What Will The Town Do With Its Surplus Property?

Wildwood Elementary School. Photo: Toni Cunningham

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Finance Committee, January 24, 2023

This meeting was conducted on Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

Committee Members: Andy Steinberg (Chair), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Lynn Griesemer (District 2), and Ellisha Walker (at large)

Nonvoting Community Members: Bob Hegner, Bernie Kubiak, Matt Holloway

Staff: Sean Mangano (Finance Director), Sonia Aldrich (Comptroller), Holly Drake (Comptroller), David Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager), Paul Bockelman (Town Manager)

At the beginning of each calendar year committee memberships are re-assigned by the council president. Ana Devlin Gauthier has replaced Michele Miller (District 1) on the Finance Committee. This meeting was initially chaired by Griesemer until a new chair could be elected; Andy Steinberg was unanimously re-elected as chair and Cathy Schoen as vice chair. Both have served on the committee since its inception five years ago.

Griesemer introduced the new comptroller, Holly Drake, who is transitioning into the job. She previously served 24 years as the town’s vice comptroller. She presented the town’s second quarterly budget report , which details year-to-date performance for revenues and expenditures for the General Fund and the Enterprise funds.

Key findings:

  • We are 50% through the fiscal year and actual expenditures vs. budget are in good shape.
  • Departments are starting to struggle with cost escalations resulting from the changing economic climate.

Surplus Property
The town has a handful of properties that it is not currently using and regards as “surplus”. These include the South Amherst School, the land and buildings formerly occupied by the Hitchcock Center, Wildwood Elementary School (after the new elementary school is constructed at Fort River), Hickory Ridge, land off Strong Street, and land off Old Farms Road. Ziomek said that the town is considering how these properties can be used in ways that might best serve the town, including selling them to generate revenue.

The town has a policy on the books, adopted in 2018, that governs the disposition of surplus property. Ziomek reported that the policy has never been applied and that it would have to be revised (although not dramatically) in order to accommodate Amherst’s change from a town to a city form of government in 2019. Ziomek noted that the property that the select board had in mind when it developed the policy was the East Street School, which is now under development for affordable housing by Wayfinders.

Ziomek said that there is not a lot of unused surplus property in Amherst and that his staff is working on a comprehensive plan for how to use it. That includes soliciting an opinion from KP Law about how to bring the existing policy into accordance with Massachusetts General Law for a city form of government. He mentioned that his staff is looking into options for developing affordable housing on town-owned property off Strong Street, finding a home for a new fire station, possibly at Hickory Ridge, sale of the Wildwood Elementary School property, and disposition of the former Hitchcock Center property. He noted that the building there, formerly used as the Hitchcock Center For The Environment, is in poor condition and will probably be demolished, and that the land underneath it is designated as conservation land, so there is not much potential for development.

Ziomek said that whatever committee or department works on surplus properties has to be clear on what the town hopes to achieve with them. He added that the possibilities for generating revenue from their sale may be more modest than people imagine, but the aim of a sale might be as basic as the buyer getting the property back onto the tax rolls. 

He suggested that the group will have to expand the list of questions about what the town hopes to achieve by using or disposing of currently unused property. Ziomek implied that selling them is a prime consideration. He asked, “How can we activate some of these properties to assist us in some of the challenges we are facing with our capital budget? Can they be sold? Can they be moved back on the tax rolls to generate revenue? We need to look at these sites with different lenses and see what kind of needs are coming up the road and think about whether we dispose of the property to achieve these goals or hang on to it because we can use the property to achieve some of those goals.”

Ziomek mentioned the town’s strategic purchase of the gas station in North Amherst several years ago, originally to address traffic considerations, allowed for the construction of the addition to the North Amherst Library as an example.

Bernie Kubiak said that the town needs to clarify who has the final responsibility for disposition of surplus property, the Town Manager, the Town Council,  or a committee, and it needs to be clear in drafting the policy. He also asked about the committee’s composition, how information will be conveyed to the public, and consideration of what do we want to do beyond our statutory obligations?

Bockelman said that under the old policy, the executive or town manager was responsible for disposition of surplus property.

Steinberg agreed that a revision is necessary to bring the policy into compliance with Massachusetts General Law and suggested that the town look at what other cities have done and what their policies are.

Ziomek noted that he did that in 2018 and didn’t find much.

Ziomek is apparently chairing a committee that is looking into surplus property policy  though it was not clear who sits on the committee or how its composition was determined. The committee apparently has yet to meet.

Spread the love

11 thoughts on “What Will The Town Do With Its Surplus Property?

  1. I live on Strong Street, and hope that the Wildwood School property is put to some creative use, and not be sold for private development. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomeck says “generating revenue from their sale may be more modest than people imagine,” so why not use that building for several public uses our community says it needs? A bigger, better senior center, a teen center (and/or BIPOC teen center), library special collections that would otherwise be in storage, a bigger better Leisure Services/ Recreation Department, and more. Its strategic location, in a campus with the high school and middle school, is hard to replicate. And who knows that we won’t need that land again for a growing school age population? (That happened in Freeport, NY, where I had a family business- they sold a school and then had nowhere to grow a new one, years later.)

    I also think this topic is another opportunity for the town leadership to gather the wisdom of the crowd, rather than have this decision be made by so few people, affecting so many.

  2. PS: I’ve stated this in the past: that rumor had it that selling Wildwood School was fait accompli, already decided by certain town leaders. One of those certain people replied, no sale would ever happen without ample public discussion.

    So please begin that discussion, town leaders. It feels off to have the town combine 2 schools and sell off such an important property, all in a package deal.

  3. Thank you, Ira. Reusing properties already built is a no-brainer from several angles. It agrees with the town’s climate mitigation policy. It proves the dictum that the greenest buildings are the ones already built. It avoids questionable climate practices of demolition. It saves taxpayers money.

  4. In addition to an inventory of surplus property, buildings, vehicles, and equipment, I would like to see the Town create an inventory of space NEEDS for current and future programming, including any services that might be best offered by a third party/non-profit.

    I would support a “fire sale” of surplus DPW vehicles and Town equipment as a first step, and see what funds that may bring in. (A bonus of selling off excess DPW vehicles may be that a smaller property than 8 acres could be sufficient for a new DPW facility.)

    Before selling Town-owned land, however, I think it is worth taking the time to evaluate and inventory all building and land space needs for programming such as a BIPOC Youth Center, Senior Center, Early Childhood Center, Recreational Offices, athletic fields, etc. It may become clear from such an exercise that keeping Wildwood is a more economical and prudent plan in the long-term.

  5. Selling town property would absolutely be short sighted. It is certain that Amherst will be a desirable destination for climate migrants from all over the world within the next two decades and beyond. At that point, we will need more schools and more services. Just google “climate migrants Massachusetts” and read all about it.

  6. Ms Cunningham- Although I agree that the Town must evaluate and inventory properties and public space needs. Please leave a Senior Center off the list for Wildwood School. An aging population is less likely to drive (particularly after dark) and will require a Senior Center located near the intersection of many bus lines. Accessibility is of primary importance to us.

  7. Interesting that Mr Ziomeck is the main respondent. He’s helped get the city 1/3rd in easements – ‘forest’ – tax writ off for having forester mark the trees even if never cut, forever farm tax (again), donate to city for walking trails (guess what). Asa affordable housing advocate I tried to get the inventory published to begin negotiating sites for same (single house, complex – anything) but was told “the town (sic) does not have that info”. Less interesting is that in many places 9 or 12 of the same ppl make the decisions over’n over (bank Prez, newspaper publisher, wealthiest business owners, etc, etc. Let’s get the past due Master Plan developed and the new passed city charter’s citizen engagement officers stood up in all their abilities~

    Chad Fuller

  8. Ms. Anne Burton —

    If a senior center were located at Wildwood, it seems to me that it would be reasonable to route buses to that. Bus routes are shifted to accommodate new shopping centers, for instance.

  9. It could be that our town’s seniors prefer to have the Senior Center downtown. In that case, reclaiming more space in the Bangs Center may make more sense than moving the Center to the Wildwood School after it is no longer needed by the school department. Programs that currently occupy space in the Bangs Center (CRESS, Health Department, other?) may need to be re-located and potentially Wildwood could be an alternative location for them.

    The recent attention given to the poor condition of athletic fields at the high school and throughout town has given rise to questions about where additional fields may be located, especially if the artificial turf plan does not materialize. I am not convinced we need more athletic fields (the ones we do have need to be improved and properly maintained) but if it is proven that more fields are needed, perhaps the fields at Wildwood could be improved with drainage etc. and used for middle/high school sports and town recreation programming. Certainly the location of Wildwood is ideal for afterschool middle and high school use.

    I do think starting with a full inventory of municipal needs, including what square footage of building and outdoor space each program would desire/require, would be helpful in determining if an asset such as the Wildwood building and property would be better retained for town purposes, or sold for development to generate a lump sum revenue for the town and potentially be put on the tax rolls.

    A comparison of costs of, say, building a new community center, purchasing land for new athletic fields or town buildings, etc. vs repairing/improving the existing Wildwood building and land would be instructive in helping to decide highest future use. If Wildwood was to be retained, a first step might be to look at getting it off oil heating ASAP and replacing the HVAC system with an all-electric Air Source Heat Pump HVAC system. Insulating the building envelope would reduce utility costs and improve the indoor experience of occupants. I see no reason why this analysis couldn’t happen now and a decision made. If it is deemed worth retaining rather than selling, then some building improvements could be made anytime (during the summer and school holidays) and not wait until 2027 or later.

    Additional note to my comment above re athletic fields… When the elementary school building project is complete, the Fort River site will have excellent quality athletic fields (approximately 160,000 square feet) that should be made available after school hours and on weekends for any combination of Amherst Recreation programming/Amherst Youth Soccer/Ultimate/middle and high school sports practices/games. It could be that the fields at Fort River are ready for use before improvements are done to the other multi-use fields at the high school (fields #2-7), although I really hope that the other fields at the high school are improved sooner than 2027!

  10. I appreciate Anne Burton’s concern about the importance of transportation to the site of a Senior Center, but I come down on the side of Wildwood as a site, with the necessary rerouting of bus routes and perhaps other traffic changes as well. I have written several times about the advantages of Wildwood for the Senior Center, as well as for general library circulation as an alternative to the large building still on the table for the Jones downtown,

    The Bangs Center, with its parking issues, staircase and single elevator, is a complicated building for seniors – at least for this senior! I think a solution can be found that would address Ms Burton’s accessibility concerns and improve the spaces needed for a sensitive and welcoming senior center.

  11. Darcy Dumont’s comment that “selling town property would absolutely be short sighted” is the best argument for never disposing of land owned by the town. We cannot predict the future. We cannot know what uses the town may have for its property in 50, 100, or 200 years. The only things we can be pretty sure of are that people will be living here then, and will want their government to serve them in ways that we cannot begin to imagine. The simplest, cheapest thing Amherst can do now, to prepare itself to serve those future needs, is to hold on to the property it already has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.