A civil conversation, part 1

By Andy Churchill and Meg Gage

[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.]

Photo by Sarah Marshall

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! 

Photo by Sarah Marshall

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.”

Photo by Sarah Marshall

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!

Photo by Sarah Marshall

The next two years, part 1

By George Ryan

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.

A new elementary school. The Elementary School Building Committee and the Amherst School Committee are conducting outreach to get community input on a proposal for a new elementary building that will combine the Fort River and Wildwood school populations.

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.

Credit, photos-public-domain.com

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?
Credit dailymemphian.com

Amherst elementary school building project: update

By Allison McDonald and Cathy Schoen

The Amherst elementary school building project is now in a busy and exciting stage and a lot of work is happening over the next several months. There’s a lot to keep up with and it can be hard to follow what’s going on or to know when decisions are being made! In this column, we hope to help you learn about the work that’s happening and how you can participate in the process.

Our goal is to have the elementary school open for learning in the fall of 2026. We have multiple major milestones to meet and key decisions to make along the way. Many key milestones will need to be met within the next 12 months. Three of these are:

Preliminary Design Plan: This is when we define the options we will study, including whether to build a completely new building, renovate an existing building, or a combination of renovation and addition. We’ll also outline what locations we’ll consider (including what criteria we’ll use to decide) and describe the education program for the school.

The education program provides detailed information about our students and their needs, as well as the programs and activities that we value and that will define the school. Questions such as where our specialized programs and the Caminantes dual-language program will be located will be defined in the education program.

Our goal is to complete this Preliminary Design Plan and submit it for review and approval by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) by March 15.

Preferred Schematic Report: This is when some key project decisions are made for the project, including location and whether we will build a completely new building or some combination of renovation/addition with an existing building.

DiNisco Design, the design team for the project, is currently gathering detailed information about the Fort River and Wildwood locations, assessing the condition of those buildings, and preparing preliminary estimates to evaluate and compare options.

Our goal is to decide on our preferred option and submit the Preferred Schematic Report for review and approval by the MSBA by the end of June, 2022.

Schematic Design: After the approval of our Preferred Schematic Report, our design team will prepare detailed plans for the building. This final schematic design will enable a comprehensive cost estimation and budget, and will form the basis for the MSBA’s final determination of how much of the project cost they will fund.

Our goal is to complete and submit the Schematic Design for review and approval by the MSBA by the end of December, 2022.

These three big milestones and decisions need input and feedback from our school and town community. There are multiple ways for the community to engage throughout this year. Here are some:

  • Visioning Workshops: these sessions enable participants to offer input to help guide the development of the education program. The aim with these workshops is to identify priorities that build on the current curriculum and aspirations for programs. Three workshops have been held in January with the community, teachers, and staff; a fourth workshop is planned for February 17.
  • Community Forums: forums are a way to hear updates about the project and to ask questions or provide feedback in real time. Forums will be held several times throughout this year with the first happening on February 3, this Thursday, 6:30-9:00 p.m. Here is the Zoom link for that meeting, ID: 921 7679 9133.
  • Project Website: the project website amherst-school-project.com is a one-stop spot to find all the information about the elementary school building project. Details about participating in the Visioning Workshop and Community Forums can be found there. It is also where to go to ask questions, give feedback, or share ideas at any time throughout the project. The Building Committee and the project team will be “listening” and responding through the tools on the website.
  • Public Comment: community members can offer feedback during public comment at meetings of the Building Committee or the Amherst School Committee. Find out how on the project website.
  • Email: questions and feedback are always welcome through email! Send email to the Building Committee at amherst.school.project@gmail.com or to the Committee Chair, Cathy Schoen at SchoenC@amherstma.gov.

We are at an exciting phase of the project. We have the opportunity, as a community, to create and invest in an inspiring, climate-resilient elementary school building that supports excellent education both today and for decades to come. We hope that many people across the Amherst community will participate and help us make this happen.

Cathy Schoen is a member of the Amherst Town Council-District 1 and Chair of the Elementary School Building Committee. She can be reached at SchoenC@amherstma.gov. Allison McDonald is Chair of the Amherst School Committee and can be reached at mcdonalda@arps.org.

From the editors: The next meeting of the Elementary School Building Committee is this Friday, February 4, from 8:30-10:00 a.m. Here is the Zoom link. On the agenda: DiNisco Preliminary Findings Report to Committee: Review Existing Conditions & Site Analysis for Both Sites, Review Preliminary Alternatives Diagrams on Both Sites; Revised Priority, Evaluation Criteria/Options: Decide on Method for Ranking; Upcoming ESBC Schedule and Agendas for Preliminary Design Program Submission: DiNisco Present Plans for Feb 18, March 4, and March 11, March 11 Target Date for Committee Review and Vote on Preliminary Design Program; Report of Net-Zero Subcommittee Meeting of Jan. 13.

Please share information about the project with your friends and neighbors.

Two views on solar moratorium

First, by Gerry Weiss

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.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

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. 

Photo by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

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.

Parking permit fee increases proposed to Town Council

By Nick Grabbe

Town officials are recommending big increases in parking permit fees, including steep ones for residents who don’t register their vehicles in Amherst.

Parking permits enable downtown residents and employees to use designated spaces on the outskirts of downtown. The system is intended to make more downtown spaces available to shoppers and restaurant patrons.

The Town Council is scheduled to receive a report on the proposals for higher fees at tonight’s meeting and may vote on them.

Town Hall currently sells 236 parking permits for only $25 a year to people who don’t pay excise taxes to the Town because they register their vehicles elsewhere. Under the proposal, those fees would increase sixfold, to $150, next year, and then to $300 the year after that and $400 the following year.

The excise tax revenue lost “is substantial and helps support the overall budget, including capital that goes to maintain roads and sidewalks,” according to a memo from Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Finance Director Sean Mangano and Treasurer/Collector Jennifer LaFountain. Other Massachusetts cities and towns that also host state institutions and have comparable populations collect far more excise tax on vehicles than Amherst does, they pointed out.

“The parking permit program is long overdue for a significant update,” they wrote to the Town Council. “The current version was adopted in 1999 with updates in 2002 and 2005.” Fees were kept low when the program started to encourage residents and employees to participate.

The 79 people who currently do register their vehicles in Amherst and buy parking permits for $25 would see more modest increases. Under the plan, these permits would cost $50 next year and $100 the year after that.

There are also 482 people who buy employee permits for $25 a year. Those fees are due to increase slightly, to $35 next year and $45 the following year. Twenty people reserve parking spots for $1,000 a year and would see $100 increases each of the next two years.

The total amount collected from parking permit fees annually is scheduled to increase from the current $39,925 to $155,350 in three years.

Permit fees go into the Transportation Fund, along with revenues from parking meters and violations. The fund is supposed to pay for all related expenses without drawing on tax revenue, expenses that include salaries for enforcement officers, PVTA surcharges, the Town’s assessment to the Business Improvement District, meter and kiosk maintenance and parking lot improvements.

But the Transportation Fund, which spends about $1.1 million a year, has been running a deficit that is projected to be eliminated with the fee increases. The goal is devote 15 percent of the Fund’s revenues, or $200,000 a year, to capital and debt. “We envision a fund that can be fully self-sustaining, support regular maintenance, and save up for larger capital improvements,” the town officials wrote.

The Town Council will also consider a proposal to implement high-visibility signage in key locations and update the Town’s parking web page to make it more user-friendly.

New signs are needed at each public parking lot to identify hours of operation and other information, and a plan is expected to be ready later this year. Town officials have started work on the web page to make it more helpful “while at the same time de-emphasizing the punitive elements of the parking system,” according to the memo. The web page will include a feedback form so that residents can make comments about the system.

Town officials are not recommending the creation of a dedicated parking management position to coordinate all this.

“At this time, there are insufficient resources to create this position and ensure that it could be funded each year going forward,” according to the memo. “The pandemic has significantly diminished the revenues going into the Transportation Fund and highlighted their volatility.”

Why is my tax bill so high?

By Nick Grabbe

Amherst homeowners have until Feb. 1 to pay their typically hefty property tax bills. These bills are the heftiest yet, and I’ll try to explain why in simple, easy-to-understand terms. Don’t be late in paying these bills; interest at an annual rate of 14 percent starts adding up on Feb. 2.

Q. If the fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30, why are these quarterly bills higher than the ones that were due on Aug. 1 and Nov. 1?

A. Those earlier bills were estimates of your annual tax obligation, based on the previous fiscal year’s values and a projection of the tax rate. The new values and the actual tax rate were not set and certified until December, a lag that happens every year. So most of the annual increase in your taxes must be paid in the bills due Feb. 1 and May 1.

Q. How much are my annual taxes going up?

A. It depends on the assessed value of your property, but the average single-family home’s annual tax bill is going up from $8,194 last year to $8,609 this year.

Q. What’s the math behind those numbers?

A. The average assessed value of a single-family home in Amherst in the previous fiscal year was $375,507 and the tax rate was $21.82 per $1,000. This year’s average value is $404,763 and the tax rate is $21.27. Tax rates usually decrease when the average property value increases.

Q. That’s an increase of 5 percent in the average annual tax bill. I thought taxes couldn’t go up by more than 2.5 percent under state law.

A. State law does limit the amount a town can raise in taxes to 2.5 percent, but allows it to further increase by the amount of taxes raised by “new growth.” The extra wrinkle this year is that residential values have been rising more than commercial values, partly because of the pandemic, so a larger share of the tax burden is now borne by homeowners.

Q. Yes, I’ve heard that the real estate market went crazy last spring, with sale prices often higher than asking prices, with multiple buyers bidding prices up and houses. Have things stabilized a bit?

A. A bit. Asking prices have been very similar to sale prices lately, said Finance Director Sean Mangano. Last spring, sale prices of single-family houses were averaging about $500,000, or 28 percent above their assessed values. The last few months, the average sale price has gone down, but it’s still above $450,000, and about 20 percent above assessed values. All single-family sale prices in the past 10 months are listed in “Recent House Sales” in the main menu of this blog.

Q. Are condominium prices increasing as fast as single-family houses?

A. Yes. The average condo is on the market for only two to three days before it’s sold, Mangano said.

Q. I heard that Amherst’s taxes are twice what they are in Hadley. Is that true?

A. Almost. The average residential tax in Hadley this year is $4,467, and the tax rate is only $12.18 per $1,000. Because of a much bigger commercial sector, Hadley homeowners bear a much smaller percentage of the tax burden than in Amherst. In addition, Hadley chose to give homeowners a break this year by establishing a higher tax rate for commercial property than residential property.

Q. Northampton is more similar to Amherst than Hadley is. What are its taxes like?

A. The average residential tax bill in Northampton this year is $6,303, which is an 8.6 percent increase over last year. Northampton, though it doesn’t have a commercial sector like Hadley’s, has a significantly bigger one than Amherst, so the business sector absorbs a greater share of the tax burden.

Q. Why are taxes in Amherst so high?

A. There are three main reasons. First, a large percentage of our land is exempt from property taxes, chiefly because of campuses but also because of conservation areas and farmland that can’t be developed. Second, we have high expectations for municipal services; for example, we have a low teacher-student ratio in our schools, and we believe in paying our public employees well. Third, because of our very small commercial sector, residents are responsible for 90 percent of the property taxes that Amherst collects.

Q. How does Amherst’s average residential tax bill compare with other Massachusetts cities and towns?

A. In recent years, we have ranked about 55th among the 351 cities and towns. The average property tax bill in Massachusetts in fiscal 2021 was $6,374. The only town in the Pioneer Valley with higher property taxes than Amherst is Longmeadow ($9,388).

Q. Why are assessed values lower than sale prices?

A. In a hot market like Amherst’s, it’s difficult for assessments to keep up with changes. The schedule for re-assessing property also contributes to the lag. Some properties are re-assessed ahead of that schedule, because a sale has established their values, or a homeowner has taken out a building permit, or a property hasn’t been inspected in some time.

Q. If I have a higher assessment, is that what causes my taxes to go up?

A. No. Assessments merely redistribute the tax burden based on the actual market. Assessments and the tax rate operate like a seesaw; when one goes up, the other typically goes down. But annual tax bills on a property rarely go down, because the amount of money the Town must raise always goes up. An assessed value might decrease if a house is damaged, as in a fire.

Q. Are property assessments going to be increased to more accurately reflect sale prices?

A. Yes. Town officials are required under state law to do a total revaluation in the fiscal year starting July 1. Increases could be across the board, or higher in some neighborhoods or styles of housing. While assessments will increase, the tax rate will likely continue to decline.

Q. How can I find out my assessed value?

A. In the middle of the top of your tax bill, it’s listed under “Total Taxable Valuation.” You can find the valuation for any address by going to amherstma.gov, clicking on Departments, then Assessor, then Online Data Base, then entering the address.

Q. I don’t want to go to Town Hall to pay my taxes because of the pandemic. What should I do?

A. If you don’t want to mail your payment, there’s a secure drop box on the Main Street side of Town Hall. You can’t pay your taxes over the telephone.

Q. Can I pay my tax bill online? Can I arrange for my taxes to be automatically taken out of my bank account?

A. Yes. The information on how to do this is included in a fact sheet that came with your tax bill.

Thanks to Town Councilor Andy Steinberg, Finance Director Sean Mangano and Principal Assessor Kimberly Mew for contributing to these answers.

The case for local reparations

By Michele Miller

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Four days later, Civil Rights Warrior and Congressman John Conyers Jr. took to the floor of Congress to insist on a national day of recognition to honor his memory. It took 15 years of struggle before the day was finally celebrated as a federal holiday.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Credit Unseen Histories on Unsplash

Three years later, in 1989, Conyers introduced H.R. 40 – The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act – and that struggle has gone on even longer. Last April the bill finally made it out of committee, the culmination of decades of work, mostly by Black people. The 40 in H.R. 40 has significance that goes beyond the order in which it was introduced to Congress. It’s meant to remind us we’ve never made good on the country’s promise to give formerly enslaved African Americans 40 acres (the mule would come later), following emancipation. 

Special Field Orders No.15, issued on January 16, 1865 by General William T. Sherman (with the approval of President Lincoln) came at the urging of 20 Black leaders, mostly ministers, in Savannah. Here is the section of the order that addresses the land grant: 

” ..each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”

The order was accompanied by other specifics identifying the territory that was being granted and ordering that it would be settled and governed entirely by Black people. By June, 1865, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land’” and a Black governor – Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston –  had been appointed. 

Credit Michele Miller

In a devastating turn of events, in the fall of 1865, the order was revoked by President Lincoln’s successor, a supporter of the southern white supremacist establishment, Andrew Johnson. The land was returned to its former slave-holding owners, and 40,000 Black freedmen and their families were left without a home.  

(A little known fact is that three years prior, the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act made reparations to the owners of enslaved people for their “loss of property” by granting them the equivalent of $8,000 in today’s dollars for every slave who was freed.) 

Why does a broken promise to formerly enslaved African Americans in 1865 matter now? 

So much of the focus of whites has been related to the harm suffered by African Americans as a result of slavery and post-slavery structural racism. We’ve read eye-opening opinion pieces and books, listened to illuminating podcasts, and even talked to Black friends and co-workers about their experience of being Black in America. I bet most of us in Amherst can appreciate the magnitude of these crimes against humanity and can sympathize with the physical, mental, and emotional consequences for people of African descent. 

Credit Getty Images

But how much have we thought about what Black people have lost as a result of broken promises by white government leaders and racist federal policies that excluded Blacks from accessing land and other wealth-building resources? What would America look like today, and what would the financial condition of the Black community be like, if Sherman’s order had stuck? 

Some economists have estimated the value of 40 acres and a mule for those 40,000 freed slaves to be worth a staggering $640 billion today. 

To add to the repugnant and unequal treatment of Black people, between 1862 and 1935, The Homestead Act provided mostly white people (99.73%) up to 160 acres of free land. According to Shawn Rochester, in his book “The Black Tax,” this equates to roughly $1.6 trillion in value today (the equivalent of giving $500,000 to $1 million per family). Further, Rochester tells us it’s estimated that up to 93 million Americans today are direct beneficiaries of this government-enacted wealth-building program. 

Dr. King poignantly encapsulated this in a 1967 interview, saying  “Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time.”

Reparations, apart from racial justice initiatives, are the way forward for the U.S. to pay the debt owed to African Americans.  White support and follow-through are essential to this process, not only in word, but in deeds. No more broken promises. No more racist policies that favor whites. No more.

Credit Urban Institute analysis, via MR Online

No matter how robust a reparative justice initiative is, it’s impossible for a locality to settle the debt owed to Blacks. It’s the responsibility of the federal government to settle up – financially and morally – with African Americans, and that’s the goal of H.R. 40. 

In Amherst, however, we can begin a process of healing the wound and giving folks an experience with making reparations that will, like other social movements that begin locally (think marriage equality), support the national movement. While financial reparations are necessary at the federal level, locally we can create an opportunity for Black residents to design a reparative plan that comes in many forms and, importantly, benefits all residents. 

What that program looks like and who will be eligible is still a mystery and, ultimately, can only be decided by the African heritage community of Amherst.

According to N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America), reparations can be made to an individual through “direct benefits” like housing assistance, educational scholarships, and business grants. And, to the Black community as a whole through “collective benefits” aimed at collective repair and healing. Examples they give are African-centered education, community trust funds, community wellness initiatives, and ending racially based public policy. 

To ensure these benefits hold up to legal challenges, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly will develop a narrowly defined harm report which links specific harm that occurred in Amherst, like racial deed covenants that existed on some of our streets, to determine the impact for Blacks who currently live or have lived in Amherst. This information will help to inform the Black community as they design the Reparative Justice Program for Amherst.

In May 2021 the Town Council voted to create a reparations stabilization fund and to form a committee to study and develop reparation proposals for people of African heritage in Amherst. This is one of several actions the Town has taken to further the goals of the resolution to “End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity for Black Residents” adopted by the Town Council December 7, 2020. 

Michele Miller is a member of the Town Council from District 1 and is chair of the African Heritage Reparation Assembly.

Local farmer makes a world of difference

By Sarah Marshall

Over the past several centuries, farmers in the Pioneer Valley have adopted new technologies to make farms more productive and the work safer. The local Swartz Family Farm is no exception and has been an early adopter and promoter of “controlled environment agriculture,” namely hydroponics.

I had the pleasure of listening to third-generation Amherst farmer Joe Swartz describe the history of his farm and his work in the hydroponics industry to an audience at Applewood recently.

The Swartz family, hailing from Poland, purchased their property on Meadow St. in 1919 and raised potatoes, onions, and tobacco by conventional means – that is, growing crops in the soil – and ran a small dairy. Over time, use of horses gave way to tractors and the like, maximizing productivity during our short 120-day growing period. Joe relates that the intense work, including crop dusting, was injurious to the health of his father and uncle, and that the short growing season left the farm unproductive for much of the year.

When he took over the farm in 1984, Joe Swartz quickly built a greenhouse and began using hydroponic techniques to increase the farm’s production.  Hydroponics is the science of growing food crops and flowers inside, in a soil-free system that supports the plants while letting roots develop in water containing carefully regulated nutrients and beneficial microbes. The farm shifted to growing greens and herbs year-round in 12,000 sq-ft of greenhouse space while leasing land to another farmer for conventionally grown crops.

Swartz family members at the home farm, Courtesy Joseph Swartz

One benefit of hydroponics is the dramatic decrease in water use because the system is closed. Joe noted that one head of lettuce grown conventionally in a field might require application of 10 gallons of water, whereas a head grown hydroponically needs less than 1 gallon.

A second benefit is that the ability to control temperature, humidity, and light enables a dramatic increase in productivity because crops can be grown virtually year-round. A greenhouse will use natural light when it is available and will augment with artificial lighting when necessary.

A third benefit is reduction in pesticide use. Joe says because of careful greenhouse management, monitoring, and introduction of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, it has been 37 years since the Swartz farm used pesticides inside. (Other beneficial insects, namely bumblebees, are employed as pollinators.)  Reduction of pesticide use is both safer for workers and desired by consumers.

A fourth benefit is that costs (including greenhouse gas emissions) of transporting produce long distance can be eliminated by growing hydroponically near markets and distribution centers. This advantage has become more significant during the pandemic when supply chains have been so disrupted.

Overall, hydroponics can increase productivity 10-fold on an area basis. Virtually any plant, from bananas to wheat, can be grown hydroponically. Whether hydroponic agriculture makes financial sense for a farmer depends on local factors such as natural conditions, land and energy costs, water availability, and the cost of conventionally grown produce.

Hydroponic installation in southern California, courtesy Joseph Swartz

Through his work training and educating area farmers based on his own experience in Amherst, Joe learned of a California firm, AmHydro, then (and now) a supplier of systems and equipment for hydroponics. In 2015 he joined AmHydro and began the firm’s consulting practice and his wife, Sarah, took over running the family farm. (Currently, the Swartz Family Farm is closed while it installs the latest technology.)

The company has now consulted on hydroponics projects in more than 60 countries, from Japan to Nigeria, and many U.S. states. The variety of projects demonstrates how significant this technology can be, on scales large and small.

For example, hydroponics can bring fresh produce year-round to food deserts in urban areas. An early project was designing and building a facility on top of an 8-story apartment building in the Bronx. The farm at Arbor House now produces more than 300,000 lbs of food for residents and the local community, and trains young people to do this work.  A greenhouse on top of an industrial building in Montreal produces 600,000 lbs of produce annually for its CSA.

The technology can be used to reduce water usage and increase effective farm acreage in Egypt, or to reduce long-distance transportation of produce in Hawaii or the Bahamas, or enable fresh food to be grown during Alaska’s long, dark, and cold months. Indian farmers can use hydroponics where soil quality is poor, perhaps from pollution. Urban farms have sprung up from Paris to Singapore.

Advising farmers in Egypt, courtesy Joseph Swartz

The 2022 Climate Summit (COP27) will be held in Egypt, home to the world’s largest hydroponic operation, covering 6,000 acres. Joe is working with farms that will be featured during the summit and expects to meet with President Al-Sisi this spring.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., government at all levels is adjusting regulatory and tax schemes to allow hydroponics in areas – cities, for example – where no areas are zoned for agriculture. The early project in the Bronx required extensive discussions with authorities to permit such seemingly sensible but bureaucratically unknown actions such as capturing rainfall and directing it to the greenhouse rather than into the sewer. The US Department of Agriculture only recently has begun making grants and financing available to growers outside of rural areas. Incentive programs hope to expand urban farming.

Solar on landfills and parking lots

By Elisa Campbell

The climate crisis requires us to work quickly to reduce fossil fuel use. We need to create policies and incentives to encourage rapid development of solar where we most want it. We can’t spend months, let alone years, obtaining the “perfect” versus other possibilities.

Many of us prefer that solar projects be put on already disturbed land and over parking lots. Are we willing to support state subsidies for commercial rooftop and parking lot solar arrays? Are we willing to pay more for electricity to cover the true costs of building the facilities (with subsidies for low-income ratepayers)? We have to take action to make change happen and solve the problems that we who have benefited from industrialization have caused.

Massachusetts has been pursuing putting solar photovoltaics on closed landfills. Amherst is currently doing this on the closed landfill north of Belchertown Road.

credit Elisa Campbell

According to Stephanie Ciccarello, the Town’s Sustainability Coordinator, town government will be an “off-taker” for the power produced by this project – we will get credit for the power generated there. That’s expected to be 4 megawatts, which covers about two-thirds of the Town’s energy use for buildings, lights, etc. In addition, the company building (and owning) the project will pay the Town $78,000 a year for 20 years as rent for the land (some of that will be in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILOT).

Many of us wish a project like this could have happened earlier. It didn’t for three basic reasons: opposition by neighbors to the previously proposed site, discovery of an endangered species on that site, and the complexity of siting and arranging for permits, etc.

The first proposal, in 2015, included siting collectors on both discontinued landfills (north and south of Belchertown Road). There was strenuous opposition by some of the homeowners abutting the southern landfill, including claims the landfill was not safe for solar arrays (untrue) and court challenges. The argument that held up was the discovery of an endangered bird species – the Grasshopper Sparrow – using the grassland on top of the old landfill as a nesting site. So the proposal was changed to put collectors on the northern landfill, and create a conservation easement for the Sparrow on the southern landfill (a fence will be installed to protect the birds from dogs, etc.).

Any project needs funding and to meet many criteria. The site has to be carefully studied to be sure it is suitable. The Department of Public Utilities and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection have to issue permits, and the local utility company – in this case, Eversource – has to agree to purchase the power. Someone must come up with the large dollar amount to do all this preparatory environmental and legal work, to buy the materials, actually install the panels, and pay all the costs of connecting to the grid. All this before any money comes in.

One selected developer had financial problems during the years of permitting and the Town had to select another. In order to make it work financially, the developer needs to find a customer able and willing to commit to paying for the electricity that will be generated – to be an off-taker. The developer can’t build the project unless all the power is committed (they won’t get a loan without evidence it can be paid back); in our situation, the Town is able to commit for all 4 megawatts the facility will generate.

Everything I said about the permits and costs of siting photovoltaics on a closed landfill applies equally to putting them on canopies over a parking lot. But more so: the steel pillars needed to hold the canopies are a major expense, for example. Also, since an existing parking lot surface will be torn up to install the electrical cables, concrete footings for the pillars, etc. it is best to do it on a parking lot that was due to be resurfaced, not one with a new surface. The overall result is that creating a solar site on a canopy over a parking lot costs twice as much as creating one on open land.

We have several examples of canopies over parking lots in Amherst, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts. According to Ezra Small, Campus Sustainability Manager, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts created grant and incentive programs for state agencies to create solar projects on their properties, and the University has received significant grant funds over the course of the past five years or so of canopy development on campus.

Solar canopies over parking lots were in earlier stages of market development in 2015, so the first project on campus, near the Robsham Memorial Visitors Center on Massachusetts Avenue, was a pilot project. UMass put up its own capital funds, combined with a Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources Leading by Example grant of $268,000 to fund the project, but since then has partnered with commercial developers on much larger canopy projects: the developer comes up with the capital, UMass enters into a Site License Agreement with them for the parking lots, and like the Town with the landfill project, has a 20-year agreement to purchase the power. There are now five parking lots generating over 10 million kilowatt hours per year of renewable electricity, the equivalent of the amount used by 1,430 Massachusetts homes or about 30 percent of homes in Amherst.

The projects have definitely been a success: without taking on the capital expense of installing the solar canopies, UMass has a fixed rate for electricity expenses for 20 years, has less need for snowplowing, and shows its commitment, on campus, to solar power.

You probably have noticed that the two private colleges in Amherst have not done projects over their own parking lots. Hampshire College does supply its own energy from the large ground-mount array along Bay Road.

Nor have commercial properties in Amherst or nearby Hadley installed arrays over parking lots. River Valley Co-op, working with Co-op Power, put collectors on the roof and over the parking lot on their new building in Easthampton.

The state offers significant tax incentives for solar canopies, but not enough to make up for the additional costs. Additional complications include important infrastructure or easements under parking lots (such as for sewage, water, or gas lines) or multiple owners. Similarly, the roofs of large commercial buildings often have utilities (as for air conditioning) on them and were generally not built with adequate support for solar panels.

For more information on green energy projects in Amherst, see our previous post.

‘Twas the week before Christmas

By Stephanie O’Keeffe

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through our town

Kids lug home their laundry, the semester winds down.

Decorations are up, the Merry Maple is sparkling,

Shoppers enjoy some weekend free parking.

It’s been another year defined by the virus,

Though we’re vaxed and we’re boosted, it’s still not behind us.

Some sense of “normal” is slowly returning

Businesses are open; there’s in-person learning.

But much remains closed, hybrid or Zooming,

And Omicron has a big winter surge looming.

Still, we’ve found ways of adapting and getting stuff done,

So let’s pause to reflect on Amherst in 2021.

Perhaps the event that was most consequential

Was November’s election, though not Presidential.

Dueling news sites, dueling PACs! An endorsement rejected!

Even a recount to determine who got elected.

And the referendum petition, signature challenge and lawsuit?

Kind of seemed like a GOP swing state dispute.

But it was our library project, which had a huge Yes vote win.

And when all ballots were tallied, six new Town Councilors got in.

Time and COVID have changed things, of that, there’s no doubt

Some favorite restaurants have closed and moved out.

No more Judie’s popovers, or Keno at Rafter’s

No more Lone Wolf, The Pub, or Henion’s hereafter.

But we still have plenty of great spots for all kinds of dining,

Many mainstays remain, thriving and shining.

They’re joined by fancy Savannas and Garcia’s mariachi

And great tacos on Kellogg where there used to be coffee.

A Jamaican kitchen is coming, and a new oyster bar.

There’s a sign touting “PROTOCOL” – whatever they are.

It’s not just politics and food – so much has transpired.

Let’s note some more of the odd and admired.

There were concerts on the common – now with craft beer!

Nice Writer’s Walk signs make our culture more clear.

The Musante Health Center got a ramp for access.

A new public safety plan launches with CRESS.

An old house moved to Baker Street one July night.

Lucio Perez left First Church sanctuary, ending his long plight.

That block of back-in angled parking is crazy and evil.

And a proposed new garage site has caused some upheaval.

The Civil War tablets are finally on view!

The Kendrick Park playground is awesome and new.

Lots of cool things are happening at Mill District’s North Square.

There’s dispute over what’s greener – trees or solar hardware?

A sexy undies shop opened a downtown location.

Juneteenth was marked with a big celebration.

Those weird “Poem Windows” were replaced with something else weird.

UMass football is woeful; their new (old) coach is revered.

Emily Dickinson’s museum will get her TV show’s dresses.

The Chamber and BID Directors have done much that impresses.

The Drake will return as a place for performance.

While bandshell design plans have met with a little discordance.

Our famed local diver went to the Olympics again.

And has Ms. Brewer’s epic town service really come to an end?

Can’t add anymore, this is not comprehensive.

It’s just a little rhyme trying to capture the sense of

A community that’s passionate, active and engaged

And seeks positive outcomes with each battle waged.

So cheers to this past year, and the new one forthcoming!

With gratitude for all who keep this special place humming.

Originally posted on Facebook and reprinted here with permission.

The Amherst Current will return in January.

Bigger pie, or smaller appetite?

By Sarah Marshall

Amherst voters have a big appetite. We  want:

  • open space with trails and amenities
  • excellent schools
  • lively business districts
  • more housing at a variety of income levels
  • 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
  • wide sidewalks
  • 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.

CVS option for a parking garage should not be ruled out

By Nick Grabbe

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.

New website for the elementary school building project is launched today

By Sarah Marshall

Track the progress of the elementary school building project, milestones, opportunities for public involvement, read agendas and important documents, and learn about the project team at the new website.

We will add this site to the project information under the Town Government 101 page.

Thinking globally, acting locally: How to respond to climate crisis

By Elisa Campbell

Things we can agree on:

  • The climate crisis is real, and getting worse. 
  • If we want to keep the planet life-sustaining for the species that live on it, including ourselves, we have to stop using fossil fuels  and absorb at least some of the CO2 that has already been put into the atmosphere. 
  • Most of the regions of the world that are currently most affected by the climate crisis have contributed almost nothing to creating the problem.  
  • Fossil fuel industries have fought every proposal to reduce fossil fuel use and have contributed to world-wide delays in taking action.
  • There is no energy source that is impact-free, but we prefer to use methods that create the fewest impacts on the ecosystem and vulnerable humans. 

A recent meeting of the Energy and Climate Action Committee considered the issues confronting Amherst and heard information that may guide us as we wrestle with proposed ground-mounted solar projects.

Steve Roof, a member of the committee and a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Hampshire College, gave a presentation focusing on electricity generation. State planning documents and Amherst’s own plans lay out the following goals:

  • Phase out 90% or more of all fossil fuel use by 2050.
  • Greatly improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings and set high energy efficiency standards for new buildings. 
  • By 2030 reduce gross emissions by 45% below the 1990 level.
  • Electrify everything possible, because electricity can be generated by non-fossil means.
  • We will also need to dramatically increase intra- and inter-state transfer – high-tension wires and power corridors. 
  • To accommodate current and future electrical demand, we will need to massively expand wind and solar generation.

To meet these goals, Massachusetts will need to build about 1,000 large offshore wind turbines like Vineyard Wind and import large amounts of hydro power from Quebec, which now seems unlikely, given the vote against the siting of the transmission lines in Maine last month. 

Statewide, we will need to expand solar by factor of 10: we need 20 to 23 GW of solar capacity; we now have 3.4 GW. The state reports found that even with maximum rooftop installation, we will need 60,000 acres of land-mounted solar arrays in 30 years. However, ground-mounted solar development will be excluded from or discouraged on:

  • Wetland resource areas
  • Historic places on the Massachusetts Registry
  • Protected open space
  • Areas listed as Core Habitat by Mass Wildlife
  • Areas listed as Priority Habitat by Mass Wildlife 
  • Critical Natural Landscapes that connect habitats or buffer wetlands, etc. 

Roof then looked at what might be considered Amherst’s “share” of the burden for growth in electrical generation, using population size as the determinant. Since Amherst’s population is about 0.56% of the state’s population, that percentage of the total 60,000 acres suggests the town might use` 335 acres. Amherst’s total acreage is 17,765, of which 30% is permanently protected from development. That 335 acres  is 1.9% of our total acreage – less than 2%.

Roof did not suggest where on Amherst land the solar facilities could go. He did point out that one acre of ground-mounted solar reduces C02 emission by about 133 metric tons per year by displacing fossil fuel generated electricity – which is about 100 times greater than the carbon sequestered by an acre of forest.

His suggested a possible “road map” for the town:

  • Greatly improve energy efficiency of existing buildings, including rental properties.
  • Assist with electrification of transportation (electrify vehicle fleets and help increase availability of EV charging stations).
  • Continue to protect natural and working lands in Amherst.
  • Accept expansion of solar power development on about 2% of the land in Amherst.
  • Tolerate increased intra- and interstate electric power transmission corridors in the region.

The committee discussed the need for a solar study to identify where solar projects are technically possible in Amherst. Laura Draucker said it’s important to have such a study before bylaws are passed. Dwayne Berger described what a consultant might accomplish in such a study. The committee agreed they want time on the Town Council’s agenda for a presentation by Roof. Roof suggested that he and Berger do the presentation and ask for a solar study. “We need to shock people into an awareness of what we need to do to reach carbon neutrality,” he said.

While we can all agree that we prefer solar arrays on roofs or above parking lots to ground-mounted arrays, they will not create enough solar generation capacity. And there are complications and costs associated with those projects; that will require another article. 

Public comments on community responders sought Thursday

By Nick Grabbe

Residents who have questions about the plan to deploy unarmed responders in some situations that are currently handled by police officers can attend a public forum Thursday.

Credit, Doug Marshall

The virtual meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. Here’s the link: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/86008936538. The public comment period is scheduled to start at 6:15 p.m., and will be followed by a meeting of the Town Council’s Town Services and Outreach subcommittee, which will make a recommendation to the full Council. The town manager, finance director, police chief and fire chief are expected to attend and be able to answer questions.

Another topic of the meeting will be the plan to create a new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

The community responders would be called on in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime, such as mental health issues, homelessness, substance abuse, trespassing, truancy and wellness checks, according to the recommendation by the Community Safety Working Group. They would have expertise as mental health clinicians, social workers, medics or conflict de-escalators.

The eight community responders would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would be supported by a director and an administrative assistant. The responders, who would be fully benefited Town employees, would operate independently of the Police Department and be housed in a separate facility, according to the working group’s recommendation.

“The mission will include contributing to dismantling systemic racism through racially aware safety and social services to persons of all races with a conscious anti-racism focus,” according a summary of the working group’s recommendations by Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

The program is known as CRESS, or Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service. Its projected annual operating budget is $936,000, with $122,500 in non-operating costs. The Town has received a state grant of $450,000 for the program, and $250,000 in federal money has been earmarked.

“The Town may opt to use reserves to supplement the municipal operating budget over two or three years to minimize the impact on other departments,” Bockelman has proposed.

Residents’ questions could include: What kind of relationship will CRESS have with the Police Department? How will 911 operators determine whether to dispatch a police officer or a community responder? How will police staffing be affected? When will the program be operational? How will it be funded in future years?

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion “will develop, recommend, and implement a strategic plan that will advance a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture for the Town that provide opportunities to build diversity and inclusive practices into the Town’s operations,” according to Bockelman. “The Office will review Town policies, procedures, bylaws, values, goals and missions through an equity lens to foster an unbiased, anti-racist and inclusive environment.”

The goals are to “improve the Town’s decision-making so that it better represents all communities and includes less bias; increase community trust in local government; ensure an equitable allocation of public resources; and improve employee satisfaction and engagement,” according to Bockelman.

The annual operating costs are estimated at $240,500, including a director and assistant director. The director position is to be funded with money previously budgeted for an economic development director, a position now to be paid for with federal money. The assistant director position is to be paid by combining half of an existing position with federal money.

Silver lining, dark cloud

By Gerry Weiss

Even the darkest clouds of the pandemic have yielded some silver linings, including one for Craig’s Doors (CD) and the unhoused of our area last year.  Traditionally, Craig’s Doors provides shelter from November through April, opening in the evening and closing in the morning. Because of COVID, the Federal government released more money to provide shelter and temporary housing.  Last year, Craig’s Doors applied for and received enough funding to allow us operate three different sites, one of which, the University Motor Lodge, still houses 20 people. We also rented the Econo Lodge in Hadley for the winter of 2020-2021 as well as space at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society downtown, enabling about 66 people to be sheltered.  All three sites were operated around the clock, seven days a week, something CD had never been able to do before.  However, with the UU congregation returning to their home downtown on May 1, we had to find yet another site for our 2021-2022 emergency winter shelter.  The congregation at the Immanuel Lutheran Church (ILC) gladly opened their doors to us and we are now sheltering 23 men and women from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days/week.  

That’s the good news.  Craig’s Doors has been fortunate to find houses of worship willing to shelter our guests for the past 13 years, 10 of them at the Amherst Baptist Church near UMass, last year at the UU, and this year at the ILC.  However, we fear our luck could run out in the future as we go hat in hand to the houses of worship hoping for a “yes,” especially should COVID cease to be an impediment to church operations.  It is also expensive to make (repeatedly) the physical changes required to operate as a shelter, and we have to hire new staff every fall and then let them go every May. It is of course also time consuming to do all the leg work required to close down and set up a shelter anew.  And this year, because the ILC kitchen is not certified by the Health Department, we have to rent the kitchen at the UU to make dinners and transport them to the ILC every night. Add to these problems the fact that except for the one year at the UU, our guests have to wait until evening to get out of the cold and must leave in the early morning hours, a far from ideal situation.

The solution would be a permanent shelter in Amherst.  It would allow us to operate 24/7, maintain staff, not have to worry where we’ll be each year, have our own kitchen, and move our offices to it, so we’d be in one place.  The good news is that we have found a site for sale that looks nearly perfect. The trick of course is money.   There is a possibility that the Town would either buy the building or fund us to buy the building with the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated to the Town of Amherst. ($11,933,556).

Our Town Manager Paul Bockelman has set aside approximately $1 million of those funds to pay for “transitional housing and homeless solutions.”  The asking price of the site we’ve found is less than $1 million. However, the final decision on how that $1 million will be spent is up to Town Hall and so far, they have not seemed enthusiastic about our proposal. The Department of Housing and Community Development, which funnels to us most of the funds Craig’s Doors uses to operate each year, is very excited by this proposal and has offered their expertise and additional funding if we should be able to purchase the site.  We have our fingers crossed that Town Hall will see this opportunity as the solution we’ve been looking for, for so many years. I should add here that Paul Bockelman, at the urging of the Town Council, formed a Homelessness and Rehousing Working Group several months ago.  The group finished their work and have submitted an interim report that included recommendations for a permanent shelter and increased housing solutions for the unhoused. Obtaining both would be the ideal outcome.

Vote on elementary school project is not likely before 2023

By Sarah Marshall

A town-wide vote on raising taxes to help pay for a new elementary school is unlikely to occur next November during the state and federal election. The vote may come in a special election in the spring of 2023, and the new school could open in the spring of 2026, according to a draft timeline for the construction project.

Donna DiNisco of DiNisco Design, the architect for the project, explained the process during the Elementary School Building Project Committee’s meeting on December 2. The Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will provide significant funding, must vote to approve the schematic design before the Town can hold a vote, she said. And so the schedule must include adequate time for careful planning, community engagement, feedback, and involvement of several committees so that a solid cost estimate can be provided to MSBA. The current schedule shows a submission to MSBA in January 2023, and a vote by the MSBA in March.

The process will kick off next month with development of the Educational Plan and a program of community outreach. The Educational Plan, which itself must be approved by MSBA, is the foundation of the entire project, identifying all the programs offered in Amherst schools and their space needs. The design of the ultimate building, including layout, room sizes, etc., must support this Educational Plan.

At the moment, no decisions have been made on whether one of the current sites of Wildwood and Fort River Schools will be the site of the new school, and whether new construction is preferable to renovation and addition. Anser Advisory Management, the project manager, stated that it will develop descriptions of the options, drawing on past studies as well as new work, so that the community and decision-makers can weigh the tradeoffs and arrive at a preferred option. Future uses of whichever site is not chosen for the new school will also be open to community discussion.

DiNisco Design and Anser Advisory will speak at the December 14 meeting of the Amherst School Committee. We will post information about the meeting, as well as a link to the new project website, on our “On our radar ” page when they are available.

It’s crunch time on Town Council and tempers are flaring

By Sarah Marshall

A new Town Council will be sworn in less than five weeks from now, meaning that the current Council has little time in which to conclude any business it does not wish to refer, or pass on, to its successor. And given the holidays, time is even shorter. Council is thus squeezing in extra meetings in an effort to bring some projects, particularly revisions to several zoning bylaws, to a conclusion. Some Councilors and members of the public are very unhappy with this schedule and/or with the proposals, as was made clear at the Town Council meeting this past Monday.

Town-owned lot proposed as a site for a parking garage

This blog has avoided zoning issues in part because of the daunting complexity and jargon that make coverage a challenge, but we feel compelled to write about them now because of the huge investment that town staff, elected officials, volunteers, and residents have made this year on debating, critiquing, researching, refining, and discussing the arcane rules that determine so much of the look and feel of our town, as well as the political impacts of the zoning efforts.

First, a quick overview. Revisions to four zoning bylaws are on the table, three of which are causing heartburn: the definition of a “mixed-use” building, an “overlay” that would permit a parking garage to be built on the Town-owned lot next to the CVS lot between North Pleasant and North Prospect Streets, and parking requirements for new constructions outside the Central Business District. All proposed zoning bylaws must be “read” twice during Town Council meetings, at which point they can be voted on. This past Monday, the first readings of these proposed bylaws occurred; the second will occur on Monday, Dec. 6.

Second, some highlights of public comment. Many residents have been closely following the development of these bylaws, which has occurred over this past year in numerous public meetings of the Town Council, the Council’s Community Resources Committee, and the Planning Board. Residents of District 3, in particular, feel threatened by the potential for a parking garage on the east side of North Prospect St., opposite a local historic district. In fact, District 3 residents were asked by one of their Councilors, Dorothy Pam, to lodge comments in opposition to what she termed a “Thanksgiving coup.” I listened to much of the public comment and heard accusations of “shenanigans to make sure that you can avoid having representative government,” a “rush to judgment,” a “lack of process,” and “disenfranchising voters.” Some commenters opined that the current Council, as a lame duck, is wrong to undertake any action that is not an emergency and should let the incoming Council make the decisions. (This last comment reminds me strongly of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s excuse for refusing to give Supreme Court-nominee Merrick Garland a hearing in advance of the 2016 presidential election.) Others claimed that the process short-cut provisions of state law or our town charter.

Presumably, similar comments had already been received by email, because Council President Lynn Griesemer opened the readings of discussions of the proposed zoning bylaws with what seemed a prepared statement. My transcript of her remarks follows:

There is no bylaw that we are voting on to approve tonight. All bylaws require two readings. This is the first reading for all four that appear on the agenda, even the one we’ve seen twice before, and all we’re doing is extending the date again.

However, before moving on, I’d like to share a few observations that are reflective and supportive of our town government today, tomorrow, and long into the future. They in no way reflect how I, as one of 13 Councilors, will vote on any bylaw.

We’ve heard several comments prior to this evening and tonight regarding a desire to delay any further action on zoning amendments, in fact, all actions, until the next Council is seated. These comments include various stated reasons:

  • This is a lame duck Council and we should not do anything for the remainder of our term.
  • The public has spoken through the election, thus creating a mandate. 
  • There has been insufficient time, research, and consideration given to these zoning articles.
  • And, finally, that we have not honored various state laws, charter requirements, and rules of procedure.

Regarding point one, does that mean that all Councilors only serve for one year and 10 months and that no legislative action should take place between an election and the seating of the next Council? This is not what the voters wanted when they voted for the Charter – they wanted a year-round government. If we are not going to take action now then we should have stopped taking at least certain actions last winter when we started lining all of these zoning articles up. The first ones we discussed were way back in December of 2020; the Planning staff came to us on February 22, 2021. In addition to that, since November 2, we have taken or are scheduled to take many important votes – on the budget guidelines, on establishing the CRESS and DEI Departments, on evaluating the Town Manager, and setting Town Manager goals for the coming year – most of which the next Council can change. We have a job to do, and refusing to take timely action is not in the best interests of the community.

Regarding point two, the creation of a mandate. Occasionally, we see a true sea change that might prompt us to take the extraordinary step of delaying action. However, the argument that “the people have spoken” seems to me requires some close examination. We have elected six outstanding new Councilors – that vote was confirmed just this past week. And, while it is true that two of the Councilors who have advocated to rezone the CVS parking lot were not reelected, they were defeated by a total of 50 votes and lost in one in each of their two precincts. Other incumbents, though not all, who were reelected or unopposed, to the best of my knowledge did not campaign for or against zoning changes. And the chair of the CRC committee, who argued and voted for the zoning changes in CRC, received the second highest number of votes in her town-wide election.

It is quite possible that residents in different neighborhoods hold different views on this issue. For example, the residents who do not live downtown are the ones most likely to need and use a garage. That’s OK. Our job is to take the community-wide view.

Regarding the concern of insufficient time, research, and consideration, I refer you to the second attachment to the Future Agenda Items [page 8 in this document] that is in your packet. It is the step-by-step process for each bylaw under consideration and includes the date of each step starting with the initial referral. Two of the bylaws – Mixed-use and Parking and Access (related loosely in this case as Apartment Definitions) – [were] presented in a list in February of 2021. They were referred by this Council for hearings by the Planning Board and CRC on June 28, 2021; the rezoning of the CVS parking lot was introduced to the Town Council on May 24 [and] was referred to the Planning Board and CRC for hearings. Each has been developed, vetted, and legally reviewed – including the involvement of our professional and well-qualified planning staff, Planning Board hearings, in three instances heard and reheard by CRC, and reviewed by the Town’s attorney. We do not lack information and turning back the clock at this point would be a disservice to the many residents and staff who’ve brought us to this point. We need to do our work and vote YES or NO, and move on. 

Finally, in the process of bringing these bylaws forward all state laws, the Charter, Council Rules of Procedure, and practices of the relevant bodies have been followed. Having said that I encourage the Town Planning staff to seek comments on the Planning Board reports and repost them in time for our next meeting. My request to all of us and to the residents is let’s agree to disagree; but we do not want to compromise democracy in the City known as the Town of Amherst based upon which side of the issues we fall on.

In my view, the current workload for Town Council and staff, while heavy and unwelcome, is not surprising at the end of a legislative session. (And as some have suggested, the charter could be amended so that a new Council is seated promptly after election results are certified, shortening the lame-duck session and moving it away from the holiday season.) Public hearings, readings, and votes must occur within windows of time set by law. Referring the current zoning proposals to late January or beyond would require the clocks to be re-set, launching new hearings, readings, reports, etc. and demanding yet more time from staff, Council, and residents.

To be sure, Councilors are not happy to have five-hour meetings on a routine basis, let alone extra meetings during the holiday season, as some complaints and sharp exchanges suggested. At the end of Monday’s meeting, Councilor Cathy Schoen, for instance, protested against the length of meetings, only to be challenged by Councilors Griesemer and De Angelis to assist by making her own comments briefer. Councilor De Angelis asked councilors in general to limit their comments to what is most important and not to say the same thing six times for emphasis. Councilor Pam noted that the lengthy meetings and interference with the holidays discourage potential candidates for Council.

Councilor De Angelis then deplored the “attitude” held by some councilors against other councilors as well as things said and done against Councilors Ryan and Ross. She said that, while she did not always agree with their views, neither George Ryan or Evan Ross deserved the treatment they were getting from some councilors and members of the public.

Town receives first installment of state library grant

By Kent W. Faerber, Co-Chair, Campaign Committee, Campaign for a 21st Century Library

The Town has received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners the first installment of its $13.8 million grant for the Jones Library Building Project.  This vote of confidence represents the MBLC’s judgment that the 65% “YES” vote on November 2, affirming the Town Council’s 10-2 authorization of Town borrowing for the project, is overwhelming evidence of the Town’s commitment.  The Friends’ Campaign for a 21st Century Jones Library now intends to resume its fundraising for the portion of the financing for the project guaranteed by the Library Trustees. 

Thanksgiving

By Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe

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

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

Fort River reflections, credit brkubiak@gmail.com

South Church, credit brkubiak@gmail.com