At the end of a marathon Council meeting on November 18th, Town Council President Lynn Griesemer announced that the Town is no longer considering a parcel of land on South East Street for a future Department of Public Works (DPW) facility. The parcel in question is owned by Amherst College and is adjacent to the Misty Meadows neighborhood, which includes Tamarack Drive and Willow Lane.
At a series of neighborhood meetings since June, and most recently on November 4th, abutters had strongly objected to building a DPW facility at that location, citing many concerns including the proximity to residential homes, noise, the potential for flooding, wetlands, wildlife, potential for pollution, and the need for rezoning.
Griesemer, who along with Pat DeAngelis represents the district in which the proposed site is located, said “having conducted considerable outreach in the neighborhood and additional research of the site and the challenges it presents, we’ve decided to look at other sites instead.” The Council President referred to an email that had been sent by Town Manager Paul Bockelman to all Councilors announcing the decision. The email was not included in the publicly-available packet for the Council meeting. Reached by phone, Bockelman said it was a group decision with District 2 Councilors and Town staff to move on from the South East Street site.
DeAngelis, reached via email, said that Town staff had walked the property, consulted endangered species and wetland maps, and recognized there would be a need to change the zoning to permit the proposed change in use. No new studies on wetlands or endangered species had been undertaken since the project had not progressed to the schematic design stage. DeAngelis said that the Councilors and Town staff were very aware of the neighbors’ concerns. “It is the combination of these various issues that lead to the recent decision to explore other properties,” she said.
Reached by phone, Cathy Bennett, the President of the Misty Meadows Homeowners’ Association that had organized in opposition to the proposed site, had not yet heard the news. However, she said she was very happy with the decision. The Association had invited Councilors Griesemer and DeAngelis to attend their neighborhood meeting on November 4th and Bennett said she felt they had “listened carefully to our concerns.” Bennett said she didn’t think the site was appropriate for a DPW facility due to the water-related issues and possible contamination of the Fort River from runoff.
When asked what’s next in finding a suitable site, Griesemer replied via email, “the Town Manager is working with staff to identify other sites, including going back to the 2016 DPW study as well as sites that were not available for consideration at the time of the study. A table similar to that which appear in the study will be developed using the same and possible additional criteria. Once that information has been collected, the Town will explore those sites.”
The 2016 study estimated the cost at $38 million for a 79,000 square-foot facility. The top three sites at that time were the Fort River School, Old Farm Road, and Ball Lane. During recent Finance Committee meetings, project budgets beginning at $20 million have been used for modeling purposes to test against available funding and debt capacity restrictions. The earlier $38 million estimate had been described as “unrealistic” by Capital Projects Director, Sean Mangano.
Finding a suitable site for a DPW facility has proved challenging due to the nature of its use, the large parcel needed for the facility, and the desire for a central location. The current DPW location at 586 South Pleasant Street has been described by town officials as the preferred site for a future Fire Station Headquarters, meaning a new DPW facility would need to be completed before construction of a fire station can begin.
According to an information sheet that will be handed out at “listening sessions” on the major capital projects on December 3rd and 9th, the DPW is responsible for maintaining roads, water/sewer lines, pump stations, water/wastewater treatment facilities, 5 water supply wells, 2 reservoirs, 3 cemeteries, 80 acres of playing fields/parks/commons, 2 pools, sidewalks, and parking lots.
The DPW does not maintain roads on the university or college campuses, other than the few through-roads that are town ways like North Pleasant Street and College Street, and they do not plow the roadways in the apartment complexes. The department’s annual operations and maintenance budget is roughly $2.4 million, plus another $10.5 million across four Enterprise Funds — Water, Sewer, Solid Waste and Transportation.
In 2018, the Public Works department had 65 full-time employees, with an additional 19 part-time and seasonal staff. The department has approximately 80 vehicles — all of which would need to be accommodated if a consolidated facility is pursued. Funding of $50,000 for an inventory of all Town vehicles and equipment was included in the FY20 budget, which will presumably examine whether the current fleet size is merited. No comparables to similarly-sized municipalities have been provided as yet that would demonstrate benchmarks for staff, vehicles/equipment, and facility size.