Ah, the quiet…Argh, the noise!

By Nick Grabbe

I was sitting on my patio listening to the sweet sound of trees swaying in the breeze and children playing outside Wildwood School, when suddenly my ears were assaulted by a piercing noise. It sounded almost as loud as a helicopter landing nearby, or maybe a pneumatic drill digging up the street in front of my house.

But I knew what it really was. In November, it had to be a leaf-blower, disturbing the peace of yet another neighborhood. An employee of a landscaping company was using this gas-powered noise-maker to herd leaves into a pile at a neighbor’s house.

credit DIYallday.com

The new Town Council could combat climate change and support quiet neighborhoods by banning or restricting the use of these “monsters,” as New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl calls them. She also calls gas-powered leaf-blowers “mechanical locusts,” but adds that this may be unfair to locusts. (To see a petition to the Town Council on leaf-blowers and other loud gadgets, click on Comments below.)

Amherst would join 100 other towns that have taken action. Gas-powered leaf-blowers will become illegal in Washington, D.C. in January and in all of California in 2024. They are already banned in Santa Monica.

Landscaping companies would complain, and their workers would be inconvenienced, but it is the operators of these machines who are most affected by their noise and gas fumes. And there are now products, available locally, that can blow leaves into piles without generating pollution and with significantly less racket.

The pandemic forced many people to stay home during the day, and they became more aware of these ultra-loud gadgets. Most backpack gas-powered leaf-blowers make noise at between 95 and 115 decibels for the operator, dispersing to 64 to 78 decibels fifty feet away. Anything over 55 decibels is harmful, according to the World Health Organization, and can cause hearing loss and high blood pressure.

Because decibel calculation is logarithmic, 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60. And gas-powered leaf blowers emit low-frequency noise that can penetrate through walls and hearing protection. Some new electric leaf-blowers can be just as powerful and come in at 59 to 65 decibels. (Rakes produce neither noise nor pollution, are significantly cheaper, and provide a mild workout.)

Gas-powered leaf-blowers are terrible for the environment. Using one for an hour creates as much pollution as driving a Camry 1,100 miles, according to the California Air Resources Board. Running one for a half-hour is the equivalent of driving a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 truck for 3,900 miles, according to the Edmunds car-rating company. (Cars themselves are becoming increasingly electric.)

Gas-powered leaf-blowers use a technology called “two-stroke engines” that is outmoded and has been phased out in other industries. A third of the fuel used is spewed into the air, Renkl writes. All gas-powered lawn care products used an estimated 3 billion gallons of fossil fuel in 2018, according to the Department of Transportation.

In addition to noise and gas fumes, leaf-blowers kick up dust that can contain pollen, animal feces, heavy metals and chemicals from pesticides, Renkl writes. This can be hazardous to people with asthma or other respiratory problems. Some landscapers even use blowers not to move leaves but to clear away dust from pavement.

Sales of electric leaf-blowers increased by 75 percent from 2015 to 2020, and the Makita company has announced it will stop making ones powered by gasoline. The number of landscaping companies using electric blowers is increasing.

Electric leaf-blowers weigh less than gas-powered ones. They don’t require as much maintenance, with no need for replacing filters, changing spark plugs or storing gasoline. Electric blowers, both corded and cordless, are available at Boyden & Perron in Amherst and Home Depot in Hadley. Cordless leaf-blowers can be as powerful as gas-powered ones, though they need to be frequently recharged, according to Consumer Reports. Corded leaf-blowers have limited range.

Home maintenance expert Bob Vila recommends a cordless model made by Makita that costs $199 and generates 166 miles per hour of blowing. He also recommends a Greenworks backpack model costing $349.

Amherst DPW’s division of trees and grounds uses 11 gas-powered leaf-blowers on the 80 acres of parks and facilities it maintains, says director Alan Snow. “I’ve been watching electric equipment and it has come a long way the last couple years,” he says. “Until they come down in price or funding becomes available, for now we are stuck with gas.” He’s all-electric at his home and says, “I believe it is the way to go when one can afford it.”

Cambridge (the only place in Massachusetts that gave a smaller percentage of its 2016 vote to Trump than Amherst) has banned leaf-blowers generating more than 65 decibels of noise. They cannot deposit dust or leaves on adjacent property, and cannot be used on Sundays or in the evening. Only one can be used at a time, and they can only operate between March 15 and June 15 and between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31.

Newton, Arlington and Brookline have similar regulations. In Newton, commercial operators using leaf-blowers have to register with the city, and in Arlington they can’t be used for more than 30 minutes and can’t send leaves or dust outside property lines.

Burlington, Vt., which like Amherst is host to a state university, has enacted similar restrictions. Cities and towns in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have acted to restrict use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Twenty cities in California have taken action in advance of the statewide ban.

So, how about it, Amherst Town Council? What’s the point of requiring zero-energy public buildings and fining nuisance houses while tolerating the pollution and noise of gas-powered leaf-blowers?

Elementary school building projects kicks into higher gear

By Sarah Marshall

With the announcement of a designer for the elementary school building project on November 18, DiNisco Design, the project will move forward more rapidly now and with plans for robust public engagement. The winning firm was chosen by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Designer Selection Board with input from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC).

The next step, hopefully to be taken before Thanksgiving if the parties come to an agreement regarding DiNisco’s fee, is to launch a website for the project, designed and managed by Anser Advisory Management, the owner’s project manager (OPM). Residents will be able to

  • watch videos of presentations and meetings,
  • ask questions and provide comments,
  • see a detailed timeline of the process,
  • learn which decisions are the responsibility of which parties (e.g., the building committee, Amherst School Committee, Town Council, or the MSBA),
  • be alerted to the opportunities for public input, and more.

We will update the links on the Elementary School Building Project page, found under Town Government 101 in this site’s menu, when they are made public.

The Town hopes to be able to put a debt exclusion on the November ballot, since turnout for federal and state races should be relatively high, but if necessary the Town can call a special election at any time.

Members of the ESBC expressed enthusiasm for DiNisco’s proposal, presentation, and previous work, noting their net-zero experience and student-centered approach. Committee Chair and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen and District 4 Councilor Stephen Schreiber described their visit to one of the two completed schools in Springfield designed by DiNisco (the firm is now designing a third school for that city). They noted that the school was lovely and that facilities staff spoke highly not only of working with DiNisco to design the school but of the school building’s actual performance.

A joint meeting of the ESBC with the Amherst School Committee, with attendance by Anser and DiNisco, was tentatively scheduled for December 14. A goal of the joint meeting will be to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the parties for steps such as developing the education plan (that drives the design) and site selection (Wildwood or Fort River).

Balance, not labels, needed in our debate over development

By Nick Grabbe

We sometimes divide Amherst residents into two camps: “pro-development” and “anti-development.” I believe that these labels are not helpful in charting a course for our downtown, and for ensuring that we have enough money to pay for public services.

Most people who are labeled “pro-development” acknowledge that we need to regulate how and where development takes place. No one wants Amherst to become like Houston, where there are no zoning laws and just about anything can be built anywhere. To take one example, most people who see the benefits of the apartment building at 1 East Pleasant St. would agree that it has an insufficient setback from the street.

Kendrick Place brought in new tax revenue as well as complaints

And most people who are “anti-development” or are labeled as “NIMBYs” recognize that we need growth in our tax base to support our schools, public safety and other services. And it’s clear that we need more housing, too. It is so tight this fall that many UMass students have to live far away from campus because they can’t find a room in Amherst, or have to drop out of school altogether, and rents have been pushed up.

So the real difference between these two supposed camps boils down to how strict the regulation of development should be, and what types are appropriate in each part of town. We need to thread the needle, keeping our town the way we want it to be while still creating opportunities for developers to provide housing that will produce revenue and ease the tax burden on long-term residents.

And, of course, the way we want our town to be isn’t the same for everyone. It also changes over time. Fifteen years ago, the 1,000 people participating in the master plan process supported denser development downtown and in village centers while preserving open space elsewhere. Town Meeting then paved the way for two new five-story apartment buildings on the northern edge of downtown. They have been widely criticized, and this year, two of these critics were elected to the Town Council (though one race is subject to a recount).

Amherst faces a budgeting challenge: We just don’t have enough revenue to pay for all our needs and wants. The reasons this is so are related to some things we love about our town.

More than half of Amherst’s land is exempt from local property taxes, mainly because it is on a college campus or is part of a conservation area or protected farmland. We also have a very small commercial/industrial sector (just 3.6 percent of the land) to help pay for our expenses. Plus, we have high expectations for municipal services; for example, our low teacher-student ratio in the public schools. We also believe in paying our employees competitive wages, and the sharp uptick in house prices and rents this year may cause their unions to press for higher salaries, which would cause our expenditures to increase.

The inevitable result of all these factors is very high taxes, and also difficulty funding our infrastructure and budget needs. The average annual tax bill for single-family houses in Amherst this year is estimated at $8,608, a $400 or 5 percent increase over last year. (This unusually high increase is partly attributable to higher values of residential property relative to commercial property.) The estimated average annual tax bill for this year in Northampton is $6,303, and in Hadley, it’s $4,611. Think about that for a moment: Our taxes are almost double those of our neighbor to the west!

Meanwhile, state law limits any increase in the amount a town can raise in taxes to 2.5 percent, plus the amount in taxes that have come in from “new growth.” Those two five-story buildings that so many people love to hate bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue every year and have saved us from painful budget cuts.

So we need that “new growth” if we’re going to keep pace with growing municipal expenses. In addition to the debt payments from the Jones Library project, voters will likely be asked to approve an override of the state’s tax-limit law to finance the construction of a new elementary school, as soon as next year. Millions of dollars will have to be borrowed if we are going to build a new fire station and DPW headquarters. New pressures on our spending limits are also coming from the Public Safety Working Group, African Heritage Reparations Assembly and other citizen groups.

It will be challenging to fund all these new initiatives. Meanwhile, the ability of heavily taxed residents to absorb more tax increases is limited.

But we also want to retain the things that made us want to live here in the first place. No one is proposing selling off conservation areas to developers or building student housing on the town common.

It will be harder to achieve these goals if we use simplistic labels to describe our differences over development. With several proposals for zoning changes on the table, let’s debate them with both neighborhoods and the tax base in mind, and keep our focus on what’s best for the town as a whole.

Surrounded by beauty

By Elisa Campbell

I’ve lived in Amherst a bit over 50 years, and all that time I have loved the views of “mountains” and fields and woods, and the fact I could go into many of those places to walk, and look, and photograph, and feel peace.

When I moved here, I discovered the Amherst College campus and woods. I was renting a room in a house in the center of town, and as soon as I had settled in, I walked into and through town – and discovered the view from the Amherst College campus of the Mount Holyoke Range (I had no idea then what it was called) and fell in love. I had just spent two years in Illinois, and was hungry for land that went up and down, with trees and rocks. 

Eastern Painted Turtle on Gull Pond, credit Elisa Campbell

Over the next 10 years, I moved to various apartments and found other beautiful places I could walk to. When I lived in Puffton Village I enjoyed the Mill River area, and frequently walked across North Pleasant Street and up the farm road of what is now Simple Gifts Farm. These days, when I buy food there, I am pleased to see familiar buildings and the information inside the store about the history of the farm – and certainly no one who works there knows that long before they were born, maybe before their parents were born, I was walking the property and enjoying the sweeping views. 

I came to Amherst to be a graduate student in the English Department at UMass; I did that, and enjoyed it. But my interest in graduate studies gradually was swamped by my love for the wild and wonderful world around us, and I devoted a lot of time and energy to environmental work. I finished my degree but I was not devoted to pursuing professional jobs wherever they might be. I used to joke that my search area for jobs extended from South Hadley to Hanover, NH. As it turned out, I got a job at UMass and stayed in Amherst – and I’m glad. I could so easily have ended up somewhere else, somewhere far less wonderful.

Mill River, credit Elisa Campbell

I now live in a condo off Old Farm Road. It was the only place I could possibly afford, with help for the down payment from my mother, when the real estate flurry of the 1980s forced me to move. Thank goodness.

I’ve always been glad that Amherst has invested in purchasing conservation areas and making trails to connect them. The state also invested in protecting land, especially on the Mount Holyoke Range and at nearby Quabbin Reservoir. About 30 years ago the state invested in a Rail Trail that crosses Amherst. I knew that, on what we then called Columbus Day weekend, I did not have to join the traffic on Route 2; I could enjoy foliage by walking the trails in Lawrence Swamp or take in the views from Rattlesnake Knob on the Range.

Owens Pond, Wentworth Farm Conservation Area, credit Elisa Campbell

I learned to cross-country ski across the athletic fields of our high school, middle school, and Wildwood, then in the Amherst College woods. When I moved to my condo I skied on ties of the old railroad tracks that have now become the Rail Trail, or on other relatively flat areas in town (I never got good enough to ski on the Range, but other people certainly did). I could enjoy the sparkling water of the Mill River or Fort River. More than once during the spring runoff, I kayaked with friends on the Fort River from Stanley Street to just into Hadley beyond the Hickory Ridge golf course. I felt lucky to live here.

Now, during the pandemic and (we hope) its decline, I feel even luckier. When we were seriously socially isolating, I could walk out my door and head in one of three different directions to walk to conservation areas or access points for the Rail Trail. I paid more attention to the natural places right around me. Even little Gull Pond has turtles, ducks, muskrats, beavers; once even an osprey! Neighbors have seen an otter. The sky above Wentworth Farm Conservation Area is always beautiful and the pond reflects it in fascinating ways. If I was willing to drive, within 10 or 20 minutes I could be at other wonderful natural places, including the eastern parts of the Mount Holyoke Range, Amethyst Brook in Amherst, Buffam Brook in Pelham, or Mount Warner in Hadley. I found profound peace in being in these places, learning more about the plants that grow there, marveling at the light in the woods or reflecting on the surface of ponds or open swamps. I fell in love with the Eastern Painted Turtles near the Rail Trail, took photos of them every time I could, and worked on watercolor paintings from those photos

Mount Norwottuck from Hickory Ridge, credit Elisa Campbell

I’m not alone in this luck; almost everyone who lives in Amherst is within a reasonable walk of a conservation area, a short drive to one, or a bus ride to some (such as the Mount Holyoke Range headquarters on Route 116). The addition of the former Hickory Ridge golf course, although not yet formalized, is wonderful. I encourage everyone to explore; don’t just run or bike for exercise but check out the wildlife. Pay attention to the plants, and begin to learn “who is who” among them, how they change during the seasons. Notice the birds eating berries, and figure out which birds each which berries and when. Let’s rejoice in the abundance of life around us and the benefits of gratitude.

21 political observers offer their views on Tuesday’s election

“1) I remember a fellow Charter Commission member claiming that the council form of government was inherently biased against women. Yet somehow we have 12 of 13 seats in the incoming Council held by women! 2) When both “sides” endorse a candidate, that candidate romps to victory. Ellisha Walker and Anika Lopes far outran their counterparts. 3) I’m sorry to see George Ryan and Evan Ross (if the 3-vote margin holds up) not return. Both have been incredibly hard-working and served the town with thoughtfulness and integrity. Amherst owes them a debt of gratitude for serving as models of public service.”

— Andrew Churchill, former chair of Charter Commission and School Committee

“More BIPOC candidates both ran and got elected than before the charter change. Money raised by Amherst municipal candidates is still not an indicator of who will win. Unprecedented personalized attacks on people, not issues, defeated incumbents in small-turnout districts, but did not impact results for incumbents at-large. The majority of voters are not angry with their municipal government. The angry obstructionists have been fully heard, and it’s still very clear the majority of residents do not agree with those angry obstructionists. Voters very much want things to be better, but they do not want things to stop.”

Alisa Brewer, former Select Board chair and School Committee member, retiring At-Large Councilor

“This resounding YES for the library has given me hope where the school vote years ago left me distraught. Yes, Amherst, we can come together and buck the trend of disinvestment in public spaces and services that are critical to countering social inequities and to improving the quality of life in our community for everyone. With a town council that has to be accountable to voters, what can we accomplish next, Amherst?”

— Melissa Giraud, co-founder, EmbraceRace

“The coalition of voters that the Amherst Forward folks put together to pass the new charter and elect a progressive town council three years ago continues to be the dominant political force in town. Successful challengers were the ones who did not rely on negative campaigning and personal attacks. The top vote getters were endorsed by both PACs. Potential problems: Will the council be able to construct 2/3 votes for zoning and borrowing? Will Carol Gray et.al. persist in trying to obstruct the library project and delegitimize the election?”

Bob Rakoff, retired Hampshire College professor and former Planning Board chair

“Last night’s overwhelming vote in support of the Jones Library renovation and expansion project was a welcome affirmation of a vision for progressive change in Amherst. The voters were persuaded by a carefully developed and carefully vetted proposal. They endorsed prudent investment in Amherst’s future. This result is really good news as the town contemplates needed investments in other capital projects. I look forward to working with other Trustees and town officials, incumbents and new office holders in the next stages of the library project. At the same time, the defeat of a couple of strong, effective incumbents running for reelection to the Town Council suggests a public appetite to bring new perspectives and new voices to bear in town leadership.”

— Austin Sarat, Jones Library Board of Trustees chair and Amherst College professor

“The success of Ellisha Walker speaks to the inclusion and leadership of young, progressive, talented people of color in Amherst politics. We see in Ellisha the triumph of intersectionality – a woman, someone who is a part of the global majority, a renter. She in her person represents the intersection of race, class, and gender. She is very thoughtful and a good listener. Her identity along with and her demonstrated leadership on the CSWG made an impact on a wide range of Amherst voters, as did her reasoned style and bridge-building approach.”

— Patricia Romney, author of “We Were There: The Third World Women’s Alliance and the Second Wave.”

“I am so gratified by the results of the election for the Jones. With over 65% of the vote coming out in favor of Town support, it feels like a resounding and positive statement by our Town that we can move forward to build a more just and equitable local community. This was a vote for rationality and common sense prevailed. The Jones represents a significant investment in our future and now the work can continue and we can bring Amherst the 21st Century Library facility that the vast majority wants, needs, and, most importantly will use for decades to come. Hard work pays off!!”

— Matthew Blumenfeld, Principal, Financial Development Agency

“I was thrilled to see the library project win by such a large margin. The Amherst
community needs this improvement to our physical and social infrastructure.
I was concerned during the campaign that misinformation and negative campaigning would prevail, but that didn’t happen, and in fact the candidate who hitched her wagon to the ‘No’ on library was staunchly defeated. This is only the second election for Town Council and there were a variety of voices represented. I’m encouraged to see new faces entering the field and I give credit to all candidates, given the challenges of running for office.”

— Connie Kruger, former Select Board member

“I’m hopeful that the new councilors will lead us into a time of greater collaboration and innovative thinking, where social justice will be a vital ingredient; where public input will create better ideas and solutions; where our town finds its right balance of families, students, professionals, and retirees. I look forward to more planning, before zoning bylaw changes are enacted. I look forward to preserving our history while entering the future.  I think the new people on the scene are aware and talented. I look forward to being a part of the conversation, with more of us at the table.”

— Ira Bryck, former executive director, Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley

“Amherst voters’ overwhelming support for the Jones Library building project could serve as a harbinger of capital projects to come, notably the elementary school building project. Like the library, that project leverages local funds to unlock state funds. It is our best chance to finally get Amherst kids into buildings conducive to learning. Capital projects aside, talking with voters this fall showed me that there’s still work to be done to establish clearer lines of communication, accountability and feedback between our elected officials and their constituents. Our democracy functions best when citizens feel connected to the process.”

— Johanna Neumann, Field director for Amherst Forward and Planning Board member

“The resounding affirmation of the Jones Library Building Project tells me that voters do want to invest in Amherst, and is hopefully a blow to those who say no to virtually everything, such as the previous school building plan of 2016. The re-election of Andy Steinberg to Town Council, and election of Irv Rhodes to School Committee, tells me that voters care about experience and voices of reason. The election of Jennifer Page to School Committee says voters also want to hear from new voices bringing new perspectives. I think that’s a nice mix of results.”

— Rick Hood, former chair, Regional School Committee

“The most significant action by inaugural Town Council was the vote in favor of the Jones Library renovation and expansion. The subsequent voter veto process and referendum affirmed that the charter works. The voters affirmed the Town Council vote by a 2-1 margin, but then apparently voted out two incumbent councilors who were the most vocal library supporters. That shows that the voters support the actions of the councilors, if not the councilors themselves. I’m very excited by the composition of the new Town Council. Ages will range from twenty something to eighty something. Similarly, the Jones Library trustees will include a person of color, and School Committee will include three people of color.”

— Stephen Schreiber, departing Town Council member for District 4

“I do believe that the election results send a strong message to future candidates about how not to win elections. One does not win elections by persistently personally attacking other candidates and non-candidates.  One does not win elections by being consistently negative about the state of affairs in Amherst and that nowhere in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion does the word exclusion appear. Civility matters.”

— Irv Rhodes, Former (and new) School Committee member

“I think the election demonstrates that Amherst voters are dedicated to having constructive BIPOC voices in all aspects of town government and in providing current and future citizens with an energy-efficient and modern library that meets a variety of town needs. It also demonstrates that false advertising and negative campaigning don’t work with the majority Amherst voters. Now the hard work of governing and changing institutions begins.”

Susan Tracy, former professor of history and American Studies, Hampshire College

“It was deeply affirming to see the overwhelming vote for the Jones Library. After so much negativity and, frankly, stalling out on major needs in this town, it feels good to be moving forward with such an essential community building. I am very glad that there are a diverse – by age, lived-experience, gender, ethnicity – group of talented public servants elected across town boards. Let’s work collaboratively, with a spirit of openness and generosity to solve real problems together.”

Eric Nakajima, former chair, Regional School Committee

“This election brought out the best and the worst in our community. We heard residents push for a more equitable and sustainable Amherst. And we also saw misinformation used to increase divisiveness. Tuesday’s vote increased BIPOC representation to 23% in the Town Council and 60% in the School Committee. What residents also want is thoughtful leaders who can truly listen to diverse perspectives to make investments in our town that are fiscally responsible and benefit all residents, and not just the vocal residents. The overwhelming support of the library expansion (and other projects in downtown like Drake and performance shell) shows residents’ support for investment in our social infrastructures, local arts, culture, and businesses in a way that benefits all residents, especially those who are underrepresented.”

— Shalini Bahl-Milne, Town Councilor for District 5

“It was great to see that Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg, two hard-working, dedicated, and intelligent people, get reelected to the council. I was a bit disappointed that Evan Ross did not win. Nonetheless, the other candidates in District 4 seemed to run better campaigns and will do a good job for us. Will the new council tackle the following: pervasive speeding on town streets (including school zones); runaway school budget; and climate change (count the number of SUVs in the high school parking lot). I wish them godspeed. It was great to see Vince, Vira, and Greeney defeated. Overall, a good night.”

Michael Hanke, Gray Street resident 

“The election indicates that Amherst voters strongly support the current path of the Town Council, with its pragmatic efforts to boost downtown development and address other challenging issues. Despite concerns that the town is divided, it is a healthy sign that party-like slates formed to endorse candidates, which helped voters make informed decisions. While Amherst residents can take pride in having a second successful election under its new charter, we should consider additional ways to boost turnout, including stronger efforts to mobilize students who want to vote in Amherst. If half the seats remain uncontested in future elections, we might consider shrinking the size of the Town Council. The dearth of job candidates should not be surprising. Being an elected official is challenging, time-consuming, and takes a lot of resiliency in the face of much criticism.”

Ray La Raja, UMass professor of political science

“SO excited to know that we will have a 21st Century learning center in Amherst! On another note, I’ve been parsing voter turnout and am struck that while the painful battles over schools, town government and the library have created angry divisions in our community, they have also hugely increased voter participation. Town elections between 2011 and 2016 drew a low of 1,348 registered voters (2013) and a high of 2,668 (2014). In 2018 (the vote for the new charter) 6,043 voters showed up. Yesterday that number was 4,962, slightly more than turned out to vote on the school referendum (4,853).”

Nina Mankin, dramaturg, business owner and grant writer

“The strong vote for the Library shows that voters affirmed the planning process and the role the Council played in how it made the decision to endorse the project. It offers a blueprint for presenting the other capital projects to the public to build assurance that the council has sufficient information to make its decision.
Land use will be a critical issue for the council and it remains to be seen what impact the new members will have in terms of downtown development, business support, and new revenue.”

— Bernie Kubiak, former municipal administrator and Finance Committee member

“The Amherst BID is very pleased to see the democratic process at work in Amherst. We are excited to continue the forward movement for building arts & culture in our community, small business support & economic development, as well as creative ways to bring Amherst back into a post-pandemic world. We look forward to working with all 13 members of the incoming Town Council, the Town Manager, and all the collaborating partners who have brought us to where we are today. We remain saddened by the divisiveness of some candidates but we move on to build on our joint vision.”

Gabrielle Gould, executive director, Amherst Business Improvement District

Climate committee chair counters charges against councilors

By Laura Draucker

As Chair of the Amherst Town Energy and Climate Action Committee since its formation in May of 2019, I feel l need to address Councilor Darcy Dumont’s statement in a letter in the Daily Hampshire Gazette earlier this week that Councilors Steinberg, Hanneke, and Ross worked to prevent a strong climate action committee or have somehow worked to weaken climate action.

First, we have been a very strong committee, developing robust climate goals and leading an inclusive planning process to develop the Climate Action Adaption and Resilience Plan (Plan de Acción Climática). We did this in a little over two years despite Covid disruptions and membership changes. I attended the council meeting where the charge was debated and then voted on, and I would not characterize any of that discussion as an attempt to weaken our committee’s charge. Councilor Ross was an active member of our committee for many months and was integral in helping us move forward with strong goals that everyone on the Council – including Councilors Hanneke and Steinberg – voted in favor of.  I recall no situation where Hanneke attempted to slow or block the adoption of our goals. Further, many climate activists – myself included – were against the initial zero-energy building bylaw because it was written in a way that could have completely limited future town capital projects.

Amherst has much work to do to meet our climate goals. Most of this needs to be done outside the Council – town staff, the schools, community groups, residents, business owners, and the higher education institutions need to come together to implement our climate action plan. My biggest hope for the new Council is that they set a clear expectation that their role is to do what it takes to facilitate and help the implementers do their work, and avoid being a gatekeeper for action. I think this is true of many things that come before the Council, particularly from committees. I have faith that if reelected, Hanneke, Steinberg, and Ross will be open to that approach.

As for the candidates Darcy Dumont mentioned in her letter, I have no basis to make a determination as to how well these candidates will address our climate goals.  I welcome them to reach out and join ECAC at a future meeting and learn from our committee and in particular, our fearless sustainability coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello.

However, I would urge strong caution in voting for someone who claims to have climate action at the heart of his/her campaign but who is also actively campaigning against the library project. The most important climate action we can take is getting off fossil fuels – and this project allows us to do that at no extra cost to the town thanks to the work of the library sustainability committee and Trustees. The library currently uses as much natural gas as 30 average homes. Climate justice is accepting these funds and supporting this project so we can fully dedicate other grants and funds to converting affordable housing and housing complexes away from fossil fuel heat and to healthier, safer, and less polluting heat pumps. Any talk about the waste this project creates is distracting from the actual value this project has – while differing opinions on the library project are welcome, stating that it is somehow a bad climate decision is unequivocally false. 

[Laura speaks for herself in this post, not for the committee. Her letter was slightly edited.]

I went from skeptic to supporter on Jones Library project

By Nick Grabbe

I confess that I used to be skeptical about the $35.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.

I have been a regular visitor to our beautiful library for 37 years, and have always thought that it met my needs very well. I rarely had a problem finding my way around its many rooms, and the children’s room seemed adequate to me.

After the pandemic made me unable to go inside the library for 15 months, I felt sad that the project would make the building inaccessible during construction. Since I know Carol Pope, the designer of the lovely garden behind the library, I sympathized with her desire not to have the expansion infringe on it.

But I will be voting “Yes” next Tuesday on the referendum to affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in support of the project. As Councilor Alisa Brewer related one resident’s succinct message to her, “To refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective.”

I’ll summarize these four perspectives, but truthfully, I have two other reasons why I’ll be voting “Yes” that pertain to the kind of town we want Amherst to be.

Finances. The library project is a great deal for taxpayers. The Town’s $15.8 million share of the cost (only 39 percent) is being borrowed and will not cause a tax increase. A “No” vote would mean spending about the same amount on the repairs that are needed because of 30 years of deferred maintenance – with no state money! After a minority at Amherst Town Meeting rejected $34 million in state money to help finance a new elementary school, which will now be much more expensive, it makes no sense to now reject $13.8 million in state money for an improved library. Re-establishing credibility with state funding sources is critical. A campaign to support the project has pledged to raise $6.6 million. And if a “no” vote wins, approximately the same amount of taxpayer money will have to be spent on repairs to the building — without any state aid and without all the benefits. The library project is not an unnecessary expense; it’s an opportunity to buy something we need at a bargain price.

Climate. The library project will represent a major step toward meeting the Town’s climate goals by moving away from the use of natural gas. It will result in a significant reduction in energy use even though the amount of floor space will increase. I don’t understand the reasoning of some climate activists who maintain that the project will result in a net increase in energy use because of the new materials to be used and the old ones to be discarded. Several local energy experts have said unambiguously that this project as a whole represents a big win for climate action.

Education. The Jones Library has a responsibility to the many visitors who come to Amherst to see the archival materials related to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others in Special Collections. There have been at least four water leaks that resulted in damage to rare books in the past five years, due to a malfunctioning heating and cooling system. In addition, the Jones Library provides 16,000 hours a year of English as a Second Language instruction, and the space provided for this important service is inadequate.

Social justice. As I transitioned from skeptic to supporter, I realized that my own needs for the library could not be my most important consideration. I had to think about the physically disabled people who can’t fully use the building, the residents who rely on the library for computer use, and the newcomers who can’t find the bathrooms or meeting rooms. Most of all, I had to consider the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be using the Jones Library in the coming decades.

All of these are important factors. But for me, there are also two overriding issues. The first one relates to the reason why we’re having this referendum in the first place. It’s all about democracy.

The library Trustees who were elected to their posts worked out the details of this project. Voters favored Trustee candidates who supported the project over those who didn’t. Many Town Councilors backed the library project in their campaigns three years ago and were then elected in a high-turnout, competitive election. Opponents of the project have had ample opportunity to state their case. Council President Lynn Griesemer was, like me, skeptical before she fully considered all the reasons to proceed with the project. The vote on the Council to support the project was overwhelming.

But that was not enough for the determined opponents. They circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the library project, and were not deterred when they failed to collect enough certified signatures. Even though some who signed the petition said they misunderstood its purpose and asked for their signatures to be removed, the opponents went to court. They forced taxpayers to pay for much legal consultation, and then the Town Council scheduled Tuesday’s referendum, which is what opponents were seeking. I hope a “Yes” vote will put an end to the debate.

I was a member of the Charter Commission, and I remember saying that the “voter veto” provision that’s been invoked by library opponents should make overturning a Council action “difficult but not impossible.” I now regret that the commission did not restrict this “voter veto” to Council votes that were closer.

When you lose a political battle, as the library opponents did, instead of continuing the fight, it’s better to accept defeat. The “voter veto” provision of the charter should be used only when the Council vote was close and there’s good reason to believe it does not reflect public sentiment, or when there’s been new information or some change of circumstances.

One of the key principles of democracy is that sometimes you have to live with results you don’t like.

The other overriding issue for me is the willingness of library opponents to use deception in their campaign. Many of us received a postcard last weekend with a manipulated image of a wrecking ball about to strike the Jones Library building. The facade of the library will not be demolished during the renovation project, but the opponents apparently believe that some voters will be influenced by this false image. (This postcard shows why referendums are risky; residents who haven’t paid attention to an issue are more vulnerable to this kind of deception than a town council.) I don’t want to see this brand of smash-mouth politics become standard practice in Amherst’s political campaigns.

Library opponents have also been spreading false rumors. No, the project will not cause a tax increase, and no, it will not mean the closure of the branch libraries. We have debunked all of those rumors here and here. I don’t mind disagreement about important local issues — that’s inherent in a democracy — but I support the old-fashioned notion that facts matter.

It’s OK to be skeptical of proposals made by Town officials, but it’s important to look at the facts. By voting “Yes” on Tuesday, we’ll be doing more than just voting for an expanded, energy-efficient, accessible library. We’ll be casting a vote of confidence that Amherst can move forward in updating our public infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.

Jones Library Trustees announce anti-racism policy for the Building Committee

By Sarah Marshall

This week, the Trustees unanimously passed a policy meant to guide the Building Committee as it undertakes its work (pending approval on Nov. 2). Here is the text:

MOTION – The Trustees of the Jones Library publicly announce their intention that the renovated and expanded Library be developed in such a way to assure all members of the Amherst community are and feel welcome, and that all members of the community feel that the Library belongs to them.  Such intention would be realized in the first instance through the work of the Building Committee, which work should be guided by a commitment to antiracism and include the perspectives of marginalized groups.  That Committee’s work must involve an examination of the way different communities in our town use and experience Library spaces and the iconography and representations contained in the Library.  Approved as amended, 6-0-0.

A few weeks ago, Library Director Sharon Sharry discussed, during the recent Cuppa’ Joe meeting focusing on the project, the painful realization that some members of our community do not feel welcome in the existing library spaces. She mentioned that, for example, encountering a large, formal portrait of a white benefactor in the front entry seemed to announce the space as white.

Editors’ note #11

The Amherst Current will not be endorsing any candidates in the Nov. 2 election. Now, we are extending that policy of not favoring any candidates to the comments section of the blog.

From now until the election:

  • We will accept respectful comments that criticize or commend positions that candidates have taken, but we will reject comments that include personal attacks, innuendo, hearsay, speculation about motives and gratuitous insults. Amherst people don’t like negative campaigning, and we won’t tolerate it.
  • All comments must directly pertain to the blog post they are attached to. Please do not send us comments that are unrelated to the subject under discussion.

Nick Grabbe and Sarah Marshall

Two energy experts endorse Jones Library renovation project

This first statement is from Todd Holland, an Amherst resident with four decades of construction experience who served on the Jones Library Sustainability Committee.

I want to be sure our new library is a financially responsible investment, a step toward sustainability, and a key to honoring our carbon commitment.

Choosing building materials is one of the largest variables in the carbon equation.  The baseline design used concrete and steel.  But the massive energy inputs required to make and move those materials would have created a huge carbon footprint, one that even a highly efficient building would take decades to erase. 

With wood timber construction, the embodied carbon will be less than one-third of the baseline.  While far-out solutions to climate change imagine massive machines to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground, this project will take advantage of an existing solution: trees.  Trees pull carbon from our atmosphere, and building with wood sequesters that carbon, potentially for centuries. 

I know this because my house and garage were built from timbers salvaged from structures built in the 1800’s.  The carbon in those timbers was pulled from the atmosphere some 200 years ago and is still sequestered today. 

If the library went with the earlier design, it would take 30+ years to offset the embodied carbon with operational savings.  The lifetime carbon savings would be 4,500 metric tons.  That’s not insignificant, but the project before the voters will do far better. 

The proposed Jones Library will save 7,500 metric tons of carbon over its lifetime.  Its impressive energy efficiency will enable its low-carbon construction – and the relatively tiny footprint of demolition – to be offset in just over eight years.  And from then on it will pay a carbon dividend, year after year. 

This second statement is from Sara Draper, director of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, a net-zero energy building.

I am glad so many people in Amherst are thinking critically about building sustainability and about how the town should spend its energy and carbon “budget” to best fulfill our climate goals. The energy efficient, low-carbon Jones Library project is exactly where we should be spending those resources.

As a historic preservationist by training and a sustainable design advocate by trade, I was glad to be a part of the Jones Library Sustainability Committee. My litmus test for the Jones Library project was threefold: Does the proposed design improve the energy efficiency of the building without compromising the historic portion? Do the energy efficiency improvements of the new addition outweigh the carbon “cost” of demolition? And does the design help the Town of Amherst meet its sustainability goals? The answer to all these questions is yes.

By replacing the existing (leaky, inefficient) addition with a new high-performance structure, the overall energy efficiency of the Jones Library will improve by 60 percent. The new Library will have an EUI (Energy Use Intensity, a measure of energy use per square foot) of just 29 kBtu/sf/year, compared to the average 71.6 kBtu/sf/year for libraries nationwide. If we wanted to see comparable energy use improvements in the existing building, we’d need to undertake major work, like covering the existing stone walls with exterior insulation. This would drastically compromise the historic integrity of the original Library building, an outcome no one wants.

While these efficiency improvements are attractive, the Sustainability Committee wanted to make sure that the overall carbon impact of the project was positive — in other words, that the demolition and construction project would save more carbon than it emitted. The Sustainability Report put together by Finegold Alexander Architects shows that the overall carbon impact of the new Library would amount to
10,800 tonnes CO 2 eq over a projected 60-year span; this includes the carbon emissions associated with demolition and construction, and the carbon emitted during building operation (heating, cooling, electricity use, etc.). If left as it is, the current Jones Library will emit 18,300 tonnes CO 2 eq over that same
60 years — without the improvements in service and community space the proposed project will bring.

Critics of the project say that the “greenest” thing is to do nothing, to leave the building as it is. But we can’t do nothing. The Library heating and ventilation systems are at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced. Without substantial energy efficiency work to the current structure, the only feasible option would be to replace them with another gas boiler system, a course of action that directly contradicts the town’s goal to reduce fossil fuel use. We indeed cannot “kick the can down the road.”
The project will reduce the town’s dependence on fossil fuels, lower the energy costs of the Library, and better provide for the needs of all the town’s residents. That in itself would be enough for me, but I am excited that this project can also provide a valuable example of sustainable historic preservation, an essential component of successful climate action over the next 50 years.

At this point in the climate crisis, there is nothing worse than a missed opportunity. We need to reduce our energy use and associated operational carbon NOW. We need to lead the way in showing how to reduce the embodied carbon of our buildings. The Jones Library renovation and expansion project is the way to do that for the Town of Amherst, today.

Amherst needs more senior housing

By Elisa Campbell

Housing options are both limited and expensive in Amherst. A recent forum described our severe shortage, the factors that cause it, how it affects various groups of people, and measures being taken to mitigate the problem.

John Hornik, chair of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust, reminded us that very little housing was built in Amherst from 1980 to 2010. During the same time period, the population grew, so pressure on the housing supply intensified. More recently, people moving here as a result of Covid-19, and the upsurge in investors buying houses that they then rent, have combined to increase prices dramatically.

In the most recent decade, while the largest group of residents continues to be people between the ages of 18 and 24, that percentage is smaller than it used to be. The proportion of adults aged 25 to 45, and of children 17 years old and younger have both decreased. People 65 and older are currently the smallest group but the one that is growing. We are becoming more and more a community of college-age and retirement-age people, with fewer families with school-age children.

One of the topics of the forum was housing for older adults who want to downsize from the house they lived in with a family and still live in Amherst. Many homeowners are struggling with their current housing costs; pre-pandemic data showed that 20 percent of Amherst homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and 10 percent spend 50 percent.

Mary Beth Ogulewicz, until recently the director of the Senior Center, said that Massachusetts is “graying” rapidly. In Amherst, by 2030, the cohort of the population increasing most rapidly is expected to be people over 80 years old. The Donahue Institute has reported that Massachusetts has the highest percentage in the country of single adults living alone, and that of those, 62 percent have incomes that do not meet their needs. In general, women face more economic insecurity than men. Given economic disparities, the problem is worst for people of color. Economic insecurity leads to having to decide between filling a prescription or paying a utility bill, or having enough to eat.

Moving to something smaller is not easy. There are few one-level houses in Amherst. While an owner of a house in Amherst has at least that financial asset, many can’t compete with the investors and people moving to Amherst from places with higher incomes and house values. Nor do most retirees want to pay a high rent in a development that is mostly filled with young people.

Some people become literally homeless. According to Gerry Weiss, President of the Board of Craig’s Doors, the local homeless shelter, estimates are that Massachusetts had over 2,000 elders in homeless shelters in the winter of 2020. In the past four seasons, Craig’s Doors has given shelter to 49 people age 62 and above; 10 of these people had been there in previous winters, with three of them having been there all four years. Of these people, 11 were 70 or older. This past year, the number of female guests age 62 or older nearly doubled from the average of the previous three years. In addition, there were at least two elders known to be living without shelter during the winter of 2020.

Hornik suggested Amherst should consider developing a new project of rental housing for older adults. Projects of the kind most likely to be suitable are called senior living residences. Existing ones in Massachusetts include the following facilities: outdoor living spaces; restaurant-style dining with healthy food options; enriched daily activities; studios and 1- and 2- bedroom apartments, each with kitchenette, walk-in shower, emergency alert systems, individual thermostat control, housekeeping and linen laundry services, apartment maintenance and utilities, and wiring for cable TV and phone. Senior living residences don’t provide health care, but do have staff who help coordinate services for residents from organizations in the area. Hornik noted that the developable land along West Pomeroy Lane at the former Hickory Ridge Golf Course could be used for such a facility.

Amherst has some subsidized senior housing. Three facilities are managed by the Amherst Housing Authority: Ann Whalen Apartments, Chestnut Court, and the Jean Elder House. Combined, they have 110 one-bedroom apartments and one apartment each of two bedrooms and three bedrooms. All have income limits. The Clark House has 100 apartments, 81 of which are for the elderly; 19 are for families and 10 are accessible. All are Section 8 apartments (subsidized, but one has to get on the list).
Amherst needs more housing for seniors who cannot afford their current home or want to reduce their costs and maintenance responsibilities. The suggestion of building some near the open space of the former golf course sounds good to me.

The forum was sponsored by Amherst Neighbors, the League of Women Voters, and the Town’s Affordable Housing Trust. A video of the forum is available from Amherst Media at https://youtube.com/watch?v=V1tjM-vl7u0