When will my road be paved? And why is a bear on my deck?

By Sarah Marshall

There is always something interesting going on in Town government – seriously! Within the last several weeks, Town staff and councilors hosted two eye-opening presentations that I summarize here: one on how our roads are prioritized for repair or reconstruction, and another on the bears that call Amherst home.

First, the roads. This blog recently shared a post on potholes, but many of our roads need more than a few patches. How does the Department of Public Works (DPW) decide what roads need major repairs? Is it a political process? Town Engineer Jason Skeels explained how DPW “takes the politics out of paving” at a meeting in April.

Every few years, the Town hires StreetScan to deploy a vehicle like the one shown above, outfitted with fancy cameras, GPS, and data-logging equipment. Like Google’s cars that accumulate data for Street View, this vehicle photographs the condition of Amherst’s 100+ miles of roads in detail. Below is a view of a road from the rear camera.

Sections of each road are rated as shown in the chart above, with “Pavement Condition Index” ratings color-coded from Failed to Excellent. The ratings are overlain on a map of Amherst’s roads, as follows. (A similar, but out-of-date, map can be found on DPW’s Highways web page.)

Overall, this year’s data indicate that about 43 percent of Amherst’s roads are in poor or very poor condition and the balance are in fair to excellent condition. As the map indicates, many of the roads in poor shape are small, neighborhood roads.

The cost of fixing all of the roads in short order is prohibitive. Each year, DPW develops a list of roads or road sections to be prioritized for different types of repair, ranging from crack sealing to complete reconstruction. This list is based on the PCI and traffic data – not on complaints – thus largely insulating the decisions from pressure from individuals or neighborhoods. Depending on the funds available, any constraints on those funds (for example, Town’s general revenue versus state funds versus Community Development Block Grants), and the estimated cost of the work, the Town solicits bids and proceeds to conduct as much of the work as can be funded. In the table below, for example, projects at the bottom will be undertaken if the money stretches that far.

DPW has a fairly good idea of how quickly roads will deteriorate in the several years between StreetScan updates, so it can prioritize projects two or three years out. It is reluctant to make those lists public, however, since people’s expectations may be dashed if funding is inadequate or some roads deteriorate faster than expected and priorities are altered.

So when will your road be repaired? If your road is in yellow, orange, or red and is heavily used, sooner rather than later, if funds allow. If your road is green, you can expect crack-sealing to keep it in good condition. But if your yellow, orange, or red road is less traveled by (like mine), you may wait longer. And complaining probably won’t help, although you can always request a pothole repair.

Now, about that black bear on your deck: she has learned that you put out birdseed. Dave Wattles of MassWildlife told a virtual audience earlier this month that there is no such thing as a “bird” feeder – rather, you or your neighbors put out “wildlife” feeders. Perhaps you only want to see birds, but the seeds and suet are calorie-dense foods sought by many animals. Bears will learn the locations of feeders and return repeatedly. What’s more, the sows (mothers) teach their cubs where to find the wildlife feeders, and the offspring will return on their own after they have left the sow’s care.

Bears also learn where other human-associated foods can be found, such as garbage in cans or dumpsters, chicken coops, and beehives, all of which are increasing in our area. Given the bears’ strength, garbage should be kept in the home until the morning of trash pick-up or placed in bear-proof receptacles. Electric fences around beehives and chicken coops will deter bears without harming them (or humans) but must be maintained. Information about protecting hives and coops can be found here.

Over the last year, a sow with three cubs repeatedly roamed through Amherst, even through downtown neighborhoods, and concern and interest among residents prompted the on-line talk (view it here. Dave explained how MassWildlife tracks bears throughout the state. In brief, staff tranquilize animals after catching them in barrel traps or tracking them to dens, assess their health and weight, and fit them with ear tags (if grown males) or GPS tracking collars (if grown females). The collars give location data for females every 45 minutes, enabling maps such as these:

Each color represents a different sow and shows the home range through which she moves. These home ranges can include areas even more urbanized than Amherst. We also see that home ranges can overlap. The map above does not include data for the Amherst sow, but that is shown here, in green:

Dave emphasized that the bears are not aggressive and are not a problem. Relocating them is fruitless, because either they will promptly return or other bears will move into the area. MassWildlife’s goal is for the bears to live off naturally occurring food sources. We can help by removing the wildlife feeders – or using them only when bears are likely to be hibernating, approximately December through late February – securing garbage containers, and protecting chicken coops and beehives with electric fencing. In the absence of these human-provided foods, bears will spend less time in neighborhoods and get off your deck.

Town-wide solar assessment should precede solar zoning bylaw

By Laura Draucker

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.

Photo by Bill Mead on Unsplash

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.

Credit Patch.com

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.

ECAC is ready to help.

This post has not been authorized by ECAC.

Ski town?

By Sanjay Arwade

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.
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

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. 

Credit Phyllis Clapis

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.  

Credit Sanjay Arwade

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. 

Photo by Thomas Dils on Unsplash

Thanksgiving

By Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe

Instead of a post today, we offer out best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving and some photos by Bernie Kubiak.

Sun and ice, Station Rd., credit brkubiak@gmail.com

Fort River reflections, credit brkubiak@gmail.com

South Church, credit brkubiak@gmail.com

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.