REPORT: TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (8/26/19)

Clubhouse at the Hickory Ridge Golf Course. Town Council approved purchase of the 149 acre property at their meeting of 8/26/19. Photo: Art Keene.

Highlights:

  • The council issued a proclamation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA).
  • The council conducted a public hearing on a request by Eversource to install a large transformer on the Town Common. The Design Review Board and the Historical Commission will have to weigh in. Discussion was continued to the September 9 council meeting.
  • The council said it has received public comments requesting an increase in the minimum wage for part-time Jones Library employees.
  • The proposed purchase by the town of the Hickory Ridge Golf Course was discussed and approved, pending appropriations. 
  • Provisions were made for retired Town Assessor David Burgess to conduct the 2019 Assessment of Real Estate. 
  • The council discussed, at length, the possible formation of working groups, having received an opinion from the town attorney that working groups are not permissible and that certain committee appointments must be made exclusively by the Council President, according to the new charter.
  • John Hornik, chair of the Affordable Housing Trust, submitted a proposed affordable housing policy for Amherst. It was referred to the Community Resources Committee and the Finance Committee. 
  • The council received the report of the Town Manager and approved new appointments to the Design Review Board and Board of Assessors.

The meeting was called to order at 6:33 p.m.
Present: All councilors, with Andy Steinberg (at-large) participating remotely.

Announcements 

Upcoming meetings: 

September 5: Joint meeting of the Finance Committee and Joint Capital Planning Committee

September 9: regular Town Council meeting

September 17: Joint meeting of the Town Council and the Amherst School Committee

September 21: Council retreat, open to the public. Place to be determined.

Barry Roberts, chair of the Business Improvement District (BID), introduced the new BID director, Gabrielle Gould, who recently moved here from Nantucket. Gould has started work and said that she is happy to live and work in Amherst.

Proclamation

To celebrate the Jewish Community of Amherst’s (JCA) 50th Anniversary. Eric Weiss, chairman of the JCA board, stated that the synagogue will sponsor a series of public programs over the coming year and a community party next June. The proclamation passed unanimously.

Eversource Public Hearing

A public hearing was held regarding a request by Eversource to remove the transformer box on the sidewalk on South Pleasant Street; to install a large transformer (6 feet high, 5 feet wide and 3 feet deep), in place of a smaller one, on the South Common. Eversource also wants to install an underground conduit duct from the Common to Spring Street, replacing the current poles and above-ground wires. The company wants to use horizontal drilling, which does not disrupt street usage. This change would benefit the apartment house planned by Archipelago developers for 26 Spring Street by creating additional space for on-street parking. Existing equipment needs to be upgraded and Eversource is trying to get away from sidewalk transformers. Eversource engineer, Nicholas Langone presented the project.

One of three large utility boxes on the Amherst South Common. Eversource proposes to replace one box near South Pleasant Street with a larger box, 6 feet high, five feet wide and three feet deep. Photo: Art Keene.

There was considerable discussion among the councilors, with concerns about placing such a large structure on the historic Town Common. Councilor Mandi-Jo Hanneke (at-large) asked about the rights of Eversource to upgrade its equipment on The Common. The Town Clerk will explore the stipulations on the use of the Common by the utility  as determined by Town Meeting about ten years ago. The Design Review Board and Historical Commission will also need to evaluate the plan. Discussion was continued until the September 9 meeting.

Jones Library Wages

Chris Crane, a Jones Library employee, expressed concerns about the wages of part- time employees in the public comment time. With the increase in minimum wage to $12 per hour, those making over that amount only received a two percent cost of living increase, which is less than their expected raise would be. Sarah McKee, former library trustee, spoke in favor of raising the amount to 2.5 percent to equal the expected increase. Workers who work less than 20 hours per week get no benefits other than sick time. The total cost of McKee’s proposed increase in salary would be $2700 for the year. Letters from Crane and McKee can be viewed here and here

Purchase of Hickory Ridge Golf Course

David Ziomek, Assistant Town Manager, presented a proposal to purchase Hickory Ridge golf course from Applied Golf of New Jersey. A proposed purchase and sale agreement for $520,000 has been signed. The property was appraised at $915,000 and includes 149 acres including the clubhouse and over one mile of land along the Fort River. There will be a 26 acre solar farm operated by the seller under a 20 year lease, and 18.5 acres are protected under the endangered species act, but there is ample remaining space for recreation. The golf cart paths are well maintained for accessibility. Some of the land, especially that along Pomeroy Lane, could be used for housing and the clubhouse could be used as a senior center or other public meeting place. 

A great blue heron relaxes near a green at the Hickory Ridge Golf Course. Photo: Art Keene.

Money from the Community Preservation Fund and sale of existing real estate will provide half of the funds for purchase, but the remaining $306,000 will need to appropriated by the town. The solar farm will generate tax income. The sale is pending the appropriation of funds, approval of a mutually accepted easement for the seller, and acceptance of the solar farm under the state’s SMART program. An outline of the proposal, including maps is presented here.

2019 Assessment of Real Estate

Retired Town Assessor, David Burgess, is staying on to do this year’s assessment of real estate. There are four categories in the assessment: residential, commercial, industrial and personal. It remains to be decided how this will be done. A copy of last year’s assessment can be found here. In the absence of a mayor, the report must be approved by the Town Council and will be certified by the Department of Revenue. Mr. Burgess offered to meet with councilors individually or as a group to go over the process. The report will be finished this fall. 

Rules of Procedure

Councilor Hanneke presented the corrected Rules of Procedure for the council. Most of the changes were minor, but the referrals to “clerk” were clarified as to whether it referred to the Town Clerk or the Clerk of the Council.

Formation of Working Groups

An hour-long discussion ensued as to the ability of the council to form working groups to deal with defined issues. The Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee approved a draft for the creation of working groups, but the Council president , Lynn Griesemer, received an opinion from the town attorney, KP Law, stating that according to the charter, all council appointments must be made by the Council President. This would substantially diminish the usefulness of working groups which were conceived as being formed within committees on an expedient short term basis. Hanneke and Griesemer raised the issues of transparency and perceived cronyism if committees appointed people without requiring applications. (Note: currently, applications for committee positions are not made public, so they could be subject to the same criticism re: lack of transparency).

The immediate issue was resolved by Griesemer making a motion to form an ad hoc committee to rewrite the Percent for Art Bylaw so it addresses the concerns raised by the Massachusetts Legislature after the bylaw was passed by Town Meeting in 2017.. The committee will have three councilors appointed by Griesemer and two active members of the Public Art Commission. The ad hoc committee will present a report to the Finance Committee and Community Resources Committee by October 31 and to the full council by November 30. This motion was seconded by Steve Schreiber and passed 10 to 3, with councilors Hanneke, Ross and Swartz voting against.

Affordable Housing Policy

John Hornik, chairman of the Affordable Housing Trust, pointed out that Amherst does not have a policy on Affordable Housing. He proposed that Amherst create 250 affordable units over the next five years. The full proposal with background information is presented here. The matter was referred to the Community Resources and Finance Committees by a unanimous vote.

Town Manager Evaluation

There was a brief review of the Town Manager Evaluation with some minor clarifications. The draft report is here. The report was accepted by an 11-0 vote, with Steinberg absent and Councilor Darcy DuMont abstaining.

Town Manager’s Report

Town Manager appointments to the Design Review Board and Board of Assessors were endorsed by the Outreach, Communications, and Appointments Committee and approved unanimously by the Council (Steinberg absent). Lindsay Schnarr (reappointed, 3 year term), Catharine Porter (reappointed, 2 year term), and Erika Zekos (new appointee, 1 year term) were appointed to the Design Review Board. Their qualifications are listed here.  Legrand Hines and Ken Hargreaves were reappointed to the Board of Assessors. Their qualifications are here

The Town Manager’s Report was greatly abbreviated due to the late hour. Manager Paul Bockelman stated that the Ranked-Choice Voting Commission has been meeting regularly and met with the town attorney to see what they will need to obtain state approval. 

The town will be recruiting for a new principal assessor. 

The Community Participation Officers will be going to all school opening events as well as the first night celebration. They are also working with the Complete Count Committee and the Ranked-Choice Voting Commission.

After approval of minutes and brief comments from councilors, the meeting adjourned at 11 PM and the councilors went into executive session to discuss contract negotiations with town employees and the Town Manager.

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