At long last, after much work, several projects are coming to fruition in Amherst this spring or summer.
Solar collectors on the old landfill north of Belchertown Road: The panels of solar photovoltaics are fully constructed and installed. They are not yet connected to the grid – that process is controlled by the utility and some communities have experienced long delays. However, on June 14, I saw workers installing poles and wires, so work is progressing. We’ll be ready when Eversource decides to flip the switch!
As I reported last winter, projects like this are done by private companies through a contract with the town. Town government will officially be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project, and will get credit for the power generated there. That’s expected to be 4 megawatts, which covers about two-thirds of the Town’s energy use for buildings, lights, etc. The company building (and owning) the project will pay the Town $78,000 a year for 20 years as rent for the land; some of that will be in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes.
Conservation restriction to protect the Grasshopper Sparrow: As you may remember, the town first applied to put collectors on both closed landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road) in 2015. During the studies about whether the closed landfills were suitable for arrays of photovoltaics, it was discovered that Grasshopper Sparrows, an endangered species, were nesting on the closed landfills. In order to both protect the sparrows and allow the installation of solar panels, the Town committed to an enforceable Conservation Restriction (CR) on the south landfill to protect it as nesting habitat for the Grasshopper Sparrow.
The CR has yet to be completed, but this spring the town has been installing the fence around the perimeter, as required. The work to establish the exact location for the fence revealed that the cap over the landfill in some places extends farther than was originally thought. In the future, it will be put around the restricted area, with a viewing platform so people can see the grassy area (and, I hope, both the sparrows and bobolinks, which also nest there). The perimeter path will be on the current terrain in a space 5 feet wide.
Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, and Dave Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager, have met with all the abutters on the west side of the landfill to clarify property boundaries and the limits of the cap. The CR will not interfere with the sledding hill that is entered from Wildflower Drive.
The Kestrel Land Trust will hold the Conservation Restriction, which means Kestrel will make sure that the rules are followed. Kestrel holds Conservation Restrictions on many conservation areas and other land that is officially protected throughout the Connecticut River valley and nearby hills.
As Ciccarello said, neither the solar installation nor the reservation for the sparrow would have happened without a formal Conservation Restriction.
Dog park: The dog park on Old Belchertown Road is nearing completion. Fences and some structures have been installed, and newly planted grass is growing. There are two sections for different-sized dogs. When the dog park opens (it is hoped that will be in late July) it will be open to all dog owners.
Located between Spencer Drive, Russett Lane, and McIntosh Drive in South Amherst lies a six-acre plot of Amherst Conservation Land. The middle two acres of this plot comprise the Orchard Arboretum, home to more than a hundred labeled trees and shrubs, an ADA-accessible pathway, and inviting benches. It includes a hillside, at the top of which a path leads to the Holyoke Range trail system. The Arboretum is a place of great beauty and tranquility.
Orchard Arboretum is open year-round, except when there are snow and ice on the walkways, and spring is a particularly good time to visit, with dozens of trees and shrubs in flower. Among the trees are a few survivors of the 20th-century apple orchards that once blanketed South Amherst.
The Arboretum originated in 1994. Early in that year a condo development was proposed for the six-acre plot. But a coalition of Applewood residents and Upper Orchard condo owners, with significant help from philanthropist Janet Dakin and the Kestrel Trust, raised $175,000, bought the land, and donated it to the Town.
Since then, there has been a succession of different arrangements for developing and managing the Arboretum, culminating in the present Friends of the Orchard Arboretum, which is made up of volunteers from the Applewood retirement community, the Upper Orchard condos, and volunteers from elsewhere in town. In co-operation with the Conservation Department, the Friends manage the planting, pruning, mowing, and leaf-clearing that are key to the maintenance of this lovely place. The Conservation Department manages the four acres that are not part of the Arboretum.
The list of‘original trees, plus the trees and shrubs planted since 1994, now contains over 150 items, representing 65 species and 25 families. Almost all these specimens are labelled with their binomial Latin and common English names.
The benches and a large proportion of the trees in the Arboretum have been donated in memory of former Applewood residents. Other trees and the collection of flowering shrubs have been selected and planted by the Friends of the Orchard Arboretum.
Each March the Friends solicit tax-free contributions to an Orchard Arboretum account at the Town. These funds are used to enhance and maintain the Arboretum. Donors include many residents of Applewood as well as Upper Orchard condo owners and other Amherst supporters.
This long-standing arrangement between the Conservation Department and the Friends of the Orchard Arboretum is a good example of constructive cooperation between Town government and Amherst citizen groups.
Over the years, conservation and wildlife projects have been conducted in the Arboretum, including: a pruning practice for UMass horticultural students; bird walks led by Hampshire Bird Club members; an ongoing study of “Backyard Birds” by Nestwatch Springfield; and a number of programs sponsored by the Kestrel Trust.
Local groups wanting to plan an event in the Arboretum will find it useful to co-ordinate with the Friends’ steering committee. (Write to J. A. Armstrong, Friends Treasurer, at 301 Spencer Drive, Amherst). Groups that are considering charging for an event must apply to the Amherst Conservation Commission for permission.
The Arboretum has been an especially popular destination during the pandemic. The Friends of the Orchard Arboretum look forward to seeing many more repeat visitors.
The six acres do not include parking, but parking is available on the bordering streets. The Conservation Department requires dogs to be on a leash at all times in the Orchard Arboretum.
John Armstrong, a life-long gardener, and his wife Elizabeth have lived in Amherst since 1995. They moved to Applewood in 2015.
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!
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.
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.