Report On The. Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council, September 12, 2022. Part 2
This meeting was held in Town Hall and on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.
In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Andy Steinberg (at large), Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5)
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Remote participation: Ellisha Walker (at large), Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
- Real estate transfer fee is proposed to supplement town budget.
- Acceptance of roads in the Meadows subdivision moves forward.
- The public will be permitted to attend Town Council meetings in person.
- ZBA appointments are still on hold due to shortage of applicants.
On Saturday, September 17, the Amherst Farmers’ Market will celebrate its 50th anniversary. There will be a special program at 10 a.m.
State Senator Jo Comerford will be at the Jones Library at 10:30 on September 17.
Puerto Rican Heritage Day will be celebrated on September 23, with the Puerto Rican flag to fly at Town Hall from September 23 to September 29. The resolution affirming the creation of the Heritage Day was sponsored by councilors Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Pam Rooney (District 4)
Special Legislation To Allow The Town To Collect A Real Estate Transfer Fee For Certain Transactions
Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) and Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) proposed that the town collect a two percent fee on all real estate transactions of properties sold for more than 200% over the mean home price as well as properties that will not be owner occupied or the primary residence of the buyer, to help manage soaring capital and operating costs. Several other towns already have these transfer fees, but the state requires a special act by the legislature before the fee can be levied.
The councilors suggest that the first $250,000 of the fees collected go to the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, and the rest go into a special fund to support capital projects and operating costs. If the special act is passed, the town will write a bylaw to establish transfer fees.
Most councilors spoke favorably of the proposal, but Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) worried that the fee might “disincentivize” people from purchasing houses in Amherst. She wanted information about how it might affect the house sales. Hanneke said that the wording on the bylaw would be vague enough for the town to adjust the percentage charged or even eliminate the fee if it has a negative effect on the housing market. Jennifer Taub (District 3) noted that the fee would be a way to differentiate for-profit (income-producing) housing from housing that serve as primary residences.
The council voted unanimously to refer the matter to the Finance Committee and Governance Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) for recommendations due by October 27.
Roads In The Meadows Subdivision Considered For Acceptance By The Town
At the suggestion of DPW Superintendent Gilford Mooring, residents of the Meadow subdivision (Hopbrook and Kestrel Lanes) petitioned the Town Council to accept their roads as public ways. The subdivision was approved in 1995 with a stated intention for its roads to be town roads. In 2004, when the subdivision was completed, a few items had to be completed before the roads could be finished. Because of the death of developer Doug Kohl, and with Ted Parker taking over this and other Tofino Associates projects, the roads were never finished and are now in need further repair.
Residents came before the Planning Board twice in the last few months to say that they had met with Mooring and Town Engineer Jason Skeels in 2021 and asked what Tofino Associates needed to complete for the town to accept the roads, but had not heard back from the town. Also, in a 2001 agreement between Kohl and the Planning Department, the town was to have collected $130,000 from the developer as surety to make sure the roads were finished, but only $20,000 was collected— not enough to do the work currently required.
With the matter seeming to be at an impasse, the Meadows Homeowners’ Association petitioned the council to incorporate the streets into the town’s jurisdiction. HOA president Doug Donnell and resident Connie Kruger presented a history of the subdivision and their efforts to resolve the problem of the unfinished work.
Since the council has never been asked to authorize acceptance of roads into the town inventory, Planning Director Chris Brestrup said that authorization has to be approved by both the Planning Board and the Finance Committee before the full council vote. Cathy Schoen (District 1) asked how acceptance of the roads would benefit the town. Skeels answered that if the roads were allowed to continue to deteriorate and the HOA could not afford to fix them, they could present a hazard to emergency vehicles and school buses, as well as private automobiles. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) brought up a related matter, asking why a small road in her district, Allen Mill Road, cannot be a public way. Skeels said that Allen Mill Road was not built to “subdivision standards”, as are the Meadows’ roads. Allen Mill Road, he said, is too narrow to be considered a public way. The council voted unanimously to express its intent to accept the Meadows’ roads as public ways and referred the matter to the Planning Board and Finance Committee.
Meeting Format Discussed Again
For at least the sixth time in the past two and a half years, the council discussed how to meet. Recently, they have been meeting in a hybrid fashion, with some councilors in the Town Room and some participating remotely. The public has only been allowed to participate in person at one council meeting since the pandemic began. With the latest agreement expiring on September 30 and with Governor Charlie Baker extending the emergency order permitting remote meetings until March 31, 2023, the council again discussed the topic.
Several councilors said they would like the option of the public to be present in person. Town Manager Paul Bockelman noted that the capacity of the Town Room during COVID is 40, which would allow about 25 people in the audience if all councilors and associated staff were present. He added that chairs would need to be rearranged for social distancing.
Michele Miller (District 1) said she had some security concerns about having meetings open to the public, but Bockelman said there is no way to restrict who is allowed to attend since Town Hall is a public building. Dorothy Pam (District 3) thought that most members of the public would prefer a remote option for these long meetings, but that several of her constituents want to know who is watching meetings.
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) said she is no longer wedded to in-person meetings and that she would like the format approved at this meeting to be in effect until the first meeting of the next council if state law permits it, so that meeting format does not have to be a frequent topic of discussion.
The hybrid format for council meetings for both councilors and the public was approved unanimously, meaning henceforth, members of the public may attend Town Council meetings in person.
For council committees, Bockelman informed the councilors that the hybrid meeting format would require much more work for the IT staff, and meetings could only be held in the Town Room since that was the only room in Town Hall equipped for hybrid meetings. Hanneke said that although she prefers in-person meetings, she sees the advantage of virtual meetings in encouraging public participation, and feels that insisting on in-person meetings is probably a losing battle. She added that hybrid meetings are not a good use of the IT staff.
The council voted unanimously to keep the council committee meetings virtual.
Still Not Enough Applicants For The Zoning Board Of Appeals
Hanneke announced that the pool of applicants for associate positions on the ZBA is still insufficient for the Community Resources Committee to hold interviews. In a controversial vote in July, the council narrowly rejected the application of John Varner to serve as an Associate Member on the ZBA.
The meeting was adjourned at 10:54 p.m. The council will meet again on September 19, with a primer and public forum on the Master Plan before the regular council meeting. The Master Plan discussion will begin at 5:30 p.m.