In “A civil conversation, Part 3,” Meg Gage listed some crucial requirements of a good plan for downtown Amherst. They were:
“Setting goals based on a vision” Whose vision? While I believe that there could be consensus (or, at least, consent) over basic characteristics for the form and function of a downtown, there is unlikely to ever be (and, in Amherst, there never has been) agreement or consensus about most of what that should include. For instance, limiting the height of downtown buildings to the 2-3 stories typical of the 19th and early 20th century would inhibit the ability of Amherst’s extremely confined and small downtown to provide meaningful amounts of downtown housing, diverse retail, or any of the rest of the uses the community has said it wants.
For another instance, despite people’s general impression, Amherst’s downtown boasts a highly diverse range of architecture that reflects the community’s historical evolution and change. Every new architectural form–including the 1889 Town Hall–was in its time greeted with dismay and disapproval. Form-based zoning for downtown Amherst should not dictate the replication or even overweening evocation of historical styles, but should instead emphasize compatibility. Time passes, needs change. Communities need to change with them.
“Clarity about values” Again, whose? There are always multiple individual voices – usually raised in alarm or dismay – whenever a private or public entity tries to actually put those values on the ground. These Civil Conversations would not be either needed nor happening if that were not true. The Amherst Master Plan is the closest thing the community has to a genuine expression of collective community values. But many will always fight against efforts to bring the Master Plan’s objectives to fruition, usually on the grounds that some imagined perfection has not been achieved. If the community wants what its Plan offers, it needs to proceed to accomplish those objectives anyway.
“Establishing the exact need” Not only impossible, but, in the process, misleading. Human needs and the setting within which they arise change constantly. The community can (and has) take frequent snapshots of need (housing, employment, transportation, parking, food and retail goods availability, etc.). But trying to measure exactly how much affordable housing (for instance) downtown Amherst needs or will need is by its nature an exercise in speculative generality, not least because it could be very different in a matter of months, depending on wider changes in the economy, etc. Assuming that “exactness” can be achieved creates an unreal expectation.
“Evaluating options for meeting the need including size, location, who is served, etc.” This is already done, in two ways, through the market analyses conducted by private developers and the studies undertaken by the public sector. In the end, there can be no perfect option, only options that are more flawed or less flawed in terms of everyone’s expectations. Amherst as a community is diverse and rarely agrees with itself about what its needs are or even should consist of. And there are, properly, limits on what the public can dictate to private property owners.
“Creating a business plan – reviewing research and other information about viability, cost of building, operating budget, etc.” Again, the best the public sector can do in evaluating something like a redevelopment plan for an area is to spend a lot of money and more time than anyone wants developing potential scenarios based on current-day expectations and market conditions, which are themselves destined to be outdated within a few years, if not sooner. There is a persistent myth that studying something and conducting due diligence on economic, physical, and social feasibility (which the public sector absolutely is obliged to do) will then produce a given, mutually-agreed-upon outcome that will come into being by the time anything is built, completed, and operating. That is never true. A downtown plan is a great idea, but all such planning and projective speculation can do is provide a ‘ballpark’ sense of goals and objectives, and a greater familiarity with the moving parts, so that the community can adjust as time passes. Which it will.
“Getting input from everyone who will be affected while there are still options from which to choose.” Including the option of stopping things, which has for so many years in Amherst seemed to be the principal motivation for insisting on options and choices? For all forms of development there are existing, legally mandated avenues for public involvement and input. None of those can possibly obtain “input from everyone who will be affected.” In some cases, extending public permit processes too widely and over too long a period of time can violate both the rights of those doing the development (public or private) and corresponding land use law.
The best that public process can do (and most often does) is to provide a reasonable opportunity for the immensely diverse cohort of humanity that constitutes “everyone who will be affected” to involve themselves. The purpose of public process is to serve the interests of all those involved. All those involved includes the development rights of property owners and the broad public interests that thoughtful development can serve, as well as those who feel aggrieved by change they do not like.
In the end, the perfect remains the enemy of the good. No development, however thoughtfully and carefully planned, responsibly permitted, and competently executed, will perfectly meet the expectations of all of those who believe their interests are involved. That is why community planning exercises and permit processes have a structured beginning and a reasonable end. People have a right to do useful things with their property and communities have a right to reasonably direct how those changes can occur. But unless that process is in fact reasonable, it is not legitimate.
Jonathan Tucker, an Amherst native who now lives in Northampton, worked in the Amherst Planning Department for 32 years and was planning director for 10 years. He staffed the Planning Board, Design Review Board, Historical Commission and Redevelopment Authority.He served on task forces focused on housing, parking, transportation and conservation.
This Monday, the Town Council will hold a public forum on the Community Preservation Act Committee’s (CPAC’s) grant recommendations for the next fiscal year. Later in the evening, the Council is scheduled to vote on most of the recommendations.
Almost all are likely to be approved, in my estimation, but two of CPAC’s recommendations have triggered concern among Councilors, specifically grants for repairs to the Alice Maud Hills House and the Conkey-Stevens House. At the heart of the concern is whether public money should be awarded to private property owners, either non-profits (such as the Woman’s Club, owners of the Hills House) or homeowners (Salem Place Condominium Association, owners of the Conkey-Stevens House). As chair of CPAC, I enthusiastically support both projects – indeed, all the project recommended to Council. (Note that this blog post is my own opinion, not approved by CPAC.)
Both properties are listed in the National Historic Register and are within local historic districts. The Alice Maud Hills house, at 35 Triangle St. but facing Main Street, is a neighbor (more or less) to the Emily Dickinson Homestead and the Evergreens. The Conkey-Stevens House, at 664 Main St., is a one-of-a-kind Second Empire structure in East Amherst. Both buildings require exterior work that exceeds the financial capacities of their owners.
It is helpful to understand the Community Preservation program before saying more about these two particular projects – but if you are already familiar with the CPA, you can jump ahead.
Where do the CPAC funds come from? Amherst citizens repeatedly voted to tax themselves – three times since 2001 – in order to participate in the program enabled by the state’s Community Preservation Act. Property owners pay a surcharge, or tax on the property tax, of 3% (the first $100,000 of assessed value is exempt). That is, for every $100 assessed in property taxes, an extra $3 goes into our Community Preservation Fund. The Commonwealth contributes additional dollars yearly to the participating cities and towns; the precise amount varies, year to year, but the state matched 39% of the Town’s FY2021 collection to the fund for FY2022.
Why did voters agree to raise their own taxes? Because voters support the goals of the program, which are to fund projects addressing affordable housing, historic preservation, acquisition of open space, and development and improvement of recreational amenities.
Over the past 20 years, approximately $18 million in CPA money has been invested in numerous Amherst projects. Examples include:
In the Community (i.e., affordable) Housing category, the purchase of land on Belchertown Road, funding for the Valley CDC project at 123 Northampton Rd. (“East Gables”), conversion of market-rate rental units at Rolling Green Apartments to affordable units, and grants to Amherst Community Connections’ transitional housing initiatives;
In the Open Space category, funds for the redesign of the northern part of the Town Common, contributions to the purchase (completed just last week) of the Hickory Ridge Golf Course, purchase of land (now under conservation) such as the Szala and Keets-Haskins properties, and funds for improvements to trail networks;
In the Historic Preservation category, preservation efforts at Town Hall, funding for the Special Projects facility in the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, funds for building envelope repairs and/or foundation repairs at the Munson and North Amherst libraries, restoration of the Tiffany window at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, restoration of the Civil War tablets, and exterior repairs to the Goodwin Memorial AME Zion church;
And in the Recreation category, funds for the playgrounds (sometimes matched with grant funding) at Kendrick Park, the playground and spray park at Groff Park, and repairs to basketball courts and pools at Town recreation areas.
Who decides what grants to award? CPAC is responsible for soliciting, reviewing, and recommending grant applications. In the past, CPAC’s annual report was submitted to Town Meeting, but now it goes to Town Council for discussion, public comment, and a vote. Those bodies have sole power to authorize town spending. The enabling statute allows Town Council to reject a recommendation or reduce the size of a grant, but Council may not increase a grant or award funds to projects not recommended by CPAC.
Who serves on CPAC? The law directs several boards and commissions to delegate representatives to CPAC. Thus, CPAC members come from the Amherst Housing Authority, the Historical Commission, the Conservation Commission, the Recreation Commission, and the Planning Board. The Town Manager also recruits candidates for three at-large seats.
But back to the Hills House and Conkey-Stevens House. Both applications were strongly supported by the Amherst Historical Commission. CPAC and the commission spoke publicly about the clear eligibility of privately owned properties for CPA money, emphasizing that the “public benefit” to the taxpayer, as far as the law is concerned, need only be the view of the exterior from the street or sidewalk. The commission urged Councilors to consider Amherst’s many historic structures as an outdoor museum through which citizens roam. They noted that private property owners are usually not eligible for grants to preserve their historic properties, and that the Community Preservation Act deliberately includes them.
No precedent would be set by approving an award to the Alice Maud Hills House. CPA grants have been made to private not-for-profit entities in Amherst numerous times. Churches, the Jewish Community of Amherst, the farmhouse owned by the North Amherst Community Farm – even the Hills House’s Carriage House – have received grants.
What may be novel in Amherst is granting taxpayer dollars to a private homeowner. The Council is concerned about a possible flood of applications, and wonders whether private owners should be held completely responsible for maintenance of their historic structures. On behalf of CPAC, I noted that all program applicants compete for funding, that many projects are not approved, and that private owners are welcome in the program. Personally, I believe that since these private owners are providing a benefit to the rest of us, and ownership of historic properties is both inherently expensive and subject to many constraints, the public should be willing to help pick up the tab occasionally.
One concern raised by Councilors is how to secure the taxpayers’ contribution to the property, should the property be sold or demolished, for example. This a reasonable concern and one that should be readily resolved by language in the agreements between the Town and applicants. As mentioned above, grants that benefit properties not owned by the Town have been made on numerous occasions already.
Readers may want to know about the other grants CPAC recommends for FY23. We recommend new grants totaling approximately $1.833 million, as well as debt payments of about $490,000 for projects voted in earlier years, and $25,000 for administrative expenses. We also recommend reserving about $533,000 for future CPA uses.
In brief, CPAC is recommending that funds be granted to:
the Town to assist in the purchase or rehabilitation of a property to be used for transitional housing,
the Town to fund a part-time housing projects coordinator,
the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust to enable it to fund projects as they arise – perhaps, soon, at the East Street School site and the Belchertown Road property acquired a year ago – and for a part-time consultant,
the Town to conduct repairs at one of its affordable housing sites, the John C. Nutting building,
the Amherst Historical Society so that it can conduct an engineering and structural assessment of the Museum,
the Town for continued repairs to the West Cemetery,
the District One Neighborhood Association, with the assistance of the Conservation Department, to begin work on a history trail along part of the Mill River,
Crocker Farm School for design work on upgrades to or replacement of a playground,
the Town to improve the irrigation system at the Plum Brook playing fields,
the Town for some trail work at the Hickory Ridge property,
the Town for general repairs and improvements to its trail network,
and to Amherst Pickleball Supporters, with the assistance of the Recreation Department, to build two or more pickleball courts.
I look forward to seeing these projects come to fruition!
Andy: In our last column, we talked about how downtown has evolved over the years and that further development should be done in a way that supports vibrancy and increases tax revenues. And we talked about the idea of using design standards, technically known as “form-based code,” to guide the look and feel of future development.
This time, let’s get more specific. Let’s take our readers on a virtual walk downtown and think about future design standards. What aspects do we like, and want to see more of? What elements would we prefer never to see again?
Meg: Okay, I’ll play. Do you want to go first?
Andy: I would say my favorite block downtown is the stretch with Fresh Side, Hastings, and Collective Copies, west of the Common. Those buildings have retail on the ground floor and offices and apartments upstairs. And some of them are four stories tall, but they have design features that make them attractive and not overwhelming. I could go for more of that style downtown.
Meg: I agree. As you might expect, one of my favorite downtown spots is the Amherst Cinema building that combines an independent film house with a number of successful, small businesses as well as a small art gallery. Imagine a successful business that sells frozen yogurt year-round with milk from local cows! Small businesses can succeed if they have the appropriate infrastructure support – like plumbing, electricity, and walls – rather than cavernous undeveloped space. Thanks to Barry Roberts for partnering with the Amherst Cinema to make that happen. And thanks to the Amherst Cinema for investing in a rigorous business plan before any renovations happened. Again, planning!!
In terms of the appearance of downtown blocks, I like the block between Subway and Formosa, where the Lincoln Building is. This stretch combines old and new buildings but with a somewhat unified style and (my favorite) a very wide sidewalk. Hooray for wide sidewalks!
Andy: As for negative aspects, I am puzzled by the way the North Pleasant “skyline” suddenly drops off around Antonio’s, and we go from multi-story, mixed-use buildings to a series of old family homes pressed into service as businesses. Those seem like prime targets for redevelopment, along with the single-story CVS and Zanna buildings – just continue the multi-story line down the street, so more people can live and work downtown. But do it with some style – not like the bland, soulless brick building next to the fire station, where The Works is.
Meg: Don’t forget the most hideous building in town or perhaps in the Valley: The Bank of America building that is 45 degrees out of whack with every other building in town, has those horrific square columns with no structural or artistic purpose, the outrageous useless space that has to be heated and cooled – and the bizarre gerbil run on the second floor! That is one building everyone agrees is a downtown catastrophe!
Andy: Ugh. Yes.
Meg: I think a redesigned building there would make a fabulous Thorne’s Market-style venue with 2–3 floors of small boutiques and some carefully planned, financially sustainable arts space on the top floor. Maybe film-making courses sponsored by Amherst Cinema, and/or rehearsal space for the black box theater we can create in the old fire station! I am convinced, as I said earlier, that we could attract more small businesses if more infrastructure – plumbing heating, electricity – were provided. Maybe it could be “Roberts’ Market”! The Bank of America could sell it and consolidate their business at the Triangle Street mini bank. I know what you’re thinking: “Dream on, Meg!”
Andy: Well, while we’re dreaming, how about an easily accessible parking garage with plenty of space for all the people using “Roberts’ Market” and all the other current and future attractions downtown?
Meg: Sure, a parking garage based on a plan so it’s the right size, in the best location and structured so it’s public parking and not parking primarily for student renters. A private parking lot makes me nervous! A topic for the future we probably won’t agree on! I fear the editors of the Amherst Current were hoping we might have more fireworks than we did this time around, so that sounds like a great topic for next time. Ka-boom!
Andy: Haha! You crack me up. So much to argue about; so little time!
Meg: You know, Andy, I think we could agree on the importance of planning and perhaps also on the components of a good plan.
Andy: Yes, planning is good. Good planning is even better! Where would you start?
Meg: Well, I would start with goals or what some call a “vision.” What do we want? I am a big fan of quite specific goals and sometimes find the concept of “vision” to result in vagueness, but having a vision of what we want is also important. And that vision can be translated into goals. I think our Master Plan lays out a lot of that.
Andy: Having been part of the Master Planning process, it always warms my heart when it gets referenced. It really was a substantial public outreach project – more than 1,000 residents provided input back in 2006-10, and in 2020 it was reviewed and adopted by our Town Council. I think you’re right that it provides a broad vision – and that we need a more specific plan for our downtown.
Meg: When I think about the components of a good plan, whether it’s about our downtown or about building a house or about creating a strong organization, there are some crucial requirements. I would roughly summarize them as:
Setting goals based on a vision
Clarity about values
Establishing the exact need
Evaluating options for meeting the need including size, location, who is served, etc.
Creating a business plan – reviewing research and other information about viability, cost of building, operating budget, etc.
Getting input from everyone who will be affected while there are still options from which to choose.
Andy: Those sound like good components of a planning process. To get even more specific about the future look and feel of the downtown, I think we should revisit Amherst’s previous attempt to establish form-based code. To quote from the Form-Based Code Institute’s website:
Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals… This approach contrasts with conventional zoning’s focus on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, and the control of development intensity through abstract and uncoordinated parameters…
Amherst already has a form-based code proposal drafted; it was presented to Town Meeting a few years ago. Maybe the Town Council could ask the Planning Board to hold some hearings on that draft and see if we can get an updated version approved that will reflect the will of the community and put some rules in place to guide development going forward.
Meg: That would be a good first step – well-advertised public hearings about relevant topics is almost always a good idea! I confess needing to relearn about form-based design before I jump in as gung-ho advocate. I will do that before we reconvene!
In response to declining public health COVID case numbers, a high vaccination rate of 88%, and in alignment with the recently updated CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) guidance, the Amherst Board of Health, on the recommendation of the Public Health Director Jennifer Brown, lifted the mask mandate for indoor public spaces at its meeting on March 10th, effective immediately.
Masks will no longer be required in Town buildings and facilities. Businesses and other organizations may determine their own paths forward regarding masks to protect staff and patrons and may choose to continue with their own masking requirements.
The Amherst Regional Public Schools will adjust their masking protocols on Monday, March 14, 2022.
Public Health Director Jennifer Brown said, “I understand that people may be concerned about these changes to mask requirements. Individuals may choose to continue wearing face coverings whether it is mandated or not. I ask that we each respect the choices we each make about our health and well-being. I fully anticipate that there will be many who choose to continue to mask. I simply ask that the community and visitors to be kind and respectful as people evaluate their risks and make choices to protect themselves and those around them.”
When a UMass student leaves the campus and gets in trouble, the Amherst Police Department, paid for primarily by Amherst taxpayers, deals with him.
When an Amherst College student goes to Town Hall to register to vote or get a passport, the salaries of the clerks who help her are paid through Amherst property taxes.
When a Hampshire College professor gets in a car, the cost of paving the roads, clearing the snow and maintaining the stoplights comes mostly from the budget of the Amherst Department of Public Works.
And yet Amherst receives very little from these three institutions to help pay these necessary expenses, which run in the millions of dollars, because their land and buildings are exempt from local property taxes. This is one of the main reasons why the average residential tax bill in Amherst is among the highest in Western Mass. And next spring, residents will be asked to raise their taxes even further to pay for a desperately needed new elementary school.
Meanwhile, the previous Town Council has made substantial commitments that will have big financial consequences. They include:
Creating two new departments;
Implementing efforts to realize our energy and climate goals;
Exploring reparations for African American residents harmed by past injustice;
Addressing long-delayed infrastructure and capital needs;
Funding four major building projects.
In addition, Amherst is committed to maintaining the high level of Town services that residents have come to expect. All these commitments will put serious pressure on the Town’s budgets for the foreseeable future.
Difficult and painful decisions will have to be made. Some staffing goals have been deferred and may have to be abandoned, such as funding a staff position to oversee downtown parking, hiring an economic development director, or increasing the number of inspectors to enforce a stricter rental registration bylaw.
New sources of funding will be essential if we are to meet these ambitious goals. One key will be continued new growth, to enable the Town to raise revenue beyond the limits of the state’s tax-limit law. And that will mean more development, especially downtown and in village centers, and that in turn will require zoning reforms such as allowing duplexes by right.
But that will not be enough. Amherst needs to engage at the highest level with the three academic institutions in town to identify ways they can contribute to the Town’s long-term flourishing. It is in their interest, in terms of attracting faculty and students, to have a host community that people want to live in. The quality of Amherst’s schools, roads and cultural activities are important to those decisions.
Town officials are already having “productive conversations” with campus representatives, said Finance Director Sean Mangano. Town staff are also comparing the financial contributions of the three campuses with those of Williams College, UMass/Dartmouth and UMass/Lowell, and the Universities of Connecticut and Vermont to their host communities, Mangano said.
And the Town Council has made developing strategic partnership agreements with all three institutions a key goal for the town manager in 2022. He is tasked with entering into agreements that will seek to mitigate the financial and social impacts the three campuses have on the Town and also exploring possible collaborations in areas of mutual concern, such as housing, economic development, and the long-term financial viability of the Town.
In addition, there are efforts to get state legislation to formalize payments to towns that host state facilities. Amherst’s Finance Committee is working with the principal assessor to estimate the value of land and buildings on our three campuses.
What are some examples of town-gown collaborations? Burlington, Vt. is especially noteworthy. In 2019, the city received $1.38 million from the University of Vermont to help pay for municipal services, and $94,000 to pay for police patrols near the campus, according to vtdigger.org, an independent news source. The city also received a commitment of $8.9 million over 20 years to cover the debt service on a sustainable infrastructure plan.
The University of Iowa contributed $200,000 to a city-sponsored program that bought properties and resold them to individuals who met certain income guidelines. The University of West Virginia provided forgivable down payment assistance for its employees who participated in a city home ownership program. Lehigh University agreed to share the cost of the salaries for code enforcers to ensure that their students were living in safe, healthy off-campus housing. Duke University bought, rehabilitated, and sold 40 houses to faculty and staff.
So what sorts of payments do our three institutions of higher learning currehtly make to the Town? This past year, after many years of negotiations, UMass contributed $185,000 to the elementary and regional schools to help pay the cost of educating children who live in its tax-exempt housing. In addition, it makes an annual payment of $160,000 as “occupancy fees” in lieu of an occupancy tax at the Campus Center Hotel, and it reimburses the Town for police and fire support; in 2021 that was $400,000.
Amherst College, which has an endowment currently valued at $3.7 billion, recently made a one-time gift of $200,000 to help support the Jones Library expansion and renovation project and to help pay the costs of the Drake, the live performance space (though assistance the Drake doesn’t help the Town budget). Amherst College also makes an annual contribution to the local schools (in 2021 it was $75,000) and, unlike UMass, it does pay property tax on some of its properties in Town, especially off-campus faculty residences. In 2021 that property tax bill came to $649,449. And like UMass (whose statewide endowment in 2021 was $1.2 billion), it reimburses the Town on an annual basis for ambulance and fire calls. In 2021, that annual “support fee” came to $140,000.
These payments, while welcome, are not adequate to meet the demand that our academic institutions place on Town services. Amherst College or UMass could show what good neighbors they are, and get much favorable publicity, by paying some of the costs of making our new elementary school zero-energy, for example.
And while Hampshire College’s financial situation might preclude contributions, it does have substantial land holdings in South Amherst and could be a key player in increasing housing opportunities and economic development in that part of town.
All three institutions also possess vast reservoirs of intellectual capital and youthful idealism that could be put to work in our schools and in the larger community. They are essential partners in keeping Amherst flourishing and financially sound. These conversations will not be easy, but they are vital to the future well being of our community.
The public is invited to a forum regarding the elementary school building project on Wednesday, March 9, 6:30-9 p.m. The DiNisco Design Team will present overviews on the following topics: Educational Program & Space Summary Needs, Existing Conditions Updates, Preliminary Evaluation of Alternatives. The forum will take public comment. Participate or watch by Zoom: https://zoom.us/j/91347209624 Meeting ID: 913 4720 9624 To indicate you wish to make a comment click “raise hand.”
Editors’ note: This is the second in a series of respectful conversations about Amherst issues from two different points of view. Click here to read Part 1.
By Meg Gage and Andy Churchill
Andy: Well, some people never learn! Here we are again, taking another whack at our different opinions about Amherst’s downtown. I understand you actually lived downtown as a child, up through your high school graduation. What was that like?
Meg: Yes, but I’m not into glorifying my Amherst childhood. Sometimes it seems there’s some merit in having been around a long time, some kind of extra credit. That’s not my thing.
Andy: Aw, c’mon – how about doing it in a nice, Amherst-y, non-competitive way?
Meg: Well, OK. Here’s a quick memory of growing up on North Pleasant Street. We lived across from the Dairy Queen that was next to the Mobil station, where Zanna is now. On summer evenings I’d look across the street from my bedroom window at the college students sitting on the hoods of their cars, eating ice cream cones together. I thought that was the most wonderful thing a college student could do. But it turned out as a Brandeis student I wasn’t the sort to sit on a car hood eating ice cream!
Andy: Wow – a Dairy Queen downtown – I could go for that. I might even sit on a car hood!
Meg: Another memory is of the White sisters, two elderly women who lived across the street, just about where 1 East Pleasant is now. They were the first Amherst girls to have bicycles and were quick to share with pride a framed newspaper article with a picture of them in bloomers with their bikes. Really dating myself here!
Andy: Great memories. And, of course, you’ve seen a lot of change since then. I wonder, does that make you in some way resistant to development downtown? I get the sense that some folks on “your side” are nostalgic for simpler times, when UMass was smaller, there was a grocery store downtown, etc. So, they are reflexively against more change, regardless of potential benefits of downtown vibrancy and revenues to support town services.
Meg: Indeed, I’ve seen a lot of change. But I am not particularly nostalgic for those days, and there were some not-so-great things, particularly related to gender and race. I’m not at all against change, and frankly, I can’t think of anyone I know who opposes all change. Nothing stays the same, and change is an opportunity to make things better, in my opinion. (BTW, there were TWO grocery stores downtown; Louis was where the CVS is now, and across the street, next to the Unitarian Church, was the A&P. There were two shoe stores, Bowles and Mathews, and a hardware store. Also, a drugstore with a soda fountain where Subway is now!)
Andy: Well, Amherst certainly has changed since then!
Meg: The big catalyst for the very rapid change that came to Amherst in the 1960s was the rapid expansion of the UMass student body, from 7,600 in 1963 to over 23,000 undergrads and 4,500 graduate students in 1970. Before then, there was no Echo Hill, no Amherst Woods, no residential areas to the east and west of East Pleasant Street.
Andy: So, whole new family neighborhoods sprang up, presumably to accommodate faculty and staff supporting all those new students. And the malls and supermarkets weren’t in place on Route 9 yet. Once those arrived, the old stores downtown couldn’t compete, I guess. And then, more recently, the big box stores sealed the deal.
Meg: One of the big mistakes Amherst made back then, IMHO, was to zone the big box stores out of Amherst rather than creating terms for them to be built in Amherst, with design standards for signage, scale, set-backs, etc. Perhaps they could have been built along what is now University Drive – or any number of other places away from the center of town. Amherst has always been the customer base for the malls in Hadley, so near the Amherst line. What a shame we don’t reap the tax benefits! An example of Amherst not adapting to changing circumstances.
Andy: So downtown Amherst evolved. It came to feature more restaurants, bars, and small, boutique-style retail, with a smattering of offices and apartments in those buildings that had upstairs space. The recent Archipelago buildings by Kendrick Park have added some housing to the mix. So, the question now is: What’s next?
Meg: Yes, exactly! Let’s do “what’s next,” with a plan! I am very enthusiastic about the Business Improvement District’s interest in developing the arts in downtown Amherst. The benefits of what has become known as the Creative Economy are well established – creative arts as a magnifier of economic success. It is an evolving concept focused on the relationship between creativity, business, technology, ideas and the arts. North Adams is one of the best examples around. In 1991, before MASS MoCA was established, North Adams had an unemployment rate of almost 13 percent. In November 2019 (just before Covid), it was 3 percent. Granted, many of the new jobs were in the service sector, but they were jobs that weren’t there before.
Andy: I would add, there’s also room for more people living and working downtown, to provide ready customers for downtown establishments and tax revenues for our town’s infrastructure. But that will require more development, more densification of the downtown with housing and office space, as our master plan suggests.
Meg: Sounds good, Andy, but I don’t see many people moving into the new apartment buildings who work downtown. They are mostly students.
Andy: Do you actually know that? I don’t, and I’m not sure it matters that much. It’s not like the new buildings are fraternities! More people living downtown is a good thing for the vibrancy of downtown and for tax revenue. We live in a college town; we need to get used to having college students in it, maybe even (gasp) see that as a benefit! More taxable rental units for students would generate more revenues for the town. They don’t all have to be downtown, though – maybe more development on Olympia Drive, or a “student village” approach to University Drive. A topic for another column!
Meg: I enjoy living around college students – although I can do without the Blarney Blowout! And housing is a fine idea, but what kind of housing and for whom and where? I’m sounding like a stuck record, but all this needs to be based on a plan! Ideally, Amherst’s new housing would help people in Amherst acquire wealth – one of my big disappointments of building so much rental housing. Rental housing is extractive and profits only the owners and builders – no one else is gaining wealth.
Andy: So, would you prefer condos downtown? Not sure those would be accessible to people without wealth in the first place. And what’s to prevent rich parents from buying them for their college kids? I hear you, but not everyone wants to buy property and be chained to it that way. There is a place for rental units, and for more office space. I agree with your point about needing a plan, though.
Meg: BTW, it may surprise you that I am a big fan of the master plan. I wish the Town were using it as more of a guide than it seems to me is the case. My other gripe about our recent development (and some not so recent) downtown is the architecture of the new buildings. We desperately need design standards that encourage attractive buildings that support a lively downtown.
Andy: I agree – we need design standards to guide development, technically known as “form-based code.” Interestingly, Northampton has just started a process of public discussion about it. And a few years ago, Amherst actually had a form-based code proposal on the table. It would have set design guardrails for the town – and likely prevented the most complained-about aspects of the new buildings. Unfortunately, as you know, Town Meeting voted it down.
Meg: I actually voted for the form-based code proposal in Town Meeting and agree we should look at it again. But back then, it had both technical and emotional aspects and a perceived lack of transparency on the part of the Town that made it difficult to get a two-thirds majority in Town Meeting. Form-based design is perhaps a topic for another column, but at this point I’d rather look forward than backward. It’s way past time to stop bashing Town Meeting!!
Andy: In its later years, Town Meeting richly earned any bashing it gets, most egregiously by voting down the elementary school project (a project I know we both supported).
Meg: Andy, the school vote was more complicated. A majority of Town Meeting supported the school proposal, but state law required two-thirds support. Can we agree it is time to stop bashing – and praising – Town Meeting?
Andy: I will say that Town Meeting is now irrelevant, and I’m glad that it is. But I do think we need to continue to take some lessons from that experience, in which a minority of townspeople decided they knew best, overstepped their role (which was simply to approve the borrowing based on whether the Town could afford the project), and used a variety of insider techniques to frustrate the will of the majority. I worry that we haven’t seen the last of that I-know-best approach, which makes it hard for people to trust each other enough to come together on a generally accepted vision for moving forward.
Meg: Well, I hope we can build more trust through better communication, and develop a plan for the future that does have broad support. Thinking about the elementary school situation, I am impressed with how hard the new Elementary School Building Committee and School Committee are working to build trust and transparency and to listen to people’s concerns and wishes for the new school, early in the process and continuously as the process advances. I think people feeling they’ve been heard and their ideas considered goes a long way toward people accepting change, even if their ideas are not followed.
Andy: How about for the next part of this discussion we get more specific about future design standards? Let’s take our readers on a virtual walk downtown. What aspects do we like, and want to see more of? What elements would we prefer to never see again?
Meg: Great idea! See you on the sidewalk!
In Part 3 of “A civil conversation,” Meg and Andy will walk around downtown Amherst and exchange views on the buildings.
Allison McDonald chairs the Amherst School Committee. She speaks here for herself, as this post has not been approved by the Committee.
The Amherst elementary school building project is at a critical and exciting phase with some key decisions to be made in the coming week. Much of the last two months has been spent developing the educational plan for the school that is a requirement of the MSBA at this phase of the project. The educational plan is a critical component of the project because it describes the activities and the people that make the building a school and is the basis for the detailed space plan.
By starting with the educational plan, we ensure that we are designing to support our educational mission. We ensure that the building is designed to support our commitments to diverse curriculum and 21st-century learning, including project-based learning, art, music, and technology, smaller class sizes, special education programs that enable students to remain in our school community, and a collaborative professional culture. We ensure that the building is also designed to support the professionals who guide our students’ learning.
The Amherst School Committee (ASC) spent the last two meetings carefully reviewing the educational plan and the space plan, and will vote on both on Tuesday, March 8. (The two plans will be submitted to the MSBA by March 15 as part of the Preliminary Design Plan; they are subject to possible revision by MSBA and DESE before we can proceed to the next phase.) We asked questions of nearly every line-item in the detailed space plan to understand how every square foot of space connects to and supports the educational plan. ASC members made clear during that discussion that our goal is to thread the needle of designing for what we need without going too large or too small.
I encourage anyone who is curious to watch the video of that discussion and the thoughtful responses from Superintendent Mike Morris, designer Donna DiNisco, and special education district leaders Dr. Faye Brady and JoAnn Smith. The Superintendent described the hard compromises made to reduce the space plan to the current proposal of 105,750 sq. ft. — including reducing classroom sizes to the minimum possible size per MSBA standards, reducing the gym to a size similar to the gyms in our current schools, and requiring some programs to share spaces. Dr. Morris also said that further reductions in space could not be made without having a significant negative impact on student experience and education.
Still, some are asking us to shrink the space even further. Comparisons are being made to other projects, including the previous Amherst project and a recently completed project in Lexington, suggesting that the proposed space is more than we need. Though total square footage is an important metric for sure, it can’t be evaluated without also looking at the people and the activity (the educational plan) behind the metric.
So, what is behind the difference in size as compared to the previous Amherst school building project? It is the difference in the education plan for these projects, specifically as follows:
The current proposed education plan centers project-based learning in all grades, so the space plan has added pull-out project areas within classroom “neighborhoods” to support that (1800 sq. ft. in total)
The grade span has shifted from 2-6 to K-5. Kindergarten classrooms must be larger than grade 6 classrooms, so the overall average sq. ft. per student is now larger. (MSBA standards require 1,100-1,300 sq. ft. for kindergarten vs. 900-1,000 sq. ft. for older grades.)
With the grade span shift, we also need dedicated space to support the provision of Title 1 academic support and services for children from low-income families in the younger grades. And, because more of our students are from low-income families now (39% vs. 28% in 2016), we have added three rooms for Title 1 services (2,300 sq. ft. in total)
The number of students receiving special services has increased (23% with disabilities vs. 18% in 2016) as has the level of need, so there’s increased space to support district-wide special education programs and other services for individual students (2,300 sq. ft. in total).
Excluding these differences, the total square footage per student is almost equal to the previous project.
The differences between the proposed plan and Lexington’s Maria Hastings Elementary School are due to differences between the education plans; more specifically, the difference in students for whom the buildings are designed. For example:
39% of Amherst students are low-income and our elementary schools are considered Title 1 schools; 10% of Maria Hastings students are low-income and it is not a Title 1 school. Our plan includes dedicated space to provide Title 1 services for our students (2,300 sq. ft. in total).
Twice as many students at Fort River and Wildwood have disabilities than do those at Maria Hastings. (23% vs. 13%, or approximately 160 vs. 80 students). Our proposed plan must have space to accommodate the special needs of a much larger number of students than Maria Hastings.
This table summarizes the differences among the three school plans:
K-5 (K needs more space)
Title 1 need
28% of district students
Not a Title 1 school
Students needing special services
18% of district students
Some have asked about reducing space that is “for adults.” Our education plan describes a collaborative professional culture and deep family engagement to support the high-quality education we provide. So, the plan includes space for educators and staff to work directly with individual students, to collaborate with each other in supporting individual students, and to meet with families and caregivers.
The attention to the space plan is important since it is a significant contributor to the total cost to the town and its taxpayers. But space is just one factor — where we build, how we build, how much the MSBA will fund, when we build, and how we finance the project are other critical contributors to overall cost.
The ASC can help by ensuring we are not “over designing.” We also need to ensure the building is sized for our students, the educational programs they need, and the staff who support them. In other words, a building that supports the high-quality education we currently provide for our richly diverse student community for the next 50 years.
Editors’ note: On Monday night, the Town Council did not support a moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. The vote was eight in favor, five opposed, failing to meet the required two-thirds.
By Bob Rakoff
Another year, another moratorium.
The Town Council will vote this evening on a proposed moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. While other folks have written about the pros and cons of this particular proposal, I am interested in the increasing advocacy of moratoriums in local political debates. Why now? Why so popular? Do they promote good decision-making in pursuit of the public good?
Moratoriums have a long history in Amherst politics, but their recent popularity stems from the 2018 election for Town Council. In that election, candidate Darcy DuMont featured a moratorium on downtown development at the center of her campaign. There weren’t a lot of details attached to her proposal for a six-month moratorium to allow for writing up new zoning regulations. In my view, the proposal was largely a campaign slogan masquerading as a serious policy, intended to appeal to people who disliked the scale and appearance of new downtown buildings. The proposal was eventually voted down by the Town Council.
When is a moratorium an appropriate response to a perceived problem? The key is whether there is an emergency that demands slamming on the brakes of business as usual. A recent example is the national moratorium on rental evictions during the first years of the Covid pandemic. Putting millions of unemployed, low-income people out into the streets during a public health crisis is just about a textbook case of an emergency that calls for immediate action.
It can be difficult to justify a local moratorium as a response to an emergency. Back in the 1970s, the State of Massachusetts imposed a moratorium on new hook-ups to the local sewer system until a new solid waste facility was completed. There was grumbling about this, but little dispute about the seriousness of the problem. Once the new treatment plant was completed, life returned to normal.
On the other hand, when the Amherst Board of Selectmen pushed for a moratorium on new building permits in 1985, there was significant pushback in local political discussion and in the courts. The Selectmen (as they were still known back then), noting that there were more than 2,000 possible new housing units in the permitting pipeline — a 25 percent increase in our housing stock — feared that such an increase would overwhelm schools as well as physical infrastructure. The Planning Board and Town Meeting went along, and a moratorium was declared. While the ban on building permits was being litigated in the courts, the Planning Board and its staff used the hiatus to craft a phased growth zoning bylaw to regulate the approval of subdivision plans and the issuance of building permits. (I was the Planning Board chair in 1987, when Town Meeting passed the bylaw.)
Was that moratorium appropriate? While the fears of crowded schools and overtaxed sewers were genuine, the courts found that these concerns did not amount to a real emergency. A better permitting system did emerge from the moratorium period, including the first pieces of an affordable housing policy for Amherst. So, not a real emergency, but not a total mistake either. And, by the way, those looming 2,000 new housing units did not materialize for a very long time.
One problem with the recent zoning-related moratorium proposals is that they have the potential to escalate the problems they are seeking to fix. This is because state zoning laws, which control what local communities can and cannot do, allow developers to freeze local zoning as soon as they submit preliminary plans for subdivisions, commercial buildings, and other structures governed by local zoning codes. We have already seen this with the pending proposal on solar arrays: potential developers have already filed their plans and will not be subject to future changes.
And would the potential problem of large-scale solar developments rise to the level of an emergency? Amherst does have some regulations on the books, so we are not unprepared. And, of course, proponents of solar arrays would argue that the real emergency is not loss of open land or forests but climate change itself!
While calls for moratoriums raise public interest in local issues and provide a symbolic lift to folks who have a special grievance, they are a blunt instrument of policy making. It would be far better for the Town Council to direct the Planning Board and Department to bring them specific responses to specific, perceived problems.
Let’s declare a moratorium on moratoriums.
[Editor’s notes. You can read previous posts about solar energy in Amherst and the proposed moratorium by clicking on the Climate change mitigation category in our menu. Town Council will vote on the proposed moratorium this evening during the regular Council meeting. You can find links to the virtual meeting, agenda, and materials here.]
Our Town and its elected bodies face numerous significant challenges, some of which I have described in two earlier posts. In my third post in this series, I discuss the impact of rental housing and a destination parking garage.
Rental Registration Bylaw. Since January 2014, owners of rental housing have been required to register with the Town on a yearly basis. They must secure a rental permit for each rental property that they own. The permit program makes clear who owns and manages rental properties and clarifies for the owners and renters existing health and safety codes, occupancy limits, and noise and nuisance bylaws.
The bylaw also gives the Town the authority to suspend a rental permit for “egregious and persistent non-compliance.” To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened, in large part because our Inspections Department simply does not have enough bodies to both administer the program and enforce it. Owners self-inspect their properties and Town inspectors become involved only if there is a complaint.
What we have seen since the program’s inception is a steady decline in the number of permits issued. In 2015, 1,281 permits were issued, but that number has fallen every year, to 1,150 in 2020. There is suspicion that this steady decline reflects a trend of landlords opting out of the program and not a decline in the actual number of rental properties.
After eight years, there is clearly interest in Town Hall and among a number of Councilors to revisit the Rental Registration Bylaw. What form this will take remains to be seen, but the underlying goal will probably be to require more regular and vigorous inspections of rental properties and a more robust enforcement system that will hold landlords accountable when they do not play by the rules. The challenge is that our system currently is a complaint-driven system, and for it to work, residents need to speak up when they see potential violations. Such a system is not very effective.
An inspection-driven system, while attractive, would face the obstacle of cost. The Town can revise the bylaw as much as it likes, but without adequate enforcement, the changes would not have much impact. But enforcement requires people and people cost money. Since the Town has just committed to hiring 12 new people to staff two new Town departments (CRESS and a Department of Equity and Inclusion), I think it is unlikely that there will be funds available in the budget for other staff hires.
One possible solution is to pay for new inspectors through an increase in permit fees. The problem with that is that most permits are taken out by individuals and a sizable increase would likely prove a financial burden to those landlords and lead to further reductions in the number of permits applied for. That would defeat the whole purpose of the program. And none of this actually addresses the deeper problem – how to discourage the conversion of single- and two-family homes into rentals in the first place. That is something I plan to address in a future post.
A destination parking garage. Given the previous Council’s vote to rezone the Town-owned lot behind CVS, at some point in the coming year there should be an RFP (Request for Proposals) to see if there is, in fact, any interest in the private sector in building a destination garage on that site. The RFP would require Town Council approval before its release.
One repeated objection has been that this garage is intended to provide parking for the new multi-unit apartment buildings downtown. This objection ignores the fact that such a use can be restricted (or even prohibited) through the Request for Proposals that the Council must approve. It also overlooks the repeated statement by the sponsors that this proposal has been driven by a desire to support the downtown business community and has been made in response to current and planned economic development in our downtown, including:
an expanded and renovated Jones Library;
improvements to the North Common;
an outdoor performance shell on the South Common;
The Drake, a live performance venue slated to open in March;
a world-class independent cinema.
A destination garage is meant to encourage people to come downtown to shop, dine, see a film, attend a live music performance, hang out on the Town Common, or take the kids to Kendrick Park Playground. And if you are just coming downtown for a few quick errands, the first hour of parking could be free. The RFP could (and probably should) restrict the number of year-round spaces available for rent. It could even prohibit them outright, though I think that would be unwise.
And yes, there are legitimate questions about traffic and safe access into and out of the site. But without an RFP and the required traffic studies that would go with it, these questions can’t be properly addressed. A well-crafted RFP would go a long way to addressing this and other concerns of neighbors.
My hope is that a majority of Councilors support a dynamic and active downtown and are curious enough to see what might be possible through a public/private partnership. Our downtown business community is in need of all the support we can give it.
In December, the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC, of which I am the chair) submitted a letter to Town Council recommending that, before the Council enacts a solar zoning bylaw, it support the town in conducting a solar assessment and planning process. I summarize our letter in this post.
Burning fossil fuels to power vehicles, create the materials and products we use every day, and heat and power our homes and buildings contributes to nearly 90 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Climate change has already contributed to devastation across the globe and must be curtailed to avoid unimaginable impacts to livelihoods and the environment.
To address this, the Commonwealth has enacted several laws and policies designed to move the state toward net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Interim goals for 2025 and 2030 should be established by July of this year. In addition, the Town of Amherst has made its own commitments to reducing GHG emissions, also aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 with interim goals of 25 and 50 percent reductions by 2025 and 2030, respectively. These goals are what is required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Last year, ECAC supported the town in developing the “Climate Action, Adaptation, and Resiliency Plan” (CAARP), which lays out specific actions we need to implement to meet our goals.
A key component of Massachusetts’s “2050 Roadmap” is expanding wind and solar power to provide the energy previously provided by fossil fuels. Even with the necessary improvements to energy efficiency, electricity demand is expected to more than double due to widespread electrification of buildings and transportation services. That electricity must be from clean, renewable resources to meet our goals, and doubling the clean electricity supply will require solar and wind generation to increase more than ten times from 2025 through 2050. Offshore wind power is slated to provide the majority of new generation capacity, but an estimated 20-23 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity will also be needed. As of the end of 2020, Massachusetts had about 3.4 GW of total solar capacity installed.
Thus, a staggering amount of new solar capacity must be developed. The state estimates that, even with maximal rooftop deployment, ground-mounted solar on approximately 60,000 acres of state land will be needed over the next 30 years. While ECAC believes we need a process where we can come together as a community and determine what the Town of Amherst’s share should be, it is likely to amount to several hundred acres.
Forests in Massachusetts currently sequester the equivalent of about 7 percent of state GHG emissions. The Roadmap concludes that, even with losses of forests to development of housing and clean energy resources, forests will continue to grow and increase GHG sequestration.
Locally, we should ensure that our natural resources are protected while we develop solar capacity, and we feel a solar resource assessment is needed. An assessment would address questions such as:
How much rooftop, parking lot canopy, brownfield, and ground-mounted solar is available in Amherst to meet the Town’s and Commonwealth’s goals for 2025, 2030, and 2050?
How much land is available that currently qualifies for Massachusetts SMART program incentives? (That stands for Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target.) What are the current uses of that land, and who are the owners?
How much Amherst land will be needed for solar facilities to meet 2050 goals beyond the amount allowed under our current land-use policies?
What may be the impact of the town’s efforts on the state’s climate change goals?
What may be our goals for solar capacity?
What are the pros and cons of siting alternatives to create that capacity?
What are residents’ perspectives and preferences?
What may be local benefits of solar financing and ownership options?
How can we engage with developers and the Community Choice Aggregation program?
A toolkit that communities can use to engage in a solar planning process should soon be available from the UMass Clean Energy Extension. The information developed by such a planning process can help the Town develop a solar bylaw that:
Recognizes the importance and likely need for ground-mounted solar;
Guides solar development in favorable locations and balances community values with the need for renewable energy;
Incentivizes suitable solar developments through expedited review and permitting;
Identifies and requires best practices for natural resource management on parcels hosting solar developments; and
Is consistent with existing local and state laws and climate action commitments.
Amherst is a ski town – specifically, a cross-country ski town. Need convincing?
The Amherst Nordic Ski Association (amherstnordic.org) has more than 200 members from throughout Amherst and surrounding towns,
A trail network is groomed, courtesy of Amherst Recreation, at Cherry Hill golf course when snow permits,
The world-class network of trails in the area provides hundreds of kilometers of skiing opportunities,
Elementary school students at Fort River learn to ski with their dedicated PE teacher Kaileigh Keizer-Lawrence, and
ARMS and ARHS have a thriving and competitive racing program led by Carl Cignoni and Nat Woodruff.
I’ve always loved winter, and remember the one snow day we had from school in Manhattan during my childhood. Sledding and ice skating in Central Park are pretty special experiences, but skiing meant getting in the car (or on a bus), and heading to the Catskills or other more mountainous spots. It’s not something my family was able to do very often, and when we did, it was to ski downhill.
I didn’t discover cross-country (xc) until faced, as a grad student at Cornell, with the prospect of making it through five years of long winters in Ithaca, N.Y. Ithaca is home to a strong xc ski community that welcomed this beginner with open arms and turned me into a life-long enthusiast. I can tell you that as a kid on 60th Street I had never imagined I would be spending evenings skiing along a 3-foot-wide trail through the woods, in the dark, with headlamp batteries failing. But there I was, there’s been no looking back, and I now look forward to the coming of winter every year.
Of course, people have been sliding around on snow in the Northeast for generations — for fun, for transportation, and to make outdoor work in the winter easier. Amherst was no different and the history of skiing in Amherst is long and varied. Running, hiking, or skiing around Earle’s Trails on the Holyoke Range, one comes across the old lift line of the Tinker Hill ski area, once operated by Amherst College. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, a few local high schoolers would take their wooden (or early generation fiberglass) xc skis to high school races and represent Amherst High. Al Hudson, in the 1970s, ran youth programs for kids at the Common School and through the Pelham Recreation Department, mostly skiing on the reliably snowy trails of Cadwell Memorial Forest.
The current era of xc skiing in Amherst began a little over a decade ago, when Nat Woodruff, a science and technology teacher at the high school, founded the Amherst Hurricane Nordic ski team with student Paul Quackenbush and his parents. Along with Barb Bilz, the director of recreation in Amherst, they won grant money to buy grooming equipment to be used at Cherry Hill. Since then, John Coelho, the Cherry Hill superintendent, has taken to the task of grooming with gusto, and when we get more than 6 inches or so of snow, Cherry Hill is home to, as far as we know, the only municipally groomed ski trails in the state. In good conditions Cherry Hill is a fantastic place to ski, with grooming for classic and skate skiing, a great mix of climbs, descents and flats, and access to the ungroomed trails on conservation and private land along the northbound section of the Robert Frost Trail.
Our winters, as we all know, have been getting warmer and less snowy, and, since, well, skiers ski, we’ve become adept at finding the snow. Small differences in altitude can make a big difference in the amounts of snowfall locally. In particular, Shutesbury (Brushy Mountain and the Paul Jones Forest) and Pelham (Cadwell Memorial Forest) often make out pretty well when storms fizzle in Amherst. Those places, along with Mt. Toby, the Pocumtuck Ridge in Deerfield, and parts of the Holyoke Range can be great skiing, delivering that magical feeling of gliding through the forest in a season when it sometimes feels easier to just stay inside.
For newcomers to cross country, getting gear and instruction can be a little bit of a challenge in Amherst. Valley Bike and Ski Works sells good-quality equipment at fair prices with top-notch service. Berkshire Outfitters and the West Hill Shop, a bit farther away, have even larger selections, and both Notchview Reservation in Windsor and Northfield Mountain operate commercial ski centers with grooming, rentals, and lessons. Amherst Nordic hopes to be able to offer clinics and equipment rental or loan sometime in the future.
If you’ve been in love with cross-country for years, are just finding your way in the sport, or haven’t even started yet, check out amherstnordic.org and find your place in a welcoming, enthusiastic and outdoors-oriented ski community, right here in your town. You can join in for group ski touring outings, participate in racing, and volunteer some time to help plan, with Rey Harp and Amherst Recreation, for an even bigger and better future for skiing in Amherst and at Cherry Hill.
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.