committee spent $3,330, received no in-kind contributions, retains $639, and has no liabilities.
Evan Ross reported a total of $1,458.95 in contributions from at least 25 individuals. His campaign spent $1,161, reported no in-kind contributions, and ended the year with $884 and $858 in liabilities (candidate loans). In January of 2022, his committee dissolved after repaying the candidate and donating the remaining cash ($25) to the Friends of the Jones Library System Campaign Committee.
Please share this with neighbors and spread the word about our first District 1 meeting, January 30th at 3:30 p.m. We’re honored to be serving as your District 1 Councilors and we look forward to hearing from you!
Cathy and Michele
Community Forum about the Elementary School Project, Thursday, February 3, 6:30-9:00 p.m.
Join the first public discussion of the building project by Zoom to hear an overview of:
On Nov. 8, Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis of the Town Council introduced a zoning amendment proposing a temporary moratorium on the permitting and approval of large-scale ground-mounted (LSGM) solar photovoltaic installations.
Their reasoning was that Amherst needs to create a bylaw governing those LSGM installations and, until that bylaw is law, the permitting of such installations could have negative effects on the environment. The Council voted to send the proposal to the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee.
On Jan. 12, the CRC held a public hearing on the matter, with a presentation by the petitioners, who included newly elected Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, a former member of the Conservation Commission. Public sentiment at that hearing was lopsidedly in favor of a moratorium.
Many people believe that Amherst needs a Solar Installation Bylaw, so the Planning Board and Planning Department will undertake that task. The State of Massachusetts has been promoting such bylaws for the past seven years, and several communities in the state have created them for their towns and cities. So, it makes sense for us to hold off permitting these large-scale installations until a bylaw is created. The CRC hearing on Jan. 12 went late into the night, so deliberation before a vote will take place today.
Rather than go into the details myself of what a moratorium will and will not do, I direct you to Devlin Gauthier’s excellent presentation on the matter.
The most-often-cited reason not to have a moratorium is that our planet is burning up (I agree) and to possibly (are there plans that haven’t been submitted?) postpone a new LSGM installation by even a few months would put Amherst and the planet further behind in our quest to achieve a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
The State of Massachusetts gave guidance for solar installation bylaws in 2014. Amherst is behind the curve on this initiative, but that does not mean we should rush headlong into clear-cutting hundreds of acres of forest without any guidelines. A large solar installation on a former forest is not a win-win.
While an LSGM will likely result in a net gain in carbon sequestration, there will be losses. Forests sequester carbon, turn CO2 into oxygen, filter pollutants out of the air and protect our water supply. Given the extremely short-term gains possible versus the likely costly errors without a bylaw to guide the process, it’s hard to understand why the idea of a moratorium is controversial.
Gerry Weiss has lived in Amherst for 41 years, served on the Select Board, the Charter Commission, The Disability Access Advisory Board and is the current President of Craig’s Doors, having served on the their Board of Directors for the past 11 years.
Second, by Johanna Neumann
Last month, the Planning Board voted (5-2) not to recommend a 18-month moratorium on ground-mount solar arrays larger than an acre to the Town Council.
In my view, the majority of board members felt that the provisions of Amherst’s current bylaw that guides the siting of solar projects and other energy facilities are adequate for the time being. They also felt a discomfort with using moratoriums to dictate public policy outside of an emergency. And they were confident that Amherst residents want our town to continue to play a leadership role in the transition to clean energy.
Amherst already has a bylaw that guides the siting of energy projects like solar arrays. While this bylaw could be made more specific, it has allowed for the successful construction of ground-mount solar arrays like the one behind Atkins Market in South Amherst, the panels going up now on the old landfill, and the proposed solar array at Hickory Ridge.
The bylaw includes language for setbacks, management plans, and more. The existence of the bylaw has not resulted in major problems with the solar systems installed to date, and so I and other Planning Board members felt that a moratorium isn’t necessary to prevent problems with potential solar installations in the future.
Some of us also felt that governing by moratorium is too reactionary. In the past few years, there have been two proposed moratoriums in town: one to freeze downtown development and the other to freeze solar arrays. Amherst has rules and regulations in place that were thoughtfully developed, and I, at least, feel that moratoriums should be considered a “nuclear option” and used only when absolutely necessary.
Lastly, I and other Planning Board members see the need for continued growth in clean energy. The Massachusetts 2050 Roadmap to Decarbonization calls for in-state solar capacity to accelerate from the roughly 400 megawatts (MW) installed per year over the past six years to more than 600 MW installed each year by 2030. An 18-month moratorium on any ground-mount solar project larger than an acre in Amherst would freeze clean energy’s growth right at the time when we need it to take off.
We can do two things at once. We can and must keep growing solar to reduce our climate pollution and we can be conscientious about how, where and when that solar goes.
Town staff are exploring how to go about funding and structuring a comprehensive solar study, and the Planning Board has initiated conversations around a solar-specific bylaw. I am confident that by working together, we can continue to make progress towards Amherst’s goal of powering itself with 100 percent renewable energy in a way that satisfies most residents.
Johanna Neumann has lived in Amherst since 2011. She has been an advocate and organizer around environmental issues for 20 years and is currently the senior director of Environment America’s campaign for 100 percent renewable energy. She is in her first term as a member of Amherst’s Planning Board. This statement has not been approved by the board.
Town officials are recommending big increases in parking permit fees, including steep ones for residents who don’t register their vehicles in Amherst.
Parking permits enable downtown residents and employees to use designated spaces on the outskirts of downtown. The system is intended to make more downtown spaces available to shoppers and restaurant patrons.
The Town Council is scheduled to receive a report on the proposals for higher fees at tonight’s meeting and may vote on them.
Town Hall currently sells 236 parking permits for only $25 a year to people who don’t pay excise taxes to the Town because they register their vehicles elsewhere. Under the proposal, those fees would increase sixfold, to $150, next year, and then to $300 the year after that and $400 the following year.
The excise tax revenue lost “is substantial and helps support the overall budget, including capital that goes to maintain roads and sidewalks,” according to a memo from Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano and Treasurer/Collector Jennifer LaFountain. Other Massachusetts cities and towns that also host state institutions and have comparable populations collect far more excise tax on vehicles than Amherst does, they pointed out.
“The parking permit program is long overdue for a significant update,” they wrote to the Town Council. “The current version was adopted in 1999 with updates in 2002 and 2005.” Fees were kept low when the program started to encourage residents and employees to participate.
The 79 people who currently do register their vehicles in Amherst and buy parking permits for $25 would see more modest increases. Under the plan, these permits would cost $50 next year and $100 the year after that.
There are also 482 people who buy employee permits for $25 a year. Those fees are due to increase slightly, to $35 next year and $45 the following year. Twenty people reserve parking spots for $1,000 a year and would see $100 increases each of the next two years.
The total amount collected from parking permit fees annually is scheduled to increase from the current $39,925 to $155,350 in three years.
Permit fees go into the Transportation Fund, along with revenues from parking meters and violations. The fund is supposed to pay for all related expenses without drawing on tax revenue, expenses that include salaries for enforcement officers, PVTA surcharges, the Town’s assessment to the Business Improvement District, meter and kiosk maintenance and parking lot improvements.
But the Transportation Fund, which spends about $1.1 million a year, has been running a deficit that is projected to be eliminated with the fee increases. The goal is devote 15 percent of the Fund’s revenues, or $200,000 a year, to capital and debt. “We envision a fund that can be fully self-sustaining, support regular maintenance, and save up for larger capital improvements,” the town officials wrote.
The Town Council will also consider a proposal to implement high-visibility signage in key locations and update the Town’s parking web page to make it more user-friendly.
New signs are needed at each public parking lot to identify hours of operation and other information, and a plan is expected to be ready later this year. Town officials have started work on the web page to make it more helpful “while at the same time de-emphasizing the punitive elements of the parking system,” according to the memo. The web page will include a feedback form so that residents can make comments about the system.
Town officials are not recommending the creation of a dedicated parking management position to coordinate all this.
“At this time, there are insufficient resources to create this position and ensure that it could be funded each year going forward,” according to the memo. “The pandemic has significantly diminished the revenues going into the Transportation Fund and highlighted their volatility.”
Amherst homeowners have until Feb. 1 to pay their typically hefty property tax bills. These bills are the heftiest yet, and I’ll try to explain why in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Don’t be late in paying these bills; interest at an annual rate of 14 percent starts adding up on Feb. 2.
Q. If the fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, why are these quarterly bills higher than the ones that were due on Aug. 1 and Nov. 1?
A. Those earlier bills were estimates of your annual tax obligation, based on the previous fiscal year’s values and a projection of the tax rate. The new values and the actual tax rate were not set and certified until December, a lag that happens every year. So most of the annual increase in your taxes must be paid in the bills due Feb. 1 and May 1.
Q. How much are my annual taxes going up?
A. It depends on the assessed value of your property, but the average single-family home’s annual tax bill is going up from $8,194 last year to $8,609 this year.
Q. What’s the math behind those numbers?
A. The average assessed value of a single-family home in Amherst in the previous fiscal year was $375,507 and the tax rate was $21.82 per $1,000. This year’s average value is $404,763 and the tax rate is $21.27. Tax rates usually decrease when the average property value increases.
Q. That’s an increase of 5 percent in the average annual tax bill. I thought taxes couldn’t go up by more than 2.5 percent under state law.
A. State law does limit the amount a town can raise in taxes to 2.5 percent, but allows it to further increase by the amount of taxes raised by “new growth.” The extra wrinkle this year is that residential values have been rising more than commercial values, partly because of the pandemic, so a larger share of the tax burden is now borne by homeowners.
Q. Yes, I’ve heard that the real estate market went crazy last spring, with sale prices often higher than asking prices, with multiple buyers bidding prices up and houses. Have things stabilized a bit?
A. A bit. Asking prices have been very similar to sale prices lately, said Finance Director Sean Mangano. Last spring, sale prices of single-family houses were averaging about $500,000, or 28 percent above their assessed values. The last few months, the average sale price has gone down, but it’s still above $450,000, and about 20 percent above assessed values. All single-family sale prices in the past 10 months are listed in “Recent House Sales” in the main menu of this blog.
Q. Are condominium prices increasing as fast as single-family houses?
A. Yes. The average condo is on the market for only two to three days before it’s sold, Mangano said.
Q. I heard that Amherst’s taxes are twice what they are in Hadley. Is that true?
A. Almost. The average residential tax in Hadley this year is $4,467, and the tax rate is only $12.18 per $1,000. Because of a much bigger commercial sector, Hadley homeowners bear a much smaller percentage of the tax burden than in Amherst. In addition, Hadley chose to give homeowners a break this year by establishing a higher tax rate for commercial property than residential property.
Q. Northampton is more similar to Amherst than Hadley is. What are its taxes like?
A. The average residential tax bill in Northampton this year is $6,303, which is an 8.6 percent increase over last year. Northampton, though it doesn’t have a commercial sector like Hadley’s, has a significantly bigger one than Amherst, so the business sector absorbs a greater share of the tax burden.
Q. Why are taxes in Amherst so high?
A. There are three main reasons. First, a large percentage of our land is exempt from property taxes, chiefly because of campuses but also because of conservation areas and farmland that can’t be developed. Second, we have high expectations for municipal services; for example, we have a low teacher-student ratio in our schools, and we believe in paying our public employees well. Third, because of our very small commercial sector, residents are responsible for 90 percent of the property taxes that Amherst collects.
Q. How does Amherst’s average residential tax bill compare with other Massachusetts cities and towns?
A. In recent years, we have ranked about 55th among the 351 cities and towns. The average property tax bill in Massachusetts in fiscal 2021 was $6,374. The only town in the Pioneer Valley with higher property taxes than Amherst is Longmeadow ($9,388).
Q. Why are assessed values lower than sale prices?
A. In a hot market like Amherst’s, it’s difficult for assessments to keep up with changes. The schedule for re-assessing property also contributes to the lag. Some properties are re-assessed ahead of that schedule, because a sale has established their values, or a homeowner has taken out a building permit, or a property hasn’t been inspected in some time.
Q. If I have a higher assessment, is that what causes my taxes to go up?
A. No. Assessments merely redistribute the tax burden based on the actual market. Assessments and the tax rate operate like a seesaw; when one goes up, the other typically goes down. But annual tax bills on a property rarely go down, because the amount of money the Town must raise always goes up. An assessed value might decrease if a house is damaged, as in a fire.
Q. Are property assessments going to be increased to more accurately reflect sale prices?
A. Yes. Town officials are required under state law to do a total revaluation in the fiscal year starting July 1. Increases could be across the board, or higher in some neighborhoods or styles of housing. While assessments will increase, the tax rate will likely continue to decline.
Q. How can I find out my assessed value?
A. In the middle of the top of your tax bill, it’s listed under “Total Taxable Valuation.” You can find the valuation for any address by going to amherstma.gov, clicking on Departments, then Assessor, then Online Data Base, then entering the address.
Q. I don’t want to go to Town Hall to pay my taxes because of the pandemic. What should I do?
A. If you don’t want to mail your payment, there’s a secure drop box on the Main Street side of Town Hall. You can’t pay your taxes over the telephone.
Q. Can I pay my tax bill online? Can I arrange for my taxes to be automatically taken out of my bank account?
A. Yes. The information on how to do this is included in a fact sheet that came with your tax bill.
Thanks to Town Councilor Andy Steinberg, Finance Director Sean Mangano and Principal Assessor Kimberly Mew for contributing to these answers.
(Precincts 5 and 9 – roughly from Strong St to College St, and along S. Pleasant St from Route 9 to the Columbia Drive neighborhoods):
As your new Councilors, we would like to hear from you and be able to communicate information and news on a regular basis to you. One reliable way to reach you with updates and information is via email. If you are interested in hearing from us, kindly email Councilor Lopes and Councilor Rooney at our respective Town email addresses – email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know you want to be on our mailing list. If you are a neighborhood email list “manager”, we would greatly appreciate it if you would post this notice to let your neighborhoods know of our interest in reaching out to, and hearing from, as many people as we can.
To reach us – or any Councilor – the Town Council’s main phone (413) 259-3001 and the shared email address that reaches all 13 councilors, email@example.com, are also very good ways to reach us with your thoughts and questions. The Town Council website has lots of good information and a place to directly submit comments: https://www.amherstma.gov/3435/Town-Council .
We look forward to hearing from you! Here’s to healthy and productive New Year!
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Four days later, Civil Rights Warrior and Congressman John Conyers Jr. took to the floor of Congress to insist on a national day of recognition to honor his memory. It took 15 years of struggle before the day was finally celebrated as a federal holiday.
Three years later, in 1989, Conyers introduced H.R. 40 – The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act – and that struggle has gone on even longer. Last April the bill finally made it out of committee, the culmination of decades of work, mostly by Black people. The 40 in H.R. 40 has significance that goes beyond the order in which it was introduced to Congress. It’s meant to remind us we’ve never made good on the country’s promise to give formerly enslaved African Americans 40 acres (the mule would come later), following emancipation.
Special Field Orders No.15, issued on January 16, 1865 by General William T. Sherman (with the approval of President Lincoln) came at the urging of 20 Black leaders, mostly ministers, in Savannah. Here is the section of the order that addresses the land grant:
” ..each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”
The order was accompanied by other specifics identifying the territory that was being granted and ordering that it would be settled and governed entirely by Black people. By June, 1865, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land’” and a Black governor – Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston – had been appointed.
In a devastating turn of events, in the fall of 1865, the order was revoked by President Lincoln’s successor, a supporter of the southern white supremacist establishment, Andrew Johnson. The land was returned to its former slave-holding owners, and 40,000 Black freedmen and their families were left without a home.
(A little known fact is that three years prior, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act made reparations to the owners of enslaved people for their “loss of property” by granting them the equivalent of $8,000 in today’s dollars for every slave who was freed.)
Why does a broken promise to formerly enslaved African Americans in 1865 matter now?
So much of the focus of whites has been related to the harm suffered by African Americans as a result of slavery and post-slavery structural racism. We’ve read eye-opening opinion pieces and books, listened to illuminating podcasts, and even talked to Black friends and co-workers about their experience of being Black in America. I bet most of us in Amherst can appreciate the magnitude of these crimes against humanity and can sympathize with the physical, mental, and emotional consequences for people of African descent.
But how much have we thought about what Black people have lost as a result of broken promises by white government leaders and racist federal policies that excluded Blacks from accessing land and other wealth-building resources? What would America look like today, and what would the financial condition of the Black community be like, if Sherman’s order had stuck?
Some economists have estimated the value of 40 acres and a mule for those 40,000 freed slaves to be worth a staggering $640 billion today.
To add to the repugnant and unequal treatment of Black people, between 1862 and 1935, The Homestead Act provided mostly white people (99.73%) up to 160 acres of free land. According to Shawn Rochester, in his book “The Black Tax,” this equates to roughly $1.6 trillion in value today (the equivalent of giving $500,000 to $1 million per family). Further, Rochester tells us it’s estimated that up to 93 million Americans today are direct beneficiaries of this government-enacted wealth-building program.
Dr. King poignantly encapsulated this in a 1967 interview, saying “Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time.”
Reparations, apart from racial justice initiatives, are the way forward for the U.S. to pay the debt owed to African Americans. White support and follow-through are essential to this process, not only in word, but in deeds. No more broken promises. No more racist policies that favor whites. No more.
No matter how robust a reparative justice initiative is, it’s impossible for a locality to settle the debt owed to Blacks. It’s the responsibility of the federal government to settle up – financially and morally – with African Americans, and that’s the goal of H.R. 40.
In Amherst, however, we can begin a process of healing the wound and giving folks an experience with making reparations that will, like other social movements that begin locally (think marriage equality), support the national movement. While financial reparations are necessary at the federal level, locally we can create an opportunity for Black residents to design a reparative plan that comes in many forms and, importantly, benefits all residents.
What that program looks like and who will be eligible is still a mystery and, ultimately, can only be decided by the African heritage community of Amherst.
According to N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), reparations can be made to an individual through “direct benefits” like housing assistance, educational scholarships, and business grants. And, to the Black community as a whole through “collective benefits” aimed at collective repair and healing. Examples they give are African-centered education, community trust funds, community wellness initiatives, and ending racially based public policy.
To ensure these benefits hold up to legal challenges, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly will develop a narrowly defined harm report which links specific harm that occurred in Amherst, like racial deed covenants that existed on some of our streets, to determine the impact for Blacks who currently live or have lived in Amherst. This information will help to inform the Black community as they design the Reparative Justice Program for Amherst.
Over the past several centuries, farmers in the Pioneer Valley have adopted new technologies to make farms more productive and the work safer. The local Swartz Family Farm is no exception and has been an early adopter and promoter of “controlled environment agriculture,” namely hydroponics.
I had the pleasure of listening to third-generation Amherst farmer Joe Swartz describe the history of his farm and his work in the hydroponics industry to an audience at Applewood recently.
The Swartz family, hailing from Poland, purchased their property on Meadow St. in 1919 and raised potatoes, onions, and tobacco by conventional means – that is, growing crops in the soil – and ran a small dairy. Over time, use of horses gave way to tractors and the like, maximizing productivity during our short 120-day growing period. Joe relates that the intense work, including crop dusting, was injurious to the health of his father and uncle, and that the short growing season left the farm unproductive for much of the year.
When he took over the farm in 1984, Joe Swartz quickly built a greenhouse and began using hydroponic techniques to increase the farm’s production. Hydroponics is the science of growing food crops and flowers inside, in a soil-free system that supports the plants while letting roots develop in water containing carefully regulated nutrients and beneficial microbes. The farm shifted to growing greens and herbs year-round in 12,000 sq-ft of greenhouse space while leasing land to another farmer for conventionally grown crops.
One benefit of hydroponics is the dramatic decrease in water use because the system is closed. Joe noted that one head of lettuce grown conventionally in a field might require application of 10 gallons of water, whereas a head grown hydroponically needs less than 1 gallon.
A second benefit is that the ability to control temperature, humidity, and light enables a dramatic increase in productivity because crops can be grown virtually year-round. A greenhouse will use natural light when it is available and will augment with artificial lighting when necessary.
A third benefit is reduction in pesticide use. Joe says because of careful greenhouse management, monitoring, and introduction of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, it has been 37 years since the Swartz farm used pesticides inside. (Other beneficial insects, namely bumblebees, are employed as pollinators.) Reduction of pesticide use is both safer for workers and desired by consumers.
A fourth benefit is that costs (including greenhouse gas emissions) of transporting produce long distance can be eliminated by growing hydroponically near markets and distribution centers. This advantage has become more significant during the pandemic when supply chains have been so disrupted.
Overall, hydroponics can increase productivity 10-fold on an area basis. Virtually any plant, from bananas to wheat, can be grown hydroponically. Whether hydroponic agriculture makes financial sense for a farmer depends on local factors such as natural conditions, land and energy costs, water availability, and the cost of conventionally grown produce.
Through his work training and educating area farmers based on his own experience in Amherst, Joe learned of a California firm, AmHydro, then (and now) a supplier of systems and equipment for hydroponics. In 2015 he joined AmHydro and began the firm’s consulting practice and his wife, Sarah, took over running the family farm. (Currently, the Swartz Family Farm is closed while it installs the latest technology.)
The company has now consulted on hydroponics projects in more than 60 countries, from Japan to Nigeria, and many U.S. states. The variety of projects demonstrates how significant this technology can be, on scales large and small.
For example, hydroponics can bring fresh produce year-round to food deserts in urban areas. An early project was designing and building a facility on top of an 8-story apartment building in the Bronx. The farm at Arbor House now produces more than 300,000 lbs of food for residents and the local community, and trains young people to do this work. A greenhouse on top of an industrial building in Montreal produces 600,000 lbs of produce annually for its CSA.
The technology can be used to reduce water usage and increase effective farm acreage in Egypt, or to reduce long-distance transportation of produce in Hawaii or the Bahamas, or enable fresh food to be grown during Alaska’s long, dark, and cold months. Indian farmers can use hydroponics where soil quality is poor, perhaps from pollution. Urban farms have sprung up from Paris to Singapore.
The 2022 Climate Summit (COP27) will be held in Egypt, home to the world’s largest hydroponic operation, covering 6,000 acres. Joe is working with farms that will be featured during the summit and expects to meet with President Al-Sisi this spring.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., government at all levels is adjusting regulatory and tax schemes to allow hydroponics in areas – cities, for example – where no areas are zoned for agriculture. The early project in the Bronx required extensive discussions with authorities to permit such seemingly sensible but bureaucratically unknown actions such as capturing rainfall and directing it to the greenhouse rather than into the sewer. The US Department of Agriculture only recently has begun making grants and financing available to growers outside of rural areas. Incentive programs hope to expand urban farming.
During the month of January, the Amherst Elementary School Educational Visioning Group (EVG) — a group of administrators, teachers, School Building Committee members, parents, and community partners – will participate in two Educational Visioning Workshops run by New Vista Design and DiNisco Design. Each workshop will be a collaborative virtual session designed to inform the elementary school feasibility study that has been awarded to the town of Amherst by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). Participants will be led through a step-by-step visioning process aimed at capturing their best thinking about Amherst elementary schools’ current and future educational goals and priorities, building on previous visioning work done by the district, and exploring best practices and possibilities in innovative school facility design.
The workshops will take place virtually via Zoom (please see the meeting link below) and are designed to be highly participatory, engaging, and informative. The educational and architectural goals set during these workshops will have a direct and tangible impact on the design approach and features of the new school facility. We understand that this is already an extremely busy time of year that has been further impacted by the return of students to in-person learning, so we do hope that you will consider taking part in these visioning sessions and sharing your ideas and dreams for the renovated and/or new elementary school facility.
We have scheduled two meetings to cover the same content in the hopes that you will be able to join one of them: Thursday, Jan. 13, 8:30-11:30 a.m., and Wednesday, Jan. 26, 6-9 p.m.
Focus areas will include:
Priorities for the new and/or renovated facility.
21st-century learning goals that have been approved by ARPS.
Strengths, Challenges, Opportunities, and Goals (SCOG analysis) associated with this projects and ARPS’s elementary schools’ current academic programming as well as the District’s vision for its future.
21st-century design patterns that innovative elementary schools throughout Massachusetts and the US have put into practice to make their forward-thinking learning goals come alive on the level of facility design.
Blue sky ideas that participants would like to see in the new school program and facility.
The meetings will be recorded and posted to the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) website at https://www.amherst-school-project.com/ where you may also provide input and feedback at your convenience.
Please contact Cathy Schoen, ESBC Chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information about the upcoming workshops and how to take part in them.
The climate crisis requires us to work quickly to reduce fossil fuel use. We need to create policies and incentives to encourage rapid development of solar where we most want it. We can’t spend months, let alone years, obtaining the “perfect” versus other possibilities.
Many of us prefer that solar projects be put on already disturbed land and over parking lots. Are we willing to support state subsidies for commercial rooftop and parking lot solar arrays? Are we willing to pay more for electricity to cover the true costs of building the facilities (with subsidies for low-income ratepayers)? We have to take action to make change happen and solve the problems that we who have benefited from industrialization have caused.
Massachusetts has been pursuing putting solar photovoltaics on closed landfills. Amherst is currently doing this on the closed landfill north of Belchertown Road.
According to Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, town government will be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project – we 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. In addition, 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 or PILOT).
Many of us wish a project like this could have happened earlier. It didn’t for three basic reasons: opposition by neighbors to the previously proposed site, discovery of an endangered species on that site, and the complexity of siting and arranging for permits, etc.
The first proposal, in 2015, included siting collectors on both discontinued landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road). There was strenuous opposition by some of the homeowners abutting the southern landfill, including claims the landfill was not safe for solar arrays (untrue) and court challenges. The argument that held up was the discovery of an endangered bird species – the Grasshopper Sparrow – using the grassland on top of the old landfill as a nesting site. So the proposal was changed to put collectors on the northern landfill, and create a conservation easement for the Sparrow on the southern landfill (a fence will be installed to protect the birds from dogs, etc.).
Any project needs funding and to meet many criteria. The site has to be carefully studied to be sure it is suitable. The Department of Public Utilities and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have to issue permits, and the local utility company – in this case, Eversource – has to agree to purchase the power. Someone must come up with the large dollar amount to do all this preparatory environmental and legal work, to buy the materials, actually install the panels, and pay all the costs of connecting to the grid. All this before any money comes in.
One selected developer had financial problems during the years of permitting and the Town had to select another. In order to make it work financially, the developer needs to find a customer able and willing to commit to paying for the electricity that will be generated – to be an off-taker. The developer can’t build the project unless all the power is committed (they won’t get a loan without evidence it can be paid back); in our situation, the Town is able to commit for all 4 megawatts the facility will generate.
Everything I said about the permits and costs of siting photovoltaics on a closed landfill applies equally to putting them on canopies over a parking lot. But more so: the steel pillars needed to hold the canopies are a major expense, for example. Also, since an existing parking lot surface will be torn up to install the electrical cables, concrete footings for the pillars, etc. it is best to do it on a parking lot that was due to be resurfaced, not one with a new surface. The overall result is that creating a solar site on a canopy over a parking lot costs twice as much as creating one on open land.
We have several examples of canopies over parking lots in Amherst, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts. According to Ezra Small, Campus Sustainability Manager, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created grant and incentive programs for state agencies to create solar projects on their properties, and the University has received significant grant funds over the course of the past five years or so of canopy development on campus.
Solar canopies over parking lots were in earlier stages of market development in 2015, so the first project on campus, near the Robsham Memorial Visitors Center on Massachusetts Avenue, was a pilot project. UMass put up its own capital funds, combined with a Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Leading by Example grant of $268,000 to fund the project, but since then has partnered with commercial developers on much larger canopy projects: the developer comes up with the capital, UMass enters into a Site License Agreement with them for the parking lots, and like the Town with the landfill project, has a 20-year agreement to purchase the power. There are now five parking lots generating over 10 million kilowatt hours per year of renewable electricity, the equivalent of the amount used by 1,430 Massachusetts homes or about 30 percent of homes in Amherst.
The projects have definitely been a success: without taking on the capital expense of installing the solar canopies, UMass has a fixed rate for electricity expenses for 20 years, has less need for snowplowing, and shows its commitment, on campus, to solar power.
You probably have noticed that the two private colleges in Amherst have not done projects over their own parking lots. Hampshire College does supply its own energy from the large ground-mount array along Bay Road.
Nor have commercial properties in Amherst or nearby Hadley installed arrays over parking lots. River Valley Co-op, working with Co-op Power, put collectors on the roof and over the parking lot on their new building in Easthampton.
The state offers significant tax incentives for solar canopies, but not enough to make up for the additional costs. Additional complications include important infrastructure or easements under parking lots (such as for sewage, water, or gas lines) or multiple owners. Similarly, the roofs of large commercial buildings often have utilities (as for air conditioning) on them and were generally not built with adequate support for solar panels.
For more information on green energy projects in Amherst, see our previous post.
We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and are posting the responses this week. Today we hear from Evan Ross of district 4.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
This first Council has a long list of achievements of which our entire community should be proud. The most prominent is the approval of the expansion and renovation project of the Jones Library. This vote will impact our community for generations, and touches so many of the stated goals and values of our community, from climate action to social justice. I am also proud of the actions we have taken to reinvest in our downtown and to establish our downtown as a destination. I am more optimistic about the future of our downtown now than I have been in a long time. From the performance shell on the Common (voted Dec. 2021), to the Kendrick Park playground (voted Dec. 2019), to an expanded and renovated Jones Library (voted April 2021), to streamlined permitting for outdoor dining (voted June 2020), to the renovation and restoration of our North Common (voted May 2021), to moving forward a new destination parking facility (voted Dec. 2021), to ending the prohibition on the sale of alcohol on the town commons (voted March 2020), this Council is responsible for renewed vibrancy in our downtown and consistently demonstrated a commitment investing in our downtown.
Finally, I am also proud of the work we did on housing. While there is much work to do, this Council took important steps to address our town’s housing crisis. The Council developed and approved by near-unanimous vote a Comprehensive Housing Policy. This document represents a public recognition that Amherst is facing a housing crisis and sets housing goals for our community that focus around production, affordability, diversity, and sustainability. The document also establishes an ambitious goal: minimum of 250 new units for households earning less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) over the next five years, and minimum of 850 units above 80% AMI over the next five years. Consider that from 2010-2019, a ten-year period, Amherst built 663 new units. Reaching the goal of over 1,000 new units over the next five years is a major commitment by the Council to housing production and will take proactive efforts by subsequent Councils. This Council began that work both through its investment in affordable housing projects and through passage of progressive zoning amendments focused on housing affordability. Specifically, we strengthened inclusionary zoning, eased the permitting pathway for apartments in village centers, eased the permitting pathway for most Accessory Dwelling Units, and made parking minimums more flexible.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Reducing the workload for Councilors is an important goal if we want to recruit new Councilors who represent and reflect the demographic diversity of our community. To some extent, the workload of the Council is what you make of it. Some Councilors choose to take up leadership roles, chair committees, write and introduce policies, and serve the Council as liaisons. Others read the packet, attend meetings, and vote. There is no wrong way to be a Councilor, and each Councilor can and should take on a workload that reflects their capacity. That said, here are some thoughts on reducing the workload:
Fewer agenda items. The Council has a lot of work ahead of it, and occasionally the president will need to post an agenda that folks will see and say “that’s too much!” But as general practice, the president should try to limit the number of agenda items to what they determine is reasonable for the Council to adjourn by 9 p.m. (which means the Council will actually adjourn by 10 p.m.).
Councilor comments. Councilors need to abide by the 3-minute cap on their comments. Some Councilors, and one in particular, consistently ignore this rule and will talk well over the cap. The president needs to enforce this rule.
Councilor questions. On some issues, Councilors were invited to review materials and send their questions in advance to relevant staff. In this way, the questions could be answered prior to the meeting and meeting time was not consumed by answering individual questions. This should be a more common practice but requires Councilors to be provided materials well enough in advance for them to read them, develop questions, and for staff to prepare responses to those questions prior to the meeting.
Public comment. Public comment can consume large amounts of meeting time. If there are 20 public commenters and each uses their full 3 minutes that is a full hour of Council time on public comment. Many public commenters email their comments to the Council in advance of the meeting, then show up and read their comments to the Council. We need to develop a public culture around the Council that recognizes the Council workload and acknowledges their role in reducing meeting times. The public should be encouraged to submit written comments via the Council comment portal and if they have provided written comments then refrain from taking up meeting time repeating those comments during public comment.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
My biggest hope is that they work together to make progress. With 13 Councilors, the ideas, priorities, and personalities will always conflict. Finding common ground isn’t always easy, and sometimes compromise feels like folding. But we need our town to continue moving forward, and that will require Councilors finding ways to collaborate and compromise. Housing is one of the most pressing issues facing our town, but also a space where the Council will likely be divided. Several Councilors ran (and won) on NIMBYism (Pam, Taub, Rooney). Others have consistently advocated for housing production and growth (Hanneke, Steinberg, Bahl-Milne). We can’t wait to tackle housing, which means Councilors from both sides of the spectrum will need to find ways to work together, find common ground, and compromise.
Most importantly on this front, I hope the Council will reject the false narrative that there are two sides or parties. The beginning of my term was consistently defined by folks invoking a narrative that it was the “Amherst Forward” majority versus the “Independents” minority. By the end of the term that narrative had fizzled. Folks noted shifting coalitions that varied by issue. The only Councilor who consistently maintained this false and damaging binary was Councilor DuMont. The 2020 election was a bit different. There were two political action committees. Two candidates were endorsed by both (Walker and Lopes). Two candidates were endorsed by neither (Rooney and Schoen). The narrative of two sides is breaking down and I hope the Councilors themselves will actively work to break it down. The concept of some Councilors as “independent” I hope will be left behind, too, as every Councilor is independent. Councilors (and the public) need to stop defining Councilors simply by who did or did not endorse them in an election, and call out how doing so damages and divides our community.
The new Town Council will be sworn in this evening. We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and are posting the responses this week. Today we hear from George Ryan of district 3 and Stephen Schreiber of district 4.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
Despite a global pandemic that began half-way through our term we passed important zoning reforms in the areas of affordable housing (Inclusionary Zoning), housing opportunity (Accessory Dwelling Units) and Downtown development (Mixed Use, Parking Overlay); we supported affordable housing initiatives (132 Northampton Road, Belchertown Road/East Street School), approved the borrowing for the Jones Library Renovation/Expansion, and created from scratch a workable Council Committee structure (Finance, Town Services, Community Resources, and Governance).
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Having created and “beta tested” the existing Council Committee structure over the past three years this will take a huge time burden off the shoulders of the new Council — now the new Councilors need to trust the work of those Committees. The Council President could be more strict in enforcing the existing rules that govern debate in the Council. The use of the consent agenda has been a help. I think a Council of 13 by its very nature creates a challenge that may prove hard to overcome — everyone has a right to their say and if you have three minutes every time you speak that takes up a lot of time. Finally, Council may need to meet more often if it wishes to keep its meetings to under 4 hours.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
I hope that zoning reforms will continue to create more housing opportunity and development in the downtown and village centers, I hope that the Council will work with the Town Manager to get all four Major Capital Projects off the ground (i.e. insist that the Town settle on a site or sites for the DPW), and I hope that the Council will see to it that the newly created CRESS program is implemented in a way that is both fiscally responsible and does not adversely impact public safety. And I hope that the Council will soon be able to resume in-person meetings — I felt that while the Council functioned well enough via remote means this kind of distance governance is not healthy for the creation (and maintenance) of personal relationships among the Councilors. I felt that some of the unpleasantness of the last few months — in addition to the general nastiness of the election — was exacerbated by the fact that we no longer met face-to-face on a biweekly basis. Perhaps that is more a hope for the world at large and just not the Council?
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
I’m proud that the 13 inaugural Town Councilors all stuck it out for their full 3-year terms. We generally worked together well, especially considering the issues facing the town. I’m proud that we supported the renovation (and/or expansion) of the Town’s three most important physical resources — the Common, the Jones Library, and the schools. And I’m proud that we essentially eliminated single family zoning in Amherst, by approving a greatly expanding accessory dwelling unit by-law.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Committee sizes must be reduced to 3 (or 4) councilors each, and councilors should serve on only one Town Council committee each. Committee meetings should meet once a month. Town Council needs to trust other town boards and committees, and not duplicate (or negate) those committee’s charges. For example, the duplication of efforts by the CRC and the Planning Board needs to get under control.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
Please leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. Be respectful of staff’s ability to support the council. Be ambitious but also be humble — not all of the world’s problems have to be solved in Amherst.
Happy New Year! Our second Town Council will be sworn in Monday evening. We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and will post the responses over the next couple of days. Today we hear from at-large Councilor Alisa Brewer.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
We did a lot of work setting up structures while also making progress moving forward on the work our community needs.
We continuously asked ourselves who we are not hearing from, and how we might hear from them.
We regularly paid attention — to the chagrin of some of my colleagues — to what history has taught us and brought us in municipal governance in Amherst, so we could do better, instead of relying solely on what some inexperienced Town Councilors thought sounded good out of context in other communities.
We learned to trust the work of both Town Council subcommittees and the many appointed bodies in order to improve our thinking and deliberations on multiple issues.
I am proud that:
we achieved temporary zoning flexibility to support local businesses by enabling outside dining,
we provided Zoom live coverage and readily accessible recordings that surpass any coverage of Amherst municipal governance meetings in the past (except for 20+ years ago when our local newspapers apparently provided comprehensive coverage),
the majority of us agreed that we cannot go back to the old, pre-pandemic days of forcing people to drive to Town Hall to speak for three minutes on camera,
we made progress on the Elementary School project, and
we lived our values on affordable housing, racial equity, and social justice by investing both time and money and by pushing beyond the comfort zone of many residents and staff.
I am proud that I was able to convince many of my colleagues to give the less obvious suspects a chance to lead both the Town Council and the Town Council subcommittees, rather than choosing the easiest route for leadership. As I said at our last Town Council meeting in December, it is a mistake to rely on the same folks over and over just because it’s easier to sit back and let them do the work. We can and must support each other in developing leadership skills.
Yet I will never forget the colleague who said publicly during annual officer elections that the youngest Town Council member would be around and could wait his turn –this was both unbelievably short-sighted and thoughtlessly biased, while demonstrating poor judgment in a Town that says it values many types of diversity. And I will never forgive the colleague who purposefully mischaracterized both her own Town Council subcommittee leadership and the work of another colleague in order to damage that colleague’s re-election.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
The Clerk of the Town Council has never been a full-time position, stretching the amazing Athena O’Keeffe in too many directions. The Town Council needs at least one full-time staff person working for the Town Council in addition to our only other employee, the Town Manager. The Clerk of the Town Council also needs to continue to be empowered to hire contracted minute-takers for all full Town Council and Town Council subcommittee meetings. It is ridiculous to expect the Clerk of the Town Council to take all Town Council-related minutes, or to expect any part-time elected officials to take their own minutes.
Town Councilors have to serve on too many Town Council subcommittees, and most meetings of both the full Town Council and Town Council subcommittees are too long. There is no obvious solution to this. There is no benefit to compressing the number of Town Council subcommittees, given their charges. There is always more work to be done than we feel we can accomplish in both Town Council meetings and numerous Town Council subcommittee meetings. If we decrease the number of Town Councilors on each subcommittee to three, that would be more manageable, as none would be required to serve on more than one subcommittee (except for the seats we also have on the Finance Committee, the Elementary School Building Committee, the Jones Library Building Committee, Joint Capital Planning Committee, and Budget Coordinating Group). Unfortunately, under Open Meeting Law, no two members of a three-member subcommittee could talk about subcommittee business outside a posted meeting. I recommend that the next Town Council at least try having GOL (Governance, Organization, and Legislation) be a three-member subcommittee and see how that goes.
We have seen some progress in the Town Manager requiring Town staff to submit their presentation materials further in advance of Monday meetings and subcommittee meetings. But we still have room to improve in that area, especially for big annual presentations like the financial indicators presentation that was purposefully withheld from part-time elected officials, out of some misguided sense of tradition, until a couple hours before the meeting. It often feels as though the Town Manager is placing the Town Council in the position of not having time to prepare questions in advance of our meeting.
It is also completely unacceptable to expect part-time elected officials to devote a huge chunk of their weekend to reading and analyzing packet materials for a Monday night meeting, and it’s ridiculous to assume that any part-time elected official can spend Monday afternoon doing that as well. As I’ve been saying for over a decade, everyone is busy and does things at the last minute — make the “last minute” sooner, so the reading and processing of packet materials happens over a longer period of time.
One workload item that must be addressed, if we expect to attract and retain part-time elected officials who have jobs and families, is to not expect Town Council subcommittee meetings to be held during the traditional workday. This was a misstep by this Town Council and broke with years of precedent for having most Amherst committee meetings be in the evening. Of course, evening meetings are also difficult for those with jobs and family members to care for, but it doesn’t make much sense for the public to be expected to follow daytime meetings, either. And a Town Councilor’s desire to serve on a particular Town Council subcommittee should not be thwarted by that subcommittee’s “traditional” meeting schedule.
Small modifications should also continue to be pursued, as well, such as the recent development of an online Public Comment form that immediately distributes to the full Town Council. This may seem minor, given that every email sent to TownCouncil@AmherstMA.gov always was and is also immediately distributed to the full Town Council, but having the Public Comment be in that format makes it clearer which things to attack in our Town Councilor email boxes first, and which things are automatically being uploaded weekly to the Town Council webpage. They’re both public records, but it is useful for the public to check that web page regularly to see what people are talking about rather than guessing at making a public records request.
The Town Council President should not be required to read the Consent Calendar aloud, as this takes a long chunk of time at the beginning of meetings when everyone is fresh — as fresh as anyone can be at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday. Resolutions and Proclamations should automatically result in press releases on the Town website so that less meeting time is spent describing them.
The Town Council President should ask Councilors for their expectations of upcoming staff presentations in advance of those meetings, so that it’s clear that no staff presentation should generally last more than 10-15 minutes plus lots of time for questions.
The Town Council President should continue to ask Councilors to provide input to the Town Council subcommittee that will be exploring the issue in more detail. We have done a good job of not making unnecessary referrals when the full Town Council has appropriate information to act, and we should continue to evaluate when referral is helpful and when it just slows things down. Each Town Council subcommittee Chair should similarly be asking the subcommittee their expectations for upcoming staff presentations in advance of those meetings, as we experienced several really frustrating subcommittee meetings where staff presentations were repeated verbatim from the full Town Council and strangely had taken none of the questions and comments into account.
The Town Council may need to periodically remind the Town Manager that he is to support what the Town Council believes it needs in the way of staff time or presentation length, not just tell the Town Council what it is going to get. Obviously, the Town Manager should not let the Town Council or the staff waste each other’s time, so there needs to be clear, ongoing communication between the Town Manager and the Town Council, and between the Town Manager and his staff, to meet everyone’s needs.
The Town Council needs to agree on the annual Town Manager Performance Evaluation instrument soon after the annual Town Manager Performance Goals are established, rather than once again waiting until the last minute to try out yet another new, and potentially disastrous, instrument right before the evaluation period commences. Revisiting the instrument as well as the written goals throughout the year would make completing the evaluation less time-consuming for each Town Councilor. Town Councilors who do not complete the evaluation instrument as written should be noted clearly, as having some Town Councilors refuse to choose rankings or provide any written comment warps the entire evaluation process. The evaluation period also needs to be moved back to June-August rather than the one-off move to election season in 2021. And it would do our community a huge disservice to assign the annual Town Manager evaluation to a third party, or to a Town Council subcommittee, rather than expecting each of the 13 Town Councilors to pull their weight.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that their job is not to tote up the number of public comments they receive for and against and call that a mandate, because it isn’t. The Town Councilors were voted into office to use their judgment on our behalf, not to serve as a tally board.
I hope the incoming Town Council stops allowing some members to pretend they aren’t themselves part of an Independence Party while criticizing the publicly organized PACs.
I hope the incoming Town Council finds a way to effectively censure any colleagues who write or speak falsely about their colleagues’ motives and actions. Assuming people will “consider the source” and disregard obviously false aspersions may well have cost a Town Councilor re-election. I hope the incoming Town Council finds a way to remind each other to live the values described in the Town Council Statement of Values within the Town Council Rules of Procedure.
I hope the incoming Councilors recognize the value of working with Town Councilors they’re not sure about, and really try to forge perhaps unexpected alliances on mutual goals. The full Town Council acts with more respect and trust — and authority — when its members work with each other freely, not according to some arbitrary division.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not learn to rely on the Remote Participation roll-call vote to see which way the wind is blowing, and understands that normally the yeas all vote at the same time, as do the nays and abstains.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that the point of the Charter 2.10 (c) “nuclear” option to postpone is not to irritate colleagues you don’t agree with, or to frustrate the public who expected the Town Council to act on the night the Town Council advertised they would act, but to await actual new information that could change the outcome. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
I hope the incoming Town Council views the Town Council President not as their boss or as their mother or as their confidante, but as the person who facilitates the work the Town Council desires. I hope the incoming Town Council does not view the President and Vice President as an Executive Team with the Town Manager, but instead that the Town Councilors who aren’t President take turns working on Agenda setting and Motion review, and that the incoming Town Council sees the Vice President only as someone who steps in if the President is not available, and does not assume the Vice President will be the next President.
I hope the incoming Town Council shares leadership, not via the awkward and unworkable concept of co-Presidents or co-Chairs, but instead by mentoring each other in leadership roles within the full Town Council and in the Town Council subcommittees. The Chair of each Town Council subcommittee is there to do the work the subcommittee desires, and the Chair does not set subcommittee agendas without input from the full subcommittee. The President and the subcommittee Chairs should always be looking for ways to delegate officer tasks to other Town Councilors so as to not only make the officer role less onerous, but also increase each Town Councilor’s investment in the work.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not view the Town Manager as their boss or as their father or as a friend, but as the person to whom the Town Council communicates all policy leadership and who is in fact the only staff member directly responsible for meeting the Town Council’s needs. Please also note this is the Town Council’s needs, as determined by the majority, not by what individual Town Councilor X wants at any given moment.
I hope the incoming Town Council respects the long-established Amherst culture of sending all requests for information to the Town Manager for him to manage, rather than reaching out to any staff — other than the Clerk of the Town Council — directly. Yes, it’s faster to call up or email a department head or other staff yourself, but it’s not appropriate. If the Town Manager is not responding to your request, that’s a Town Council problem with the Town Manager, not one to be gone around to other staff.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes the fine precedent the initial Town Council set in not publishing separate Minority Reports. If four members of a subcommittee agree on something, then the fifth member does not get pages or paragraphs to explain why they disagree, as that obviously ends up giving less space to the four members in agreement. If the incoming Town Councilors are unfamiliar with the Chair or designated report writer incorporating minority views within Town Council subcommittee reports both fairly and accurately, they have plenty of examples to look at in TSO (Town Services & Outreach; previously Outreach, Communications, & Appointments) Reports to Town Council.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not see their role as whipping up public sentiment for one or another Town Councilor’s preferred position in order to inspire emails and appearances at public comment, but rather as both regular and creative communicators of what the Town Council is working on and why, and as listeners to all members of the public, not just those in their District or the ones who write most often.
I hope the incoming Town Council is willing to read all press coverage of community issues, not just one blog or one newspaper.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that they are the ones who were elected by voters to represent our community, and that in fact the public does not have an equal voice to elected Town Councilors at the decision-making table.
I hope the incoming Town Council finds their service more rewarding than frustrating. We appreciate their willingness to serve!
a community responder program in conjunction with a reduced police department
the traditional look and feel of our village centers
updated/rebuilt/renovated public buildings
diversity and outreach programs
more and/or easier parking
an expanded public art program
an economic development director
updated and well maintained parks
updated and well maintained recreational and athletic facilities
capital investments to mitigate climate change
a robust reparations program
efficient delivery of public services
well paid public employees
roads in good condition
prompt responses from emergency services
. . . .
The Amherst money pie is not large enough to satisfy all these wants, reasonable as they may be.
Last winter and spring, as the pandemic began to ease, the Town began to form its annual budgets for town operations, the regional schools, capital expenses, and other functions for the fiscal year now in progress. The pandemic devastated several of the town’s income streams, such as from hotel and restaurant taxes, parking receipts, excise fees, and growth in new taxable properties (that is, from new construction). In addition, anticipated contributions from the state to the schools and directly to the Town decreased. The budget decisions for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2021 (FY22) were extremely painful. The regional schools budget was forced to cut teachers and services. The elementary schools were forced to give up some art and music teachers. All town departments were held to 2.1% increases to their budgets.
We need a bigger pie.
I listened to searing public comments at School Committee and Town Council budget hearings, begging for money to be moved to the schools, or moved to a new community responder program, or to preserve other services. Now, as Town Hall and Town Council begin developing next year’s budget, similar public comments are being offered, and the Town is likely to propose even more funds for community responders, perhaps additional funds for a reparations program, for a BIPOC youth center, for climate sustainability projects, and more.
Where will the money come from?
A couple of months ago, I listened to the presentation of financial indicators for the next fiscal year, and while some of the news is good (meals and hotel/motel taxes are recovering, for example), other news is not (essentially flat state aid, rising health insurance costs). Painful decisions await the Town Council that will take office on January 3.
We will be fortunate to have almost $12 million in ARPA funds to spend on many aspects of our budgets, including some new endeavors. But in a few years, either these efforts will end when the ARPA funds run out, or we will need to shoehorn them into ongoing operating budgets. Without enlarging our annual revenue streams, projects, departments, wants, and needs will be pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest.
The revenue stream over which Amherst has the most control is property taxes, which can be increased by promoting, or at least allowing, new construction – of houses, apartments, commercial buildings, and accessory dwelling units. Every new construction increases the value of the property it sits on, and therefore the property taxes paid by the owner for years to come. Other options for increasing our revenue include a Proposition 2-1/2 tax override, which permanently increases our tax rate, or selling off open space for development. If we don’t increase our revenues, we will need to decrease our expenses, and cross some items off the list above.
Councilors are responsible for setting the budget priorities for the Town Manager to follow as staff work out the details. Town Council needs to decide which of our wants are top priorities and which to eliminate or postpone. However, Council can also take a lead role in driving policy that increases our revenues, primarily by promoting – not just not discouraging – new construction and business development.
Of course, another option – especially if residents oppose new development – is to go a little bit hungry, that is, reduce programs, services, personnel, benefits, asset purchases, and the like. But I rarely hear any proposals to cut specific programs or services with the aim of reducing our total expenditures.
What do you suggest? I am truly interested in your thoughts.
The recent campaign leading up to the Nov. 2 election was indeed acrimonious.
Some candidates and supporters behaved quite badly. Some library renovation and expansion opponents engaged in widespread misrepresentations, and some are apparently continuing to pursue anti-democratic efforts to get their way. An outgoing Town Councilor repeatedly criticized some of her colleagues who were running for reelection, and called for their defeat. And the unpleasant, even vitriolic, tone of public discourse continued in a recent email in which a re-elected Town Councilor misrepresented the processes of town government, and more.
The ongoing nastiness certainly takes up a lot of space and energy. It’s both the manifestation and the cause of a lot of suffering, but is it representative of our town?
Voter turnout on Nov. 2 was 31.15 percent, as 5,042 of 16,187 registered voters cast ballots. While canvassing for a “yes” vote on the library renovation and expansion project, a HOT issue in the Amherst Bulletin and on various listservs and web pages, I spoke with folks who were completely unaware of the situation.
It seems that apathy, rather than acrimony, is actually more representative of our community. Can we find a way to address both, and restore our community together?
The problem is (at least) two-headed: 1) How can we create an attractive civic life in which people will want to participate, and 2) how might we offer opportunities for people to engage in good faith with those with whom they disagree?
Among the politically engaged, the polarization that has so injured us nationally exists right here in Amherst. We’re not using the same labels here, but the features of our civic disease are the same:
We have become two factions, each angry at the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity or good intentions; and
We view our political opponents as uninformed, misguided, stupid or bad people whose ways of thinking are both incomprehensible and dangerous.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” If that’s a remedy for this disease, could we do it in Amherst? Is there a way, as individuals, that we could try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it? At a community level, is there a way to engage with those with whom we disagree in an effort to find common ground and ways to work together? Can we find ways to identify and support principles that unite us rather than divide us?
Does our formal civic process attract and engage most Amherst voters, or residents? I deeply appreciate volunteers’ and Town employees’ efforts, and at the same time I wonder whether we are doing enough as a community. Is what we’re doing now working? I’ve heard “doing the same thing and expecting different results” is one definition of insanity. How’s that working out for us? Should we try something different?
I suspect the unpleasantness and acrimony that so stimulate some of us is precisely the thing that drives others of us away from civic engagement. But what if Amherst offered “Common Ground Conversations,” a public dialogue process emphasizing listening to our neighbors and understanding their values, hopes and fears?
Imagine a series of structured public conversations that offer people an opportunity to speak respectfully, and to be heard respectfully. Imagine a process that would encourage people to listen without becoming defensive, and to speak without attacking. We could agree to allow others to hold their own views, no matter what they are – and we could sincerely try to understand their views, and the values underlying those views. We could abandon all hope of persuading others that we are right, knowing that others won’t try to persuade us that they are right.
By no means am I suggesting that we must suppress our views and values, or mute our passion. However, for this process to be effective, we must together agree to speak respectfully to each other, and to refrain from attacking each other. That, in itself, would be a change for the better!
If we agree to do this hard work together, what might we expect?
Maybe we’ll come to understand our neighbors better through thoughtfully listening as they express their nuanced views. As our understanding increases, our stereotyped thinking about those with whom we disagree may decrease, and we might find that we develop greater trust in our neighbors’ good intentions and their basic humanity. Common ground might emerge. We might start working together, rather than working against each other. Folks who have been uninterested or alienated might be attracted to participating in developing our community. And those who continue to speak disrespectfully of others will find they gradually have less impact on our public discourse.
On the one hand, it’s probably best to do the work without having any expectations as to its outcome. On the other hand, I can’t help but hope for a decrease in rancor and vitriol, and a gradual, steady improvement in the quality and tone of our conversations. And, just as important, perhaps we’ll also see an increase in civic interest and participation.
Shall we try something new? Or will we continue to do the same thing, expecting different results? Are you ready for a change? I know I am.
Since Amherst was accepted into the MA School Building Authority (MSBA) funding program two years ago, the town and the School Building Committee have been engaged in formational meetings to get the project underway. Now, with the recent selection of DiNisco Design as project architects, we are delighted to be entering the next exciting phase of the elementary school building project.
Last night the teams from DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory, our owner’s project manager (OPM), met in a joint meeting with the school committee and building committee to present key milestones and target dates for the next phases of the project. If all goes smoothly, Amherst students will enter the new elementary school by Fall 2026.
This next phase is when we’ll create the plans for what the school building will look like and where it will be located. We’ll build from the community listening sessions three years ago and engage teachers, staff, families, and community members as we develop priorities that will inform the design of our elementary school building.
Early in the new year, the design team will meet with teachers, parents and caregivers, and residents, and will study a variety of site selection considerations, such as traffic and geography, to inform the town’s decision on location. They will also work with the school community to develop the education plan and input on design features for the school.
With the 6th grade moving to the middle school in the Fall of 2023, the new school will be designed for kindergarten through grade 5, replacing both Fort River and Wildwood and including the innovative Caminantes dual-language program.
The school building committee has outlined some other initial design goals, including spaces for project based learning, small group breakout areas, plenty of daylight in classrooms and throughout the building, and outdoor spaces both for education and play; we look forward to refining these goals through this next phase of the project.
Importantly, the school will be a model for sustainability, built to be net-zero and eliminate reliance on fossil fuels. The DiNisco team was selected in part because of their experience in designing green elementary school buildings. With our school building project, we have the opportunity to innovate and make substantial impact on the town’s progress toward our sustainability goals.
The MSBA requires development and consideration of multiple alternatives in this next phase of the building project; these alternatives include a K-6 building to replace only Fort River in addition to a K-5 building to replace both Fort River and Wildwood, as well as renovation, renovation/addition, and new construction. This consideration will be part of the work that will happen in the early half of next year.
The school building committee launched a website (https://www.amherst-school-project.com/) with comprehensive information about the project. Progress updates as well as information about when and how community members can engage throughout the project will be shared on that website. We plan to update the community on our progress regularly through columns like this. We anticipate a variety of opportunities for public engagement throughout this process, and we will seek to engage families, teachers, and the broader community.
The new year will bring with it exciting and intensive effort in this next phase of the school building project. We look forward to uniting to bring a new elementary school to our children that is a source of joy and pride, and is a solid investment in all of our futures.
Allison McDonald is chair of the Amherst School Committee: you can email her at email@example.com. Cathy Schoen, chair of the Elementary School Building Committee, is a Councilor representing District 1. You can email Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opponents of a parking garage on Town-owned land behind the CVS store talk as if they believe that the Town Council is about to decide to put one there. In fact, a “yes” vote on the proposed “overlay” zoning would be merely the first step in the decision-making process.
They say they don’t think a decision should be rushed. In fact, this zoning change was first brought up last spring, and speculation about using this town-owned site for a parking garage has been going on for several decades.
Residents of North Prospect Street say a parking garage would be incompatible with their historic district. But plantings can minimize the visual impact. And the current vista of a crumbling parking lot doesn’t exactly say “historic district,” does it?
These residents like the convenience of living on the edge of a commercial district but are outraged at the prospect of something designed to improve the commercial district. They are not the ones who need a parking garage, because they can easily walk downtown. And people who say they want businesses downtown that sell everyday items should not oppose things that make it easier to attract enough customers to come here to support those businesses.
So they don’t want to have a parking garage built across from their homes? Of course they don’t! No one wants to see development outside their front doors. Their voices have been heard, and they’ll be heard again, but now the Town Council must make a decision next Monday based on what’s in the best interests of all the residents of Amherst. “Our job is to take the community-wide view,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.
I don’t know whether Town-ow ed land just north of the CVS lot is the best site for a second parking garage, but I don’t think it should be ruled out. And I’m willing to consider the opinion that we don’t need another garage at all. But all a two-thirds vote on the Town Council for “overlay” zoning would do is make a garage there possible.
I know a former town official who has studied the parking issue for many years, and he thinks the Town-owned land just north of the CVS lot is the most centrally located of the possible garage sites and is the most useful in terms of revitalizing adjacent properties. It could be the most accessible with some traffic modifications, it would provide the biggest net gain of spaces, and it is the most easily, affordably and efficiently developed, he says. And this may be the only site where a private developer would be willing to finance the construction and operation of a garage.
There are, of course, serious questions that need to be answered about the CVS site. Would access from North Pleasant Street cause traffic backups? How would egress onto narrow North Prospect Street work? How would it be financed and run? How big would it be? How would public safety be assured inside the garage?
And what are the advantages and disadvantages of having a garage there as opposed to other possible sites, such as just west of the Amherst Cinema? Is adding tiers to the Boltwood Walk garage structurally impossible? And will the Jones Library’s renovation and expansion project, combined with the Drake music and entertainment venue at the former High Horse site, dramatically increase the demand for parking?
Some opponents of the zoning article want to close off consideration of a parking garage at the CVS site before the debate over siting has begun. Some of them maintain that the decision should be delayed until the new Town Council is seated. Councilor Darcy Dumont invoked her right to delay a vote without saying why a delay was needed.
Some garage opponents have used overheated rhetoric, comparing the Town Council to “Mayor Daley’s Chicago” and referring to a parking garage as an “invasive species.” Dorothy Pam has acted more like a community organizer than a Town Councilor by whipping up the neighborhood and calling votes on zoning articles that have been around for months a “coup” and an “emergency.”
Among the opponents addressing the Town Council, only Meg Gage made the more reasoned argument that a “yes” vote on the CVS zoning article might create “momentum” toward siting a garage there.
The average Amherst homeowner has seen a $400 increase in property taxes this year. A major reason is that commercial property has not increased in value as much as residential property has. If we don’t want tax increases of this magnitude to continue, we should pay attention to the well-being of business owners. Chamber of Commerce Director Claudia Pazmany said that every day she gets complaints about inability to find parking spaces in downtown Amherst.
This zoning change the Council is about to vote on is just the start of the process. A developer would have to make a concrete proposal for a parking garage and be willing to finance it and abide by the conditions of the zoning bylaw. The developer would have to address the concerns of the North Prospect residents, as well as those of CVS’s landlord, St. Brigid’s and the Jones Library.
I remember the fierce debates over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s, including multiple Town Meeting votes, referendums and court challenges. The debate over a second garage could be just as contentious. Let’s let it begin.
Track the progress of the elementary school building project, milestones, opportunities for public involvement, read agendas and important documents, and learn about the project team at the new website.
We will add this site to the project information under the Town Government 101 page.
If we want to keep the planet life-sustaining for the species that live on it, including ourselves, we have to stop using fossil fuels and absorb at least some of the CO2 that has already been put into the atmosphere.
Most of the regions of the world that are currently most affected by the climate crisis have contributed almost nothing to creating the problem.
Fossil fuel industries have fought every proposal to reduce fossil fuel use and have contributed to world-wide delays in taking action.
There is no energy source that is impact-free, but we prefer to use methods that create the fewest impacts on the ecosystem and vulnerable humans.
A recent meeting of the Energy and Climate Action Committee considered the issues confronting Amherst and heard information that may guide us as we wrestle with proposed ground-mounted solar projects.
Steve Roof, a member of the committee and a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Hampshire College, gave a presentation focusing on electricity generation. State planning documents and Amherst’s own plans lay out the following goals:
Phase out 90% or more of all fossil fuel use by 2050.
Greatly improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings and set high energy efficiency standards for new buildings.
By 2030 reduce gross emissions by 45% below the 1990 level.
Electrify everything possible, because electricity can be generated by non-fossil means.
We will also need to dramatically increase intra- and inter-state transfer – high-tension wires and power corridors.
To accommodate current and future electrical demand, we will need to massively expand wind and solar generation.
To meet these goals, Massachusetts will need to build about 1,000 large offshore wind turbines like Vineyard Wind and import large amounts of hydro power from Quebec, which now seems unlikely, given the vote against the siting of the transmission lines in Maine last month.
Statewide, we will need to expand solar by factor of 10: we need 20 to 23 GW of solar capacity; we now have 3.4 GW. The state reports found that even with maximum rooftop installation, we will need 60,000 acres of land-mounted solar arrays in 30 years. However, ground-mounted solar development will be excluded from or discouraged on:
Wetland resource areas
Historic places on the Massachusetts Registry
Protected open space
Areas listed as Core Habitat by Mass Wildlife
Areas listed as Priority Habitat by Mass Wildlife
Critical Natural Landscapes that connect habitats or buffer wetlands, etc.
Roof then looked at what might be considered Amherst’s “share” of the burden for growth in electrical generation, using population size as the determinant. Since Amherst’s population is about 0.56% of the state’s population, that percentage of the total 60,000 acres suggests the town might use` 335 acres. Amherst’s total acreage is 17,765, of which 30% is permanently protected from development. That 335 acres is 1.9% of our total acreage – less than 2%.
Roof did not suggest where on Amherst land the solar facilities could go. He did point out that one acre of ground-mounted solar reduces C02 emission by about 133 metric tons per year by displacing fossil fuel generated electricity – which is about 100 times greater than the carbon sequestered by an acre of forest.
His suggested a possible “road map” for the town:
Greatly improve energy efficiency of existing buildings, including rental properties.
Assist with electrification of transportation (electrify vehicle fleets and help increase availability of EV charging stations).
Continue to protect natural and working lands in Amherst.
Accept expansion of solar power development on about 2% of the land in Amherst.
Tolerate increased intra- and interstate electric power transmission corridors in the region.
The committee discussed the need for a solar study to identify where solar projects are technically possible in Amherst. Laura Draucker said it’s important to have such a study before bylaws are passed. Dwayne Berger described what a consultant might accomplish in such a study. The committee agreed they want time on the Town Council’s agenda for a presentation by Roof. Roof suggested that he and Berger do the presentation and ask for a solar study. “We need to shock people into an awareness of what we need to do to reach carbon neutrality,” he said.
While we can all agree that we prefer solar arrays on roofs or above parking lots to ground-mounted arrays, they will not create enough solar generation capacity. And there are complications and costs associated with those projects; that will require another article.
Residents who have questions about the plan to deploy unarmed responders in some situations that are currently handled by police officers can attend a public forum Thursday.
The virtual meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. Here’s the link: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/86008936538. The public comment period is scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m., and will be followed by a meeting of the Town Council’s Town Services and Outreach subcommittee, which will make a recommendation to the full Council. The town manager, finance director, police chief and fire chief are expected to attend and be able to answer questions.
Another topic of the meeting will be the plan to create a new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
The community responders would be called on in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime, such as mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespassing, truancy and wellness checks, according to the recommendation by the Community Safety Working Group. They would have expertise as mental health clinicians, social workers, medics or conflict de-escalators.
The eight community responders would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would be supported by a director and an administrative assistant. The responders, who would be fully benefited Town employees, would operate independently of the Police Department and be housed in a separate facility, according to the working group’s recommendation.
“The mission will include contributing to dismantling systemic racism through racially aware safety and social services to persons of all races with a conscious anti-racism focus,” according a summary of the working group’s recommendations by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.
The program is known as CRESS, or Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service. Its projected annual operating budget is $936,000, with $122,500 in non-operating costs. The Town has received a state grant of $450,000 for the program, and $250,000 in federal money has been earmarked.
“The Town may opt to use reserves to supplement the municipal operating budget over two or three years to minimize the impact on other departments,” Bockelman has proposed.
Residents’ questions could include: What kind of relationship will CRESS have with the Police Department? How will 911 operators determine whether to dispatch a police officer or a community responder? How will police staffing be affected? When will the program be operational? How will it be funded in future years?
The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “will develop, recommend, and implement a strategic plan that will advance a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture for the Town that provide opportunities to build diversity and inclusive practices into the Town’s operations,” according to Bockelman. “The Office will review Town policies, procedures, bylaws, values, goals and missions through an equity lens to foster an unbiased, anti-racist and inclusive environment.”
The goals are to “improve the Town’s decision-making so that it better represents all communities and includes less bias; increase community trust in local government; ensure an equitable allocation of public resources; and improve employee satisfaction and engagement,” according to Bockelman.
The annual operating costs are estimated at $240,500, including a director and assistant director. The director position is to be funded with money previously budgeted for an economic development director, a position now to be paid for with federal money. The assistant director position is to be paid by combining half of an existing position with federal money.
Even the darkest clouds of the pandemic have yielded some silver linings, including one for Craig’s Doors (CD) and the unhoused of our area last year. Traditionally, Craig’s Doors provides shelter from November through April, opening in the evening and closing in the morning. Because of COVID, the Federal government released more money to provide shelter and temporary housing. Last year, Craig’s Doors applied for and received enough funding to allow us operate three different sites, one of which, the University Motor Lodge, still houses 20 people. We also rented the Econo Lodge in Hadley for the winter of 2020-2021 as well as space at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society downtown, enabling about 66 people to be sheltered. All three sites were operated around the clock, seven days a week, something CD had never been able to do before. However, with the UU congregation returning to their home downtown on May 1, we had to find yet another site for our 2021-2022 emergency winter shelter. The congregation at the Immanuel Lutheran Church (ILC) gladly opened their doors to us and we are now sheltering 23 men and women from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days/week.
That’s the good news. Craig’s Doors has been fortunate to find houses of worship willing to shelter our guests for the past 13 years, 10 of them at the Amherst Baptist Church near UMass, last year at the UU, and this year at the ILC. However, we fear our luck could run out in the future as we go hat in hand to the houses of worship hoping for a “yes,” especially should COVID cease to be an impediment to church operations. It is also expensive to make (repeatedly) the physical changes required to operate as a shelter, and we have to hire new staff every fall and then let them go every May. It is of course also time consuming to do all the leg work required to close down and set up a shelter anew. And this year, because the ILC kitchen is not certified by the Health Department, we have to rent the kitchen at the UU to make dinners and transport them to the ILC every night. Add to these problems the fact that except for the one year at the UU, our guests have to wait until evening to get out of the cold and must leave in the early morning hours, a far from ideal situation.
The solution would be a permanent shelter in Amherst. It would allow us to operate 24/7, maintain staff, not have to worry where we’ll be each year, have our own kitchen, and move our offices to it, so we’d be in one place. The good news is that we have found a site for sale that looks nearly perfect. The trick of course is money. There is a possibility that the Town would either buy the building or fund us to buy the building with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to the Town of Amherst. ($11,933,556).
Our Town Manager Paul Bockelman has set aside approximately $1 million of those funds to pay for “transitional housing and homeless solutions.” The asking price of the site we’ve found is less than $1 million. However, the final decision on how that $1 million will be spent is up to Town Hall and so far, they have not seemed enthusiastic about our proposal. The Department of Housing and Community Development, which funnels to us most of the funds Craig’s Doors uses to operate each year, is very excited by this proposal and has offered their expertise and additional funding if we should be able to purchase the site. We have our fingers crossed that Town Hall will see this opportunity as the solution we’ve been looking for, for so many years. I should add here that Paul Bockelman, at the urging of the Town Council, formed a Homelessness and Rehousing Working Group several months ago. The group finished their work and have submitted an interim report that included recommendations for a permanent shelter and increased housing solutions for the unhoused. Obtaining both would be the ideal outcome.
A town-wide vote on raising taxes to help pay for a new elementary school is unlikely to occur next November during the state and federal election. The vote may come in a special election in the spring of 2023, and the new school could open in the spring of 2026, according to a draft timeline for the construction project.
Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design, the architect for the project, explained the process during the Elementary School Building Project Committee’s meeting on December 2. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will provide significant funding, must vote to approve the schematic design before the Town can hold a vote, she said. And so the schedule must include adequate time for careful planning, community engagement, feedback, and involvement of several committees so that a solid cost estimate can be provided to MSBA. The current schedule shows a submission to MSBA in January 2023, and a vote by the MSBA in March.
The process will kick off next month with development of the Educational Plan and a program of community outreach. The Educational Plan, which itself must be approved by MSBA, is the foundation of the entire project, identifying all the programs offered in Amherst schools and their space needs. The design of the ultimate building, including layout, room sizes, etc., must support this Educational Plan.
At the moment, no decisions have been made on whether one of the current sites of Wildwood and Fort River Schools will be the site of the new school, and whether new construction is preferable to renovation and addition. Anser Advisory Management, the project manager, stated that it will develop descriptions of the options, drawing on past studies as well as new work, so that the community and decision-makers can weigh the tradeoffs and arrive at a preferred option. Future uses of whichever site is not chosen for the new school will also be open to community discussion.
DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory will speak at the December 14 meeting of the Amherst School Committee. We will post information about the meeting, as well as a link to the new project website, on our “On our radar ” page when they are available.
A new Town Council will be sworn in less than five weeks from now, meaning that the current Council has little time in which to conclude any business it does not wish to refer, or pass on, to its successor. And given the holidays, time is even shorter. Council is thus squeezing in extra meetings in an effort to bring some projects, particularly revisions to several zoning bylaws, to a conclusion. Some Councilors and members of the public are very unhappy with this schedule and/or with the proposals, as was made clear at the Town Council meeting this past Monday.
This blog has avoided zoning issues in part because of the daunting complexity and jargon that make coverage a challenge, but we feel compelled to write about them now because of the huge investment that town staff, elected officials, volunteers, and residents have made this year on debating, critiquing, researching, refining, and discussing the arcane rules that determine so much of the look and feel of our town, as well as the political impacts of the zoning efforts.
First, a quick overview. Revisions to four zoning bylaws are on the table, three of which are causing heartburn: the definition of a “mixed-use” building, an “overlay” that would permit a parking garage to be built on the Town-owned lot next to the CVS lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect Streets, and parking requirements for new constructions outside the Central Business District. All proposed zoning bylaws must be “read” twice during Town Council meetings, at which point they can be voted on. This past Monday, the first readings of these proposed bylaws occurred; the second will occur on Monday, Dec. 6.
Second, some highlights of public comment. Many residents have been closely following the development of these bylaws, which has occurred over this past year in numerous public meetings of the Town Council, the Council’s Community Resources Committee, and the Planning Board. Residents of District 3, in particular, feel threatened by the potential for a parking garage on the east side of North Prospect St., opposite a local historic district. In fact, District 3 residents were asked by one of their Councilors, Dorothy Pam, to lodge comments in opposition to what she termed a “Thanksgiving coup.” I listened to much of the public comment and heard accusations of “shenanigans to make sure that you can avoid having representative government,” a “rush to judgment,” a “lack of process,” and “disenfranchising voters.” Some commenters opined that the current Council, as a lame duck, is wrong to undertake any action that is not an emergency and should let the incoming Council make the decisions. (This last comment reminds me strongly of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s excuse for refusing to give Supreme Court-nominee Merrick Garland a hearing in advance of the 2016 presidential election.) Others claimed that the process short-cut provisions of state law or our town charter.
Presumably, similar comments had already been received by email, because Council President Lynn Griesemer opened the readings of discussions of the proposed zoning bylaws with what seemed a prepared statement. My transcript of her remarks follows:
There is no bylaw that we are voting on to approve tonight. All bylaws require two readings. This is the first reading for all four that appear on the agenda, even the one we’ve seen twice before, and all we’re doing is extending the date again.
However, before moving on, I’d like to share a few observations that are reflective and supportive of our town government today, tomorrow, and long into the future. They in no way reflect how I, as one of 13 Councilors, will vote on any bylaw.
We’ve heard several comments prior to this evening and tonight regarding a desire to delay any further action on zoning amendments, in fact, all actions, until the next Council is seated. These comments include various stated reasons:
This is a lame duck Council and we should not do anything for the remainder of our term.
The public has spoken through the election, thus creating a mandate.
There has been insufficient time, research, and consideration given to these zoning articles.
And, finally, that we have not honored various state laws, charter requirements, and rules of procedure.
Regarding point one, does that mean that all Councilors only serve for one year and 10 months and that no legislative action should take place between an election and the seating of the next Council? This is not what the voters wanted when they voted for the Charter – they wanted a year-round government. If we are not going to take action now then we should have stopped taking at least certain actions last winter when we started lining all of these zoning articles up. The first ones we discussed were way back in December of 2020; the Planning staff came to us on February 22, 2021. In addition to that, since November 2, we have taken or are scheduled to take many important votes – on the budget guidelines, on establishing the CRESS and DEI Departments, on evaluating the Town Manager, and setting Town Manager goals for the coming year – most of which the next Council can change. We have a job to do, and refusing to take timely action is not in the best interests of the community.
Regarding point two, the creation of a mandate. Occasionally, we see a true sea change that might prompt us to take the extraordinary step of delaying action. However, the argument that “the people have spoken” seems to me requires some close examination. We have elected six outstanding new Councilors – that vote was confirmed just this past week. And, while it is true that two of the Councilors who have advocated to rezone the CVS parking lot were not reelected, they were defeated by a total of 50 votes and lost in one in each of their two precincts. Other incumbents, though not all, who were reelected or unopposed, to the best of my knowledge did not campaign for or against zoning changes. And the chair of the CRC committee, who argued and voted for the zoning changes in CRC, received the second highest number of votes in her town-wide election.
It is quite possible that residents in different neighborhoods hold different views on this issue. For example, the residents who do not live downtown are the ones most likely to need and use a garage. That’s OK. Our job is to take the community-wide view.
Regarding the concern of insufficient time, research, and consideration, I refer you to the second attachment to the Future Agenda Items [page 8 in this document] that is in your packet. It is the step-by-step process for each bylaw under consideration and includes the date of each step starting with the initial referral. Two of the bylaws – Mixed-use and Parking and Access (related loosely in this case as Apartment Definitions) – [were] presented in a list in February of 2021. They were referred by this Council for hearings by the Planning Board and CRC on June 28, 2021; the rezoning of the CVS parking lot was introduced to the Town Council on May 24 [and] was referred to the Planning Board and CRC for hearings. Each has been developed, vetted, and legally reviewed – including the involvement of our professional and well-qualified planning staff, Planning Board hearings, in three instances heard and reheard by CRC, and reviewed by the Town’s attorney. We do not lack information and turning back the clock at this point would be a disservice to the many residents and staff who’ve brought us to this point. We need to do our work and vote YES or NO, and move on.
Finally, in the process of bringing these bylaws forward all state laws, the Charter, Council Rules of Procedure, and practices of the relevant bodies have been followed. Having said that I encourage the Town Planning staff to seek comments on the Planning Board reports and repost them in time for our next meeting. My request to all of us and to the residents is let’s agree to disagree; but we do not want to compromise democracy in the City known as the Town of Amherst based upon which side of the issues we fall on.
In my view, the current workload for Town Council and staff, while heavy and unwelcome, is not surprising at the end of a legislative session. (And as some have suggested, the charter could be amended so that a new Council is seated promptly after election results are certified, shortening the lame-duck session and moving it away from the holiday season.) Public hearings, readings, and votes must occur within windows of time set by law. Referring the current zoning proposals to late January or beyond would require the clocks to be re-set, launching new hearings, readings, reports, etc. and demanding yet more time from staff, Council, and residents.
To be sure, Councilors are not happy to have five-hour meetings on a routine basis, let alone extra meetings during the holiday season, as some complaints and sharp exchanges suggested. At the end of Monday’s meeting, Councilor Cathy Schoen, for instance, protested against the length of meetings, only to be challenged by Councilors Griesemer and De Angelis to assist by making her own comments briefer. Councilor De Angelis asked councilors in general to limit their comments to what is most important and not to say the same thing six times for emphasis. Councilor Pam noted that the lengthy meetings and interference with the holidays discourage potential candidates for Council.
Councilor De Angelis then deplored the “attitude” held by some councilors against other councilors as well as things said and done against Councilors Ryan and Ross. She said that, while she did not always agree with their views, neither George Ryan or Evan Ross deserved the treatment they were getting from some councilors and members of the public.
Low voter turn-out; low civic engagement; limited participation in town affairs by historically marginalized groups; barriers to participation: these are some of the issues that the new town charter hopes to address through various public participation mechanisms. One mechanism is the required semiannual meetings of district councilors with constituents, for example.
Another effort driven by the charter was the creation of a new town position, Community Participation Officer (CPO). In its first three years of implementation, this responsibility (for which no new money was budgeted) has been shared by three Town employees who bring different skills to the task: Brianna Sunryd, Jennifer Moyston, and Angela Mills. I spoke with all of them earlier this fall to learn how their work has unfolded.
Brianna Sunryd, the Communications Manager for Town Hall, said that the team spent its initial months assessing the community’s needs and building its work plan. She described her pieces of the work as developing strategies for community outreach, involvement, and communications, and using information technologies in innovative ways. To support participation in the decennial census by all parts of the community – some of which were very hesitant – the CPOs developed plans for outreach, in-person meetings, and activities. During the summer of 2019, the team created and distributed census-related kits for children. Then, just as efforts ramped up in early 2020, the pandemic hit and changed the direction of all CPO efforts.
During the pandemic, Brianna focused on implementation of the Zoom meeting platform throughout Town government, to enable both the internal work of Town Hall and the many public meetings. As others have noted, the convenience of Zoom (for those with Internet access) led to a marked increase in attendance at public meetings, in views of recorded meetings (most meetings were not recorded to video before the pandemic), and participation in committees, now possible from one’s home. Now that at least some in-person meetings are likely to be permitted in the coming months, a pressing question is how to integrate livestreaming and remote participation with in-person meetings in a way that is not awkward for participants. Another means by which residents can follow and engage in local issues is the Engage Amherst platform, launched in February of 2021. With this platform, residents can post questions on subjects such as the North Amherst Library expansion, the Hickory Ridge Golf Course acquisition, and the financing plan for the major capital projects, and receive quick responses, all of which stay publicly available on the site. (In fact, just as this post was being written, the Town announced two additional civic participate tools – click here for the press release – for trial use in the next 10 days.)
One limitation to participation in town affairs by some residents is a language barrier. The town does not have the capability (that is, funding) to provide real-time translation services or to translate documents, announcements, or webpages in Spanish or other languages. Fortunately, Angela Mills (Executive Assistant to the Town Manager) is fluent in Spanish and can provide translation to an extent. Unfortunately, automated translation services for town resources or meetings are not yet satisfactory. (At the urging of the Community Safety Working Group, the Town is hoping to identify funds for stipends for committee volunteers who must pay for child care, transportation, or other expenses enabling them to serve – an additional set of barriers to participation.)
Jennifer Moyston, Administrative Assistant to the Town Manager, grew up in Amherst. The focus of her CPO work has been to address diversity and inclusion gaps through trust-building with minority communities and the development and promotion of cultural events. Before the pandemic, Jennifer regularly accompanied LSSE (now the Recreation Department) staff to apartment complexes to engage with parents and children, and visited the Amherst Survival Center to be a resource for visitors with concerns or needs that the Town could address. The pandemic shuttered these in-person gatherings, but more recently she has been able to accompany the Mobile Market on its rounds, to set up a table at a bit of a remove and be available to chat. Jennifer’s regular appearance at the Mobile Market sites helped make contacts with Town staff less threatening, at least during these visits.
Another important pandemic response was to begin a Mask for All initiative in conjunction with Anika Lopes Millinery (the business of the incoming D4 councilor). Jennifer said that 17 sewers created more than 500 masks using materials donated by 19 individuals in the months before cloth masks became readily available for purchase. Another 100 masks were donated by a business. Altogether, almost 100 people received masks through this effort.
Cultural events that were developed, highlighted, or promoted over the past three years included the Town’s first-ever Chinese Lunar New Year program, the Town’s program in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. (separate from the annual breakfast), Black History Month programming, and, most recently, the enormously successful Juneteenth, co-sponsored by the Civil War Tablets Committee and the Mill District. Jennifer hopes to further develop the town’s observances of cultural holidays and milestones.
Pre-pandemic, the main areas of Angela Mills’ CPO work were (1) planning the inaugural ceremony for the first Council; (2) assisting councilors with planning and conduct of the required meetings mentioned above; and (3) attending district meetings to assist constituents with questions or complaints about town services, completion of Community Activity Forms by which residents indicate interest in committee service. During the pandemic, Angela was the staff person in contact with residents required to quarantine at home, connecting them with food, rental support, and grant applications. Once vaccination drives began, Angela attended the clinics to provide Spanish-language translation and outreach. She also worked with the new Covid Ambassadors on their public outreach and responses to inquiries or complaints made to the Covid Concerns hotline.
By Kent W. Faerber, Co-Chair, Campaign Committee, Campaign for a 21st Century Library
The Town has received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners the first installment of its $13.8 million grant for the Jones Library Building Project. This vote of confidence represents the MBLC’s judgment that the 65% “YES” vote on November 2, affirming the Town Council’s 10-2 authorization of Town borrowing for the project, is overwhelming evidence of the Town’s commitment. The Friends’ Campaign for a 21st Century Jones Library now intends to resume its fundraising for the portion of the financing for the project guaranteed by the Library Trustees.