Want action on climate? On Nov. 2, vote “yes”

By Laura Draucker

[Editors’ note: Laura presented these comments at a public forum on the Jones Library expansion and renovation project in March; they are reprinted here with permission, in advance of the Nov. 2 election when we will be asked to affirm Town Council’s vote to approve the project. We have edited the comments lightly. Laura is chair of the Energy and Climate Action Committee but spoke on her own behalf, not for ECAC.]

The combustion of fossil fuels to create energy is the main cause of climate change and pollution that severely impacts human health and our environment. In Massachusetts, a third of our energy-related climate change-causing emissions are due to burning fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) in buildings. In fact, Massachusetts is one of ten states that account for more than 50% of climate emissions from buildings nation-wide (RMI, 2020).  If we are going to be successful in reducing our contributions to climate change, we need to work quickly and efficiently to get fossil fuels out of our buildings. It will not be easy.

So, with all due respect to the author of the often-quoted “the most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” this is not true when the existing building relies on fossil fuel. Our town libraries account for nearly 20% of the natural gas used by our municipal buildings (Amherst 2016 GHG Inventory, Figure 20). This is natural gas that not only emits carbon pollution in our town when used, but that leaks even more potent methane emissions as it is piped across the country. Natural gas extraction has ruined water supplies, landscapes, and lives.

The good news is that right now we have an opportunity to vote “yes” to state funding that will allow us to move the Jones Library away from natural gas. Not only that, but this funding will allow us to create a library more conducive to public use, with better temperature control, healthier air, and improved plumbing. Furthermore, we will be able to create a library that will finally be accessible and functional for a larger portion of our community.  This feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the town to tick off so many boxes. 

Just moving away from natural gas is a huge climate win in my book. But in addition to moving from natural gas and significantly reducing the energy use of the Jones Library (even with the larger size), the design for renovation and expansion of this building also considers the climate impacts of the building materials and construction.  This is in recognition of the fact that new materials do have an environmental impact, and we need to make sure the new design has a lower climate footprint than the current library. It will. 

Could this design go further in addressing climate concerns? Sure, and this is true of any design aiming to solve many problems and please as many people as possible. Perhaps the current design could save even more energy with a different approach to day lighting, or maybe some of the operational savings due to a more efficient building could be reserved to fund another climate action in town. These are all things that can be discussed and debated after voting yes and accepting the state funding. Do not throw away this opportunity by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Each year we continue to operate the Jones Library as-is, we emit more pollution and saddle the future generation of Amherst with a more expensive problem. I feel strongly that voting “no” on this project is a vote against climate action and will negatively impact our town’s ability to meet our climate action goals, going against the needs and desires of many in town.   

So Many Budgets!

By Sarah Marshall

In my family, we have only one budget that accounts for all the money that comes in and goes out, and we have (almost) complete control of it.  I think that Amherst residents tend to assume that Amherst’s public budget is similar – there is one big pot of money and we have complete freedom to decide how to spend the funds. Certainly, this was my hazy assumption for many years. But it is not entirely true. If you have ever wished the Town spent its (our) money differently, it is worth reading on so you will know when and how to voice your opinion most effectively.

Amherst has, in effect, several budgets and funds.  Crucially, much of the money cannot be moved from one use to another during the fiscal year.  We have the Regional Schools budget, the Jones Library budget (which addresses all the Town’s public libraries), the Elementary Schools budget, the Community Preservation Act (CPA) fund, Enterprise funds (water, sewer, solid waste, and transportation), the Town (Municipal) budget, and a few others.  Adding to the confusion is imprecision in the term “Town Budget” – to some, it may refer to all aspects of spending on public services, while to others, it may refer to specific chunks of that spending that are within the control of the Town Manager.

Our local officials and managers make critical decisions early in the planning cycle, namely, what are the bottom-line contributions the Town proposes to make to the Regional and Elementary Schools and the Libraries.  It is at this point – generally in November – that significant shifts can be made instead of across-the-board increases or decreases. Once the elected leaders of those bodies – the school committees, for example – develop and pass their budgets, and they are subsequently passed by the Town Council, only those bodies have authority over their money.  The Town cannot take money out of the Elementary Schools budget during the fiscal year to buy new computers for the Department of Public Works, for example.

Amherst’s contribution to the Regional School budget (which funds the Middle and High Schools) depends heavily on the decisions made by Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, Amherst’s regional partners. Once Amherst votes its contribution, the Town has essentially no power to claw back money from the Regional Schools to use for, say, affordable housing. Similarly, the schools cannot reach into municipal funds.

The Enterprise funds represent the self-funded water, sewer, solid waste, and transportation operations. Even though they appear in the Municipal budget, these Town services are required to charge fees sufficient to cover their costs, and Enterprise funds cannot be raided to fund unrelated activities of the Town. Our water and sewer bills reflect the cost of those services.

The CPA fund receives a property tax surcharge, as well as some funding from the Commonwealth, that by law can only be spent on certain projects pertaining to historic preservation, community housing, recreation, and open space.  I recently heard someone complain that the Town was choosing to spend on the order of a million dollars on a renovation of the North Common and should instead fund the new Community Responder program.  Such a re-allocation is not possible, since the North Common renovation will be paid for almost entirely by CPA money that cannot be spent on town services.  In fact, the ability to apply CPA funds to the needs of Town buildings and properties frees money for services such as the Community Responder program, or at least avoids pitting these needs against each other.

During any fiscal year, the Town Manager has the authority to re-allocate funds within the Municipal budget, understood here to exclude all the operations and expenses discussed above.  For FY2022 (which began this July), that budget amounts to $25 million, out of the approximately $96 million that also includes the budgets for the schools, libraries, Enterprise funds, capital investments, and some other uses.

The relatively small fraction of total spending spent on municipal services managed by Town Hall can lead to problems of interpretation.  For example, I have heard people express dismay at the fact that our Public Safety Department accounts for 44% of the General Fund (the Municipal budget). That certainly seems disturbingly large if one assumes that public safety is simply police services.  In fact, comparable funds are spent on the Police and Fire Departments, the two major Public Safety services.  Furthermore, in comparison to our total public expenditures, Public Safety services account for just 12% of spending, with about 6% allotted to the Police Department.  Since our property tax payments and water and sewer bills contribute to all Town services, from police to schools to libraries to capital improvements, I think the latter comparisons are more informative.  Whether 6% is an appropriate level of funding for the Police Department is another matter.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

So, no, Amherst’s public budget does not allow nearly as much flexibility as my household enjoys. We can set our own rules and priorities and change them as we see fit but the Town is much more constrained.  Residents who want changes in the Town’s spending priorities need to figure out which elected body to speak to, and when.  Fortunately, in the fall, a budget calendar will be released, outlining the steps, responsibilities, votes, and opportunities for public input.  Anyone wanting to learn more about where our Town’s money comes from and where it goes can jump into the resources at https://www.amherstma.gov/78/Budget.  The calendar will also be posted there.  Residents can also email their Town Councilors, School Committees, Town Manager, and library Trustees at any time.

Vital to all, but getting no respect

By Nick Grabbe

What branch of Amherst government touches the lives of every resident, every day, and is housed in a deteriorating building – but gets less public support than the Jones Library and the elementary schools?

It’s Public Works, which keeps our water safe and plentiful, repairs our roads and sidewalks, mows the grass in our parks and athletic fields, and much more.

The old trolley maintenance barn off South Pleasant Street, where 45 Public Works employees work, would probably be condemned if it were a private building. Its physical problems are worse than the Jones Library or Wildwood or Fort River School, but they get less attention than these frequently visited buildings. The public seldom enters the Public Works building.

Instead of receiving support for a new building, Public Works is the target for a lot of citizen complaints. Here are some:

“These potholes! Driving in Amherst is like driving in a Third World country!”

“The plow didn’t push the snow back far enough!” or “The plow pushed the snow back too far!”

“Our teams are at risk of injury because you’re not mowing the grass often enough!”

“Why can’t you reopen the Take It or Leave It area at the transfer station?”

“You can’t put a new Public Works building near low-income people’s houses!”

(Responses to these complaints are below.)

Public Works also handles stormwater drainage, tree-trimming and removal, streetlights and traffic signals. It’s in charge of sewers, cemeteries, and even putting up those banners downtown over South Pleasant Street. That’s all a lot to ask of public employees working out of a substandard building.

The Public Works headquarters is more than a century old. The roof leaks, there are cracks in the brick masonry, there’s minimal insulation, and many of the windows have only one pane of glass. The building doesn’t meet code standards for safety and electricity.

Some employees who service the department’s 50 vehicles in the maintenance bays, which have inadequate ventilation, have reported elevated levels of iron in their blood, said Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring. And there isn’t adequate coverage for all the vehicles, leaving them exposed to the elements, shortening their life spans and requiring premature (and expensive) replacement. For photos showing some of these problems, go to https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/49521/1Pager-DPW-12-2-19?bidId=

Amherst officials have known for years that we need a new Public Works building. And now they have extra motivation, because its current site is the preferred location for a new fire station. “It’s a top priority,” Mooring said. But there have been two obstacles: funding and siting.

The original cost estimate for a new Public Works building was $38 million, but unlike the Jones Library renovation/expansion and a new elementary school, there will be no state money to help. All of it must be borrowed and paid back over time. (One sign of the lack of popular support for Public Works is that, unlike the school, no one is considering putting a new building to a vote.)

The projected cost has been reduced to $20 million, requiring a phasing-in of the new building. “We have a $38 million project and we’ve been told we have to put it into a $20 million box,” Mooring said.

The second obstacle is finding an appropriate site for a new building. Amherst College offered to donate a centrally located site, which would have saved a lot of money in land acquisition costs. But some neighbors objected to having trucks coming in and out close to their houses, so the Town Council abandoned that plan.

Officials then received four proposals from landowners who were willing to sell the Town a site, but each one had problems such as location, zoning and access, and all have been rejected. There’s a town-owned site off Pulpit Hill Road that is a Plan B, but it’s far away from South Amherst and has access problems, Mooring said.

“Locating a Public Works facility is challenging because of the needs of the facility – both size and location, zoning requirements, and the sensitivity to our many neighborhoods,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Amherst has been spending more money on road repair each year, but now those gains are offset by higher prices for asphalt, fuel and labor, Mooring said. Some extra money could come from the federal infrastructure bill. Roads that get the most traffic typically get the highest priority, but Mooring hopes to repair more neighborhood roads this next year.

The snowplow complaints frequently come from people who are new to town, and relate to access to mailboxes and plantings near the road, he said.

The record amount of rain that fell in July caused the grass to grow more quickly on soccer and Ultimate fields. So Mooring asked the parks crews to increase the frequency of mowing.

While the book shed at the transfer station, closed during the pandemic, has reopened, the Take It or Leave It area is not coming back, Mooring said. Too many people have been abandoning electronics and dirty kitchen appliances that have to be thrown out at a cost to the town, he said. (The solid waste fund, unlike the water and sewer funds, ran a surplus during the pandemic because so many people were throwing things out.)

At least Mooring isn’t hearing many complaints about a recent increase in water rates. Although the reservoirs and wells that supply water are now resupplied, there’s always the threat of a future drought. In the fall of 1980, the University of Massachusetts sent all its students home because the town couldn’t provide enough water. To remind employees, a shirt is displayed at the Public Works building reading “I survived the great Amherst water shortage.”

To a certain extent, complaints about Public Works come with the territory. My complaint is about the building we ask employees to work in.

Preservation and Development Can Work Together

By Janet Marquardt

The signs of polarization in Amherst echo those across the country. However, we don’t need to think of “either/or” when it comes to our town’s future. As a member of the Historical Commission for six years now, I’ve come to believe that we should try, within all reasonable measures, to preserve those structures that contribute to the deep historical roots of Amherst. That does not mean that we cannot also construct new buildings with affordable housing and rethink how the town center should function in the future. It does, however, remind us that the quality of architectural design and construction and the arrangement of public spaces should be envisioned to last far beyond our lifetimes. 

There is a concern that it is economically essential to increase the residential density of our downtown and that a failure to do so will lead to even higher taxes and emptier commercial spaces. Sarah Marshall also recently reminded us (see her post, “Who Owns Amherst’s Future?”, of July 22, 2021) that we need to expand our notions of the people we consider “desirable” residents. Current property owners are not the only kinds of faces that will enrich the culture of our town. On the other hand, Amherst will be here long after all of those who are here and who come in the next twenty years. The history of this town is one that draws visitors from around the world and how we prepare for ongoing tourism is equally important to our economic viability.

Preservation is a key element in economic planning because it can make or break strong tourism income. Taking a town like Concord as an example—not a university town but a bedroom community for Boston, hence similarly ripe for dense residential development—their 2016 income from visitors was $334,372 rising to $865,598 in 2019. It’s true that they probably should build more apartment buildings closer to town, and that home prices have kept property in the center in the hands of the wealthy, but it is an example of vibrant street life and thriving bookstores, cafés, and small shops that rely upon the historical attractions of the famous folk who lived and are buried there, not unlike those from Amherst. There are myriad other examples from across New England of towns that value preservation and have lively visitor commerce.

Naturally, there will be widely divergent opinions on what is good architectural design, which styles are appropriate, how public spaces should be constructed, where new growth should occur. That’s healthy and why public comment is welcomed at the Design Review Board, Planning Board, Historical Commission, and other town meetings. These groups bring folks of varied expertise with differing opinions together to make the best joint decisions they can for our future.

The protection of Amherst’s valuable history is good practice. It makes economic sense to look at the environmental impact of new construction versus adaptive reuse, whereby one saves old materials (often of superior, enduring local resources or even from extinct trees), and to reuse buildings whenever possible, even if cheaper new construction seems more profitable in the short run. It also behooves us to consider building behind or around iconic smaller buildings rather than razing and replacing. The Amherst Cinema building project was a good example of this kind of preservation partnership, as were the houses moved from Kendrick Park and the bank building that is now Amherst Works.

Preservation offers an educational value of “away from books” experiences with history, raising questions like “Who lived here? How did they live? What do the styles they chose tell us about what they held to be important?” and so forth. Preservation can lead to emotional attachments that foster community, pride in maintaining neighborhoods, and a sense of belonging to an historic identity. This can be a draw not only to visitors but new residents as well (I count myself in the latter from 2014). When I vote as a member of the Historical Commission to impose a delay on demolition, I am just asking that a bit more time be taken to consider alternatives and look at ways to save, reuse, or move historic buildings. I am not trying to stop development of gracious and attractive additions to Amherst’s future appearance. In fact, I welcome them.

Editors’ Note

Last night, Town Council voted to put the Jones Library project on the Nov. 2 ballot. The ballot question will be, in essence, do you affirm Town Council’s vote of Apr. 5 to proceed with the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library? The exact language, including the approved summary, appears below. And remember that you can learn about the project at the Jones Library page under Town Government 101 in our menu.

 The following referendum question will appear on the November 2, 2021 Ballot.

QUESTION: Shall the following measure authorizing a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, as voted by the Town Council on April 5, 2021, be affirmed?

BE IT ORDERED by the Town Council of the Town of Amherst that: The Town appropriate $35,279,700 for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, and to meet this appropriation, authorize the Treasurer, with the approval of the Town Manager, to borrow said amount, under and pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 7, 8, or pursuant to any other enabling authority, and to issue bonds or notes of the Town therefore, which borrowing shall be reduced to the extent of any grants received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, funds received from The Jones Library, Incorporated in an amount no less than $5,656,576 which, in addition to the $1,000,000 previously appropriated under the Community Preservation Act, represents the Library’s share of the total project cost, and/or any other source to pay costs of this project; and, further, any premium received by the Town upon the sale of any bonds or notes approved by this vote, less any such premium applied to costs of issuance of such bonds or notes, may be applied to project costs approved by this vote with a reduction of borrowing authority therefore by a like amount in accordance with M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 20.

SUMMARY: On April 5, 2021, the Town Council voted with 10 in favor, 2 opposed, and 1 abstention, to authorize a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has awarded the Town a grant of approximately $13.8 million for this project with payments starting this year; approximately $5.7 million will be provided through private donations as set forth in an agreement with the Jones Library Board of Trustees; and $1.0 million was appropriated from the Community Preservation Act funds. With these funds secured, the Town’s share of the total project costs will be approximately $15.8 million. A “yes” vote on this question means that you affirm the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and want the project to continue. A “no” vote means that you reject the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and do not want the project to continue.

Why Amherst needs the Jones Library project ASAP

By Kent W. Faerber and Jan Klausner-Wise

The sad state of the main Jones Library facility and its inability to meet the needs of the 227,000 people who visit it each year have been apparent for more than a decade.


On April 5, 2021, members of the Town Council, empowered by Amherst’s new Charter and chosen in contested elections, overwhelmingly (10-2) approved a solution that would meet those needs at a cost to the Town of $15.8 million. Most of those voting for the project were elected on a platform that included support for it.


This solution was proposed by the Library Trustees, also elected by the voters of Amherst, including in two contested elections where slates of candidates who opposed it were defeated.


This decision came after a decade of planning, listening, revising, and innumerable presentations to those Trustees, their Feasibility Committee, their Sustainability Committee (charged with recommending features to make the building environmentally friendly), Town Meeting, the Historical Commission, the Community Preservation Act Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Town Council.


The deliberations were conducted at an extraordinary level of detail that would not be possible in a town-wide plebiscite. The Library’s website, https://www.joneslibrary.org/352/Jones-Building-Project, is a Niagara Falls of information developed during the course of it.


Everyone had an opportunity to be heard during this long process, and those who commented to the Town Council overwhelmingly voiced their support.


It is difficult to imagine an outcome arrived at with more legitimacy in a representative democracy.


The Council made its decision because the project, in a fiscally responsible way, solves a daunting problem of a central component of the Town’s civic infrastructure that has been neglected for too long.


The project will provide the spaces needed each year for the:
* 16,000 hours of ESL tutoring that take place in the Library, serving the 22% of
Amherst’s residents in whose home a language other than English is spoken;
* 25,000 times the library computer workstations are used by those who do not have
access to one, serving the 27% of Amherst’s residents in poverty;
* 1,000 times a library meeting room is requested to support the Town’s unique civic life;
* Programs for the 7,200 children and 5,000 adults who come to the library because it is the center of Amherst’s community; especially programs for teens who have no space of their own to attract them to the library;
* All in addition to the lending of 450,000 books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, musical instruments, eReaders, puppets, kits, etc.

The project will make one of the most used Town facilities accessible to those with physical limitations. It will also welcome those who are new to its library culture and are mystified by the present building’s rabbit warren of confusingly hard-to-find spaces, some of which feel uncomfortably unsafe.


It will preserve and restore one of the Town’s historic landmarks (including spaces in the original 1928 building not now accessible to the public), and provide secure protection for all of the holdings of the internationally recognized Special Collections – presently at risk from the building’s ancient HVAC system.


It will make the entire building one of the most climate-friendly in Town.


The cost to the Town is NOT $35.3 million. The state Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has committed $13.8 million to the project and the Library Trustees have pledged to raise $6.6 million (guaranteed by their $9 million endowment).


The net $15.8 million cost to the Town is approximately the same as a detailed, professional estimate of the cost to do only basic repairs required by almost 30 years of deferred maintenance, including bringing the building into required compliance with accessibility codes. Doing nothing is not an option. The Town must spend this amount if it wants to use the building for its library, and such amount, then, is not available for other purposes. For the same cost, the benefits of the proposed project could hardly stand in greater contrast.


The MBLC is ready to send the Town the first $2.7 of its $13.8 million grant; 100 early donors are ready to send the first payments on their pledges which total almost $1 million; $1 million in CPA funds are waiting to be used, and a Capital Campaign Committee is ready to resume its fundraising for the $6.6 million portion of the cost of the project. And, of course, the cost of the project continues to escalate as more time is wasted.


The Jones Library project should be allowed to proceed as soon as possible.

Let’s densify!

By Elisa Campbell

I am afraid that Amherst has become a gated community, not literally, but effectively, based on the high price of housing. I don’t think any of us wanted this to happen.  In 2020, housing prices were already far too high for people with jobs but no family wealth to buy, or, often, even to rent here. 

And during the past year, bidding wars have pushed up the cost of housing astronomically, not just in our area but in any place that is regarded as a good place in which to live in this country.

We do not control the economy of the world, the United States, Massachusetts, or our part of Massachusetts. The only thing we Amherst residents can do is to decide what we are willing to change  to help make things better for people who see few options for them here.  What price are you, Amherst resident, willing to pay, or what are you willing to forgo, as an environmentally-aware, climate crisis-concerned citizen to tackle the housing problem?

Amherst needs more housing of various types, suitable for a variety of lifestyles (depending on age, mobility, and job security, for example) and incomes.

Fortunately, several efforts to build affordable housing in Amherst are under way, including:

  • Aspen Heights – 11 units
  • Amherst Studio Apartments – 28 units
  • New Barry Roberts development on Route 9 & University Drive – 45 units
  • Belchertown Road-East Street affordable housing development – perhaps 50-60 units

While Aspen Heights is built and the Roberts property is under construction, the other projects have not yet broken ground.  However, when built, this number of apartments is not enough to meet the need.

Furthermore, most recent building projects do nothing for senior citizens who have lived here for decades and want to stay, but who cannot find and/or afford an option in Amherst that is on one floor and smaller than their current home. The people I know in that situation have had to move elsewhere.

An important way to increase and vary the housing supply is to densify.  The housing debate in Amherst has been too narrowly focused on what downtown does or should look like. How about our existing single-family neighborhoods: can they accommodate more people? For example: how big is your house? How does that size compare to the size of the house or apartment you grew up in? Can it provide housing for more people?

How about your house lot –  if it was large initially to allow for a septic system but your lot now has town sewer, it doesn’t need to be so large. Are you willing to have an accessory unit built there – even for someone who is not a relative? What if your neighbors decide to build an accessory unit – will you support them?

Regarding the debate about apartment buildings downtown, what is the alternative? The real “alternative” is sprawl. If housing can’t go up it is going to go out. Sprawl – houses spread out along roads, making it impossible to provide efficient services like water and sewer, let alone public transportation.

Sprawl is an environmental disaster eating up green space, elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley if not in Amherst, but surely influenced by our local decisions. If we collectively say NO to building “up,” does that contribute to the suburbanization of our locale (especially hill towns, such as Pelham, Shutesbury, Williamsburg, Goshen, etc.)? If so, do we care? Or are we collectively interested only in what we, as individuals, see and experience? Are you willing to see all the open fields covered with houses? Every woodland ? Even the ones you see regularly and love?

I want humans to stop occupying so much space. I want other species to have places to live their lives and continue to exist, hopefully even thrive. I am extremely distressed at what we “Homo sapiens” have done and are doing to the planet we live on – including but not limited to the climate crisis, which is clearly horrible.

If you agree with me then recognize that we have choices to make. Some choices are about downtown: can we accept new buildings of a size and design we aren’t used to, that other people can live in?

Please think – where do your kids live? How large is their place? How about your grandkids – what kind of housing do they need right now and where are they going to live? Do you think kids and grandkids of people you don’t know need and deserve a decent place to live? If so, where? Surely, at least some should have the option to live here.

Let’s make it possible.

A Historic Vote is Coming on a Long-overdue Elementary School

By Anastasia Ordonez

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) isn’t known for giving many second chances. So when they decided in 2019 to consider funding Amherst’s elementary school project after we had declined their help just three years earlier, it was a welcome surprise.

But this decision wasn’t just good luck. We worked hard to get the agency to believe in us and have more to do before our town must vote to fund our share of a new school in November 2022. We really can’t afford to lose this opportunity again.

Most folks in town are familiar with the events that led to our failed elementary school construction project almost five years ago. For years, school district leaders had called attention to the many problems with the Wildwood and Fort River elementary school buildings, some of which were present at construction and have worsened with age. Annual applications to the MSBA, the state agency charged with funding capital improvement projects in our state’s schools, were repeatedly denied until late 2013, when the agency finally accepted Amherst into its project pipeline.

Unfortunately, despite a win of the popular vote in 2016 to accept the debt that would pay for our share of the project, Town Meeting declined to formally sign off on funding. Project supporters tried twice to overturn the Town Meeting decision, including through a town-wide referendum, but lost in the end. We had to notify the MSBA that we were turning down their support.

Amherst’s governance changed dramatically soon after. Many residents were outraged at the lost school project, and they organized to enact a new Town Charter and replace Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council. People rallied around the banner of the lost school project and other lost or shelved capital projects, resulting in dramatic leadership change for our community.

Meanwhile the new superintendent and School Committee reapplied to the MSBA, knowing that state funding for either school renovations or new construction would be critical. In 2019, following an intense public engagement process that resulted in general consensus around a new project, the town received word that we had been accepted into the pipeline. The MSBA didn’t want to take a chance that they would lose money on Amherst again, but they commended us for working toward consensus and were willing to formally explore helping us pay for a new school.

That’s not the end of this story, though.

Local and state public bodies – including the School Building Committee, Town Council, Amherst School Committee and the MSBA – will solicit community input, exchange information and vote on many project details over the next few years. There are some things we have control over, like an educational plan, but there are some things the MSBA controls and we only get a minor say in, like the choice of design team.

The MSBA recently took a big step forward by confirming the School Building Committee’s choice of contractor that will manage this construction project for us. But one of the most important sequence of votes will come next year when the MSBA will decide whether to enter into a Project Scope and Budget agreement with our town. After that we must vote to fund our share, in much the same way we did in 2016.

This town-wide vote is a big deal. As I explained two years ago, the MSBA estimates that projects like this one take five to seven years to complete from when the Eligibility Period first starts. In our case that was May 2020 so, realistically, we can’t expect our children to start in any new school until at least 2025 — a full 18 years after we first filed an application with the MSBA. We’ve lost a lot of time getting to this point, and we can’t afford to lose any more. Not only will construction costs continue to go up, but our children and educators deserve better schools right now.

“Remember the time the ceiling in the library fell down with a crash?” a sixth grader asked while reciting a poem onstage at his recent graduation from Fort River Elementary School. The smile froze on my face at those words. I remember the many instances that our public school buildings have failed our students – the hours of class time lost during heatwaves when the schools’ coolers wouldn’t turn on, the loss of library time when falling ceilings have rained on school books, the loss of concentration when children can’t hear their teachers in acoustically lousy open classrooms.

The MSBA expects our community to show we’re serious and won’t renege on our end of the bargain this time around. But most important, while that graduating sixth grader is too young to remember the first application to the MSBA and will never step foot in a new Amherst school, we must pass this vote for future students so they have a healthy, inspiring place in which to learn every day.

Who Owns Amherst’s Future?

By Sarah Marshall

Amherst residents are passionate about what they want and don’t want, from the look of the downtown, residential, and rural landscapes, to the types of housing that can or should be built (and for whom), to our budget priorities.

I have many times heard comments that begin, “When I moved here 40 years ago,” or “When I first came to Amherst…” Frequently, the commenters lament the various changes that have occurred or are proposed. Some of these complaints target new apartment buildings (existing and proposed) in Amherst Center, or the loss of downtown grocery stores, hardware stores, small local businesses, and beloved restaurants.  Such commenters often explicitly demand that Amherst be preserved as it is or restored to what it was. I sympathize with this view, because much of Amherst’s built and natural environments are lovely.

Accompanying this desire to keep-everything-as-it-is, many complain about the influx of undergraduates and graduate students, the decline of families looking to put down roots here, and the high cost of housing.  The influx of students is sometimes blamed for loss of businesses that the long-timers miss and our decreasing elementary and secondary school populations. In my view, the causes of these trends are multiple, and blaming the University of Massachusetts for our woes is an unhelpful simplification.  Even if the University is the cause of our woes, it will not be leaving Amherst any time soon, and we need to look to other solutions.

As we debate, I wonder:

Whose interests should we be prioritizing as we make decisions that will affect the town for the next 20 years or more?  The interests of property owners who have lived here the longest?  The wealthiest?  The poorest?  The loudest? The people who want to live in Amherst but cannot, whatever their marital, educational, or economic status?

At what point does preservation of a small town’s look and feel limit our ability to provide services?  Does privileging quaintness, or the look and feel of the town, effectively create a financial burden that will limit our ability to maintain excellent schools and public services?

Does a preference for leafy, single-family residential areas, or a disdain for apartment buildings, effectively shut out people who “aren’t like us”? Does wanting things to stay the way they are make Amherst less welcoming to BIPOC people and people of moderate or low incomes?

Are we a small rural town, a college town, or a small city? Will we, or should we, become more like Northampton?

What do today’s residents owe tomorrow’s?  How did the generations before us prepare Amherst for its future? What are we willing to invest in?

Obviously, only the people who do live here can vote, but I wonder if we should think harder about the people who are not here yet, and be willing to lose a bit of what we love in order to welcome them into the community.

In my view, Amherst, like businesses in the early days of the internet, will wither if it does not adapt to new pressures and needs. Attempting to force a model of the past onto our present situation will hurt us in the long run.

What do you think?

Editors’ Note

Check out our new pages under the heading, Town Government 101. We aim to collect sources of information on a variety of local efforts, and begin with general resources (if you are new to Amherst, have a look) and resources to help you get and stay up to speed on the four major capital projects, such as video, documents, and other websites. Please let us know if you come across broken links.

Amherst House Prices Shoot Up

by Nick Grabbe

A flurry of home-buyers caused sale prices to jump in Amherst this spring, with houses often selling for more than their asking prices.

“It was such an unusual time, and we were all walking around scratching our heads,” said Kathy Zeamer, a spokeswoman for Jones Realty. “Even realtors who have been in business for 40 years said they’d never seen anything like this.”

“Frenzy” isn’t too strong a word for the bidding wars that real estate agents saw over houses that were well-maintained and priced reasonably, she said. She offered some eye-popping examples:

  • A two-bedroom house on East Pleasant Street (shown at left) was listed for sale at $299,900. In three days, there were 50 showings and nine offers, and it sold for $345,000 to an out-of-town buyer.
  • A house on Middle Street was listed for $599,900, and someone bought it the first day it was on the market, for $612,500 – in cash.
  • A house on Amity Street was listed at $665,00 and sold for $708,800 in four days.

(For a list of recent sale prices of single-family houses in Amherst, click on “Recent House Sales” at left.)

If you already own your house, this white-hot market means it is now likely worth more than a year ago, and your net worth just went up a notch. My own Amherst house, which I bought for $66,000 in 1984, is now worth about six times as much. This hot market also works well for people who have just sold a brownstone in Brooklyn for $2 million and want to buy a house in Amherst and still have plenty of money left over.

But for middle-income people and first-time home-buyers, it’s been a frustrating time. And this price run-up has increased the already-wide wealth gap in Amherst between people who own homes and those who rent.

During the pandemic, many people living in urban areas and working from home figured they could do that just as easily in Amherst. Some were attracted to the cultural and outdoor activities in the area, and some had family members here, Zeamer said. Many sales this spring were to buyers from urban areas.

“They come with a lot of cash, and look at the prices of properties here, and it looks like quite a bargain,” she said.

It’s hard for a local buyer to compete, Zeamer said. Presented with a cash offer, many sellers don’t want to take the risk that a bidder won’t be able to get financing. It can take four to six weeks to get a mortgage commitment.

Some bidders have taken to writing letters to the sellers pleading their cases, or even agreeing to waive inspections or pay closing costs, she said. But many companies counsel against writing letters to sellers “due to the possibility (or even the perception) of favoritism that may be interpreted as discriminatory,” Zeamer said.

One buyer sold his house in California for $5 million and bought a house in Amherst for $1.4 million, said real estate agent Nancy Hamel. “A first-time buyer putting down 5 percent might as well not even make an offer,” she said. “FHA buyers don’t have a chance. How do you compete with that kind of money?”

Another reason for the frenzy is that there have been fewer houses for sale than usual. Normally, there are about 100 houses for sale in Amherst. By mid-June, there were around 10.

“Many homeowners did not want people coming through their homes during the pandemic,” Zeamer said. “Since vaccines have become available, people are more relaxed about opening their homes.”

Another attraction for buyers is that mortgage interest rates are very low now. Many people worry that inflation will cause them to go up next year, so they figure that now is a good time to buy.

Although your house is worth more now, you are paying taxes on only a portion of its value. But that will change.

Many houses have sold in the last few months for 30 percent more than their assessed value, which is Town Hall’s estimate of how much a house is worth. It is calculated to determine how to distribute the property tax burden, but it takes a while for assessed values to catch up with increasing sale prices .

For example, a house on Aubinwood Road, assessed at $338,900, recently sold for $485,000. A house on Baker Street, assessed for $290,300, sold for $450,000. A house on South East Street, assessed at $365,800, recently sold for $532,000.

Property taxes are due Aug. 2. Your annual property tax is calculated by dividing your assessed value by 1,000 and then multiplying by the tax rate, which was $21.82 in the fiscal year that just ended. The tax rate for the new fiscal year has not been set yet.

The median assessed value for a single-family house is $365,650, with an annual tax obligation of $7,978 in the fiscal year that just ended.

Assessed values will likely increase next year to reflect higher sale prices this year. That will probably cause the tax rate to go down. But tax bills always go up because the amount the town needs to raise in taxation always goes up by slightly more than the 2.5 percent limit set by state law. Changes in assessments don’t directly cause tax increases and happen every five years or whenever the average sale price is more than 10 percent above assessed values.

The frenzy of buyers is now past. “It’s calmed down a little bit, and in the summer things slow down,” said Zeamer.

But the price of a house in Amherst is likely to remain high.

A Crowded Future for Amherst Elementary Students

by Sarah Marshall

With distance learning disallowed for the 2021-2022 school year, all of Amherst’s primary and secondary school students will attend school in person.  However, students will find that all three elementary schools, which were reconfigured last summer to allow improvements to HVAC systems and at least six feet of distance between students and teachers, feel crowded.  How can this be, when enrollments are dropping?

At Wildwood and Fort River schools, the infamous quads, with their incomplete walls, poor ventilation, and spaces with no windows, were transformed into two classrooms each, with floor-to-ceiling walls, amped-up ventilation, windows, and desks widely separated.  This reconfiguration cut the number of classrooms in half. During the spring, some students attended class remotely, meaning that the schools hosted less than 100 percent of the student body. 

Next year, as 100 percent of students return, spaces such as cafeterias and specials rooms will be turned into classrooms, and many support services will operate out of the libraries.  There will be no dedicated art and music classrooms, and instructors will take their carts from room to room, with obvious limitations to their curricula.  Students will eat lunch in their classrooms.  At Fort River, the successful and growing bilingual  program, Caminantes, also affects space allocations, as each grade level offering Caminantes needs three classrooms, two for Caminantes and one for the standard program.  Crocker Farm was not built with quads, but space was also reallocated to improve ventilation and spacing within all teaching areas.  The unique space pressure at Crocker Farm comes from the growing preschool program, which enrolls all of the district’s special-needs 3-to-4-year-olds.

What can be done to get all elementary students back in true classrooms, restore the art and music rooms, and leave cafeterias for diners?  Some options have been mentioned at School Committee meetings and others can be imagined, but the feasibility, timeline, and cost of each option must be determined.  However, it is probably not possible to solve the problem for the 2021-2022 school year.

For the 2022-2023 school year, we can: (1) Do nothing, and live with the current space plans. (2) Buy or rent modular classrooms for some of the elementary schools. (3) Rip out all of the changes made to the buildings last summer and let the schools revert to their prior states.  The changes made to prepare for teaching during the pandemic did not cost Amherst taxpayers a dime, since federal and state relief funds paid for the construction. However, reversal of these changes would be paid for entirely by Amherst.  (4) Make the Middle School a 6-8-grade school, a common grade configuration in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S.  The Middle School currently hosts about 425 students, but as recently as 2000 hosted about 725 students.  The Middle School can easily absorb all of Amherst’s 6th-graders and ease space demands at all three elementary schools.

The possibility of reconfiguring our elementary and middle schools has been contemplated for years.  In 2018, Regional Schools contracted for a study exploring the feasibility and potential costs of creating a grades 6-8 Middle School and a grades 7-12 High School.  The second option was estimated to cost at least $40 million, whereas the cost of the first option was deemed to be essentially zero.  In 2019, and in light of the study, the Regional School District authorized formation of a Middle School Grade-Span Advisory Committee, tasked with exploring the factors, impacts, and potential pros and cons of moving 6th-graders to a Middle School; the committee was not tasked with developing a recommendation, which falls to the elementary school committees of our region (that is, Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury).  The Advisory Committee was about to issue its report in the winter of 2020 when the pandemic struck, upending all plans.

With the pandemic receding, the Grade-Span report was released this past April, and the Regional School Committee began discussing the matter in May.  The only decision yet taken at the Regional level was to allow the elementary school districts to begin their own deliberations, if interested.  The Amherst School Committee has decided to study the pros and cons of moving our 6th-graders to the middle school, and in the fall will begin a community engagement process in which information, options, and feedback will be shared and gathered.  The goal is to arrive at a decision before the December holidays so that teachers and administrators can begin planning how to best design and accommodate the chosen programs beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. The crowding of the elementary schools described above (as well as the need to define the size and scope of the new elementary school building project) now gives urgency to the question but is not the original impetus for considering the move.

Some families are alarmed at the possibility that ARMS might become a 6-8-grade school.  I served on the Grade-Span Committee with outstanding, thoughtful elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, as well as other parents.  I am confident that, should the 6th-graders move to ARMS, they will do so only after a well planned curriculum, environment, and support systems are developed that are appropriate for these young people’s educational and social/emotional needs.  I do not believe they will be tossed into the current 7-8 program and left to make their own way.  However, as our community begins the discussion about where to best locate 6th grade, it will be important to have an understanding of the alternative – what the elementary school environments will be like during the next several post-covid years.

Hello, Amherst!

The Amherst Current will focus on our town’s pressing issues: local elections, infrastructure projects, our changing demographics, new construction, taxes, and much more. We are working with contributors who have deep experience with Amherst issues, and we hope to post twice per week, generally alternating between “explainers” and opinion pieces.

With the decline of traditional media, many people are confused about the many complex challenges Amherst faces. We hope to increase understanding of these issues and provide perspective on them. And we feel that Amherst could benefit from another discussion forum.

Few people have the time to attend or watch the many meetings of Town Council and our boards and committees (thank you, dedicated volunteers, elected officials, and town staff!). So we will try to help you by focusing on what is most critical as you decide what petitions to sign or not sign and for whom to cast your votes.

We want to be clear: we favor building the four proposed capital projects (Jones Library expansion, Public Works headquarters, South Amherst fire station, and a new Wildwood/Fort River elementary school) in a fiscally prudent manner. We support increasing the density of downtown and village centers, as recommended by the master plan, and support business growth and a broadening of the tax base. We will favor candidates who support these goals.

We want to promote civic engagement, civility, and open discussion of the issues that Amherst confronts. We will encourage residents to vote in the November election.

Let us know what you think, and what you want to read about! Subscribe and be alerted to new posts. Email us at theamherstcurrent@gmail.com. And feel free to comment, as long as you can abide by our comment policy and will give your name and email address (we won’t ever display the latter). And, lastly, please forgive technical glitches as we learn how to do this!

— Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe