Indy Rewind, is an occasional feature that reprises previously posted news stories and opinion pieces that speak to the current moment and that are worth revisiting. There has been little room in the Indy in recent weeks to fit in any visits to past stories, but with our biennial election imminent, we will try to post several of these “rewinds” with special relevance to the election over the next few days.
This column by John Varner had over 1000 page views and received 24 comments, making it the most read and most commented opinion piece that we pubished this year. In an essay in which Varner contemplates whether he should run for town council, he diagnoises many of the failings of our town government. This column first appeared in the Indy on June 2, 2023.
If you moved to Amherst before the mid 2000’s, consider why you came to town. For many, Amherst was deemed to be an idyllic place. It had the cultural advantages of an academic community, within a semi-rural environment. It had a quaint town center, with locally owned stores catering to the basic needs of its residents. It had a school system famed for its rigor, diversity, and its ability to offer classes for students who struggled, or who were working above grade level, and drew students from around the valley. It had peaceful neighborhoods and a town meeting style of governance which, though not a model of expediency, allowed for residents to participate in debate and decision making. It had good roads and a couple dozen well-maintained conservation areas that protected open spaces. It was a paradisical progressive bubble. Some still perceive it as such, but much of what drew people to town a couple decades ago has changed, and not for the better.
The University, which helped to employ and stimulate the community, has grown significantly, and seems to have run amok. It appears to be largely unconcerned for the welfare of the town or its residents and has increased its enrollment while lagging behind in providing student housing, and police, fire and ambulance services. The stresses on community services and infrastructure continue to mount, even as the Chancellor announced last year that the town’s real estate problems were not the University’s problem. While it is true that most students bring life to the town and are not a problem, it is also true that dozens of intoxicated students are ferried by town ambulances to the ER on some weekends. There are parties where hundreds of students disrupt neighborhoods. Thousands of student vehicles use town roads while the excise taxes paid on those vehicles for highway maintenance remit to students’ home towns. Students now outnumber permanent residents in one of the smallest towns in the U.S. to host a flagship campus, and the town’s infrastructure and social fabric are being frayed as a result.
This has helped to further derange the real estate market, already distorted by national trends. Local individuals who bought and responsibly managed an investment property or two to serve as student housing have been overshadowed by LLCs and developers who have little concern for the harmonious functioning of residential areas, thus allowing student housing conversions to metastasize throughout all but the toniest neighborhoods. Real estate agents are, understandably, more than happy to facilitate the bidding wars that raise their commissions but drive single family homes out of the reach of young families and into the portfolios of investors. Calls for inclusivity and low-income housing aren’t matched by policies that would prevent low-cost housing from being soaked up by desperate students.
Amherst’s “semi-rural” surroundings have increasingly become construction zones.
“Quaint” has been wrung out of the town center by the spendy, boxy apartments built for students by out-of-town real estate barons. The town’s stores, decimated by on-line shopping and the Hadley big box retailers, have mostly gone under. Town center has essentially become a bar and food court for UMass. Emily Dickinson’s grave marker bearing the inscription ‘Called Back’, in what was once a bucolic cemetery, now lies in the shadow of an apartment building catering to well-off students.
Town Select Board members, formerly tasked with allocating funds for the enforcement of town regulations, have been replaced by a Town Council dominated by Amherst Forward, a faction that equates minimal regulation of wholesale real estate development with progress. There is obsequious deference to the University. Little is being done to collect data that would allow for tracking housing and problems with tenants and landlords, or steering development in more managed ways. Enforcing existing regulations is egregiously under-resourced. Projects were ‘sold’ to the public based on unrealistic cost estimates and will now drive increases in property tax rates that were already high.
The school system, once the pride of Amherst and a primary magnet for parents relocating to benefit their kids, is struggling, especially at the middle school level. Questionable leadership hobbled classes for students with learning challenges. Programs within the school system and partnerships with UMass that catered to students who were working beyond grade level were curtailed, because middle school was viewed as a developmental stage where students’ preoccupation with socializing precluded serious learning. Now the middle school is embroiled in an ugly tangle of issues involving race, gender and sexuality and charges of nepotism and the evangelical indoctrination and mental abuse of LGBTQ students. The high school, formerly noted for the diversity and academic achievement of its students, has gone through fractious periods of racial tension and self-segregation.
The Amherst Forward leaders in the newly constituted Town Council are working hard to limit council’s debate of issues, and trim or eliminate input from citizens all together. Town Council is now seen by many as a hopelessly toxic environment that discourages participation. Misplaced priorities and budget decisions have racked up debt that will further elevate Amherst’s high real estate taxes. The budgets for the renovation of the library and new school construction have ballooned while the features of the community that used to draw their prospective users – families – to Amherst dwindle. Chronically underfunded town roads are pocked with holes and conservation area management struggles with minimal resources. Rushing to take on complicated, intractable national issues, while admirable statements of the town’s values, has diverted time, money and attention that coulAmherstd be spent on issues more germane to the effective management of routine town problems, and might be better addressed by establishing separate extra-governmental commissions in town.
Amid the chaos and dysfunction of town politics, I am being asked to run for a position on Town Council. My friends wonder why anyone would want to do that. My wife is concerned that winning a seat will disrupt our retirement plans and fill me with frustration and aggravation that would drive both of us crazy. Although I am past retirement age, I still enjoy working part time, and volunteer as a co-director of an educational non-profit, which will be jeopardized by running for the Council. After having two medical procedures, my cardiologist tells me what I already knew: stress is not good for my heart.
I am left with a lot of questions. Primary among them: Is Amherst FUBAR? Can the University ever be persuaded – or forced – to be more responsible in its dealings with the town? Did decisions made in the past lock the town I love on a doomed path? Where are progressive younger candidates? Do I want my ‘sunset years’ to be entangled in what will be, at best, a long, arduous, tedious effort to redirect the town’s trajectory? How much of my remaining time do I want to expend on this? Where is the line between civic duty and martyrdom?
I am struggling for answers.
John Varner is a resident of District 3