Public Forum On Buying Belchertown Road Parcels For Affordable Housing, Followed By Regular Town Council Meeting

Photo; Pixbay.com

The meeting was held as a Zoom webinar.  It was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 17 and was recorded.  At the time of writing,  the recording was not available on the Amherst Media website. 

Participating: all Councilors

Highlights

  • Council discusses borrowing for purchase of Belchertown Road properties for affordable housing
  • Council passes proclamations for Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and National Day of Recollection
  • A presentation on current COVID-19 in Amherst is given
  • Redesign of planned Pomeroy Village intersection is discussed
  • Library Trustees are asked to provide information on plans for renovating the Jones Library

Public Forum about Belchertown Road Site for Affordable Housing
The Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) has unanimously recommended that the Town borrow $600,000 for purchase of 2.6 acres at 74 and 80 Belchertown Road for the purpose of building affordable housing. 

Amherst Affordable Housing Trust Chair John Hornik noted that for every dollar CPAC spends on affordable housing, the Town gets $8 in return from state housing programs. Many families are barely getting by, with the end of the Covid-related eviction moratorium and the general economic stress brought on by the pandemic, and Amherst has fallen far short of the goal, put forth in the 2013 Housing Production Plan of creating 45 affordable units per year. This purchase offers a prime opportunity to increase the supply of badly needed affordable units in town. The property cost for the estimated 40 units planned would be about $20,000 per unit, which is reasonable for Amherst. The Housing Trust will contribute $200,000 to the purchase, and the amount borrowed will be repaid from CPAC funds, not by taxpayers.

Building Commissioner Rob Morra said that the preliminary concept for the site is a three-story building with 13,000 square feet per floor. This would allow an average of 740 square feet per unit and still leave a lot of open space. The site also abuts a 20-acre conservation area.

The proposal received enthusiastic support from several members of the public. It was referred to the Finance Committee and Community Resources Committee and will be brought back for a vote by the entire Council at its January 25 meeting.

The Public Forum adjourned at 8:49 p.m.

Regular Council Meeting
The Council unanimously passed resolutions proclaiming January 18, 2021 as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Day , January 19 as a National Day of Recollection for those who died due to COVID-19 , and the month of February 2021 as Black History month.  Activities associated with these events will be posted on the Town website.

COVID Update 
Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Health Director Emma Dragon presented reports on the state of COVID-19 in Amherst. On December 14, there were 124 active cases of COVID-19 in Amherst. As of this meeting, there were 92. These span all ages from children to the elderly. The vast majority are the result of household contacts. Over the three days of testing of people who were symptomatic at Mill River testing site, there was a 10 percent positivity rate. Testing for asymptomatic people at the Mullins Center is easy and quick. Sign up at https://uma.force.com/covidtesting/s/ 

Vaccine Availability
Vaccine administration for first responders will begin at UMass on January 11. The Town has secured freezer space for the vaccine. Phase 2 of the vaccine administration will begin in February and March and will include people with two or more comorbidities, those ages 65 and over, and K-12 teachers and other workers with contact with the public. Phase 3 will make vaccines available to the general public and should begin in April.

Alisa Brewer (at large) asked if the Town requires flu vaccines for the staff. Bockelman replied that the Town does not require any vaccines, but he feels confident that most of the public safety staff will get vaccinated for COVID-19. The vaccine will be readily available to them.

Mass Works Pomeroy Village Grant 
The Town received a $1.5 million MassWorks Infrastructure Grant to redesign the intersection of West Street and Pomeroy Lane. The Town is weighing the relative advantages of a roundabout or redesigned signals. Both would cost approximately the same. The decision must be made by July 1, 2021 and the money spent by June 30, 2023. The plan will include improving the sidewalks and bus stops in the area.

Public input is encouraged. There was already a good discussion at the December District 5 meeting. The Town will reach out to businesses and residents in the area. Councilors were encouraged to send questions to Bockelman. The matter will be discussed further at subsequent meetings.

Capital Inventory 
Section 5.7(a) of the Charter requires inventory of all capital buildings and vehicles, specifying their condition and value. It should also include energy efficiency. Brewer pointed out that there was not a lot of detail given. She also said she thinks it is important to know what zoning district buildings are in and if any strings are attached to the structures that would limit their use. Darcy DuMont (District 5) said a master list would be helpful because some buildings, such as schools, may be on several lists.

Memo Requesting Information on Plans for Jones Library 
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) revised a previously discussed memo requesting information from the Jones Library Trustees regarding a comparison between renovation of the existing structure, and their proposed demolition of the 1993 addition and construction of a larger new wing. The revised memo was based on a discussion at the December 21 Council meeting. 

The new memo was placed in the Council packet on the day of this meeting. DuMont said that this did not give Councilors enough time to review the text before voting on it. Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) wanted to know updated costs for construction in 2022 as opposed to the costs in the 2019 proposal. Brewer pointed out that the Council can ask for more information later, before a required public hearing.

By a 12-0-1 vote (DuMont abstaining), the Council authorized Griesemer to send the new memo to the Library Trustees, as the Council needs more information before it can evaluate the project.

Town Manager Report 
The full Town Manager report is printed elsewhere in this issue of the Indy and can also be read here.  Bockelman reported that the Community Safety Working Group has been meeting weekly and is trying to organize two public forums (January 13, 16) (add link). The group will be challenged to make a preliminary report by the end-of-January deadline, but Bockelman will give an update of their work at the January 25 Council meeting.

The Town website has been updated. Although the design is not complete, it is more user friendly.

Councilors Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) are exploring anti-racism workshops for the Council. DeAngelis said Councilors need to examine how white racism has shaped them. The two will bring their findings to a meeting in February.

Election of Officers
The meeting then moved to the election of Council President and Vice President.. Lynn Griesemer was re-elected to a third term as Council President. Evan Ross was elected as the Council’s new Vice President, replacing Mandi Jo Hanneke, who chose not to run for re-election. Details here .

The meeting adjourned at 11:22 p.m.

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