Report On The Special Meeting of The Amherst Town Council, December 12, 2022
This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Councilors in the Town Room: President Lynn Griesemer (District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4) , Ana Devlin Gauthier and Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5)
Participating on Zoom: Ellisha Walker (at large), Dorothy Pam (District 3), and Michele Miller (District 1).
Staff present in the Town Room: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Council Waters Down Resolution Regarding Artificial Turf
This special Town Council meeting was necessitated because of the prolonged discussion at the meeting on December 5 to reconsider a council decision that denied contributing $900,000 from free cash to a plan to upgrade the high school track using artificial turf for the enclosed playing field. Several items on the December 5 agenda were postponed until this meeting.. A compromise motion at the December 5 meeting allows the funds allocated by the town to be used for either grass or synthetic turf. Earlier, the Regional School Committee (RSC) and Community Preservation Act Committee had made it clear that only synthetic turf could be used for the new track and field. (CPA funds cannot be used for the turf itself.) The compromise allows the RSC to shift to grass should they wish to pursue an alternative to synthetic turf as the plans develop. The compromise motion passed unanimously.
Also, at the December 5 council meeting, Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) had proposed a nonbinding resolution urging the RSC to study the risks of synthetic turf to the environment and to the health and safety of the athletes using it. However, Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) objected to the resolution. After repeatedly referring to a PFAS researcher who has not studied the risks of PFAS in artificial turf and a UMass statistician who believes the risk of PFAS in turf is “minimal” but whose work focuses on personalized exercise monitoring, Bahl-Milne stated that there is “no evidence” demonstrating a danger of PFAS exposure from synthetic turf and then used her prerogative under section 2.10(c) of the Town Charter to unilaterally stop debate on the resolution until the next council meeting.
In the meantime, the Amherst Board of Health, after thoroughly reviewing many reports for its December 8 meeting, felt that there are significant probable dangers posed by synthetic turf and recommended that the field at the high school be upgraded with natural grass.
In the week since the December 5 meeting, Bahl-Milne and Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) met with Miller to craft a substitute resolution that weakened the original by removing any inference that PFAS in artificial turf might pose a danger that merits further study by the town.
The original resolution stated:
“WHEREAS, the Amherst Town Council acknowledges that artificial turf has recently come under scrutiny, with several Amherst Town Councilors, one Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee member, and many members of the public expressing concern about the health and environmental safety of artificial turf, particularly with respect to per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of chemicals often referred to as “forever chemicals….”
The new text states:
“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Amherst Town Council supports the need to further investigate the impacts of PFAS in all consumer products in our community, continuing to learn about the impacts of newer materials of artificial turf in our community, and taking legislative action to address such impacts.”
The new resolution also misstates that “members of the Board of Health expressed concern about the health and environmental safety of artificial turf” when actually, the Board of Health motion states that it “does not support the installation of artificial turf at this time”.
Miller defended the amended resolution, stating it is balanced in recognizing the concerns of athletes and coaches about the poor condition of the athletic fields while also raising some concern about using artificial turf, but doesn’t take sides. Cathy Schoen (District 1) labeled the new resolution “weak” and said, “It “doesn’t say anything,” but Hanneke asserted that the Regional School Committee is an equal to the Town Council because its members are elected by the public “[so] we shouldn’t tell them what to do.”
The amended resolution passed by a 10-2-1 vote with Ellisha Walker (at large) and Dorothy Pam (District 3) voting no, and Schoen abstaining.
First Reading Of New Bylaws For Restaurants And Bars Receives Favorable Reception
Town Planner Nate Malloy summarized changes in the Zoning Bylaw for permitting of restaurants and bars. Over the past 20 years, he said, the town has had enough experience in how to permit eating establishments to streamline the process now. Zoning Article 14, enacted during the pandemic, allowed 20 businesses to open or expand by approval of the Building Commissioner rather than the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals as long as conditions were met, and this process has worked well, with no complaints being raised at this point. The temporary pandemic measures are due to expire at the end of the year, and the Planning Department hopes to get the bylaw changes in place by January 1.
The proposed changes allow permitting by site plan review for most bars and restaurants in the downtown and village centers. Establishments with minimal exterior changes and no change in use can be approved by the Building Commissioner. Bars that don’t serve food, nightclubs, and restaurants with a capacity of over 200 will still need a special permit for approval. Businesses in the Neighborhood Business (B-N) zone are capped at a capacity of 50 and cannot serve alcohol after 9 p.m. Outdoor dining must be at least 100 feet away from residences, and no outdoor entertainment is allowed in the B-N district. Any change in alcohol service is subject to a public hearing with the Board of License Commissioners..
These changes were approved by the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee. The full council will vote on whether to adopt them at the December 19 meeting.
First Reading About Floodplain Maps And Flood Insurance Bylaw
The new floodplain maps developed with GIS technology have been accepted by FEMA, and the Planning Department proposed Article 16, which defines the floodplain and the development that can occur in or near it, to be added to the Zoning Bylaw. The maps and bylaw must be adopted by the town by February, 2023 in order for town residents to be able to purchase flood insurance. The plans received unanimous approval of the CRC and Planning Board. The full council will vote on them December 19.
Racism Again Poses A Stumbling Block For Council
Even though it was close to 9 p.m., Hanneke insisted that she needed feedback on her draft of Town Manager Goals in order to be able to discuss the document at the Wednesday morning Governance, Organization, and Legislation (GOL) meeting. Hanneke added a section on “Town Council Priorities” to the beginning of the document, but councilors could not agree on what should be included, so they opted to omit that page. The draft had been subject of a contentious discussion at the previous GOL meeting where a majority of the members objected to the removal of specific language concerning climate action, affordable housing and racial equity.
Most of the discussion of the document concerned Section IV: Council Policy Implementation, specifically the sections on “Community Health and Safety” and “Climate Action.” The council has previously spent countless hours listening to the concerns of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC) regarding the experience of nine teenagers with the Amherst police on July 5 (see also here) and voted 8-5 on November 14 to “Recommend that the Town Manager assist the APD [Amherst Police Department] in developing a proactive, anti-racist culture and that it be documented, and regular updates be provided to the Town Council.”
Despite this vote, Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), who were on the non-prevailing side of that vote, objected to including this language in the Town Manager goals. They stated that several councilors had attended “listening sessions” with the police, and said they didn’t think the town should single out the APD in developing an anti-racist culture.
However, Ellisha Walker (at large) pointed out that police are different from other town employees in that they are armed, can enter people’s homes, and can make arrests. She again tried to help other councilors understand that “becoming anti-racist” is positive and ongoing and not a criticism. The new language about anti-racism and working with the police was then added to the Personnel Management section of the latest draft of the Town Manager goals with the statement that the Town Manager should “foster a proactive anti-racist culture throughout all Town Departments, working first with the Public Safety Departments (CRESS, Fire and EMS, and Police).” [editor’s note: this wording is despite the fact that there have been few if any complaints of racist behavior in the fire/EMS department, and CRESS was established because of well-documented , longstanding problems that Amherst’s BIPOC community has had with the APD].
With regard to climate action, the only specific goal in the latest draft is to explore creating a waste-hauler bylaw. It was noted that this is the only new initiative that has been added to the climate goals since 2019, when the Climate Action and Resiliency Plan (CAARP) was adopted. Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), liaison to the Energy and Climate Action Committee, said that the committee has been working on specific goals that can be completed expeditiously and that the Town Manager goals should include working with the committee to achieve the reduction in carbon emissions specified for 2025, 2030, and 2050.
Several other suggestions were offered as possible Town Manager goals for the upcoming year. Jennifer Taub (District 3) wanted to encourage the creation of non-student housing. Pam Rooney (District 4) wanted more opportunities for home ownership. Devlin Gauthier wanted the Town Manager to consider hiring an economic development director. She also mentioned protecting the biodiversity of conservation land and adopting the pedestrian and bicycle plan already developed by the Transportation Advisory Committee. Pat DeAngelis (District 2) wanted to add the creation of a Residents Oversight Board for the APD.
Hanneke wanted to delete the goal of creating a Youth Empowerment Center, saying that she sees these Town Manager goals as those that can be accomplished in a year or less. However, others pointed out that several of the goals already in the draft document are long-term initiatives that need to be advanced over several years.
The Town Manager’s goals will be modified at the GOL meeting on December 14 and further discussed and voted on at the December 19 council meeting.
The State of the Town Address will be given at 5:30 p.m. on December 19, prior to the next Council meeting.
Interviews for associate members of the Zoning Board of Appeals will be held at 10 a.m. on December 20 over Zoom.
The Elementary School Building Committee will hold public forums on January 25 and 26. These will include reports on detailed designs and cost estimates.
The meeting was adjourned at 10:48 p.m.