Enough already with the downtown! And stop moaning about open space!
It’s time for some serious talk about our residential neighborhoods.
Sometimes it seems that the only topics that town officials, the media (including this august blog!), and local opinion leaders care about are the commercial revival of downtown and the protection of ever-more farmland and open space. Last fall, when the Amherst Bulletin cut back on home delivery, I was struck by the fact that all of the new pick-up sites were downtown. No drop-offs at Atkins, no village centers, no campus centers.
I do venture downtown for specific purposes, of course: to pick up a book at the Jones, to get my new glasses at Amherst Optical, to grab a slice at Antonio’s. I’ve even been around long enough to know where to park cheaply or for free.
And yet most of us — especially in these plague years — spend more time in our residential neighborhoods than we do downtown. The town’s Master Plan pays obeisance to the importance of residential neighborhoods. Among the goals of the plan are preserving and enhancing the historical and cultural “character” of our neighborhoods, with special emphasis on supporting “cohesive” neighborhoods. Besides emphasizing the maintenance of neighborhood character, the plan also calls for encouraging the development of economically diverse neighborhoods along with village centers that are well connected to livable and diverse neighborhoods.
You don’t have to know much about zoning and land use to understand that these goals are both ambiguous and in conflict with each other. In most communities, “maintaining neighborhood character” is a euphemism for keeping out unwanted elements. These could be incompatible uses and structures like commercial buildings and operations, which are mostly banned in our residential zones. But in practice, unwanted elements also include unwanted people: renters, students, children, people who don’t look like existing residents, who work at different sorts of jobs or come from different socio-economic backgrounds. We shy away from defining neighborhood character because our definitions are not always pretty or politically acceptable. And we are reluctant to admit that by protecting neighborhood character, we are likely undermining the goal of creating diverse neighborhoods.
But Amherst does have neighborhoods that come close to the ideals of the Master Plan, neighborhoods that are diverse in terms of class, race, ethnicity, national origin, age, occupancy status (i.e. rent or own), and family status. Neighborhoods that are relatively affordable. I live in one of these neighborhoods, Orchard Valley, and I believe it is the best neighborhood in town. I want to tell you a bit about my neighborhood and my neighbors, and then ask what the town is doing and should do to support this fine neighborhood and others like it.
Orchard Valley was built in the mid-1960s. It is typical of postwar suburban-style subdivisions, with its curving streets and cul-de-sacs, buried utilities, and a limited array of house types: 3 or 4 ranch-type houses, and a single, two-story colonial model. Houses are small by current standards, topping out at around 1,600 square feet. But the street view often hides the fact that long-term homeowners have improved and added on to their homes. Half-acre lots tend to blend together in joined back yards. Only a few streets have sidewalks; kids play in the streets. There are many street-side basketball hoops, but no public facilities except for the recently restored Markert’s Pond. The emerging village center at Pomeroy Lane is a healthy walk away along busy Route 116.
From the beginning, the neighborhood has attracted a diverse group of owners. Both staff and faculty from the university and colleges, along with school teachers, nurses, small-business owners, tradespeople, writers, psychologists and other professionals who live side by side. On my little street alone (which my grandchildren affectionately call Tracy Semicircle) we have racially diverse neighbors from all walks of life and from all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Japan, Canada, the Philippines, Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Israel, as well as native-born Americans of European, African, and Hispanic descent. Some households are multi-generational, and some families have occupied their houses continuously from the beginning of the development. Yet these relatively affordable houses do come on the market and sell quickly. In recent years, many new, young families have moved in, attracted by a lively neighborhood culture, the renewing presence of children (and babysitters!), a fine local school, and the fact that the neighborhood reflects the incredible diversity of the town.
The neighborhood has also attracted some absentee owners, who are able to price other buyers out of the market and pack many student renters into these relatively snug dwellings. We have not had the big problems of other parts of town, but this is a worrisome development that current town programs have not been able to address.
What makes Orchard Valley a thriving, cohesive neighborhood is the sense of a shared life that many of us experience. Successive generations have created a common life defined by the activities of daily and seasonal life: child-rearing, biking, hoops, shared tools and projects. This is a neighborhood of all-season walkers, so we know the names and habits of the neighborhood dogs, cats and kids. People look out for each other. New households and families are quickly assimilated into neighborhood routines.
So, here’s a desirable neighborhood that comes close to meeting the goals of our Master Plan. What should the Town be doing to preserve and enhance the character of this neighborhood? Do we need new public facilities like a playground or more sidewalks? Do we need new Town services like sidewalk plowing in this walk-crazy neighborhood, or a town fund to purchase houses for resale to owner-occupants, keeping them out of the hands of absentee landlords? How about revival of the PVTA bus route that serviced the neighborhood and reduced our dependence on cars?
The point here is that town decision-makers need to go beyond the rhetoric of “neighborhood character” to fashion programs that actually support and enhance neighborhoods like mine, neighborhoods that come close to the goals of cohesion and diversity of class and race. Does your neighborhood reflect those goals (looking at you, Amherst Woods)? What would help make it so? Let us know.
In “A civil conversation, Part 3,” Meg Gage listed some crucial requirements of a good plan for downtown Amherst. They were:
“Setting goals based on a vision” Whose vision? While I believe that there could be consensus (or, at least, consent) over basic characteristics for the form and function of a downtown, there is unlikely to ever be (and, in Amherst, there never has been) agreement or consensus about most of what that should include. For instance, limiting the height of downtown buildings to the 2-3 stories typical of the 19th and early 20th century would inhibit the ability of Amherst’s extremely confined and small downtown to provide meaningful amounts of downtown housing, diverse retail, or any of the rest of the uses the community has said it wants.
For another instance, despite people’s general impression, Amherst’s downtown boasts a highly diverse range of architecture that reflects the community’s historical evolution and change. Every new architectural form–including the 1889 Town Hall–was in its time greeted with dismay and disapproval. Form-based zoning for downtown Amherst should not dictate the replication or even overweening evocation of historical styles, but should instead emphasize compatibility. Time passes, needs change. Communities need to change with them.
“Clarity about values” Again, whose? There are always multiple individual voices – usually raised in alarm or dismay – whenever a private or public entity tries to actually put those values on the ground. These Civil Conversations would not be either needed nor happening if that were not true. The Amherst Master Plan is the closest thing the community has to a genuine expression of collective community values. But many will always fight against efforts to bring the Master Plan’s objectives to fruition, usually on the grounds that some imagined perfection has not been achieved. If the community wants what its Plan offers, it needs to proceed to accomplish those objectives anyway.
“Establishing the exact need” Not only impossible, but, in the process, misleading. Human needs and the setting within which they arise change constantly. The community can (and has) take frequent snapshots of need (housing, employment, transportation, parking, food and retail goods availability, etc.). But trying to measure exactly how much affordable housing (for instance) downtown Amherst needs or will need is by its nature an exercise in speculative generality, not least because it could be very different in a matter of months, depending on wider changes in the economy, etc. Assuming that “exactness” can be achieved creates an unreal expectation.
“Evaluating options for meeting the need including size, location, who is served, etc.” This is already done, in two ways, through the market analyses conducted by private developers and the studies undertaken by the public sector. In the end, there can be no perfect option, only options that are more flawed or less flawed in terms of everyone’s expectations. Amherst as a community is diverse and rarely agrees with itself about what its needs are or even should consist of. And there are, properly, limits on what the public can dictate to private property owners.
“Creating a business plan – reviewing research and other information about viability, cost of building, operating budget, etc.” Again, the best the public sector can do in evaluating something like a redevelopment plan for an area is to spend a lot of money and more time than anyone wants developing potential scenarios based on current-day expectations and market conditions, which are themselves destined to be outdated within a few years, if not sooner. There is a persistent myth that studying something and conducting due diligence on economic, physical, and social feasibility (which the public sector absolutely is obliged to do) will then produce a given, mutually-agreed-upon outcome that will come into being by the time anything is built, completed, and operating. That is never true. A downtown plan is a great idea, but all such planning and projective speculation can do is provide a ‘ballpark’ sense of goals and objectives, and a greater familiarity with the moving parts, so that the community can adjust as time passes. Which it will.
“Getting input from everyone who will be affected while there are still options from which to choose.” Including the option of stopping things, which has for so many years in Amherst seemed to be the principal motivation for insisting on options and choices? For all forms of development there are existing, legally mandated avenues for public involvement and input. None of those can possibly obtain “input from everyone who will be affected.” In some cases, extending public permit processes too widely and over too long a period of time can violate both the rights of those doing the development (public or private) and corresponding land use law.
The best that public process can do (and most often does) is to provide a reasonable opportunity for the immensely diverse cohort of humanity that constitutes “everyone who will be affected” to involve themselves. The purpose of public process is to serve the interests of all those involved. All those involved includes the development rights of property owners and the broad public interests that thoughtful development can serve, as well as those who feel aggrieved by change they do not like.
In the end, the perfect remains the enemy of the good. No development, however thoughtfully and carefully planned, responsibly permitted, and competently executed, will perfectly meet the expectations of all of those who believe their interests are involved. That is why community planning exercises and permit processes have a structured beginning and a reasonable end. People have a right to do useful things with their property and communities have a right to reasonably direct how those changes can occur. But unless that process is in fact reasonable, it is not legitimate.
Jonathan Tucker, an Amherst native who now lives in Northampton, worked in the Amherst Planning Department for 32 years and was planning director for 10 years. He staffed the Planning Board, Design Review Board, Historical Commission and Redevelopment Authority.He served on task forces focused on housing, parking, transportation and conservation.
Editors’ note: On Monday night, the Town Council did not support a moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. The vote was eight in favor, five opposed, failing to meet the required two-thirds.
By Bob Rakoff
Another year, another moratorium.
The Town Council will vote this evening on a proposed moratorium on large-scale solar arrays. While other folks have written about the pros and cons of this particular proposal, I am interested in the increasing advocacy of moratoriums in local political debates. Why now? Why so popular? Do they promote good decision-making in pursuit of the public good?
Moratoriums have a long history in Amherst politics, but their recent popularity stems from the 2018 election for Town Council. In that election, candidate Darcy DuMont featured a moratorium on downtown development at the center of her campaign. There weren’t a lot of details attached to her proposal for a six-month moratorium to allow for writing up new zoning regulations. In my view, the proposal was largely a campaign slogan masquerading as a serious policy, intended to appeal to people who disliked the scale and appearance of new downtown buildings. The proposal was eventually voted down by the Town Council.
When is a moratorium an appropriate response to a perceived problem? The key is whether there is an emergency that demands slamming on the brakes of business as usual. A recent example is the national moratorium on rental evictions during the first years of the Covid pandemic. Putting millions of unemployed, low-income people out into the streets during a public health crisis is just about a textbook case of an emergency that calls for immediate action.
It can be difficult to justify a local moratorium as a response to an emergency. Back in the 1970s, the State of Massachusetts imposed a moratorium on new hook-ups to the local sewer system until a new solid waste facility was completed. There was grumbling about this, but little dispute about the seriousness of the problem. Once the new treatment plant was completed, life returned to normal.
On the other hand, when the Amherst Board of Selectmen pushed for a moratorium on new building permits in 1985, there was significant pushback in local political discussion and in the courts. The Selectmen (as they were still known back then), noting that there were more than 2,000 possible new housing units in the permitting pipeline — a 25 percent increase in our housing stock — feared that such an increase would overwhelm schools as well as physical infrastructure. The Planning Board and Town Meeting went along, and a moratorium was declared. While the ban on building permits was being litigated in the courts, the Planning Board and its staff used the hiatus to craft a phased growth zoning bylaw to regulate the approval of subdivision plans and the issuance of building permits. (I was the Planning Board chair in 1987, when Town Meeting passed the bylaw.)
Was that moratorium appropriate? While the fears of crowded schools and overtaxed sewers were genuine, the courts found that these concerns did not amount to a real emergency. A better permitting system did emerge from the moratorium period, including the first pieces of an affordable housing policy for Amherst. So, not a real emergency, but not a total mistake either. And, by the way, those looming 2,000 new housing units did not materialize for a very long time.
One problem with the recent zoning-related moratorium proposals is that they have the potential to escalate the problems they are seeking to fix. This is because state zoning laws, which control what local communities can and cannot do, allow developers to freeze local zoning as soon as they submit preliminary plans for subdivisions, commercial buildings, and other structures governed by local zoning codes. We have already seen this with the pending proposal on solar arrays: potential developers have already filed their plans and will not be subject to future changes.
And would the potential problem of large-scale solar developments rise to the level of an emergency? Amherst does have some regulations on the books, so we are not unprepared. And, of course, proponents of solar arrays would argue that the real emergency is not loss of open land or forests but climate change itself!
While calls for moratoriums raise public interest in local issues and provide a symbolic lift to folks who have a special grievance, they are a blunt instrument of policy making. It would be far better for the Town Council to direct the Planning Board and Department to bring them specific responses to specific, perceived problems.
Let’s declare a moratorium on moratoriums.
[Editor’s notes. You can read previous posts about solar energy in Amherst and the proposed moratorium by clicking on the Climate change mitigation category in our menu. Town Council will vote on the proposed moratorium this evening during the regular Council meeting. You can find links to the virtual meeting, agenda, and materials here.]
Our Town and its elected bodies face numerous significant challenges, some of which I have described in two earlier posts. In my third post in this series, I discuss the impact of rental housing and a destination parking garage.
Rental Registration Bylaw. Since January 2014, owners of rental housing have been required to register with the Town on a yearly basis. They must secure a rental permit for each rental property that they own. The permit program makes clear who owns and manages rental properties and clarifies for the owners and renters existing health and safety codes, occupancy limits, and noise and nuisance bylaws.
The bylaw also gives the Town the authority to suspend a rental permit for “egregious and persistent non-compliance.” To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened, in large part because our Inspections Department simply does not have enough bodies to both administer the program and enforce it. Owners self-inspect their properties and Town inspectors become involved only if there is a complaint.
What we have seen since the program’s inception is a steady decline in the number of permits issued. In 2015, 1,281 permits were issued, but that number has fallen every year, to 1,150 in 2020. There is suspicion that this steady decline reflects a trend of landlords opting out of the program and not a decline in the actual number of rental properties.
After eight years, there is clearly interest in Town Hall and among a number of Councilors to revisit the Rental Registration Bylaw. What form this will take remains to be seen, but the underlying goal will probably be to require more regular and vigorous inspections of rental properties and a more robust enforcement system that will hold landlords accountable when they do not play by the rules. The challenge is that our system currently is a complaint-driven system, and for it to work, residents need to speak up when they see potential violations. Such a system is not very effective.
An inspection-driven system, while attractive, would face the obstacle of cost. The Town can revise the bylaw as much as it likes, but without adequate enforcement, the changes would not have much impact. But enforcement requires people and people cost money. Since the Town has just committed to hiring 12 new people to staff two new Town departments (CRESS and a Department of Equity and Inclusion), I think it is unlikely that there will be funds available in the budget for other staff hires.
One possible solution is to pay for new inspectors through an increase in permit fees. The problem with that is that most permits are taken out by individuals and a sizable increase would likely prove a financial burden to those landlords and lead to further reductions in the number of permits applied for. That would defeat the whole purpose of the program. And none of this actually addresses the deeper problem – how to discourage the conversion of single- and two-family homes into rentals in the first place. That is something I plan to address in a future post.
A destination parking garage. Given the previous Council’s vote to rezone the Town-owned lot behind CVS, at some point in the coming year there should be an RFP (Request for Proposals) to see if there is, in fact, any interest in the private sector in building a destination garage on that site. The RFP would require Town Council approval before its release.
One repeated objection has been that this garage is intended to provide parking for the new multi-unit apartment buildings downtown. This objection ignores the fact that such a use can be restricted (or even prohibited) through the Request for Proposals that the Council must approve. It also overlooks the repeated statement by the sponsors that this proposal has been driven by a desire to support the downtown business community and has been made in response to current and planned economic development in our downtown, including:
an expanded and renovated Jones Library;
improvements to the North Common;
an outdoor performance shell on the South Common;
The Drake, a live performance venue slated to open in March;
a world-class independent cinema.
A destination garage is meant to encourage people to come downtown to shop, dine, see a film, attend a live music performance, hang out on the Town Common, or take the kids to Kendrick Park Playground. And if you are just coming downtown for a few quick errands, the first hour of parking could be free. The RFP could (and probably should) restrict the number of year-round spaces available for rent. It could even prohibit them outright, though I think that would be unwise.
And yes, there are legitimate questions about traffic and safe access into and out of the site. But without an RFP and the required traffic studies that would go with it, these questions can’t be properly addressed. A well-crafted RFP would go a long way to addressing this and other concerns of neighbors.
My hope is that a majority of Councilors support a dynamic and active downtown and are curious enough to see what might be possible through a public/private partnership. Our downtown business community is in need of all the support we can give it.
Second in a series of posts by former Town Councilor George Ryan on issues critical to Amherst’s immediate future.
In response to the death of George Floyd and the national expression of outrage at police violence aimed at people of color, Amherst has committed itself to the creation and implementation of the Community Responders for Equity and Service Program (CRESS), a program meant to provide an unarmed civilian alternative for situations that might otherwise require a police response.
In the coming months, the Town will need to hire and train eight community responders and a director and administrative assistant to run the program, at an estimated annual operating cost of $936,000. This new program will present significant challenges, including finding and training eight qualified (ideally, bilingual) candidates, and figuring out how they can work effectively with our existing public safety personnel (Police and Fire Departments and Dispatch). The staffing challenge will be compounded by regional personnel shortages in the social services and mental health fields.
Funding will also be a challenge. For the next fiscal year, the Town will use some of its federal Covid relief money to pay for non-operating and one-time costs, along with a one-time $450,000 Public Health Grant from the State and $200,000 reallocated from the Amherst Police budget by not filling two positions that are currently vacant.
Funding in FY24 and beyond will be a much greater challenge. Unless funding for other departments is reduced, or significant new revenue identified, the Town will almost certainly need to make use of reserves. These reserves have already been earmarked in the Town’s financial plan to help fund four major capital projects. The amount of reserves needed in turn will depend on union negotiations, health insurance premium changes and other major cost increases. There are a lot of unknowns here. Costs related to salaries, step increases, and health insurance will almost certainly go up.
There also will be pressure from some to cut police positions in order to fund this program in the long term. In my opinion, it would not be wise to further cut existing public safety positions. In communities where such civilian responder programs have been created, the programs have not been funded by cutting existing public safety budgets but rather by finding other sources of revenue.
A further challenge will be the need, for the foreseeable future, for higher annual allocations to the municipal budget, as opposed to the library system and the schools. In the past, all departments including the schools were given a yearly 2.5 percent increase (the maximum allowed under Proposition 2½) but increases beyond that were shared equally. The sense among Town departments that “we are all in this together” could be lost and create unavoidable tensions.
Here are two additional issues Amherst faces.
Finding a site for Public Works. For the past three years, the Town has been unable to secure a site for a new DPW facility. This failure has many causes and no single villain. Not surprisingly, neighborhood concerns played an important role in defeating at least one attractive proposal where the Town was to be gifted the land for a new DPW site. Given the high price of land in Amherst, a free site would be enormously beneficial to taxpayers.
In the coming year, this problem needs to be resolved because, without a site for the DPW, we cannot move forward with the new Fire Station at the current DPW site. Every year of delay increases the cost or constrains what we can build. Delay also has prevented us from fully implementing the financial plan that has been created to responsibly fund four major capital projects. Perhaps we will need multiple sites for the DPW – not an ideal solution, but at least we could move forward.
Homelessness and Transitional Housing. In its Town Manager Performance Goals for 2022, the Town Council reiterated its desire for the creation of a permanent, year-round shelter for homeless individuals. The Town Manager has allocated $1 million of federal Covid relief money to address homelessness and transitional housing. (Transitional housing is temporary housing, often including support services, that helps prepare individuals for permanent housing.)
At least three possible sites in Amherst have been identified. The question is whether anything will actually happen. While an informal working group was created by the Town Manager to address this issue, its membership, mandate, and progress remain opaque. It is also unclear what the Town Manager has in mind for “transitional housing” or how (and by whom) that will be addressed.
Coming, in the third part of this series – fixing the rental registration bylaw and deciding on a downtown parking garage.
Perhaps I should not be surprised, but as the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) and the Amherst School Committee (ASC) methodically move through the process of designing a new or renovated school, some voices are already sounding the alarm about the size and/or cost of the project.
I very much want a new school (to house the Wildwood and Fort River students) that will pass muster both with the Town Council and the voters, who will be asked to support a debt exclusion override in a year or so. So it is vital to develop a proposal that is neither extravagant or unreasonable, and is strongly supported by Town Council.
But it is too early to argue that we are on course for a too-big-and-too-expensive elementary school. I hope everyone will calmly follow the process, contribute their ideas, hopes, and concerns, and avoid premature judgments.
So where are we in the process?
First of all, the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) specifies the sequence of work that must be conducted in order to qualify for partial state funding for the school. While some residents may wish the process unfolded differently, it is what it is. In brief, this is my understanding of where we are and what will happen next.
MSBA will contribute money only to a school that adequately provides space for the district’s educational program. Therefore, step 1 is defining that program, and you can view the draft here. The school committee is scheduled to vote on the educational program on March 8. Step 2 (which happens in conjunction with step 1) is to propose the space required to carry out that program. (Larger spaces are fine but MSBA won’t pay for what they don’t agree is required.) The types of spaces include, for example, the core academic classrooms, special education rooms, a “cafetorium,” music and art rooms, etc.
Step 3 is making very rough cost estimates for the seven options under study (more on that below). Step 4 is choosing the preferred option – that decision is scheduled to happen in June. Step 5 is designing the building and getting a detailed cost estimate. Step 6 is securing funding through the override. We are in the midst of steps 1 and 2.
Last week, at the Feb. 8 meeting of the ASC, the DiNisco Design team presented the draft educational plan and an early draft space assessment. Most of the conversation focused on a table of space numbers that are, on their face, confusing or worrisome. One of the confusing aspects of the table is that space needs labeled “MSBA guidance” are, according to the architects, incomplete, not specific to Amherst, and not determinative. That “guidance” does not, for example, include space for some programs required by law and that MSBA will fund. By comparison, however, the draft space needs for our educational program look excessive. Donna DiNisco, principal at DiNisco Design, assured the committee that the MSBA is aware of the deficiencies of the guidance, that the parties will come to agreement about the allowable space, and that the eventual design will not exceed MSBA space limits.
Because the educational program drives the decisions about space, and the space requirements will strongly affect the cost of construction, members of the public are encouraged to submit thoughts about the draft educational program, or the project more generally, to the ESBC or the ASC in the next few weeks. You can email the ESBC chair, Cathy Schoen, and the ASC chair, Allison McDonald. Here are links to websites for the school project and the school committee.
If you want to watch the presentation and discussion of Feb. 8, begin at about minute 40 of this video. Also, see our “On our radar” page for details of a live Community Chat about the project next week.
End note: Two enrollment options are under study, per MSBA’s authorization: a 165-student school at Fort River (does not address the Wildwood school at all), and a 575-student school at either the Fort River or Wildwood sites. The seven scenarios that must be evaluated before June are:
For the Fort River-only school (165 students), the three options of renovating the existing school, renovating and adding to the school (add/reno), and new construction.
For the 575-student alternative, four options will be studied – add/reno and new construction at each site.
Recently, a study titled “Supporting and Retaining School Leaders” was brought to my attention. The report, commissioned by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, focused primarily on principals, but it could apply to any school leader, or even teachers and staff for that matter.
Being a school leader is a rewarding but difficult job. It’s a job where it feels like you have 1,000 bosses and it’s impossible to please them all.
What makes the Amherst area different, perhaps, is that there is more unrelenting opposition to decisions made that some do not agree with. Three bullet points from the report listed below illustrate that:
A Culture that Questions Decisions: Respondents all described the unique culture of Amherst as a challenge – even more so for those coming to Amherst from outside the district. Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and consensus, but that also questions or challenges most decisions. In the words of one respondent, “I fully expect that any decision I make will be questioned.”
Public Criticism Turns Personal: Respondents acknowledged that discourse and dissent are expected and welcome. What was stressful, however, was when public criticism turned to personal attacks — “behind my back,” in public meetings, and in online postings.
Outspoken Families and Community Members: While Amherst was described as a community that values discourse and dissent, most respondents described an impression that only loud voices were being heard – and getting their way. When a small but vocal group is opposed to a decision, it becomes challenging to move forward. In some cases, parents or community members feel “I know better” and believe, in the words of one respondent, “I have a right to say what I want, how I want.” Leaders find it most challenging when this “how” becomes negative and personal.
I saw this firsthand during my time on the Amherst and Regional School Committees (2010-2016). Committee meetings were often dominated by the “issue of the day,” which could range from budget cutting to racial issues to which math curriculum should be chosen.
Often, the most vocal and “loud” voices did seem to take over. Only those who feel strongly about something actually show up to those meetings, so that’s partly why. It was very important during those meetings to allow people to speak and have their say, but to guide the discussion with rules, including how long someone could speak, and that no personal attacks could be made. We used to say “Criticize the thing, not the person.” I had cards with the rules printed, which I would hand out at meetings.
What makes some of this so difficult is that sometimes not all the facts can be made public, due to employee and/or student confidentiality laws. That makes it hard to discuss the reasons why certain decisions are made. A few of the most contentious issues at School Committee meetings involved this. There needs to be some kind of solution to the problem of one-sided discussion – the neutral ombudsman solution might be one of them (more below). The public needs some sense of whether a decision was a good one or not, but sometimes cannot know the facts surrounding it.
It is worth stepping back to look at the balancing act that exists between two forces. This may get a bit off track from the main subject here, but it is closely related. I will come back to the main subject at the end.
Force #1 is the fact that a school system is a public entity, with highly engaged constituents – parents of school children – many of whom want to have a say in how their kids are educated, and who feel like they have that right, since it is a public body.
Force #2 is that educators are the experts we hire to do this job of educating our kids, and they generally know better how to do it than the constituents do. They are also the educational decision makers, since we put them in charge of education.
Both forces are not wrong. Both have a valid point of view.
In our democratic system, we have collectively made the choice to vote for people to oversee and carry out our public jobs, one of them being the job of educating our kids. So it goes like this: citizens vote for School Committee members, who in turn vote for and hire a superintendent, who in turn hires the principals and other school leaders, who hire teachers and staff.
When an educational decision needs to be made, or an issue resolved, it should go like this:
All voices should be heard and listened to with as much empathy as possible.
Those voices need to be reasonably stated. That does not mean they can’t be angry or even a bit loud. Anger is often understandable and warranted. But they cannot under any circumstances include personal attacks. And no one person should be allowed to dominate a discussion.
Then the decision makers need to deliberate carefully, putting aside as much as possible any bias that exists in their minds.
Finally, a decision is reached.
At that point, input and deliberation is over on that topic. Not everyone may like the decision, but they need to respect the fact that the process is over.
Too often in Amherst, Step 5 does not work that way, and the process is never over for some people.
It is, of course, appropriate and expected for those who don’t agree with a decision to keep working on changing minds for the next time a similar decision needs to be made. But it’s not OK to continue to challenge a decision that was made, after this process is done.
(Aside: As a School Committee member, I did continue to challenge decisions sometimes, but privately, not publicly. I recall a scheduling change at the middle school that many, including myself, thought was wrong. I felt so strongly about it that I threatened to resign from the committee in my discussions about it with the superintendent. In the end I thought that resigning would not really do any good, and I lost that battle. It happens.)
Nationally, this problem is most evident in the movement that claims that President Biden did not win the election. Locally, it was evident in those who did not like how the Jones Library vote turned out, and Town Meeting of 2016 voting no on the elementary school building plan (see end note).
I am not sure what the answer is, both for Amherst and for the country. I don’t really see people changing, at least not in the near term.
Coming back to the topic of supporting and retaining school leaders, I do think that all the mentoring ideas presented in the report are good ones.
But the report talks only about mentoring school leaders. What about mentoring the parents?
Perhaps there could be a neutral place a parent could go to first to figure out the best way to present and solve the problem he/she is having, rather than just launching into it with a school leader or teacher.
The RADAR anti-racism group I used to be part of had long wanted an ombudsman to be hired, to create a neutral place to bring complaints to. Superintendents kept resisting it. But one day when I was in Maria Geryk’s office she simply said “I am doing it” and hired Barry Brooks to be the first ombudsman. I see that office still exists, which is a good thing.
Something along these lines, a neutral counselor who could help guide parents on how best to approach school leaders and staff with issues they are having, might be helpful. But that takes staff and thus money, so I am not sure how it would affect the budget. Or possibly this already exists and I don’t know it, and needs to be more publicized.
At any rate, in these times more than ever, we need mentoring and other systems to support school leaders, teachers and staff. And perhaps we should also include the mentoring of parents.
I know how important mentoring is, because I could not have done my job on the School Committee without the mentoring I got from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, as well as from a group of former members who helped me out in the beginning.
End note: In 2016 Town Meeting voted no on funding the elementary school building plan. The article voted on was a bond authorization vote, which was supposed to be strictly about whether the town could afford the project or not, which is why it was the only vote in the process that required a two-thirds vote to pass. Instead, it ended up being a vote on the merits of the plan itself. There was no plan that did not have cons along with its pros. The “loudest voices” would speak on one of the cons and made it seem like careful consideration of all pros and cons had not been done, when in fact it had, by the School Committee and the School Building Committee. And the majority of town voters had already voted yes to raising their own taxes to implement the plan.
[Note: this is the first in a series of respectful conversations from different points of view about Amherst issues. Please send any ideas for topics to the editors.]
Meg: So, Andy, what did we get ourselves into here? I do appreciate the opportunity to dig into our different perspectives about Amherst issues and controversies. We worked well together on the Charter Commission, although we were on opposite sides of a bunch of big issues. How about you?
Andy: Hi Meg – yes, we differed on the Charter, but we’ve also found common cause on some key issues, like the need for a new elementary school. And we’re both concerned about Amherst being divided into separate, hostile camps that don’t talk (and more importantly, listen) to each other. I hope we can do better than the national scene in that regard!
Meg: Yes! But, Andy, let’s not be too chummy or this point/counterpoint isn’t going to be very interesting for anyone to read! Let’s talk about downtown. Amherst property taxes are too high – in large part because of fixed, structural facts – a huge amount of tax-exempt property in the colleges and University (later let’s talk about whether they contribute enough PILOT!) lots of conservation and APR land. So, our town leaders are looking at redesigning our downtown to bring in more taxes. But I feel there’s been quite a bit of cart before the horse in that thinking. It sometimes seems the town is willing to build anything that appears profitable regardless of the impact.
Andy: Whoa – slow down a little! There’s a lot packed into that little paragraph.
Meg: OK – fair enough. Say more . . .
Andy: It’s important to make the connection between the services residents are asking for and the revenues we have to pay for them. When I was on the School Committee I became increasingly worried about where the money would come from to pay for our kids’ education, along with all the other things we want, including public safety, roads, sidewalks, libraries, recreation, elder services, social services – the list goes on and on.
Meg: I agree, so far. We want a lot of things that are expensive!
Andy: Our ability to pay for those things is constrained, as you note, by large amounts of tax-exempt land. So, we need to do the best we can to generate revenue from the remaining parts of town. And to keep the full burden from falling on residents’ property taxes, that means we need commercial development somewhere. Our Master Plan says we should focus commercial development in the downtown and the village centers, to avoid sprawl in the rest of town. So encouraging appropriate, taxable development in downtown is important, both to support the services Amherst residents want and to keep the tax burden from going even higher. Do you agree?
Meg: Yes, I do, although we might not agree 100% on what constitutes “appropriate” development. I definitely agree the downtown is a large part of the solution. But it’s not development at any cost. We should be able to build profitable buildings that are not eyesores, don’t injure the streetscape, and house businesses where year-round residents – i.e. not only students – will hang out and spend money. Let’s encourage downtown activity that will generate income for the town, without destroying the downtown we all cherish.
Andy: Okay. Do you think others on “your side” feel the same way? Do they see development in the downtown as part of the solution? It makes a big difference if we’re actually talking about HOW we should develop downtown rather than fighting about IF we should develop it. I think there’s a lack of trust among some on “my side” about that – often it seems like people raise objections to the process or the details of a project as a way of stopping it, not because they are really interested in making it better.
Meg: I truly think the difference is more about HOW to develop rather than whether to develop. That said, my “side,” such as it is a “side,” has a wide range of opinions on the downtown. However, I believe most of the people I identify with want to use good planning tools and updated assessments of how the 21st Century economy works to create a rejuvenated and successful downtown where people want hang out.
Andy: Well, I hope those people include students, because I think they are key to our fiscally sustainable future. More on that below.
In terms of “eyesores” downtown, you may be surprised that I agree with you that 1 East Pleasant, the big building by Kendrick Park, is pretty clunky in its design. Although when I realize that it and its triangular sister (which I like) bring the town almost $2 million in taxes every three years – it starts to look a bit prettier! I do give credit to the developers, Archipelago, for figuring out how to build things again in Amherst, where most others had thrown up their hands and said, “These people are impossible.”
Meg: Have you seen the affordable housing building in Northampton at 155 Pleasant Street? It is a very large 4-story building with 23 affordable units. It is set back from the sidewalk and has an attractive design. Why can’t we build housing like that in Amherst? (Maybe Archipelago needs better architects??)
Andy: Yes, I’ve seen that building – it looks nice in that context; I wonder if it would look the same in ours. But I agree with your larger point, which is that we need some design standards to guide future development. I just want to make sure we are actually focused on generating that new development, which we are going to need to fund the services we want for our town without soaking the residential taxpayers, and not just throwing up roadblocks to make it unprofitable so it won’t happen at all.
Meg: I think most people who have raised questions about development are unhappy with what appears to be unexamined options and inappropriate building style, scale and landscape. People want to know that various options have been considered. Also, some people feel the developers and the BID are calling the shots and there’s little room for additional input and different points of view. For example, I don’t think people on my “side” are automatically opposed to a parking garage, but feel that we shouldn’t change zoning for a specific location until we’ve established the need and scale and considered all possible locations.
Andy: Okay, but I am tired of hearing for each new building, “Where is the parking?” I don’t think we want to encourage individual parking lots for each new project, and requiring underground parking for each building increases costs and makes projects less affordable. Centralized parking is a core feature of developing vibrant downtowns. I love going to Northampton and knowing that there’s a place for me to park where I don’t have to figure out in advance how long I’ll be there. It’s welcoming, and it lets the streetscape serve pedestrians, not cars.
Meg: Yes, I love the Northampton parking garage too — where the coffee is strong and so are the women! But is Amherst proposing student parking because the new buildings don’t have any? We need to unpack that. I know we each have more to say on this topic, but we’re running out of space here. In a future chat, I’d like to talk about the idea of “two sides,” more about the balance between retail and housing, the role of the arts, and form-based development. And do we have the courage to look at how the Charter that we both worked on has turned out?
Andy: Sure, and I would also like to explore our attitudes toward college students. I feel like some vocal folks in town (and I don’t believe you are one of them!) like living in a college town but would prefer if it had no college students in it. On the contrary, I feel like the students are a great resource that we should do a better job of leveraging for the town’s benefit.
Meg: Very funny! A college town with no college students! Yes, I like both living in a college town and living with students around. They make life interesting – at the peak of the recent windy snowstorm, several of our North Amherst student neighbors were in their front yard playing beer pong! So many things to talk about – all useful to unpack! Looking forward to the next round.
Andy: Okay, let’s reconvene soon for Round 2 and continue to argue about – I mean, discuss – the good, the bad, and the ugly of downtown Amherst!
Now that the new Council has chosen a Council President (Lynn Griesemer) and Vice-President (Ana Devlin Gauthier) and Griesemer has made appointments to the four standing Council committees, I thought I would dust off my crystal ball and look ahead at some of the key issues and challenges that will face the Town and its elected representatives over the next two years. In today’s post I discuss two issues, and subsequent posts will address other pressing challenges.
Funding for a new or renovated school will come from two sources: a grant from the funding agency, the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA), and money from the town that will be borrowed and paid back over 30 years. The town’s portion will exceed what can be paid for from its cash flow or regular budgets, so a “debt exclusion override” is anticipated. Such debt is temporary, raising property taxes only while the debt is repaid. It does not permanently increase the Town’s tax collection.
If the MSBA approves the school proposal, Town Council will to vote to put on the ballot a debt exclusion for voter approval. At the moment, the best guess for when such a vote would take place is March/April of 2023. A majority vote on the Council would put a debt exclusion on the ballot, and if a majority of voters approved it, a super-majority of Councilors would be required for the actual borrowing.
It will be critical that Council votes unanimously to put the debt exclusion on the ballot. But equally critical will be the willingness of the Council to convince Amherst boters to approve it. It is always a tough sell to persuade voters to increase their taxes. There is no question that Amherst needs a 21st-century school – the question that will likely be answered in the coming year is whether this Council will take a strong position in support of our children’s future.
Addressing the Housing Crisis. It is no secret that there is a housing crisis in Amherst. Demand far outstrips supply, the cost of rentals has skyrocketed, it is increasingly difficult for first-time home buyers to find homes they can afford, and conversion of single-family and two-family homes into student rentals continues to be a lucrative option for many investors.
In response to this crisis, Town Council adopted a Comprehensive Housing Policy in September 2021 that identified five primary goals in the area of housing. The first two involve promoting more pathways to home ownership by increasing the supply of diverse housing types and increasing the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing. The question is whether this Town Council will take steps to begin to address these challenges.
The policy identified strategies for increasing housing supply, but it will take leadership from the Council (combined with pressure from the community) to ensure action. Some possible priorities for the Council:
While it is easy to blame the University for our housing crisis, there are real possibilities for collaboration with UMass for off-campus housing development employing the P3 model (public-private partnership) now in use on campus. Will the Council pursue this?
There are also real possibilities for redevelopment in the center of Town that could provide substantially more housing units for senior citizens as well as transitional housing for those experiencing homelessness. Will the Council explore this?
Money has been set aside for consultants to create design guidelines for future development in our downtown and village centers. Will that happen soon?
And there are zoning reforms that could increase housing opportunities: allowing duplexes by right in all residential zoning districts, raising the current cap on the number of units allowed in apartment buildings, and adopting some form of overlay district in the BL (Limited Business) zone adjacent to our downtown to increase density and create more affordable units. These were high priorities for many of us in the previous Council. Will there be the same sense of urgency in the new body?
On Nov. 8, Lynn Griesemer and Pat DeAngelis of the Town Council introduced a zoning amendment proposing a temporary moratorium on the permitting and approval of large-scale ground-mounted (LSGM) solar photovoltaic installations.
Their reasoning was that Amherst needs to create a bylaw governing those LSGM installations and, until that bylaw is law, the permitting of such installations could have negative effects on the environment. The Council voted to send the proposal to the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee.
On Jan. 12, the CRC held a public hearing on the matter, with a presentation by the petitioners, who included newly elected Town Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier, a former member of the Conservation Commission. Public sentiment at that hearing was lopsidedly in favor of a moratorium.
Many people believe that Amherst needs a Solar Installation Bylaw, so the Planning Board and Planning Department will undertake that task. The State of Massachusetts has been promoting such bylaws for the past seven years, and several communities in the state have created them for their towns and cities. So, it makes sense for us to hold off permitting these large-scale installations until a bylaw is created. The CRC hearing on Jan. 12 went late into the night, so deliberation before a vote will take place today.
Rather than go into the details myself of what a moratorium will and will not do, I direct you to Devlin Gauthier’s excellent presentation on the matter.
The most-often-cited reason not to have a moratorium is that our planet is burning up (I agree) and to possibly (are there plans that haven’t been submitted?) postpone a new LSGM installation by even a few months would put Amherst and the planet further behind in our quest to achieve a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
The State of Massachusetts gave guidance for solar installation bylaws in 2014. Amherst is behind the curve on this initiative, but that does not mean we should rush headlong into clear-cutting hundreds of acres of forest without any guidelines. A large solar installation on a former forest is not a win-win.
While an LSGM will likely result in a net gain in carbon sequestration, there will be losses. Forests sequester carbon, turn CO2 into oxygen, filter pollutants out of the air and protect our water supply. Given the extremely short-term gains possible versus the likely costly errors without a bylaw to guide the process, it’s hard to understand why the idea of a moratorium is controversial.
Gerry Weiss has lived in Amherst for 41 years, served on the Select Board, the Charter Commission, The Disability Access Advisory Board and is the current President of Craig’s Doors, having served on the their Board of Directors for the past 11 years.
Second, by Johanna Neumann
Last month, the Planning Board voted (5-2) not to recommend a 18-month moratorium on ground-mount solar arrays larger than an acre to the Town Council.
In my view, the majority of board members felt that the provisions of Amherst’s current bylaw that guides the siting of solar projects and other energy facilities are adequate for the time being. They also felt a discomfort with using moratoriums to dictate public policy outside of an emergency. And they were confident that Amherst residents want our town to continue to play a leadership role in the transition to clean energy.
Amherst already has a bylaw that guides the siting of energy projects like solar arrays. While this bylaw could be made more specific, it has allowed for the successful construction of ground-mount solar arrays like the one behind Atkins Market in South Amherst, the panels going up now on the old landfill, and the proposed solar array at Hickory Ridge.
The bylaw includes language for setbacks, management plans, and more. The existence of the bylaw has not resulted in major problems with the solar systems installed to date, and so I and other Planning Board members felt that a moratorium isn’t necessary to prevent problems with potential solar installations in the future.
Some of us also felt that governing by moratorium is too reactionary. In the past few years, there have been two proposed moratoriums in town: one to freeze downtown development and the other to freeze solar arrays. Amherst has rules and regulations in place that were thoughtfully developed, and I, at least, feel that moratoriums should be considered a “nuclear option” and used only when absolutely necessary.
Lastly, I and other Planning Board members see the need for continued growth in clean energy. The Massachusetts 2050 Roadmap to Decarbonization calls for in-state solar capacity to accelerate from the roughly 400 megawatts (MW) installed per year over the past six years to more than 600 MW installed each year by 2030. An 18-month moratorium on any ground-mount solar project larger than an acre in Amherst would freeze clean energy’s growth right at the time when we need it to take off.
We can do two things at once. We can and must keep growing solar to reduce our climate pollution and we can be conscientious about how, where and when that solar goes.
Town staff are exploring how to go about funding and structuring a comprehensive solar study, and the Planning Board has initiated conversations around a solar-specific bylaw. I am confident that by working together, we can continue to make progress towards Amherst’s goal of powering itself with 100 percent renewable energy in a way that satisfies most residents.
Johanna Neumann has lived in Amherst since 2011. She has been an advocate and organizer around environmental issues for 20 years and is currently the senior director of Environment America’s campaign for 100 percent renewable energy. She is in her first term as a member of Amherst’s Planning Board. This statement has not been approved by the board.
We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and are posting the responses this week. Today we hear from Evan Ross of district 4.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
This first Council has a long list of achievements of which our entire community should be proud. The most prominent is the approval of the expansion and renovation project of the Jones Library. This vote will impact our community for generations, and touches so many of the stated goals and values of our community, from climate action to social justice. I am also proud of the actions we have taken to reinvest in our downtown and to establish our downtown as a destination. I am more optimistic about the future of our downtown now than I have been in a long time. From the performance shell on the Common (voted Dec. 2021), to the Kendrick Park playground (voted Dec. 2019), to an expanded and renovated Jones Library (voted April 2021), to streamlined permitting for outdoor dining (voted June 2020), to the renovation and restoration of our North Common (voted May 2021), to moving forward a new destination parking facility (voted Dec. 2021), to ending the prohibition on the sale of alcohol on the town commons (voted March 2020), this Council is responsible for renewed vibrancy in our downtown and consistently demonstrated a commitment investing in our downtown.
Finally, I am also proud of the work we did on housing. While there is much work to do, this Council took important steps to address our town’s housing crisis. The Council developed and approved by near-unanimous vote a Comprehensive Housing Policy. This document represents a public recognition that Amherst is facing a housing crisis and sets housing goals for our community that focus around production, affordability, diversity, and sustainability. The document also establishes an ambitious goal: minimum of 250 new units for households earning less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) over the next five years, and minimum of 850 units above 80% AMI over the next five years. Consider that from 2010-2019, a ten-year period, Amherst built 663 new units. Reaching the goal of over 1,000 new units over the next five years is a major commitment by the Council to housing production and will take proactive efforts by subsequent Councils. This Council began that work both through its investment in affordable housing projects and through passage of progressive zoning amendments focused on housing affordability. Specifically, we strengthened inclusionary zoning, eased the permitting pathway for apartments in village centers, eased the permitting pathway for most Accessory Dwelling Units, and made parking minimums more flexible.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Reducing the workload for Councilors is an important goal if we want to recruit new Councilors who represent and reflect the demographic diversity of our community. To some extent, the workload of the Council is what you make of it. Some Councilors choose to take up leadership roles, chair committees, write and introduce policies, and serve the Council as liaisons. Others read the packet, attend meetings, and vote. There is no wrong way to be a Councilor, and each Councilor can and should take on a workload that reflects their capacity. That said, here are some thoughts on reducing the workload:
Fewer agenda items. The Council has a lot of work ahead of it, and occasionally the president will need to post an agenda that folks will see and say “that’s too much!” But as general practice, the president should try to limit the number of agenda items to what they determine is reasonable for the Council to adjourn by 9 p.m. (which means the Council will actually adjourn by 10 p.m.).
Councilor comments. Councilors need to abide by the 3-minute cap on their comments. Some Councilors, and one in particular, consistently ignore this rule and will talk well over the cap. The president needs to enforce this rule.
Councilor questions. On some issues, Councilors were invited to review materials and send their questions in advance to relevant staff. In this way, the questions could be answered prior to the meeting and meeting time was not consumed by answering individual questions. This should be a more common practice but requires Councilors to be provided materials well enough in advance for them to read them, develop questions, and for staff to prepare responses to those questions prior to the meeting.
Public comment. Public comment can consume large amounts of meeting time. If there are 20 public commenters and each uses their full 3 minutes that is a full hour of Council time on public comment. Many public commenters email their comments to the Council in advance of the meeting, then show up and read their comments to the Council. We need to develop a public culture around the Council that recognizes the Council workload and acknowledges their role in reducing meeting times. The public should be encouraged to submit written comments via the Council comment portal and if they have provided written comments then refrain from taking up meeting time repeating those comments during public comment.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
My biggest hope is that they work together to make progress. With 13 Councilors, the ideas, priorities, and personalities will always conflict. Finding common ground isn’t always easy, and sometimes compromise feels like folding. But we need our town to continue moving forward, and that will require Councilors finding ways to collaborate and compromise. Housing is one of the most pressing issues facing our town, but also a space where the Council will likely be divided. Several Councilors ran (and won) on NIMBYism (Pam, Taub, Rooney). Others have consistently advocated for housing production and growth (Hanneke, Steinberg, Bahl-Milne). We can’t wait to tackle housing, which means Councilors from both sides of the spectrum will need to find ways to work together, find common ground, and compromise.
Most importantly on this front, I hope the Council will reject the false narrative that there are two sides or parties. The beginning of my term was consistently defined by folks invoking a narrative that it was the “Amherst Forward” majority versus the “Independents” minority. By the end of the term that narrative had fizzled. Folks noted shifting coalitions that varied by issue. The only Councilor who consistently maintained this false and damaging binary was Councilor DuMont. The 2020 election was a bit different. There were two political action committees. Two candidates were endorsed by both (Walker and Lopes). Two candidates were endorsed by neither (Rooney and Schoen). The narrative of two sides is breaking down and I hope the Councilors themselves will actively work to break it down. The concept of some Councilors as “independent” I hope will be left behind, too, as every Councilor is independent. Councilors (and the public) need to stop defining Councilors simply by who did or did not endorse them in an election, and call out how doing so damages and divides our community.
The new Town Council will be sworn in this evening. We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and are posting the responses this week. Today we hear from George Ryan of district 3 and Stephen Schreiber of district 4.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
Despite a global pandemic that began half-way through our term we passed important zoning reforms in the areas of affordable housing (Inclusionary Zoning), housing opportunity (Accessory Dwelling Units) and Downtown development (Mixed Use, Parking Overlay); we supported affordable housing initiatives (132 Northampton Road, Belchertown Road/East Street School), approved the borrowing for the Jones Library Renovation/Expansion, and created from scratch a workable Council Committee structure (Finance, Town Services, Community Resources, and Governance).
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Having created and “beta tested” the existing Council Committee structure over the past three years this will take a huge time burden off the shoulders of the new Council — now the new Councilors need to trust the work of those Committees. The Council President could be more strict in enforcing the existing rules that govern debate in the Council. The use of the consent agenda has been a help. I think a Council of 13 by its very nature creates a challenge that may prove hard to overcome — everyone has a right to their say and if you have three minutes every time you speak that takes up a lot of time. Finally, Council may need to meet more often if it wishes to keep its meetings to under 4 hours.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
I hope that zoning reforms will continue to create more housing opportunity and development in the downtown and village centers, I hope that the Council will work with the Town Manager to get all four Major Capital Projects off the ground (i.e. insist that the Town settle on a site or sites for the DPW), and I hope that the Council will see to it that the newly created CRESS program is implemented in a way that is both fiscally responsible and does not adversely impact public safety. And I hope that the Council will soon be able to resume in-person meetings — I felt that while the Council functioned well enough via remote means this kind of distance governance is not healthy for the creation (and maintenance) of personal relationships among the Councilors. I felt that some of the unpleasantness of the last few months — in addition to the general nastiness of the election — was exacerbated by the fact that we no longer met face-to-face on a biweekly basis. Perhaps that is more a hope for the world at large and just not the Council?
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
I’m proud that the 13 inaugural Town Councilors all stuck it out for their full 3-year terms. We generally worked together well, especially considering the issues facing the town. I’m proud that we supported the renovation (and/or expansion) of the Town’s three most important physical resources — the Common, the Jones Library, and the schools. And I’m proud that we essentially eliminated single family zoning in Amherst, by approving a greatly expanding accessory dwelling unit by-law.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
Committee sizes must be reduced to 3 (or 4) councilors each, and councilors should serve on only one Town Council committee each. Committee meetings should meet once a month. Town Council needs to trust other town boards and committees, and not duplicate (or negate) those committee’s charges. For example, the duplication of efforts by the CRC and the Planning Board needs to get under control.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
Please leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. Be respectful of staff’s ability to support the council. Be ambitious but also be humble — not all of the world’s problems have to be solved in Amherst.
Happy New Year! Our second Town Council will be sworn in Monday evening. We invited all outgoing Town Councilors to respond to questions and will post the responses over the next couple of days. Today we hear from at-large Councilor Alisa Brewer.
What achievements during your term are you most proud of?
We did a lot of work setting up structures while also making progress moving forward on the work our community needs.
We continuously asked ourselves who we are not hearing from, and how we might hear from them.
We regularly paid attention — to the chagrin of some of my colleagues — to what history has taught us and brought us in municipal governance in Amherst, so we could do better, instead of relying solely on what some inexperienced Town Councilors thought sounded good out of context in other communities.
We learned to trust the work of both Town Council subcommittees and the many appointed bodies in order to improve our thinking and deliberations on multiple issues.
I am proud that:
we achieved temporary zoning flexibility to support local businesses by enabling outside dining,
we provided Zoom live coverage and readily accessible recordings that surpass any coverage of Amherst municipal governance meetings in the past (except for 20+ years ago when our local newspapers apparently provided comprehensive coverage),
the majority of us agreed that we cannot go back to the old, pre-pandemic days of forcing people to drive to Town Hall to speak for three minutes on camera,
we made progress on the Elementary School project, and
we lived our values on affordable housing, racial equity, and social justice by investing both time and money and by pushing beyond the comfort zone of many residents and staff.
I am proud that I was able to convince many of my colleagues to give the less obvious suspects a chance to lead both the Town Council and the Town Council subcommittees, rather than choosing the easiest route for leadership. As I said at our last Town Council meeting in December, it is a mistake to rely on the same folks over and over just because it’s easier to sit back and let them do the work. We can and must support each other in developing leadership skills.
Yet I will never forget the colleague who said publicly during annual officer elections that the youngest Town Council member would be around and could wait his turn –this was both unbelievably short-sighted and thoughtlessly biased, while demonstrating poor judgment in a Town that says it values many types of diversity. And I will never forgive the colleague who purposefully mischaracterized both her own Town Council subcommittee leadership and the work of another colleague in order to damage that colleague’s re-election.
Any suggestions for reducing the workload?
The Clerk of the Town Council has never been a full-time position, stretching the amazing Athena O’Keeffe in too many directions. The Town Council needs at least one full-time staff person working for the Town Council in addition to our only other employee, the Town Manager. The Clerk of the Town Council also needs to continue to be empowered to hire contracted minute-takers for all full Town Council and Town Council subcommittee meetings. It is ridiculous to expect the Clerk of the Town Council to take all Town Council-related minutes, or to expect any part-time elected officials to take their own minutes.
Town Councilors have to serve on too many Town Council subcommittees, and most meetings of both the full Town Council and Town Council subcommittees are too long. There is no obvious solution to this. There is no benefit to compressing the number of Town Council subcommittees, given their charges. There is always more work to be done than we feel we can accomplish in both Town Council meetings and numerous Town Council subcommittee meetings. If we decrease the number of Town Councilors on each subcommittee to three, that would be more manageable, as none would be required to serve on more than one subcommittee (except for the seats we also have on the Finance Committee, the Elementary School Building Committee, the Jones Library Building Committee, Joint Capital Planning Committee, and Budget Coordinating Group). Unfortunately, under Open Meeting Law, no two members of a three-member subcommittee could talk about subcommittee business outside a posted meeting. I recommend that the next Town Council at least try having GOL (Governance, Organization, and Legislation) be a three-member subcommittee and see how that goes.
We have seen some progress in the Town Manager requiring Town staff to submit their presentation materials further in advance of Monday meetings and subcommittee meetings. But we still have room to improve in that area, especially for big annual presentations like the financial indicators presentation that was purposefully withheld from part-time elected officials, out of some misguided sense of tradition, until a couple hours before the meeting. It often feels as though the Town Manager is placing the Town Council in the position of not having time to prepare questions in advance of our meeting.
It is also completely unacceptable to expect part-time elected officials to devote a huge chunk of their weekend to reading and analyzing packet materials for a Monday night meeting, and it’s ridiculous to assume that any part-time elected official can spend Monday afternoon doing that as well. As I’ve been saying for over a decade, everyone is busy and does things at the last minute — make the “last minute” sooner, so the reading and processing of packet materials happens over a longer period of time.
One workload item that must be addressed, if we expect to attract and retain part-time elected officials who have jobs and families, is to not expect Town Council subcommittee meetings to be held during the traditional workday. This was a misstep by this Town Council and broke with years of precedent for having most Amherst committee meetings be in the evening. Of course, evening meetings are also difficult for those with jobs and family members to care for, but it doesn’t make much sense for the public to be expected to follow daytime meetings, either. And a Town Councilor’s desire to serve on a particular Town Council subcommittee should not be thwarted by that subcommittee’s “traditional” meeting schedule.
Small modifications should also continue to be pursued, as well, such as the recent development of an online Public Comment form that immediately distributes to the full Town Council. This may seem minor, given that every email sent to TownCouncil@AmherstMA.gov always was and is also immediately distributed to the full Town Council, but having the Public Comment be in that format makes it clearer which things to attack in our Town Councilor email boxes first, and which things are automatically being uploaded weekly to the Town Council webpage. They’re both public records, but it is useful for the public to check that web page regularly to see what people are talking about rather than guessing at making a public records request.
The Town Council President should not be required to read the Consent Calendar aloud, as this takes a long chunk of time at the beginning of meetings when everyone is fresh — as fresh as anyone can be at 6:30 p.m. on a Monday. Resolutions and Proclamations should automatically result in press releases on the Town website so that less meeting time is spent describing them.
The Town Council President should ask Councilors for their expectations of upcoming staff presentations in advance of those meetings, so that it’s clear that no staff presentation should generally last more than 10-15 minutes plus lots of time for questions.
The Town Council President should continue to ask Councilors to provide input to the Town Council subcommittee that will be exploring the issue in more detail. We have done a good job of not making unnecessary referrals when the full Town Council has appropriate information to act, and we should continue to evaluate when referral is helpful and when it just slows things down. Each Town Council subcommittee Chair should similarly be asking the subcommittee their expectations for upcoming staff presentations in advance of those meetings, as we experienced several really frustrating subcommittee meetings where staff presentations were repeated verbatim from the full Town Council and strangely had taken none of the questions and comments into account.
The Town Council may need to periodically remind the Town Manager that he is to support what the Town Council believes it needs in the way of staff time or presentation length, not just tell the Town Council what it is going to get. Obviously, the Town Manager should not let the Town Council or the staff waste each other’s time, so there needs to be clear, ongoing communication between the Town Manager and the Town Council, and between the Town Manager and his staff, to meet everyone’s needs.
The Town Council needs to agree on the annual Town Manager Performance Evaluation instrument soon after the annual Town Manager Performance Goals are established, rather than once again waiting until the last minute to try out yet another new, and potentially disastrous, instrument right before the evaluation period commences. Revisiting the instrument as well as the written goals throughout the year would make completing the evaluation less time-consuming for each Town Councilor. Town Councilors who do not complete the evaluation instrument as written should be noted clearly, as having some Town Councilors refuse to choose rankings or provide any written comment warps the entire evaluation process. The evaluation period also needs to be moved back to June-August rather than the one-off move to election season in 2021. And it would do our community a huge disservice to assign the annual Town Manager evaluation to a third party, or to a Town Council subcommittee, rather than expecting each of the 13 Town Councilors to pull their weight.
What are your hopes for the incoming Council?
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that their job is not to tote up the number of public comments they receive for and against and call that a mandate, because it isn’t. The Town Councilors were voted into office to use their judgment on our behalf, not to serve as a tally board.
I hope the incoming Town Council stops allowing some members to pretend they aren’t themselves part of an Independence Party while criticizing the publicly organized PACs.
I hope the incoming Town Council finds a way to effectively censure any colleagues who write or speak falsely about their colleagues’ motives and actions. Assuming people will “consider the source” and disregard obviously false aspersions may well have cost a Town Councilor re-election. I hope the incoming Town Council finds a way to remind each other to live the values described in the Town Council Statement of Values within the Town Council Rules of Procedure.
I hope the incoming Councilors recognize the value of working with Town Councilors they’re not sure about, and really try to forge perhaps unexpected alliances on mutual goals. The full Town Council acts with more respect and trust — and authority — when its members work with each other freely, not according to some arbitrary division.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not learn to rely on the Remote Participation roll-call vote to see which way the wind is blowing, and understands that normally the yeas all vote at the same time, as do the nays and abstains.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that the point of the Charter 2.10 (c) “nuclear” option to postpone is not to irritate colleagues you don’t agree with, or to frustrate the public who expected the Town Council to act on the night the Town Council advertised they would act, but to await actual new information that could change the outcome. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
I hope the incoming Town Council views the Town Council President not as their boss or as their mother or as their confidante, but as the person who facilitates the work the Town Council desires. I hope the incoming Town Council does not view the President and Vice President as an Executive Team with the Town Manager, but instead that the Town Councilors who aren’t President take turns working on Agenda setting and Motion review, and that the incoming Town Council sees the Vice President only as someone who steps in if the President is not available, and does not assume the Vice President will be the next President.
I hope the incoming Town Council shares leadership, not via the awkward and unworkable concept of co-Presidents or co-Chairs, but instead by mentoring each other in leadership roles within the full Town Council and in the Town Council subcommittees. The Chair of each Town Council subcommittee is there to do the work the subcommittee desires, and the Chair does not set subcommittee agendas without input from the full subcommittee. The President and the subcommittee Chairs should always be looking for ways to delegate officer tasks to other Town Councilors so as to not only make the officer role less onerous, but also increase each Town Councilor’s investment in the work.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not view the Town Manager as their boss or as their father or as a friend, but as the person to whom the Town Council communicates all policy leadership and who is in fact the only staff member directly responsible for meeting the Town Council’s needs. Please also note this is the Town Council’s needs, as determined by the majority, not by what individual Town Councilor X wants at any given moment.
I hope the incoming Town Council respects the long-established Amherst culture of sending all requests for information to the Town Manager for him to manage, rather than reaching out to any staff — other than the Clerk of the Town Council — directly. Yes, it’s faster to call up or email a department head or other staff yourself, but it’s not appropriate. If the Town Manager is not responding to your request, that’s a Town Council problem with the Town Manager, not one to be gone around to other staff.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes the fine precedent the initial Town Council set in not publishing separate Minority Reports. If four members of a subcommittee agree on something, then the fifth member does not get pages or paragraphs to explain why they disagree, as that obviously ends up giving less space to the four members in agreement. If the incoming Town Councilors are unfamiliar with the Chair or designated report writer incorporating minority views within Town Council subcommittee reports both fairly and accurately, they have plenty of examples to look at in TSO (Town Services & Outreach; previously Outreach, Communications, & Appointments) Reports to Town Council.
I hope the incoming Town Council does not see their role as whipping up public sentiment for one or another Town Councilor’s preferred position in order to inspire emails and appearances at public comment, but rather as both regular and creative communicators of what the Town Council is working on and why, and as listeners to all members of the public, not just those in their District or the ones who write most often.
I hope the incoming Town Council is willing to read all press coverage of community issues, not just one blog or one newspaper.
I hope the incoming Town Council recognizes that they are the ones who were elected by voters to represent our community, and that in fact the public does not have an equal voice to elected Town Councilors at the decision-making table.
I hope the incoming Town Council finds their service more rewarding than frustrating. We appreciate their willingness to serve!
a community responder program in conjunction with a reduced police department
the traditional look and feel of our village centers
updated/rebuilt/renovated public buildings
diversity and outreach programs
more and/or easier parking
an expanded public art program
an economic development director
updated and well maintained parks
updated and well maintained recreational and athletic facilities
capital investments to mitigate climate change
a robust reparations program
efficient delivery of public services
well paid public employees
roads in good condition
prompt responses from emergency services
. . . .
The Amherst money pie is not large enough to satisfy all these wants, reasonable as they may be.
Last winter and spring, as the pandemic began to ease, the Town began to form its annual budgets for town operations, the regional schools, capital expenses, and other functions for the fiscal year now in progress. The pandemic devastated several of the town’s income streams, such as from hotel and restaurant taxes, parking receipts, excise fees, and growth in new taxable properties (that is, from new construction). In addition, anticipated contributions from the state to the schools and directly to the Town decreased. The budget decisions for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2021 (FY22) were extremely painful. The regional schools budget was forced to cut teachers and services. The elementary schools were forced to give up some art and music teachers. All town departments were held to 2.1% increases to their budgets.
We need a bigger pie.
I listened to searing public comments at School Committee and Town Council budget hearings, begging for money to be moved to the schools, or moved to a new community responder program, or to preserve other services. Now, as Town Hall and Town Council begin developing next year’s budget, similar public comments are being offered, and the Town is likely to propose even more funds for community responders, perhaps additional funds for a reparations program, for a BIPOC youth center, for climate sustainability projects, and more.
Where will the money come from?
A couple of months ago, I listened to the presentation of financial indicators for the next fiscal year, and while some of the news is good (meals and hotel/motel taxes are recovering, for example), other news is not (essentially flat state aid, rising health insurance costs). Painful decisions await the Town Council that will take office on January 3.
We will be fortunate to have almost $12 million in ARPA funds to spend on many aspects of our budgets, including some new endeavors. But in a few years, either these efforts will end when the ARPA funds run out, or we will need to shoehorn them into ongoing operating budgets. Without enlarging our annual revenue streams, projects, departments, wants, and needs will be pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest.
The revenue stream over which Amherst has the most control is property taxes, which can be increased by promoting, or at least allowing, new construction – of houses, apartments, commercial buildings, and accessory dwelling units. Every new construction increases the value of the property it sits on, and therefore the property taxes paid by the owner for years to come. Other options for increasing our revenue include a Proposition 2-1/2 tax override, which permanently increases our tax rate, or selling off open space for development. If we don’t increase our revenues, we will need to decrease our expenses, and cross some items off the list above.
Councilors are responsible for setting the budget priorities for the Town Manager to follow as staff work out the details. Town Council needs to decide which of our wants are top priorities and which to eliminate or postpone. However, Council can also take a lead role in driving policy that increases our revenues, primarily by promoting – not just not discouraging – new construction and business development.
Of course, another option – especially if residents oppose new development – is to go a little bit hungry, that is, reduce programs, services, personnel, benefits, asset purchases, and the like. But I rarely hear any proposals to cut specific programs or services with the aim of reducing our total expenditures.
What do you suggest? I am truly interested in your thoughts.
The recent campaign leading up to the Nov. 2 election was indeed acrimonious.
Some candidates and supporters behaved quite badly. Some library renovation and expansion opponents engaged in widespread misrepresentations, and some are apparently continuing to pursue anti-democratic efforts to get their way. An outgoing Town Councilor repeatedly criticized some of her colleagues who were running for reelection, and called for their defeat. And the unpleasant, even vitriolic, tone of public discourse continued in a recent email in which a re-elected Town Councilor misrepresented the processes of town government, and more.
The ongoing nastiness certainly takes up a lot of space and energy. It’s both the manifestation and the cause of a lot of suffering, but is it representative of our town?
Voter turnout on Nov. 2 was 31.15 percent, as 5,042 of 16,187 registered voters cast ballots. While canvassing for a “yes” vote on the library renovation and expansion project, a HOT issue in the Amherst Bulletin and on various listservs and web pages, I spoke with folks who were completely unaware of the situation.
It seems that apathy, rather than acrimony, is actually more representative of our community. Can we find a way to address both, and restore our community together?
The problem is (at least) two-headed: 1) How can we create an attractive civic life in which people will want to participate, and 2) how might we offer opportunities for people to engage in good faith with those with whom they disagree?
Among the politically engaged, the polarization that has so injured us nationally exists right here in Amherst. We’re not using the same labels here, but the features of our civic disease are the same:
We have become two factions, each angry at the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity or good intentions; and
We view our political opponents as uninformed, misguided, stupid or bad people whose ways of thinking are both incomprehensible and dangerous.
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” If that’s a remedy for this disease, could we do it in Amherst? Is there a way, as individuals, that we could try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it? At a community level, is there a way to engage with those with whom we disagree in an effort to find common ground and ways to work together? Can we find ways to identify and support principles that unite us rather than divide us?
Does our formal civic process attract and engage most Amherst voters, or residents? I deeply appreciate volunteers’ and Town employees’ efforts, and at the same time I wonder whether we are doing enough as a community. Is what we’re doing now working? I’ve heard “doing the same thing and expecting different results” is one definition of insanity. How’s that working out for us? Should we try something different?
I suspect the unpleasantness and acrimony that so stimulate some of us is precisely the thing that drives others of us away from civic engagement. But what if Amherst offered “Common Ground Conversations,” a public dialogue process emphasizing listening to our neighbors and understanding their values, hopes and fears?
Imagine a series of structured public conversations that offer people an opportunity to speak respectfully, and to be heard respectfully. Imagine a process that would encourage people to listen without becoming defensive, and to speak without attacking. We could agree to allow others to hold their own views, no matter what they are – and we could sincerely try to understand their views, and the values underlying those views. We could abandon all hope of persuading others that we are right, knowing that others won’t try to persuade us that they are right.
By no means am I suggesting that we must suppress our views and values, or mute our passion. However, for this process to be effective, we must together agree to speak respectfully to each other, and to refrain from attacking each other. That, in itself, would be a change for the better!
If we agree to do this hard work together, what might we expect?
Maybe we’ll come to understand our neighbors better through thoughtfully listening as they express their nuanced views. As our understanding increases, our stereotyped thinking about those with whom we disagree may decrease, and we might find that we develop greater trust in our neighbors’ good intentions and their basic humanity. Common ground might emerge. We might start working together, rather than working against each other. Folks who have been uninterested or alienated might be attracted to participating in developing our community. And those who continue to speak disrespectfully of others will find they gradually have less impact on our public discourse.
On the one hand, it’s probably best to do the work without having any expectations as to its outcome. On the other hand, I can’t help but hope for a decrease in rancor and vitriol, and a gradual, steady improvement in the quality and tone of our conversations. And, just as important, perhaps we’ll also see an increase in civic interest and participation.
Shall we try something new? Or will we continue to do the same thing, expecting different results? Are you ready for a change? I know I am.
Opponents of a parking garage on Town-owned land behind the CVS store talk as if they believe that the Town Council is about to decide to put one there. In fact, a “yes” vote on the proposed “overlay” zoning would be merely the first step in the decision-making process.
They say they don’t think a decision should be rushed. In fact, this zoning change was first brought up last spring, and speculation about using this town-owned site for a parking garage has been going on for several decades.
Residents of North Prospect Street say a parking garage would be incompatible with their historic district. But plantings can minimize the visual impact. And the current vista of a crumbling parking lot doesn’t exactly say “historic district,” does it?
These residents like the convenience of living on the edge of a commercial district but are outraged at the prospect of something designed to improve the commercial district. They are not the ones who need a parking garage, because they can easily walk downtown. And people who say they want businesses downtown that sell everyday items should not oppose things that make it easier to attract enough customers to come here to support those businesses.
So they don’t want to have a parking garage built across from their homes? Of course they don’t! No one wants to see development outside their front doors. Their voices have been heard, and they’ll be heard again, but now the Town Council must make a decision next Monday based on what’s in the best interests of all the residents of Amherst. “Our job is to take the community-wide view,” said Council President Lynn Griesemer.
I don’t know whether Town-ow ed land just north of the CVS lot is the best site for a second parking garage, but I don’t think it should be ruled out. And I’m willing to consider the opinion that we don’t need another garage at all. But all a two-thirds vote on the Town Council for “overlay” zoning would do is make a garage there possible.
I know a former town official who has studied the parking issue for many years, and he thinks the Town-owned land just north of the CVS lot is the most centrally located of the possible garage sites and is the most useful in terms of revitalizing adjacent properties. It could be the most accessible with some traffic modifications, it would provide the biggest net gain of spaces, and it is the most easily, affordably and efficiently developed, he says. And this may be the only site where a private developer would be willing to finance the construction and operation of a garage.
There are, of course, serious questions that need to be answered about the CVS site. Would access from North Pleasant Street cause traffic backups? How would egress onto narrow North Prospect Street work? How would it be financed and run? How big would it be? How would public safety be assured inside the garage?
And what are the advantages and disadvantages of having a garage there as opposed to other possible sites, such as just west of the Amherst Cinema? Is adding tiers to the Boltwood Walk garage structurally impossible? And will the Jones Library’s renovation and expansion project, combined with the Drake music and entertainment venue at the former High Horse site, dramatically increase the demand for parking?
Some opponents of the zoning article want to close off consideration of a parking garage at the CVS site before the debate over siting has begun. Some of them maintain that the decision should be delayed until the new Town Council is seated. Councilor Darcy Dumont invoked her right to delay a vote without saying why a delay was needed.
Some garage opponents have used overheated rhetoric, comparing the Town Council to “Mayor Daley’s Chicago” and referring to a parking garage as an “invasive species.” Dorothy Pam has acted more like a community organizer than a Town Councilor by whipping up the neighborhood and calling votes on zoning articles that have been around for months a “coup” and an “emergency.”
Among the opponents addressing the Town Council, only Meg Gage made the more reasoned argument that a “yes” vote on the CVS zoning article might create “momentum” toward siting a garage there.
The average Amherst homeowner has seen a $400 increase in property taxes this year. A major reason is that commercial property has not increased in value as much as residential property has. If we don’t want tax increases of this magnitude to continue, we should pay attention to the well-being of business owners. Chamber of Commerce Director Claudia Pazmany said that every day she gets complaints about inability to find parking spaces in downtown Amherst.
This zoning change the Council is about to vote on is just the start of the process. A developer would have to make a concrete proposal for a parking garage and be willing to finance it and abide by the conditions of the zoning bylaw. The developer would have to address the concerns of the North Prospect residents, as well as those of CVS’s landlord, St. Brigid’s and the Jones Library.
I remember the fierce debates over the Boltwood Walk garage in the 1990s, including multiple Town Meeting votes, referendums and court challenges. The debate over a second garage could be just as contentious. Let’s let it begin.
One of my favorite political podcasts, “Left, Right, and Center,” allows each participant time for a brief rant at the end of the show. Consider this post my rant.
Several times lately I have heard that, for democracies to remain strong, losers of elections must accept defeat, and winners must not suppress the losers. This could have been written for Amherst as well as today’s national GOP.
In the past few months, some citizens on the losing side of votes, races, or the ballot question have questioned the legitimacy of the results, impugned the integrity of the staff in the Clerk’s office, elected officials, and volunteers, or petitioned courts to reject the results. Unhappiness on the part of some elected officials who voted in the minority led to very personal criticisms of other elected officials.
All in all, I hear too much whining. I hope that the disgruntled among us are not spreading their own version of Trump’s Big Lie and corroding confidence in our local democratic order. I lost my race for Elector of the Oliver Smith Will on November 2 and am disappointed. However, I am confident that I lost fair and square and emailed congratulations to the victor on November 3. I am not spreading baseless and/or anonymous accusations or suing.
The race for a council seat in District 4 (my own), is so close that a recount has been requested. I do not consider a request for a recount to be whiny or an attack on our system, since a margin of 5 votes is very small and perhaps the result of error when there are multiple ways by which to vote. And I have every confidence that, should Evan Ross be found to have lost to Pam Rooney after the recount, he will abide by that outcome and not badmouth the Clerk.
However, the numerous and continuing challenges to Town Council’s April vote to approve the appropriation for the Jones Library project, Council’s decision to put the issue on the ballot, and the conclusiveness of the results, are prime examples of sore losing. I do not believe that pursuing the voter-veto option permitted by the town’s charter was illegitimate or whiny – but everything that has happened since gathering signatures, yes. And if a 65-35 vote to undertake the library project doesn’t persuade the losers that they have lost, I don’t know what will. They should respect the bedrock principle that democracy requires losers to accept that winners won and stop wasting taxpayer money.
Another set of complaints is, essentially, that our new form of government is not enough like our previous form of government. For example, I have heard calls to give more power to more people. And like a software designer, I say, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. I understand that some people miss Town Meeting, but it is time to move on.
I also hear claims that decisions are “unfair,” when the decisions don’t uphold the complainers’ policy preferences. It is astonishing to me that some Amherst voters consider their local government to be illegitimate or corrupt simply because they don’t get what they want. This is how children behave.
To be clear, disagreements or unhappiness with the decisions, policies, and priorities of our elected officials do not constitute whining – the debate over issues is essential, and few decisions can please everyone. I am not telling people to happy up. But, in my opinion, voters on the losing side of any contest should pursue one or more of these options instead of challenging the integrity of officials or elections without good evidence of malfeasance:
Respect the majority opinion;
Build support for the minority point of view and try again;
Revise the desired policy to attract more support;
Work harder to engage like-minded residents in the political process;
Run for office or volunteer for committee work.
Unhappiness with the defeat of the school building project several years ago was acute and widespread. But the losers, after the Town Meeting’s first vote not to authorize borrowing, built support, turned out residents, and tried again. And then, deeply disappointed, they accepted the second defeat. New candidates for Town Council recently arose in Districts 3 and 4 (perhaps in other districts as well) because of unhappiness with the records of incumbents – and won. These actions honor our democratic process. On the other hand, complaints that voters who organized themselves into a local political action committee were thereby acting unethically were sour grapes. (Hopefully, we can retire that complaint now that we have two PACs.)
Finally, one frequent whine is that residents were not consulted by committees or elected bodies. To this I say: Take responsibility for your own civic participation. If you care about the Jones Library project, or the elementary school project, or a zoning bylaw, or a significant policy change, then put in the work to follow and understand it. Attend or watch the meetings, or read the minutes, or ask questions by phone or email, or reach out to your Councilors, or participate via the Engage Amherst platform, or read the reports. (A tip: Watch meeting videos at 2x speed.) Do not wait until a vote is imminent or someone shows up with a petition to discover that an issue is important to you. If you don’t have time for this work (and not everyone does), then at least don’t complain that decision-makers have acted in bad faith or that they should come to your door to update you, personally, and ask for your thoughts. If you haven’t participated, don’t blame others and don’t accuse them of failing to seek public input. Democracy is work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The Jones Library, a highly regarded and much loved institution, is in desperate need of repair and renovation.
Only 45 percent of the cost of the library renovation/expansion project will be paid from local taxes, and a tax increase won’t be necessary.
If we turn down the $13.8 million state grant after rejecting the $34 million grant for a new school, our credibility with state funding sources will be further damaged.
If we vote “No,” taxpayers will probably have to pay for about $15 million in building improvements, with no help from the state.
If we vote “Yes,” the amount of state income tax and sales tax payments we pay will be channeled back into the infrastructure of our Town, and not sent off to some other community.
A “Yes” vote affirms the 10-2-1 vote of our democratically elected Town Councilors, who worked diligently for years, in numerous public meetings, to fully understand the proposed project, with the Town’s best interests and bottom line at heart.
The expansion and renovation project will dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in the building.
It will protect the valuable, historic, and at-risk Special Collections, which many people come to Amherst to see, and allow them to be housed securely and accessibly.
It will make all the library’s services accessible to people with physical limitations.
The Town’s debt payments have declined to near zero, meaning we have ample capacity to borrow funds as needed for this project.
Historic elements of the original building will be protected, restored, and some opened to the public for the first time in decades.
There will finally be ample bright, comfortable, and quiet areas in which patrons can sit and read.
The project will create more space for adult collections, including Blu-ray films, and eliminate bookshelves that are six feet from the floor or at foot level.
It will provide a safe, bright and supervised place where teenagers can hang out.
Visitors will be able to find meeting rooms and bathrooms on the first floor.
It will enable the children’s room to better serve the diverse ages of the hundreds of kids who come in every day.
It will help revitalize local businesses by bringing more people downtown.
It will show support for library employees, who shouldn’t have to work in a substandard building.
It will provide more space for English as a Second Language, where tutors now have to compete for space.
There will be spaces for public meetings for community groups to access directly from outside of the Library EVEN WHEN THE LIBRARY IS CLOSED.
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 grew up in Amherst. I served on Town Meeting. I own a home here, and a business. I am raising a child here. I’ve seen and experienced firsthand how our town and school officials can be dismissive of public input. I’ve experienced the rage when I feel personally disrespected by that dismissal. I experienced the awful divisions revealed through the loss of state funding for new schools and our shift away from Town Meeting toward a new council form of government. And I’ve come to believe that we, culturally, for good and bad, are driven by symbolism. This symbolism is a factor of both our specialness and, as is so often the case with specialness, our privilege.
In Amherst, we do things “on principle” and, while I am proud of our principled culture, I’ve also seen it bite us in the ass. It was our privilege to turn away $34 million on principle because half of our community didn’t like the way the School Department reconfigured our schools to solve what they, and the state, had determined to be core problems in our system. It is our privilege that has, for decades, made it so difficult for developers to build new housing and create new business opportunities in town, leaving residential taxes to carry so much of our infrastructure burden, because while our main economy is driven by students, we don’t want our aesthetics to be ruled by financial interests that take advantage of that.
It was our privilege that, years ago, resulted in our failure to adopt a “form-based” zoning overlay that would have created height and setback restrictions (and pre-empted recent aesthetic blunders) because of vocal outcry against what many saw as an attempt to throw us to the developers. If we vote against the library project, it will be our privilege to turn away $13 million in state funds to build a truly 21st century learning center, an investment that I believe aligns with our core values of equity and community. Our principled stance will then allow us to say “Take your money and we’ll spend the same amount just to fix the building as it is!” because some very vocal, very angry and principled members of our community are horrified by the symbolism of spending so much money on a new library, even if the project won’t increase our taxes and the money won’t go toward other needed projects (two of the many false rumors spread in rage over what is perceived as an unprincipled act of fiscal and cultural irresponsibility).
This driving force of symbolism (or principle; I’m still parsing the difference) can be a powerful force for good; it is also, I believe, what makes us such a difficult community to govern. Town Meeting was a symbolically beautiful institution but it met only a scant number of times a year, and during those times there was a history, that I experienced firsthand, of destroying plans and budgets our extremely qualified hired professionals had spent months and even years working on — with one raised hand, one symbolic gesture and a room full of people who felt great about doing work to advance what they (we) saw as progress.
These symbolic/principled actions had real consequences, for good and ill (depending on your perspective) like the half-percent for art vote that added sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars for art into our capital budgets, or the time we added extra funds to enable more scholarships for low-income children to participate in public programs. Unfortunately, I believe, these gestures also created a history of antagonism between those struggling daily to govern our community and the public they serve.
It’s complicated. We have a population of very smart and often very privileged (again, for good and ill) people with the time and resources to put a lot of energy into how our government runs and what it does, and a governing staff and body that I believe sees those folks largely as a threat. There’s a legacy of, dare I use the acronym, PTSD on both sides of this equation. It’s why so many people I know, myself included, would never want to run for public office in Amherst. Engaging in a battle of symbolism is necessary for change to happen (think any progressive social movement) but it is also exhausting, often thankless and sometimes deeply counterproductive.
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.
After reading comments that were misrepresentations and outright lies about my Town Council colleagues, I feel compelled to set the record straight and share my experience of working with those who have been targeted and maligned.
As a certified mindfulness coach, teacher and practicing Buddhist, I am known on Town Council for being balanced, truth-seeking and inclusive. I hope that after reading my observations, you will reach out and get to know all Town Council candidates before deciding who you’re voting for.
Thirteen of us elected to the first Town Council in 2018 came with different passions, skills, and endorsements from different groups of people in town — people who supported the new charter and those who preferred Town Meeting. Since then, we as a Town Council have been through difficult times together. And yet we have achieved so much to be proud of! Implementing a new form of government in the middle of a health, economic, racial injustice, and climate crisis, we:
Oversaw a large town as a pandemic shut down our schools, businesses, and life as we know it;
Resolved to be an anti-racist town and correct the harm done to Black residents;
Brought a social justice lens to issues;
Formed the Energy and Climate Action Committee to address climate action goals and bring a climate action lens to discussions;
Dealt with inadequate social infrastructure of schools/library and high housing and property taxes that make it hard for families to live in town.
After having worked and struggled together, supported and respected each other, it’s disheartening to see attacks against majority decisions and individual councilors come from one of our own councilors.
I worked closely with Andy, Mandi Jo, George, and Evan. The Amherst Current is not endorsing candidates in the Nov. 2 election, and I am not trying to tell people how to vote. I am only relating my impressions of these four incumbent Councilors from working with them for the past three years.
As the Vice Chair of the Community Resources Committee (CRC), I got to work closely with Mandi Jo Hanneke, who is the chair of the committee. As the chair she has the power, one may say, but she also has the responsibility for coordinating all the meeting dates, agendas, minutes, and writing hundreds of reports that go to the Town Council summarizing our work in CRC. She is the chair because no one else wants to take on that responsibility!
I admire Mandi’s work ethic and sense of fairness and justice. She wrote bylaws protecting workers from wage theft and is working with me to create an inclusive engagement process with the team at UMass to ensure that we hear the underrepresented voices. There’s a reason she has cosponsored bylaws with ten councilors—she is approachable, reliable, and has great legal knowledge!
As Vice Chair of the Council, Evan Ross is also on CRC. He played a lead role in crafting a Comprehensive Housing Policy, focusing on affordable housing and home ownership. As a renter, he has been a strong advocate for renters and for making changes in our zoning bylaws to make housing affordable for young professionals and families. Zoning is a complex and nuanced issue. In my experience, no one understands zoning as well as he does. I’ve learned a lot from him. We may not always agree but that’s OK, and in fact it ensures that we’re looking at issues from diverse lenses. We need more young, thoughtful and hard-working Town Councilors.
Andy Steinberg is the chair of the Finance Committee and one of the most informed and kindest people I know. His entire career has been dedicated to public service. After graduating from law school, he worked in the field of civil legal aid, providing aid to poor people, the elderly, and the disabled.
Andy’s been in local government since 1996 and is the most knowledgeable Councilor about town finances and budgets. Moving forward, we’re looking to invest in our new community responders’ program, address systemic harm to Black residents, our four capital projects, and climate action goals. We need the unique strengths that Andy brings that combine financial expertise and empathy.
I’ve worked with George Ryan in his capacity as the chair of the Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL). He’s always supporting his colleagues’ work through resolutions and bylaws. I respect most his commitment to affordable housing, which is a Town Council priority. George’s commitment was tested when we voted on the Valley CDC’s proposal for 28 affordable units in his district. Many of his neighbors were against it and his fellow district Councilor abstained from that controversial vote. George voted in favor of affordable housing despite the high probability of losing neighborhood votes because he believed in this project and Valley CDC, which he knows from his work on the board of Habitat for Humanity. George had the courage and integrity to stand up for what he believes is right for the underrepresented in our town.
Reading this post may not change your mind about these councilors. If you already appreciate Mandi Jo’s, Evan’s, Andy’s and George’s hard work on Town Council, you’ll continue to like them, even though you may disagree with them at times. If you don’t like them, then you’ll continue to feel that way, regardless of their support of issues that you also care about. But don’t believe me. Get to know them for yourself!
Beyond correcting the record about my colleagues, I want to invite us all to do a better job of getting to know each other as human beings and not just through the lens that divides us and filters all we see and hear based on what we already believe about people.
Zoom and social media have made it easier for us to dehumanize and say what we want without realizing the impact of our words on others and the stress and trauma that others might be experiencing. We need to stop doing that. If we’re going to solve the big problems that lie before us — systemic racism, climate change, unaffordable housing, high property taxes, homelessness and our dysfunctional schools and library buildings — then people with different viewpoints and experiences need to feel safe and know that their questions, ideas, and perspectives will not be attacked or quoted out of context.
The only way that I know to disrupt our assumptions about others is by getting to know them.
I’ll end with an invitation for all to reach out to at least one person who we disagree with and go for a walk or coffee/tea and get to know them as a human being.
Editors’ Note: We welcome readers to write comments on the following opinion column, but suggest reading our comment policy first.
By Bob Rakoff
Nothing could be more American than the politics of grievance. Just think of the Declaration of Independence! A laundry list of grievances against the British king and his minions. Enough grievances to start a war.
More recently we have Donald Trump, who built a presidential campaign and administration on little more than the harnessing of grievances against foreigners, people of color, liberals, coastal elites, women . . . you know the drill. His rhetoric combines the evocation of a lost Golden Age with a commitment to avenge the disrespect he, and his followers, have suffered. Vicious attacks against his enemies are central to his appeal. Trump revived and legitimated the politics of grievance, and our politics will never be the same.
And this election season, the politics of grievance is coloring the discourse among candidates for the Amherst Town Council. Candidates for the Council, especially for the hotly contested at-large seats, are offering two competing narratives of what’s at stake in the election.
On the one hand, the two incumbents are defending their efforts over the past three years and describing in some detail the projects and policies that they hope to continue working on, building for the future. Their language is practical, technical, all about the details of capital budgets, zoning changes, planning processes. This is a typical strategy for incumbents.
Some challengers, on the other hand, speak the language of grievance. They speak of being disrespected, forgotten, dismissed, in large part because of racism. While they state their opposition to the projects and policies of the current Council – especially the library expansion – their focus is less on specific policies than on their lived experience of disrespect and marginalization. This is an important message for all voters to hear.
For some of the challengers, however, this central focus seems to demand and justify harsh language and personal attacks. A strong current of revenge has crept into the challengers’ campaign discourse, amplified by the reliance on social media in this virtual campaign. As with Trump, it’s easy to attack and demean your opponents on Twitter or Facebook since you never have to meet them face-to-face. In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise that someone has been circulating anonymous flyers attacking the incumbents as being “in the pocket of developers” and that old allies have been publicly shunned.
This is a sorry turn in Amherst politics. The powerful language of grievance has become abusive. When personal grudges dominate campaign discourse, we all suffer. It hurts to be attacked personally and publicly. Nobody witnessing such attacks wants to be the next target. The fear of retaliation isolates the target of attacks and intimidates others from responding. And it’s very bad for democratic participation: the more it happens, the less inclined new people are to engage in civic matters at all. “Why don’t more people serve on boards, run for office or just let their voice be heard?” This is a big reason. Why would people risk being subjected to this kind of vicious treatment? I know that I have stayed out of local government for over 25 years now because the culture of nastiness and pettiness makes it not worth the effort.
Look, I know politics can be rough. And I know that there are sharp divisions in town. But local governance depends on collaborating with folks you disagree with, finding compromises when possible, moving on to new issues whether you’ve won or lost. The more we let a politics of vengeance shape our public life, the closer we will get to the day when Trump comes to town.
The Town of Amherst is not fiscally sustainable without significant changes. The major problem is that nearly 50 percent of the land in town is exempt from property taxes, which account for 70 percent of the Town’s annual revenues. State aid makes up another 20 percent, while 10 percent comes from other sources.
The Town has limited control over these sources of revenue. The state makes its own decisions about local assistance. And the ability of the town to increase property tax revenue is constrained by law, by the regional real estate market, by a limited supply of buildable land that is appropriately zoned for development, and, of course, by the unpopularity of tax increases.
At the same time, demand for public services continues to increase beyond the growth of our tax base; we already face one of the highest property tax rates in the state. Deferred capital projects (library, school, fire, public works) pose significant financing challenges, even in an era of low interest rates. Voter approval of a tax override in 2022 to finance a new elementary school is by no means assured.
In response to this tension between the supply of tax revenue and the demand for expanded and quality services, there have been two kinds of responses.
Some people call for retrenchment, with deferral or scaling back of some capital projects along with cutbacks in regular annual spending. Others see more intensive commercial and apartment development as the route to a more sustainable and affordable future that does not sacrifice needed building projects or popular programs.
Retrenchment is not politically popular, and its proponents are also largely opposed to increased apartment development. Meanwhile, proponents of expanding apartment construction to increase tax revenue acknowledge that such development may make expansion of town-financed services (e.g., schools, library, public safety) even more necessary. Of course, if apartment development attracts mostly households without children, then the impact on school spending is lessened. But that would mean more apartments for college students, not working families, hardly the best or most equitable future for our diverse town.
There seem to be no easy answers. We need new revenue sources. And we need new, outside-the-box thinking.
So, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, here are a few modest proposals for a more sustainable fiscal future for Amherst.
NULLIFICATION. Texas has taken the lead in declaring that it has the right and power to nullify federal laws it dislikes. Let the Lone Star State be our guide here. The Town should declare as oppressive the state and federal laws that prevent the taxation of property owned by non-profit organizations and move expeditiously to tax the holdings of Amherst College, Hampshire College, and other rich, tax-exempt landowners.
UMASS STUDENTS. There is not much we can do to get more money out of UMass. But UMass students are another story. Those students spend millions of dollars to purchase credit hours. Those credit hours are a commodity that is ripe for taxation. Let’s go after them.
GAMBLING. Instead of pursuing boring and expensive capital projects that will never return real profits to the town, we should pursue the more lucrative path of casino development. Perhaps go for double-or-nothing by locating a casino on the capped landfill.
NAMING RIGHTS. We already have a library named for the benefactor, Samuel Minot Jones. Let’s sell the naming rights for other buildings and spaces. Imagine a Jeff Bezos Elementary School, or a Warren Buffet Public Works edifice. Or imagine buying your local fruit and veg on the Apple Computer/Steve Jobs Memorial Town Common.
ANNEXATION. As one local wag put it (OK, it was our own Nick Grabbe), the Town of Amherst has outsourced its commercial development to the Town of Hadley, which reaps the benefits of an expanded tax base, increased revenue, and low tax rates for homeowners. We need to take control of that development and seize those tax benefits. The town should raise a militia (perhaps ROTC at the University could assist), march directly down the hill, and forcibly annex the Town of Hadley. This would add substantially to our commercial tax base while providing us with valuable agricultural and waterfront property. The likelihood that there are more gun owners in Hadley than in Amherst should not deter us. Be of stout heart.
Pretty wacky, I know. But both fantasy and reality require outside assistance to move toward fiscal sustainability. The state grants the town new taxing authority. A rich benefactor comes to town. Neighboring towns join forces to work together on common problems.
It’s this last case that points the way to a new path. Not through conquest, but through regional cooperation. The accident of having a big state institution or less valuable property should not determine a town’s ability to offer and pay for public services. Equity and efficiency demand a shared, regional approach to governance. And for Amherst that means re-creating Hampshire County government. What that would entail, and promise, will be the subject of a future article.
On November 2, Amherst voters will be asked whether they affirm the vote taken by our Town Council on April 5, 2021 to proceed with the Jones Library expansion and renovation project by appropriating and authorizing borrowing of the necessary funds.
In preparation, all voters would do well to read or listen to the remarks that Councilors made immediately before their important April vote, because they lay out the important considerations that were worked through in extensive meetings of the Council, the Finance Committee, the Library Board of Trustees, and public forums. To that end, we are adding a new page, “Councilors’ statements on the Jones Library project,” on which each Councilor’s remarks are fully presented. In the rest of today’s post, we give excerpts in the order in which Councilors spoke at the public meeting.
[Part] of it is an interest-free loan that will be repaid by the Trustees if they can get the pledges. So we have to hope that that will happen, and we have an Memorandum of Understanding [with the Trustees of the Jones Library] that we can tap into the endowment fund or potentially put a lien on the building but really we don’t have this secured. . . What has always concerned me – I love the Library and want it to be renovated. I think it needs repairs but I think it is a high cost risk and no matter how many questions I ask I still have uncertainty that we will actually keep our share to what is. . .
Mandi Jo Hanneke
A yes vote helps us meet the Climate Action Goals we adopted in 2019 by getting rid of the fossil-fuel heating system and dramatically improving the energy efficiency in one of our largest public buildings. A yes vote helps our future economic health and well-being by bringing more visitors to town. A yes vote addresses social justice in our society . . .A yes vote is financially prudent . . . a yes vote ensures that the building will serve our residents over the next 50 years. . .
The fact that our own Finance Committee didn’t make an affirmative recommendation was concerning to me. . . To me, the library expansion is not a need, it’s a want. I am afraid that a vote to fund this major project will convince folks to vote against the school project when the school override vote comes up. . . we need to be factoring in our new goals of racial equity and climate action. . . Additionally, I agree with the suggestion that we should try to design any library expansion or any municipal building so that it also gives our town a climate resilience hub. . .
But climate action goals and a climate action plan are only valuable if they are followed by action. So approving this project would be the most significant action this Council will take on climate. . .This project helps us take a tangible step towards our climate action goals and sends a strong message to our community that we are serious about achieving those goals, whereas forfeiting this opportunity now will only make it more difficult down the road to achieve those adopted goals. . . if you are someone who says “the library works fine as is,” if you are someone who sees this project as a want and not a need, consider that is in part because of your privilege and that maybe this project isn’t for you.
I feel very proud of the work that many people on this Council have done in making us come up with a better plan or helping us to encourage changes in design, and I think that we have come to a place now where it is prudent to go forward. . .[After the pandemic} we are hoping to come together as a civil, social, intellectual, political body again and the library is going to be, I think, the place where we are going to do it. . .So we have this library right in the heart of downtown and we are hoping for a reawakening of our town, of our society and at this moment having gone through the budgets at some point you just have to take things on faith, and I am going to make the leap of faith and trust that the work and the numbers that we have been shown are accurate. . .
One comment was made that the Finance Committee did not make recommendations and something should be read into that, and I want to make it clear that that is absolutely not the case. We were asked not to make a recommendation. . . The reality is that the repair costs are going to be pretty much the same as the cost the town will ultimately have to bear. And . . . I also wanted to respond to the assertion made earlier that we are taking on a huge risk. I don’t think we are taking on a huge risk. . .
Pat De Angelis
I acknowledge that voting yes is taking risks . . .But not doing this project poses risks as well: piecemeal repairs that will cost almost as much as renovation/expansion, losing state funding and losing credibility with state funders, ongoing impacts to English Language Learners, low income residents . . .
Libraries are the most democratic buildings; town commons are also democratic; but libraries literally the most democratic institution invented in this country. . . I want to address one tenet: the greenest building is the one that is already built. Another tenet is – Cash for Clunkers. . . I see this [library project] as a Cash for Clunkers on steroids. It’s something that serves the entire community, it’s all about the social capital as opposed to electric vehicles which are all about the individual. . .
I guess I’m going to go out of this Council speaking for the middle class, which I don’t think anybody has addressed. We’ve heard from people that there are young rich families who would like to settle here and they can pay these taxes and this is what they want. . . So for me, we are looking at these projects and I have to say it seems like we are taking a very expensive one first . . . I am concerned about people being able to stay in town, and I do not believe that middle class people in five years will be able to, and I’m going to vote against the project, much as I love the library. . .
A library today is so much more than a place to house books. It is a key community resource that serves us in so many ways. Much like the Amherst of Samuel Minot Jones’s day, we too are emerging from a global pandemic. Like them, we need now more than ever, as Dorothy suggested, to believe in the future and the possibilities of our town. We cannot be afraid. We need to provide those who come after us the tools they will need to ensure that this town continues to prosper and to flourish. Like Samuel Minot Jones, now is the time for vision and for courage. . .
Two things I want to add to the conversation. One is something that Todd Holland, an engineer, stated earlier – that most of the arguing can lead to inaction and inaction is the only wrong move today. . . Something that Sarah talked about, and we are hearing from a lot of residents, is the high property taxes and the burden this would put. As George has mentioned, we have a plan, and yes it could go off, but we do have one plan. And the other part is the library is part of that vision, it is part of the solution, it is not going to increase our property taxes. We need to solve that problem of high property taxes but not by saying no to the library. . .
While this may come as a surprise to many of you, I began the process of reviewing the Jones Library proposal to the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners as a skeptic. However, after two years of helping to manage the process of bringing this vote to the Town Council, I have become supportive of accepting the MBLC grant, allowing the Jones Library to do a much-needed renovation and expansion. . . I want you to make sure you hear this message loud and clear, let me state it without equivocation, that as long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no more money than what we are voting tonight. This is all you get. And, we will not favor you in future operating budgets. The Town will not allow cost overruns. . .
[I want to share a] direct quote from one of the many emails we have received which I thought summarized things extremely well from my point of view. Which was that 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. . . We are not expecting Friends of the elementary school, Friends of the DPW, or Friends of the fire station to raise a single penny towards any of those facilities. Yet the Friends of the Jones Library has made a large commitment, has already seen quite a bit of results with that commitment even without our vote . . .
“I’ve been hearing rumors that the district might be moving the 6th grade to the middle school. What’s the big deal, and why now?”
The rumors are true, and it’s a fair question posed to me recently by an Amherst parent as we walked our dogs through Amethyst Brook Conservation Area. Questions like this have been popping up lately as people are reminded of key decisions the School Committees must make soon to reduce crowding in our elementary schools and prepare for a new school building project.
Personally, I’m thrilled by the idea of my fifth grader joining his brother in middle school and getting three years there to learn the ropes instead of just two. Middle school is hard, and right now, our district’s kids only get two years to figure out how to manage more homework and independent study habits before they get pushed into high school. But I also get that some parents are worried and feel like the timeline for this decision is too quick, even if they agree with the basic idea of a move.
Thankfully, this conversation is not new, and our district has done a lot of work to get to this point. (Note that this upcoming decision only affects Amherst schools – each town in the regional district will eventually make its own decision about whether to move their sixth grade to the middle school.) The question was first examined publicly about ten years ago, when enrollment in the middle school had started to decline. More recently, the question came back up in relation to the proposed building project to replace both Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools. The sixth grade must move if we a) want a new, but smaller, building to replace both schools, and b) we want the state’s Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help pay for it.
The MSBA confirmed this last December when they said they would approve either one kindergarten through sixth grade building of 320 students, or a kindergarten through fifth grade building of 575 students. The K-6 option of 320 students is basically a replacement for just Fort River at current enrollment levels, whereas a K-5 option would replace both Fort River and Wildwood schools simultaneously.
There are several reasons why we shouldn’t want a 320-student building. A Fort River-only replacement won’t work because we cannot afford to replace Wildwood on our own without state aid. And who wants to make Wildwood students and teachers wait years to replace their failing school building when we have a great alternative now?
Also, a building for 320 students is simply not big enough to accommodate our needs. Caminantes, the new Spanish-English dual language immersion program at Fort River, requires two Caminantes classes and at least one non-Caminantes class per grade, which translates into 420 students for a K-6 building. And Fort River and Wildwood have lost usable class space due to COVID social distancing requirements, as discussed this summer (page 13) by the School Committee.
Since the question of moving the sixth grade has come up in the past, the district undertook a feasibility study in 2019 to research whether there would be enough room at the middle school to add the sixth grade and how much it would cost. They even examined the high school as an alternative, but ultimately found that the middle school made more financial sense and would be cost-neutral.
Moving the sixth grade to the middle school has several developmental benefits for our students, too.
A Middle School Grade Span Advisory Group — consisting of teachers, parents, and community members — was formed in 2019 to study the educational and social-emotional needs of middle schoolers, and their final report was shared with the Regional School Committee. The report shared the pros and cons of a move but highlighted support from teachers, who know that the educational and developmental needs of middle school-aged children are better met in a dedicated middle school environment. Also, a 6-8 grade span is what most districts have in Massachusetts, meaning stronger curriculum options.
Simply put, our students benefit from more time in middle school so they can get proper advising and educational support to transition to high school. Two years just doesn’t cut it for many kids, especially those with special needs or who just need more help.
Next Tuesday, the Amherst School Committee will hold its second public forum to hear from community members about whether they support this move. The Committee will then formally vote on Oct. 5 on whether the move should happen and when. Public comments should be made by 3 p.m. on Sept. 21 via email at email@example.com or by leaving a voicemail message for School Committee Chair Allison McDonald at 413-345-2949. You can also choose to make your public comments live during the public forum via Google Meet (watch agendas here for meeting link and instructions).
Change is hard. But we know after years of discussion and study that our current and future students need us to act decisively now to move these projects forward. I hope that you will join me in asking the Amherst School Committee to vote in favor of a sixth grade move on the timetable that best serves students, so that all our children can finally benefit from healthy school environments.
Skyrocketing prices for buying or renting a home; a decreasing number of owner-occupied dwellings; scant opportunity for people in lower income ranges to live in Amherst; limited land on which to build any kind of housing — what can be done? Should something be done?
In mid-August, Amherst’s Town Council began discussing a proposed Comprehensive Housing Policy. The draft policy (which you can read here) was developed over two years with the involvement of several Town committees and local housing experts.
The proposed policy lays out five goals:
Promote greater pathways to home-ownership and integrated communities through increased supply of a diversity of housing types;
Increase the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing;
Create, update, and maintain safe, secure, and environmentally healthy housing;
Address climate sustainability and resiliency of housing stock, location, and construction;
Align and leverage municipal funding and other resources to support affordable housing.
The draft policy lays out numerous strategies to make progress towards these goals and describes how to measure progress. The possible strategies include:
Enact zoning changes to permit or encourage lot division, cottages, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, or redefining “family” and “unrelated individuals” within the bylaw;
Provide incentives for meeting energy efficiency standards in new construction;
Waive, reduce, or rebate various fees for construction of affordable housing;
Adopt a derelict house bylaw and/or strengthen the rental registration bylaw;
Develop funding so that existing housing can be made permanently affordable;
Use Town funds to buy private land for affordable housing projects;
Encourage UMass to increase on-campus student housing.
Councilors raised technical concerns, such as who would have responsibility for promoting and implementing the policy, whether zoning strategies are effectively endorsed by Council if they are listed as possibilities, and whether sustainability strategies are consistent with the recent report of the Energy and Climate Action Committee.
But much of the Council’s conversation addressed difficult and complex questions such as:
How big should Amherst get? Besides changes to the town’s “look,” how might the cost of services grow if the population increases substantially?
What are the cost implications to the Town budget of the suggested strategies?
The Town has little to no power to require UMass to build housing, so how useful is asking UMass to move more students from market-rate housing onto campus? Should we pressure the state legislature to devote more funds to UMass housing?
Most of Amherst’s open space is either owned by colleges and the University, protected conservation land, or too wet to support housing. Can we only add housing by densifying in existing areas?
If zoning choices of the past have inadvertently promoted conversion of single-family homes to rental units, what share of blame can be fairly put on UMass?
Should we just accept that Amherst is, or will be, affordable only to students and the very well off?
I am on record as favoring changes that increase the density of housing in village centers, consistent with our Master Plan. Many of these can be achieved at little cost to the Town yet would significantly increase our property tax revenue and increase the customer base for our local businesses.
But the goals and strategies regarding affordable housing (broadly defined) present more difficult decisions. I think it is fair to say that for-profit developers (and property owners) will not deliberately lose money. The more expensive the Town’s requirements for new construction or rental properties, the less likely it is that rents or purchase prices can be held below the desired profit margin, or even cost, and the less likely the housing is to be “affordable.” Laudable as the goals are of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, lives in safe, well maintained, energy-efficient construction near public transportation, it seems to me pointless to depend on for-profit developers to build large numbers of such units. We can certainly impose many progressive requirements, so that any housing that is built or renovated meets our high standards, but the high cost may merely drive construction to less-demanding cities and towns, defeating the fundamental aim of a Comprehensive Housing Policy.
Because the great majority of affordable housing units are built and/or operated by non-profits and government agencies, or are poorly maintained private properties, perhaps some goals of the proposed policy would be most directly attained by devoting an increasing proportion of Amherst’s tax dollars to housing built, operated, purchased, subsidized, deed-restricted, or retrofitted by the Town, either on land purchased by the Town or re-purposed Town-owned property. Two recent examples: the Town has purchased property on Belchertown Road with Community Preservation Act money to offer to a developer for affordable housing, and has declared the old East Street School to be surplus Town property that can also be made available for affordable housing. But whether voters would support a greatly increased commitment at the ballot box is questionable, in my mind, especially when we want to ramp up spending on other Town priorities, such as climate change mitigation and a community responder program.
I do not know if Amherst’s combination of open space, buildable land, charm, and educational institutions makes it unique, but those factors definitely create enormous challenges to enlarging the spectrum of housing types and price points. Whether we can thread the needle to our satisfaction remains to be seen.
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, when I was heavily involved in Amherst politics, friends and work colleagues would come up to me before local elections and ask whom they should vote for. And I would give them the bullet list of my favorite candidates. (Later on, I passed this task onto my Hampshire College colleague, Jim Wald).
That’s how folks got their political info in the old Town Meeting days. Local politics was personal. It was assumed that voters could rely on their friends and neighbors for political advice. Even if you didn’t know the candidates, someone you knew and trusted would know them.
It’s been clear for years, however, that this sort of personal politics has been overtaken by the changing demographics of the town and by the increasing complexity of local government. A growing and diversifying and more transient population, along with ever more complex and consequential decisions on capital spending, zoning and development, meant that the old informal processes for informing citizens regularly fell short. The result was declining participation in local government, rising distrust of the governing elites, and growing alienation from local politics for many people.
Over the last few years, however, ever since the battle over the last school building project, all this has started to change. Politics in Amherst has gotten more organized, better informed, and more transparent. We now have a growing array of political parties (or party-like organizations), and we are better off because of this. Political parties, ballot question committees, unions, political action committees (PACs), special interest groups — they all play important roles in defining problems and issues, informing voters, and creating narratives that help us make sense of the public choices facing us.
But many Amherst people are suspicious of these developments.
When I first ran for Town Meeting in the early 1980s, I was pretty new in town. I had a background in housing issues and had been involved with a group that promoted a form of rent control in town. Some of us decided to run for Town Meeting as a progressive slate. On my first canvassing outing, I handed a neighbor my flyer and gave my spiel about being part of a progressive slate. His response was “I don’t like the sound of that!”
This is not an uncommon response from many longtime political activists in town. During the campaign for the inaugural Town Council in 2018, one member of the League of Women Voters was reported to be so upset about Amherst Forward, a new PAC, that she vowed to not vote for any candidates it endorsed. She would make her own independent choices!
But that election saw the highest level of turnout for a local election in decades, testimony both to the popularity of the new regime and the impact of Amherst Forward, which had succeeded Amherst For All, a group that formed to promote adoption of the new town charter. Amherst Forward, an official local PAC that endorses candidates for office, continues to play an organizing and information role for many voters and activists.
There has always been organizing around local politics, of course. But in the past it was done in the local equivalent of back rooms, with little transparency about whose interests were at stake and who was planning strategy. Bringing these efforts out into the light of day is one of the best things that has happened in our local political scene.
And we need more of this. The recently announced Progressive Coalition of Amherst, a PAC whose platform focuses especially on issues of racial justice, offers another positive addition to the local political conversation.
What we really need, however, is a genuinely conservative party or PAC, one that brings a public voice to traditional concerns with the size and cost of local government. Who knows: I might even vote for their candidates!
[Editors’ note: Laura presented these comments at a public forum on the Jones Library expansion and renovation project in March; they are reprinted here with permission, in advance of the Nov. 2 election when we will be asked to affirm Town Council’s vote to approve the project. We have edited the comments lightly. Laura is chair of the Energy and Climate Action Committee but spoke on her own behalf, not for ECAC.]
The combustion of fossil fuels to create energy is the main cause of climate change and pollution that severely impacts human health and our environment. In Massachusetts, a third of our energy-related climate change-causing emissions are due to burning fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) in buildings. In fact, Massachusetts is one of ten states that account for more than 50% of climate emissions from buildings nation-wide (RMI, 2020). If we are going to be successful in reducing our contributions to climate change, we need to work quickly and efficiently to get fossil fuels out of our buildings. It will not be easy.
So, with all due respect to the author of the often-quoted “the most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” this is not true when the existing building relies on fossil fuel. Our town libraries account for nearly 20% of the natural gas used by our municipal buildings (Amherst 2016 GHG Inventory, Figure 20). This is natural gas that not only emits carbon pollution in our town when used, but that leaks even more potent methane emissions as it is piped across the country. Natural gas extraction has ruined water supplies, landscapes, and lives.
The good news is that right now we have an opportunity to vote “yes” to state funding that will allow us to move the Jones Library away from natural gas. Not only that, but this funding will allow us to create a library more conducive to public use, with better temperature control, healthier air, and improved plumbing. Furthermore, we will be able to create a library that will finally be accessible and functional for a larger portion of our community. This feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the town to tick off so many boxes.
Just moving away from natural gas is a huge climate win in my book. But in addition to moving from natural gas and significantly reducing the energy use of the Jones Library (even with the larger size), the design for renovation and expansion of this building also considers the climate impacts of the building materials and construction. This is in recognition of the fact that new materials do have an environmental impact, and we need to make sure the new design has a lower climate footprint than the current library. It will.
Could this design go further in addressing climate concerns? Sure, and this is true of any design aiming to solve many problems and please as many people as possible. Perhaps the current design could save even more energy with a different approach to day lighting, or maybe some of the operational savings due to a more efficient building could be reserved to fund another climate action in town. These are all things that can be discussed and debated after voting yes and accepting the state funding. Do not throw away this opportunity by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Each year we continue to operate the Jones Library as-is, we emit more pollution and saddle the future generation of Amherst with a more expensive problem. I feel strongly that voting “no” on this project is a vote against climate action and will negatively impact our town’s ability to meet our climate action goals, going against the needs and desires of many in town.
The signs of polarization in Amherst echo those across the country. However, we don’t need to think of “either/or” when it comes to our town’s future. As a member of the Historical Commission for six years now, I’ve come to believe that we should try, within all reasonable measures, to preserve those structures that contribute to the deep historical roots of Amherst. That does not mean that we cannot also construct new buildings with affordable housing and rethink how the town center should function in the future. It does, however, remind us that the quality of architectural design and construction and the arrangement of public spaces should be envisioned to last far beyond our lifetimes.
There is a concern that it is economically essential to increase the residential density of our downtown and that a failure to do so will lead to even higher taxes and emptier commercial spaces. Sarah Marshall also recently reminded us (see her post, “Who Owns Amherst’s Future?”, of July 22, 2021) that we need to expand our notions of the people we consider “desirable” residents. Current property owners are not the only kinds of faces that will enrich the culture of our town. On the other hand, Amherst will be here long after all of those who are here and who come in the next twenty years. The history of this town is one that draws visitors from around the world and how we prepare for ongoing tourism is equally important to our economic viability.
Preservation is a key element in economic planning because it can make or break strong tourism income. Taking a town like Concord as an example—not a university town but a bedroom community for Boston, hence similarly ripe for dense residential development—their 2016 income from visitors was $334,372 rising to $865,598 in 2019. It’s true that they probably should build more apartment buildings closer to town, and that home prices have kept property in the center in the hands of the wealthy, but it is an example of vibrant street life and thriving bookstores, cafés, and small shops that rely upon the historical attractions of the famous folk who lived and are buried there, not unlike those from Amherst. There are myriad other examples from across New England of towns that value preservation and have lively visitor commerce.
Naturally, there will be widely divergent opinions on what is good architectural design, which styles are appropriate, how public spaces should be constructed, where new growth should occur. That’s healthy and why public comment is welcomed at the Design Review Board, Planning Board, Historical Commission, and other town meetings. These groups bring folks of varied expertise with differing opinions together to make the best joint decisions they can for our future.
The protection of Amherst’s valuable history is good practice. It makes economic sense to look at the environmental impact of new construction versus adaptive reuse, whereby one saves old materials (often of superior, enduring local resources or even from extinct trees), and to reuse buildings whenever possible, even if cheaper new construction seems more profitable in the short run. It also behooves us to consider building behind or around iconic smaller buildings rather than razing and replacing. The Amherst Cinema building project was a good example of this kind of preservation partnership, as were the houses moved from Kendrick Park and the bank building that is now Amherst Works.
Preservation offers an educational value of “away from books” experiences with history, raising questions like “Who lived here? How did they live? What do the styles they chose tell us about what they held to be important?” and so forth. Preservation can lead to emotional attachments that foster community, pride in maintaining neighborhoods, and a sense of belonging to an historic identity. This can be a draw not only to visitors but new residents as well (I count myself in the latter from 2014). When I vote as a member of the Historical Commission to impose a delay on demolition, I am just asking that a bit more time be taken to consider alternatives and look at ways to save, reuse, or move historic buildings. I am not trying to stop development of gracious and attractive additions to Amherst’s future appearance. In fact, I welcome them.
I am afraid that Amherst has become a gated community, not literally, but effectively, based on the high price of housing. I don’t think any of us wanted this to happen. In 2020, housing prices were already far too high for people with jobs but no family wealth to buy, or, often, even to rent here.
And during the past year, bidding wars have pushed up the cost of housing astronomically, not just in our area but in any place that is regarded as a good place in which to live in this country.
We do not control the economy of the world, the United States, Massachusetts, or our part of Massachusetts. The only thing we Amherst residents can do is to decide what we are willing to change to help make things better for people who see few options for them here. What price are you, Amherst resident, willing to pay, or what are you willing to forgo, as an environmentally-aware, climate crisis-concerned citizen to tackle the housing problem?
Amherst needs more housing of various types, suitable for a variety of lifestyles (depending on age, mobility, and job security, for example) and incomes.
Fortunately, several efforts to build affordable housing in Amherst are under way, including:
Aspen Heights – 11 units
Amherst Studio Apartments – 28 units
New Barry Roberts development on Route 9 & University Drive – 45 units
Belchertown Road-East Street affordable housing development – perhaps 50-60 units
While Aspen Heights is built and the Roberts property is under construction, the other projects have not yet broken ground. However, when built, this number of apartments is not enough to meet the need.
Furthermore, most recent building projects do nothing for senior citizens who have lived here for decades and want to stay, but who cannot find and/or afford an option in Amherst that is on one floor and smaller than their current home. The people I know in that situation have had to move elsewhere.
An important way to increase and vary the housing supply is to densify. The housing debate in Amherst has been too narrowly focused on what downtown does or should look like. How about our existing single-family neighborhoods: can they accommodate more people? For example: how big is your house? How does that size compare to the size of the house or apartment you grew up in? Can it provide housing for more people?
How about your house lot – if it was large initially to allow for a septic system but your lot now has town sewer, it doesn’t need to be so large. Are you willing to have an accessory unit built there – even for someone who is not a relative? What if your neighbors decide to build an accessory unit – will you support them?
Regarding the debate about apartment buildings downtown, what is the alternative? The real “alternative” is sprawl. If housing can’t go up it is going to go out. Sprawl – houses spread out along roads, making it impossible to provide efficient services like water and sewer, let alone public transportation.
Sprawl is an environmental disaster eating up green space, elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley if not in Amherst, but surely influenced by our local decisions. If we collectively say NO to building “up,” does that contribute to the suburbanization of our locale (especially hill towns, such as Pelham, Shutesbury, Williamsburg, Goshen, etc.)? If so, do we care? Or are we collectively interested only in what we, as individuals, see and experience? Are you willing to see all the open fields covered with houses? Every woodland ? Even the ones you see regularly and love?
I want humans to stop occupying so much space. I want other species to have places to live their lives and continue to exist, hopefully even thrive. I am extremely distressed at what we “Homo sapiens” have done and are doing to the planet we live on – including but not limited to the climate crisis, which is clearly horrible.
If you agree with me then recognize that we have choices to make. Some choices are about downtown: can we accept new buildings of a size and design we aren’t used to, that other people can live in?
Please think – where do your kids live? How large is their place? How about your grandkids – what kind of housing do they need right now and where are they going to live? Do you think kids and grandkids of people you don’t know need and deserve a decent place to live? If so, where? Surely, at least some should have the option to live here.
Amherst residents are passionate about what they want and don’t want, from the look of the downtown, residential, and rural landscapes, to the types of housing that can or should be built (and for whom), to our budget priorities.
I have many times heard comments that begin, “When I moved here 40 years ago,” or “When I first came to Amherst…” Frequently, the commenters lament the various changes that have occurred or are proposed. Some of these complaints target new apartment buildings (existing and proposed) in Amherst Center, or the loss of downtown grocery stores, hardware stores, small local businesses, and beloved restaurants. Such commenters often explicitly demand that Amherst be preserved as it is or restored to what it was. I sympathize with this view, because much of Amherst’s built and natural environments are lovely.
Accompanying this desire to keep-everything-as-it-is, many complain about the influx of undergraduates and graduate students, the decline of families looking to put down roots here, and the high cost of housing. The influx of students is sometimes blamed for loss of businesses that the long-timers miss and our decreasing elementary and secondary school populations. In my view, the causes of these trends are multiple, and blaming the University of Massachusetts for our woes is an unhelpful simplification. Even if the University is the cause of our woes, it will not be leaving Amherst any time soon, and we need to look to other solutions.
As we debate, I wonder:
Whose interests should we be prioritizing as we make decisions that will affect the town for the next 20 years or more? The interests of property owners who have lived here the longest? The wealthiest? The poorest? The loudest? The people who want to live in Amherst but cannot, whatever their marital, educational, or economic status?
At what point does preservation of a small town’s look and feel limit our ability to provide services? Does privileging quaintness, or the look and feel of the town, effectively create a financial burden that will limit our ability to maintain excellent schools and public services?
Does a preference for leafy, single-family residential areas, or a disdain for apartment buildings, effectively shut out people who “aren’t like us”? Does wanting things to stay the way they are make Amherst less welcoming to BIPOC people and people of moderate or low incomes?
Are we a small rural town, a college town, or a small city? Will we, or should we, become more like Northampton?
What do today’s residents owe tomorrow’s? How did the generations before us prepare Amherst for its future? What are we willing to invest in?
Obviously, only the people who do live here can vote, but I wonder if we should think harder about the people who are not here yet, and be willing to lose a bit of what we love in order to welcome them into the community.
In my view, Amherst, like businesses in the early days of the internet, will wither if it does not adapt to new pressures and needs. Attempting to force a model of the past onto our present situation will hurt us in the long run.
Control over the levers of government in Amherst has shifted, and it’s driving some people bananas!
Many observers have commented on the toxic nature of recent political discourse and activity in town. Is this simply obstruction for obstruction’s sake? An angry campaign for revenge by neglected groups? The result of a failure to understand and respect other points of view and seek common ground? A rejection of democracy?
All of these may well be factors that help us understand what has been going on. But I think there is a more basic explanation for the changing nature of our local political culture.
It’s all about the loss of power.
The minority of people who were able to wield power in the old Town Meeting have lost their power to set agendas, manipulate the rules, and frustrate the will of majorities. In response, they have resorted to name-calling, conspiracy-mongering, promoting citizen limits on our elected Town Council, and wielding various means of obstruction in an effort to regain that lost power and influence. Just in the last few months we have seen local officials called autocrats, claims that petition-signers were singled out for retribution by the Town Clerk, and the filing of lawsuits to override Council decisions that were approved by overwhelming majorities.
The roots of the shift in power and the quality of our political life are well known. The immediate cause, of course, was the infamous vote in Town Meeting to reject the huge state grant for a new school, despite voters’ support, and the subsequent abandonment of Town Meeting for a Town Council. But those events were merely the culmination of several decades of more fundamental change in town, moving us away from that small, relatively homogeneous, pre-1960s New England college town.
Think about what’s been behind the big changes in town in recent decades. The explosive growth of UMass, with its ever more diverse population of students and staff. The disappearance from downtown of many basic, locally owned businesses — the hardware stores, the supermarket, the clothing shops — all unable to compete with nearby malls and big box stores. The growing diversity of our local schools and the demands placed on them by students and families from so many different backgrounds.
In all these cases, change has been driven, not by the longtime families that dominated local politics and commerce for generations, but rather by newcomers. People from all over the globe, connected to the University and the colleges, believing that government could be a force for good, espousing the liberal ideals of post-World War II America. Build new schools. Expand the library. Intervene in the market to create affordable housing. Raise taxes to pay for these efforts.
The more a minority of Town Meeting members were able to block these sorts of programs and policies, the greater the resolve of the newcomers to find a way around what they saw as knee-jerk obstruction. This led to the successful campaign to replace Town Meeting with a Town Council form of government, one less amenable to behind-the-scenes manipulation by those who had resisted change.
So what we have been seeing in the current struggles over new capital spending, the direction of the schools, density and development downtown and in neighborhoods is, at heart, the playing out of the shift in power over the levers of local government. Some people have, inevitably, taken advantage of this unsettled period of change to fight old battles, attack opponents, propose limits on our elected Town Council, and try to destroy reputations. But I think that, on the whole, this inaugural Town Council has reflected the divisions in town pretty accurately. And in contrast to Town Meeting, it has deliberated and acted largely in the way its proponents hoped: with reasonable competence, attention to detail, and the promise of accountability.