DISTRICT 4 MEETING BRINGS RESIDENTS UP TO SPEED

Map of Amherst's Electoral Districts Under the New Town Charter.

About 20 residents of District 4 turned out the evening of October 17, 2019  at the Bangs Center for that District’s second public meeting of 2019. Amherst’s new charter mandates two such meetings annually for each of Amherst’s five new electoral districts.  This meeting saw vigorous questioning on a slate of critical town issues and projects, most of them with hefty price tags. 

District 4 Councilors Steven Schrieber and Evan Ross followed up on the priorities that constituents had set in May at their first such meeting. These were for infrastructure, parking, affordable housing,  increasing tax revenue and the town’s four proposed capital projects: new fire station, new DPW building, schools, and Jones Library’s demolition/expansion project. They also reported on new issues that will be coming before the Town Council, and asked about goals for the Town Manager and Council. 

The biggest piece of news was unexpected and came near the end of the meeting. A participant who described himself as a UMass employee, and who said that the Town should know, reported that UMass plans to double its size by 2040.  Schreiber noted that the UMass undergraduate enrollment this year is up by 700 students, and that housing those students off-campus at four students per house would take 175 houses. 

Infrastructure: Roads and  Water Treatment Plant Improvement

The Town will invest $1 million plus $841,883 from the state on roads. 

One capital project not included in the four mentioned above is $10 – $11 million to repair and improve the Town’s Centennial Water Treatment Plant, located in Pelham. The Centennial Plant has been out of commission since a lightning strike five years ago. It has had no major modifications since it was built in 1981.  Town Council will vote this coming Monday on borrowing $692,000 for an engineering study for this project.   

Four Capital Projects: Why this timing?

The Council plans a series of listening sessions to seek residents’ views concerning these projects. A participant questioned the finances of tackling the fire station, DPW building, schools, and Jones Library projects so close together instead of spreading them out, especially in light of the water treatment plant project. Schreiber replied that borrowing for these new projects would be paid off over 30 years, and that a certain amount of staggering will in fact occur. 

The only site currently under consideration for a new fire station is where the DPW is currently located on South Pleasant Street. Construction of a new DPW building must therefore precede a new fire station. The school project’s timing depends on the Massachusetts School Building Authority responses to Amherst’s application for a grant. The Town expects to be notified of its place in the queue in mid-December. Timing for the Jones Library’s proposed project would depend on a potential construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). These funds may be available soon, perhaps as early as June 2020. Amherst is currently  second on the waiting list. 

Parking Consultants’ Report

Discussion of parking was spirited. New downtown construction for student housing has little to no parking. Some parking lots charge for parking until 8 p.m., whereas payment for street parking in Northampton cuts off at 7 p.m.  The consultants’ report, presented to the Council in September, concerned downtown parking only. Attendees wondered about planning for adequate parking in the developing Pomeroy, Atkins, and North Amherst village centers? And Amherst does not yet have a vibrant enough public transportation system to reduce the number of cars. The consultants suggested that the town consider hiring a  full-time Town staff member devoted to parking issues and attendees suggested that if a parking director was hired that their focus should be on parking town-wide. Ross noted that signs indicating where to find public parking would help. The lot behind Town Hall is little used in the evening, as is the town lot behind CVS. Predicting whether you’ll be able to find parking, e.g., because of major events, is also important. The Downtown Parking Working Group will make recommendations based on those of the consultants.

Energy and Climate Action Committee Reports

After holding two public forums and interviewing a number of stakeholders, Town Council’s Energy and Climate Action Committee will submit initial climate goals to the Council by November 19th. The likely goals are a 50% emissions reduction by 2030, and becoming carbon neutral by 2045 or 2050. These will be for Town government and residents, not for institutions such as the colleges and university.   

One question from the audience concerned making the proposed Jones Library project more environmentally sustainable by renovating within its existing footprint. This would be instead of  demolishing the 1993 addition and gutting most of the original Library and then adding 35,000 square feet of new construction. Schreiber, head of the UMass architecture department, said that the early 1990s were the “worst possible” time to build in terms of what we know about environmental issues. Nonetheless, the project as approved by the MBLC fails to qualify for even the lowest level of LEED certification. 

Affordable Housing: How Much?

Amherst’s goals for affordable housing within the next 5 – 10 years are 250 units for households earning less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI), and 100 units for those earning between 80% and 100% of the AMI.  Meeting participant and Affordable Housing Trust member Rob Crowner said that Amherst needs more affordable housing than this.  

Questions posed concerned how Amherst determines need (from experts),  whether there’s opportunity for public comment on the project for studio apartments to be built onto the house at 132 Northampton Road, and for which the Town has appropriated Community Preservation Act funding (yes, at Housing Trust meetings, on the 2nd Thursday of each month); and whether Amherst is talking with adjacent towns about affordable housing, as this is a regional issue (no, but it was taken to be a  good idea).

Hickory Ridge Golf Club Purchase

Town Council plans to vote this Monday to allocate $306,000 from free cash to complete the Town’s purchase of the former Hickory Ridge Golf Club’s 150 acres. This includes the clubhouse. “Free Cash” is money that the Town has appropriated for previous uses but did not spend. The Council plans a public process to determine how to use the parcel’s 20 acres of developable land.  Conservation, trails, etc.,will take 104 acres. Ross noted that this will protect an endangered mussel species that lives in the Fort River. The seller will retain an easement on 26 acres for a solar farm, paying an initial $39,000 per year in lieu of the $30,000 per year in taxes that they now pay.  

Updating Amherst’s General Bylaws.

Ross is serving on a committee to conform the Town’s general bylaws both to the new town Charter and to the 21st century. Many have been unrevised since 1938. The Town Attorney has weighed in on some that are not constitutional. The committee’s draft recommendations will be available to the public by the  November 5. The Council will vote on these in December. 

Town Officials’ Contacts and Residents Input

How residents can learn of District meetings, and have input into town decisions, was a participant-driven topic. One suggestion was for the annual town census form to include a question for email address, to be used for Council notifications only. 

Residents can contact Councilor Evan Ross at rosse@amherstma.gov; facebook.com/CouncilorEvanRoss; twitter.com/Evan4Amherst.  Contact Councilor Steven Schreiber at schreiber@amherstma.gov; facebook.com/SteveAmherstTownCouncil.

An excellent contact for input into Town matters is Executive Assistant to the Town Manager Angela Mills. She was on staff for years at Crocker Farm School, was at the District 4 meeting, and is responsible for encouraging residents’ participation in Town government.  Reach her at millsa@amherstma.gov; main 413.259.3002; direct phone 413.259.3292.

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