REPORT: AMHERST TOWN COUNCIL MEETING (11/18/19)

Amherst Town Council Meeting, Town Room, Town Hall, Amherst. Photo: Maura Keene

All Councilors present.
Staff: Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Council Clerk Athena O’Keefe
The meeting was called to order at 5:30 p.m.

Highlights:

  • Plans for the upcoming town listening sessions on major capital projects were reviewed. 
  • The Council adopted the recommendations of the Energy and Climate Action Committee for town energy/climate goals. 
  • The Parking Working Group presented its final report
  • The Council discussed parking problems in the town center. 

Capital Projects Listening Sessions
The meeting opened  with a discussion of listening sessions for the four proposed capital projects  that are being considered by the town. There will be two sessions each, on December 3 and December 9.  

The town is developing a Powerpoint presentation to show that there is a perceived need for each project—a new elementary school, a new fire station,   a new Department of Public Works (DPW) building, and demolition/expansion/redesign of the Jones Library.. There will also be videos of representatives from each department.  The cost of the projects combined exceeds the debt limit of the town, so a debt exclusion (override) might be needed. The Massachusetts School Building Authority will announce in December whether it will accept Amherst into the Commonwealth’s school building and funding pipeline.  The library will learn whether it will qualify for state funding in July. The town hopes to identify a site for the DPW facility next spring.

Topics for the listening sessions were developed by a steering committee consisting mostly of town staff and Council President Lynn Greisemer (District 2).  The listening sessions will hear presentations from the Town and then break into small groups for discussion, with reports shared at the end.

Flyers are being posted around town announcing the sessions .  A “Frequently Asked Questions” document compiled by Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (At-Large) will be posted soon on the town website. 

The Council unanimously approved proceeding with the listening sessions.\

Proclamations

Proclamations to accept the creation of Small Business Saturday on November. 30, and to support the restoration of the Goodwin Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church on Woodside Avenue were passed unanimously.  The church has raised over $30,000 through fundraising, and received a $25,000 Community Preservation Act grant in 2015 to conduct an archaeological survey.. It is one of the oldest continuously operating Black churches in the Northeast.  Roger Wallace and Peter Blood gave a presentation about the church’s history and progress on the project.

Town Energy Goals
Recommendations from the Energy and Climate Action Committee (ECAC) were presented by Laura Drauker, ECAC Chair, and Andra Rose, Vice Chair.  The committee has been meeting every two weeks since May 22, and had a six-hour retreat moderated by Russ Vernon-Jones on August. 6. Members have gathered community input in  two public forums, a staffed booth at the BID’s block party, and by attending fall festivals at several apartment complexes. Staff Liaison and Sustainability Coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello conducted more than  50 in-depth interviews with members of the public and town staff. In total, input was obtained from over 250 individuals. Wide support was shown for the committee’s work.

The committee identified barriers, both real and  speculative, including costs, competing needs for funds, and lack of proven technologies.   It decided to focus on transportation (electric vehicles and infrastructure for walking and biking),  energy use, and renewable energy use through a community choice aggregation program. Members wanted to focus on solutions to involve vulnerable populations, education to involve young people, and quality of life improvements including green jobs.  They felt that the mindset of the community and country was shifting, and that more people than before are willing to devote resources to reducing climate change.

The committee’s goals are to decrease greenhouse gasses by 50 percent below 2016 levels by 2030, and to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.  This is in line with the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change 2018 Report, which states a rise of 1.5 degrees Centigrade will create grave consequences worldwide.  A third goal is to prepare for carbon neutrality by 2030 by planning and advocating for state and federal action,and taking advantage of technical advances. 

Drauker said she believes the costs of these ambitious goals would not be prohibitive.  For instance, renters who pay their own utilities are already paying into Mass Save, but only get the benefit of energy savings if the landlord arranges for an audit.  A green leasing program would require energy-saving audits for rental properties, which would benefit both landlords and tenants.

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, and Hampshire College have committed to being carbon neutral by 2030, and the state is working on programs to encourage net zero or minimal fossil fuel use in construction.  There are tools available to track energy use and ascertain whether the town is achieving its goals.

Several councilors commented on the report.  Steinberg pointed out that there will be increased costs for implementing the goals, competing with the major capital projects that have been proposed. Councilor Sarah Swartz (District 1) wanted to make sure the needs of small farmers are taken into account in the plan, and Drauker pointed out that all three colleges in town have farms and are working on no-till planting, composting, and other energy-saving measures.  Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) expressed the need to coordinate with the rest of the region on shared air and water resources.. Councilor Alisa Brewer (At-Large) encouraged all to move forward and said that “continually reminding me of the school bus decision is not helpful.” She was referring to the Council’s recent decision to acquire a diesel school bus rather than look into less-polluting options.

Several audience members, including three high school students, spoke in support of the goals.  John Root, Chair of the town’s Recycling and Refuse Management Committee, pointed out the role of waste in energy use and noted that the town’s plan for waste management, created more than five years ago, has not been implemented.

Councilor Mandi-Jo Hanneke (At-Large) proposed referring the goals to the Community Resources and Finance committees for further study.  This was defeated 12 to 1 (Hanneke dissenting), as the rest of the councilors felt that neither of these committees would substantially add to the ECAC’s work.  A rule in the new charter, that a measure cannot be presented and voted on in the same meeting except in an emergency, was suspended by a vote of 12-1 (Hanneke dissenting) and the ECAC recommendations then passed unanimously.  It was noted that as the recommendations are implemented, most changes in infrastructure, purchases, and zoning will need to come before the Council.

Parking

The final report of the Downtown Parking Working Group was presented by Economic Development Director Geoff Kravitz and Committee Chair Christine Gray-Mullen.  Kravitz and Gray-Mullen summarized the recommendations in Nelson/Nygard’s August 2019 report, and advised focusing  on three of the recommendations.

 (1) Appoint a permanent parking coordinator to implement and enforce parking regulations and look at alternative transportation to minimize the need for parking. 

(2) Establish a funding source to pay for improvements in downtown parking, such as a Parking Benefit District, and 

(3) Develop consistent signage for parking,and update the town parking website frequently.

Several councilors and Town Manager Paul Bockelman questioned the need for a paid parking coordinator, given other priorities facing the town.  Brewer pointed out that town government has been asking for better parking signage since 2007. The group’s recommendations were referred to the Community Resources Committee, and the Downtown Parking Working Group was dissolved by unanimous vote.

Amendments to the Rules 
Chair of the Government Organization and Legislation Committee George Ryan (District 3) presented amendments to Rules of Procedure Rules 10.4 and 10.5 regarding ad hoc committees.  These were discussed at the October 2 Council meeting, andpassed unanimously with the exception of  District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam, who abstained.

An amendment to Rules of Procedure Rule 10.9 about councilor liaisons to other town committees was given an initial reading.  This rule states that liaisons are to provide information between committees and the Council.  They are not to represent that their views are the views of of the ouncil, and they are not to sit with the committee or participate in committee discussions.  District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont felt the rules were unfriendly in tone, but Hanneke pointed out that not only do councilor-liaisons have to know their purpose, but committee chairs need to be clear on them .  Councilors who are not liaisons may attend and participate in committees as members of the public.

Miscellaneous
It was decided that Council President Lynn Griesemer and Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg will represent the Council at the Four Towns meeting on Dec. 7 at 9 a.m.  in the Amherst Regional Middle School Auditorium.

Town Manager appointments  to the Agricultural Commission, Cultural Council, Disability Access Advisory Committee, Human Rights Commission, Munson Library Building Trustees, and Transportation Advisory Committee were confirmed unanimously with little discussion.  

Committee Reports 

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross stated that a draft of the new bylaws would be presented at the December 16 Council meeting.  Hanneke reported that the Community Resources Committee (CRC) has offered suggestions about a proposed affordable housing policy  The CRC plans to discuss speed limit recommendation  and the Percent for Art Bylaw at its December 4 meeting.

The Finance Committee also commented on the proposed affordable housing policy and Percent for Art Bylaw.  Ross stated that the Outreach, Communications and Appointments Committee (OCA) is working on filling vacancies on the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, prior to revising the appointment process.

Bockelman announced that:

* the next Cuppa Joe will be on December 13 at Amherst Coffee

* Craig’s Doors shelter opened on time on November 1, and is running well with new staff members;

* several town staffers have served recently on statewide panels, which is a testament to the good work being done by the town;

* a very successful Veterans Day breakfast was organized by the Senior Services and  Veterans’ Services coordinators;

* the Senior Center has been asked to set up its senior advice booth, Ask a Senior, at Amherst College during final exams. 

After review and amendment, minutes from previous meetings were passed with no objections.

More on Parking in the Center of Town
There was  a lengthy discussion about parking on several streets near the center of town, including Lincoln, Gaylord and Kendrick Place.   The Council was unsure which committee should study this, the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC), Community Resources Committee (CRC), or the Council as a whole, and questioned when a public hearing should take place. Dorothy Pam (District 3) stated that Lincoln Avenue residents have formed a neighborhood committee because of safety concerns on their street and that she has received 30 or 40 letters from them over the past few months.  No process was agreed upon, but Bockelman said that the TAC will discuss the matter at its meeting on November 20 and that there will be a presentation to the Council, with reports from the Public Works, Fire, and Police departments. Brewer objected to Bockelman taking the lead on this issue, since the Council is the keeper of the public ways and felt the TAC was not the proper venue to discuss parking., and the Downtown Parking Working Group was just disbanded earlier in the meeting. District 1 councilor Swartz lamented that this was the first she has heard of these problems, but Pam noted that Open Meeting Law prevented her from discussing it with other councilors outside of a posted meeting.  No resolution was reached. 

More Odds and Ends
Schoen asked about a timeline for renovation of the North Amherst Library.  Bockelman said that Kuhn Riddle Architects hopes to have a report with cost estimates by the end of December.

Griesemer announced that further study has found that the proposed DPW site on South East Street is unsuitable,and unpopular with abutters.  The town is continuing to look for an appropriate site.

The next meeting will be on December 2 at 5:30 p.m.  at the Middle School Auditorium. 

The Clerk of the Council will conduct the election of the Council President and Vice President. Griesemer proposed that current   officers continue to serve for one month so that subsequent twelve-month terms will correspond with calendar years. The Council meeting will be followed by the State of the Town address at 6:30 p.m.

The meeting adjourned at 11:45 p.m. .

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