Thursday, June 15, 2006

Déjà vu all over again

The guts of last night’s meeting were devoted to a technicality.

Apparently, upon meeting an absurdly low threshold for “new information,” any article from the current Town Meeting can be reconsidered if it is so moved by a member who voted with the majority, abstained or was absent during the initial consideration.

This is really great news. We have 70-100 people absent each session. Think of the possibilities! Amherst’s 247th Annual Town Meeting might well go on in perpetuity.

And so a member absent the first time and now present for his fourth session so far (out of eleven) moved that we reconsider Article 23, the one about fixing the Professional Research Park zoning designation to allow “quiet businesses” to meet with clients on site, if such client visits are primarily by appointment.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: I support this zoning change. I am disappointed and frankly mystified by the opposition to this. But I did not support its reconsideration.

Why not? So many reasons. This met the “letter of the law” allowing reconsideration, but it in no way met the spirit. If you condone misusing reconsideration in this way now because it serves your purposes, you lose the moral authority to oppose such misuse by “the other side.” Anything that exploits absence for benefit is odious to me. Heck, if just a couple more people who supported this change had not been absent the first time, we wouldn’t even have this problem. But they were absent, and that resulted in a loss, and that should teach us all a lesson: you need to come and vote every night folks – that’s what this is all about. And you also have to accept defeat. Democracy doesn’t mean you always get your way.

The new information claims were also particularly lame: Having now gone through the budget, we know what bad shape we’re in, and people might have voted differently the first time if they had known it would be so bad. If there are TM members for whom that is true, it does not bode well for the body.

A lot of the arguments against reconsideration were just as bad, and it pained me to be allied with them. How can we reconsider this when we don’t even remember what this issue is about? We didn’t bring our paperwork on this. We can’t remember how we voted last time. People who were absent last time don’t have enough information. The budget is balanced – this won’t help. Please.

Eventually we had a tally vote on the motion to reconsider. It passed with 89 voting in support, and 81 opposed. I voted to oppose.

So this vote now transports us back to the point in discussion right before the vote several weeks ago. People start making all the same arguments for and against. Tiny rational change. Step toward diversifying tax base. Big-picture benefit. Traffic! Plenty of empty space around! Eek – change!

My favorite ridiculous arguments:

There’s so much available vacant space, so obviously demand isn’t there. Despite claims to the contrary, these spaces are primarily store fronts. In addition to being more expensive than office space, it is crazy to think that you would put a professional services firm in a space that is intended for something like a pizza place or a bike shop. Yeah, you could if you were exceptionally desperate, but otherwise you wouldn’t. You’d go to Hadley.

We say we want a vibrant downtown, but this could draw business away from there. Right. Because nothing gives a downtown that fun, bustling, vibrant flair like professional offices. Downtowns are about retail, restaurants and entertainment. Sure, other kinds of businesses like to be in that mix, but they don’t contribute to the vibrancy. It’s nice to be able to stop in at your accountant’s office or your lawyer’s office while you’re downtown doing other things, but if downtown were all lawyers and accountants, you wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

This designation was intended to help UMass research start-ups, and we can’t abandon them. A change to this designation wouldn’t preclude such UMass entities; it would allow them and others. Instead, we have neither.

Honestly, I can’t understand why this doesn’t pass. (And it doesn’t. This is its second attempt at this TM, and it has come before the body several times previously.) I can see why the neighbors in Amherst Woods don’t want it, even though I think they are being unreasonable. At least their opposition makes a little sense – abutters never want anything changed. But what about everyone else? I can only conclude that it is because some people oppose any development of any kind – even smart, quiet, clean, low-impact development.

So there was no new drama in this discussion. There was a motion to refer it back to the planning board, and that failed in a tally vote with 58 supporting and 112 opposing, and I voted to oppose. We then had a tally vote again on the main motion, and again it failed, this time by a wider margin: 102 supporting, 69 opposed, and I voted in support. Last time it was 99 supporting, 52 opposed. It required a 2/3 majority.

This raises some interesting issues. If you’re going to go through the trouble and aggravation of reconsideration, I would think you’d only do so if you were absolutely certain it would work in your favor. Perhaps they thought they were sure, but maybe some people who supported the vote last time changed their vote this time because they were offended by the reconsideration. Personally, I think that would be an irresponsible vote. We can always only vote what is in front of us. Those opposing reconsideration had the opportunity to express that opposition with the vote on the motion to reconsider. But it passed. Again – you don’t always get the outcome you want. But that was the outcome, and now we were voting on the merits of the article. To be voting a grudge instead of the current motion is wrong. What’s next – you oppose a motion just because you don’t like the person making it? The system really falls apart if we don’t defend its integrity. Not much good happened in that regard last night.

Once that debacle ended – after like an hour and half – we moved on to the Community Presevation Act articles. CPAC money is collected through a property tax surcharge, and the money can only be used in four categories: affordable housing, open space, historic preservation and recreation. CPAC money cannot be diverted to the schools, the operating budget, etc. This makes these articles quite non-controversial. The first was divided into three parts.

Article 32A was to appropriate $6500 of CPAC funds to the Amherst Housing Authority for various repairs and improvements to a four-unit affordable housing property the town owns in North Amherst, called Keet House. The vote to approve this was unanimous.

32B was to appropriate $45,000 to the AHA for money toward the final financing package for a planned 11-unit affordable housing project on Main Street. It also passed unanimously.

32C was to appropriate $30,000 for the 4-unit project on Stanley Street that will partner Habitat for Humanity and Amherst College, on land donated by the college. That too received unanimous support.

Article 33 was about appropriating $92,500 in CPAC funds for a variety of historic preservation projects, including work at the town cemeteries, studying the town commons, researching the expansion of historic districts, finding ways to protect historic houses, continuing the funding of archival preservation of historic town records, and funding publications about the various historic districts of town. The vote on this was also unanimous, or may have had one or two quiet opposers.

Article 34 was to appropriate $125,000 toward protecting open space on the Holyoke Range, either through purchasing the property in question, or purchasing a conservation restriction on it. The value of the property is substantially higher than this, and other funding sources will contribute to the ultimate financial package. Determining whether it is purchased outright or protected by the deed restriction was not up to Town Meeting – just appropriating these funds toward one of those eventual outcomes. This passed with near unanimous support – a handful of people voted to oppose. I voted in support, as I did with all these CPA articles.

And with that, we called it a night.

Random Bits

The meeting began at about 7:37 – a record!

The first order of business was a nice one: outgoing Town Clerk Anna Maciaszek was presented with flowers and gifts for her service to the Town, with particular appreciation for continuing to assist Town Meeting, even though her new job in Connecticut has already begun. A donation envelope and a card have been circulating during the last couple of sessions. With the moderator temporarily suspending the TM rule against applause, Anna received a standing ovation.

This was Hawaiian Shirt Night. Is this a real tradition? I have no idea. Mysterious e-mails and rumors about it circulated during the day. I would say about a third of us participated, myself included. I thought it was a great idea – fun, simple, unifying. Bravo! Or Aloha! Or whatever.

If approval of the reconsideration motion put us back to the pre-vote point in the original discussion, then I wonder why the Planning Board didn’t sit at the tables up front. Instead, a couple of non-TM PB members were stuck trying unsuccessfully to be recognized from the gallery, and Paul Bobrowski had to do all the PB work.

I’m thinking that the night TM finally ends – assuming we ever reach that point – I will be celebrating its conclusion afterwards at my favorite downtown establishment, the Amherst Brewing Company. Will you join me? We’ll hoist a non-partisan pint to a job well done. Or at least, a job done, well or otherwise. Cheers to that.


andyc said...

I'm still scratching my head about how this little, teeny zoning change, to let a few architects and engineers have visitors by appointment in a place already zoned for business, became such a contentious issue. I don't get it.

Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

I don't get it either. The people opposing it weren't even able to muster any coherent arguments. Of the four that Stephanie named (traffic, the availability of space, drawing businesses away from downtown, and abandoning UMass startups), two are red herrings. The availability of office space is irrelevant - if there is lots of available office space for architects and engineers, then the zoning change won't have any effect at all, so it can't do any harm. The UMass issue is only relevant if the sudden influx of lawyers and architects into the PRP zones were to completely fill up the zones, leaving no space available for startups - which seems unlikely.

The idea of taking businesses away from downtown is potentially something to be concerned about, but as Stephanie ably demonstrated, this is a pretty weak argument.

This leaves traffic, which is presumably the primary reason the abutters oppose the change. I personally have a hard time believing that the presence of businesses "providing services predominantly by appointment" are going to have a major traffic impact on a PRP district (this, remember, is a district that already allows "office, research and low intensity industrial activities"). And of course, the Zoning Board of Appeals would still have to issue a Special Permit for this type of activity, after a Site Plan Review, which gives them the ability to reject a use that seemed like it would generate an above-average impact on the area. All in all, it seems like traffic is not an issue that we need to be terribly concerned about.

So I too am scratching my head about why this has become such a contentious issue.

Anonymous said...

In addition to scratching my head like Andy and Jonathan, I am very troubled: How serious are we about looking for new revenue when we can't depend on the state; about engaging in productive dialog around the Master Plan; and about signaling to the incoming new town manager that his expertise in economic development initiatives is welcome?

As for bringing this up for reconsideration last night, Stephanie: I understand your objections in principle. But the group of Town Meeting members with concerns like those in my previous paragraph felt that we just had to try one more time. Maybe the dismal budgetary picture was adequately clear before (not to everyone, though, judging from some of the comments); but there is no doubt that on May 10, the Planning Board had no opportunity -- because the debate ended before they could -- to present some important facts about potential tax revenue, the kind and availability of office space in demand, and the illusory nature of the traffic fear. Last night, Paul Bobrowski did try to do that, but in the midst of the hostility directed at him, I doubt if he was heard as he should have been. (The PB was not at the front table because this did not come from them.) Also new: the slide show of the really attractive Research Drive development. We chose this article as the tiniest and most innocuous zoning change conceivable. True, it got a solid majority again. But, once again, it failed to gain 2/3 by just a few votes. Any thoughts on that?

elaineb said...

I think the idea of voting (in this case reconsideration) on commercial zoning after budgets were done was important.

When some people voted against the changes in PRP and changes in the SouthEast St corner zoning, they knew budgets were tight and that many cuts had been made to budgets, but did they really know how devastating the cuts are until they heard them? When they heard stories of people depending on buses or on human service agencies, they couldn't bear to cut those funds. That was $120,000. The schools had to cut millions.

For the schools, 1/20th of the funds we need just to do what we're doing this year has been cut out of each the school budgets. How many TM members really "got" that scale of cuts to the schools back when they were voting on commercial zoning articles? Or maybe too many still don't get it.

Town Meeting's strong support in passing the school budgets is wonderful, and I'm very grateful. But showing real support for the the schools is going to take much more than a "yes" vote on a school budget that has been slashed - again.

Changes in zoning etc. are critical if we're going to increase the town's annual revenue. There aren't any other sources of money. Postponing (or for some even "resisting"?)any proposed change in the town of Amherst will directly end up changing the schools instead.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I absolutely could not agree more about the need for zoning changes that create opportunities for new economic development. Brian Morton’s point about “ask not what the FC will do to raise revenues in Amherst, but ask what you –TM – will do” was an excellent one. The continued opposition to this makes no sense to me whatsoever.

But I think the reconsideration was a bad idea, for all the reasons I already stated, but I think it was strategically bad as well.

Realistically, you have three sets of voters on the issue – those who strongly support the zoning change, those who strongly oppose it, and those on the fence. What could the effect of reconsideration be on these groups? The strong supporters will either continue their support or change their vote because they are offended by the reconsideration. Those who strongly oppose will continue to strongly oppose – the reconsideration will have no effect on them. Those on the fence obviously could go either way. But they are already a tiny group, and one which would typically be expected to divide itself 50-50, and with the tactics of reconsideration potentially negatively impacting the 50% that might have voted to support otherwise.

So last time the vote was incredibly close. This time around, you have only the potential to lose some previous supporters and the potential to pick up a few fence sitters. Might the fence sitters be enough to sway the vote? Even with the potential loss of some previous supporting votes? If you were relying on better attendance, then you still have to deal with the fact that the attendance may have increased on the opposing side as well. All things considered, it was a really low-percentage option. So unsurprisingly it failed, and it created some ill will both for the meeting, and as baggage that this zoning change will carry with it, should it come up again in the future.

Furthermore, this zoning change really is so tiny and so hypothetical that even if it had passed, the potential payoff is very small. Reconsidering the zoning changes for the South East St. - College St. intersection would have had a much larger and more concrete payoff, if that could have passed. (I still would have opposed reconsideration, but at least it might have been “worth it.”) I think too much political capital and goodwill were sacrificed in vain, in pursuit of a very small prize.

We must find ways to get these changes passed. But to me, this wasn’t one of those ways.

Thanks, as always for these comments and excellent insights.

Anonymous said...

The sad part is we are talking small numbers. A building with 5 offices would bring in $40k in taxes? Town meeting just used 1 million of the reserves to balance the budget. So, next year we have to cut $1 million right off the top. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Just a few (well, more than a few) comments on the prospective revenue: yes, it is true that this "small" change would yield only tens of thousands of dollars. Someone actually said (I believe it was RK from the SBd) that this would not help us next year, as if only this year mattered.

Here's the point: each incremental change yields permanent revenue. If this very same change had not failed by 1 vote 3 years ago, it is likely that we would see at least 12-60k (1 to 5 new buildings that look like houses) per year for the past 2 years (from Larkspur area), and we may very well not have lost the McKesson Building to non-profit status (another 70k per year), despite the good that Stavros brings. The previous owner begged the PBd to change the zoning to open it up to real office uses.

Those 2 real possibilities could have given us another 80-130k PER YEAR. Put in perspective, we are all so very happy that the finance committee is willing to dedicate any additional Ch70 money to the schools (40k max).

Futher, if this change had passed, the PBd may very well have come forward with a second change, to rezone the PRP along Belchertown Road to Office Park, making Valley Medical conforming. Could we use another clinic? I think so. Could we stand another building or two like the new one next to Rafters? I would hope so.

These two buildings yield about 75k per year. Could we stand an office building down at the corner of Snell? Another 15-20k per year.

After all those hypothetical changes, how has the town been hurt? Is it visually more distasteful? Do we all want to then move somewhere else? Have we destroyed the character of the community?

The reason this reconsideration took place was because someone has to do something NOW for next year. Zoning changes don't create revenue; the economic development that follows creates the revenue. Waiting until the fall means waiting another full construction year. If town meeting can spend an hour on seeds, and 20 minutes on the content of sewer pipes, it ought to not be put out by reconsidering something that really matters.

Speaking of waiting, wait until you see the budget for NEXT year.

paul bobrowski

Anonymous said...

Let's thank PB from the PB for trying to
remember what RK from the SB said last Wednesday night. Here is what RK from the SB said (and still says):

It is worth comparing the amount of non-residential tax revenue which might result from passing an article like this with the effect of state matching monies from the CPA surcharge.

RK from the SB said (and still says) that each 1/2% increase in Amherst's CPA surcharge would bring in about $220,000 per year in such
matching revenue: that's money that is not coming
from residential property taxes, and it amounts to the tax the Town would collect on the capitalized value of about $7,000,000 worth of commercial or industrial property.

And because of the way such property is assessed, the actual cost of constructing this much new property could be several times $7,000,000, perhaps as much as $20,000,000. It is highly unlikely Amherst will see that level of investment in such
property for many, many years, regardless of
whether Article 23 had passed.

RK from the SB also said he was (and yes, he is) in favor of diversifying the Town's tax base. There are many good reasons for such diversification, reasons that go far beyond the Town's tax coffers (improving our quality of life, providing meaningful employment for the un- and under-employed in our community, making opportunities for creativity and entrepreneurship, and so forth), But (he pointed out that) to argue for a zoning change (a long-term, super-majority modulated event, deserving of considerably more care than this Article 23 reconsideration
effort exhibited) simply because of this year's budget trauma (and fears about next year's budget gap) is disingenuous. Amherst is not
going to close next year's gap with hasty zoning

RK of the SB said that a more certain way to raise some additional NON-residential-tax funds next year - again, about $220,000 worth - is to support Article 38 next Monday night (and yes, he is saying that right now as well).
And during the summer, the SB and the PB should
be working TOGETHER on figuring out how to
CAREFULLY implement the zoning change envisioned under Article 21.

As RK from the SB pointed out: zoning changes, requiring a 2/3 vote, should not be undertaken lightly. They are difficult to reverse, and thus should be undertaken only where public health or safety are under threat, or where the economic or social impacts are well-understood and there is a consensus that they will benefit the Town as a whole. This was not (yet) the case for Articles
21 and 23.

So let's let TM deal with (amended) versions of these next fall, please....


While on the subject of thanks: Let's also all thank SO'K from TM for putting together such an informative blog about TM -
the commentary may sometimes reflect One
Woman's Opinion*, but it's the best thing going about Amherst Town Meeting:



*Where I grew up, the classical music station, WFLN (sadly, long gone), had a daily commentary titled "One Man's Opinion"....

Anonymous said...

Why can't the town do both - raise the CPA surcharge and change zoning? And how is the surcharge not a residential tax. Mr Kusner wants to diversify the tax base - by opposing efforts to diversify the tax base? Why is it scare tactics to point out that this year's budget required $1 million in reserves which are not available next year. The CPA funds cannot be used to pay for teachers, fuel for snow plows or dispatchers so the gap has to be covered by either cutting services or by raising other revenues or both. Didn't we just have a ballot question on this - apparently the select board did not like the answer of "both".

carol said...

Heck - why don't we just consider this in the fall, then in the spring, then next fall again, then the following spring, and then maybe if we're lucky THAT fall the Bush administration will get booted out of office, we'll have a new governor, and it'll still take a couple more years to get a small portion of the money that they promised us.

This "it's not our fault" argument had to be MY favorite most ridiculous argument of the evening (and of the previous evenings it's been used). And because a few people bought it, we continue to be victims of these politicians, rather doing something, no matter how small, to take the bull by the horns and do something to fix our sorry situation.

One of the huge benefits of passing a small change like article 23 is showing the people in our town that we are doing something - ANYTHING - to improve the situation that we are in. I spent my ride home in a car with another TM member who was talking VERY seriously about moving to Longmeadow - depsite the fact that she has three kids in the schools here. Why should people like her (and their numbers are growing) think about staying, when we, her representative government - which she participates in - are accomplishing nothing in the way of keeping her taxes affordable (as if that word were in any way accurate)?

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

There is so much to say about the CPA surcharge stuff, but I don't want to get sidetracked.

What I would like to know from Rob is: Why do you oppose the PRP zoning change?

Never mind that you think there are other ideas, options, etc. What is your objection to this specific change?

marcys said...

I have the same question, Stephanie. I still have not heard a single compelling reason to oppose the PRP change. And I can't for the life of me understand the either/or as opposed to both/and reasoning behind some of these discussions pertaining to the causes and possible solutions for our budget shortfall. We have multi-dimensional challenges that need to be addressed with multi-dimensional problem solving strategies. We need to be influencing change and creating opportunity for increased revenue on the state and federal levels AND here locally. We can create an encouraging climate for both research AND professional services industries. We can try to maximize accessibility of CPA funds AND business revenue. Nobody is saying that this particular zoning article represents our nirvana. It is one small step among many that we need to take as a town. Why is there such a stumbling blocks?

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks for the tally vote information: now we know how the SBd REALLY feels about any change at all. A convenient time to be worried about form over substance. And, let's see, did we have an inkling about the budget problems last year? Hmmm. I'm overwhelmed by the economic development proposals coming out of the SBd. Can't keep track of them all.

Richard Morse said...

Mr. Kusner says that those of us who argued for the PRP zoning change because of our budget problems were "disingenuous". Now there's a loaded word. I understand his use of the word "disingenuous" to mean that he believes that we had some other purpose other than the one we stated. What would that be? We are determined to "take paradise and put up a parking lot"?

He then goes on to do what he has been doing all spring: assert that he is for the diversification of our tax base without lifting a finger or raising his voice on behalf of any action to do so.

I am tired of being polite about this, saying that "I don't get it" and feigning confusion about what is actually going on here, simply for the sake of civility. I believe that Mr. Kusner (and Mr. Hubley, for that matter) are simply pursuing a no-growth agenda for the town. I actually think that that would be an intellectually respectable position to take, and a public debate on such an agenda might be enlightening. Instead what we get is Mr. Kusner continually saying that each proposal for new development is "close, but no cigar" to what he would support. For him, every proposal needs to go back to the drawing board. And many Town Meeting members are willing to follow his lead. It's purgatory for development ideas.

I'm sure that, as certain as night follows day, Mr. Kusner will assert that this is not true. But read his submission to this blog one more time. Do you see any substantive reason in there why this proposal for change was in and of itself a bad idea? What we get is the suggestion that there are better ideas to raise revenues, like his enhanced CPA surcharge, and we can always wait for yet another session to do this. You decide who is being "disingenuous".

As a town meeting member and as a voter, I am put in a fairly primitive political position by Town Meeting's and Select Board's inaction on economic development: as a voter and as a Town Meeting member,I will not vote for any tax increases of any kind for residential property taxpayers, including the increased CPA surcharge, unless and until there are initiatives to move Amherst away from the 90%+ share of the tax burden those payers currently bear.

I am discouraged by the aforementioned resistance and inaction in light of the emergency situation that was described to us regarding the Community Services budget, and I would like to see less of an emergency in coming years. Mr. Kusner obviously understands that his CPA surcharge proposal and our desired zoning changes were not mutually exclusive ideas, but he discussed them as if they were. For me, the only way to understand this kind of argument is to grasp that it's part of an effort to do absolutely nothing, i.e. a no-growth agenda for the town.

Mr. Kusner is no different from Mr. Bush in this respect: you must watch what he does as carefully as you listen to what he says. I am deeply sorry that I am at this level of distrust, and I hope it's just a phase.

Richard Morse, Precinct 7

Anonymous said...

Some rather unpleasant commentary has evolved on this site. Some is demonstrably false (e.g. RK from the SB supported and spoke to Article 18, increasing density and height in the B-G and B-VC zones, contrary to assertions of RM from TM), and has been responded to privately (and politely) where possible. Some even suggested that however RK responds, he cannot be trusted. (That's perilously close to libel, friends: please!) But time is short and the inclination to continue responding on this topic is waning, so here (hopefully) are RK's last words on this subject:

First, to refresh your memories, please go to:

and scroll down to Article 23.

Next, please read the changes in bold italics.

Then please try to answer the following questions:

1) Article 23 would affect:
A) the PRP zone,
B) the LI zone,
C) the R-VC zone,
D) all of the above.

2) These changes allowing clients to visit offices would impact each of the particular zones affected (how)?

3) Were you able to answer 1) or 2) when you voted for Article 23 last Wednesday night? How about when it came up the first time?

If you can answer these questions, and if
you genuinely believe that our FY07 or FY08 budget problems demand this particular rezoning, then RK from the SB owes you an apology [for suggesting that "to argue for a zoning change (a long-term, super-majority modulated event, deserving of considerably more care than this Article 23 reconsideration
effort exhibited) simply because of this year's budget trauma (and fears about next year's budget gap) is disingenuous."]

The answer to question 1) is D), and of course,
question 3) can only be answered by each member individually. The biggest problem many Town Meeting members have (inlcuding RK of the SB) had with Article 23 is the failure to - or perhaps the impossibility to - adequately address question 2).

When this article first came before the SB a few months ago, the answer to question 2) was not clear to most of the SB, but most of us were willing to at least "take a risk" by supporting it. When the article was presented to Town Meeting last month, it still wasn't clear, and some of us were less willing to risk making this change which impacts several zones (not just the well-publicized PRP zone), and so the measure failed.
Last Wednesday, even more folks were unwilling
to take that risk, and it failed by a bigger margin.

Like the Hippocratic Oath in medicine, isn't the the obligation here to "first do not harm", rather than simply "doing something"? And isn't it the obligation of the proponent of the zone change to persuade Town Meeting that this is good, not for the opponents to prove it will do harm?

At TM, the argument was made (perhaps by RK as well as others - and several of you seem to agree this may be the strongest argument against Article 23) that allowing such office use in the PRP (and LI and R-VC) zones might draw folks away from the Town Center and village centers (where the SB - and RK who spoke for the SB strongly in favor of Article 18 - supports increasing the density, and encouraging mixed retail/office/residential uses). Maybe it
is negligible, and we should not worry about it, but if the auto-based development patterns in Hadley (and in much of the rest of the United States) is any guide, this concern should not be ignored. (One of RK's lines: wouldn't it be unwise for the Town to encourage a lot of client-based office growth in areas that maybe less-accessible to pedestrians and public transit, for example?)

RK spoke with an Article 23 proponent after its first defeat and learned that the proponent's main concern was keeping in Amherst the larger client-oriented office firms which cannot find space in the Town Center of village centers. That's a fine idea, but is Article 23 is tailored to that specific concern?

And RK informed PB of the PB that his Office Park zoning idea (recently floated in this very blog-spot!) along the west side of Rte 9 (between the old landfill and Old Farm Road) has a LOT of merit, and RK urged the PB and SB to work together on this over the summer (ditto for re-working Article 21).

As we have seen with Article 18 (and one hopes we'll see with Article 19 later today) it really helps when the PB and SB cooperate. Please judge for yourself....

It's late - let's give it a break,

RK from the SB

paul bobrowski said...

Oh boy, a lawsuit: we're real good at that.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

OK, enough with the incendiary stuff.

We may not be able to agree, but we ought to try and learn from each other. There is a lot of interesting and valuable information on this page for and from both “sides.” To dismiss it is to waste an opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Bryan Harvey here (I hate having to go the end to see who "anonymous" is!):

Rob Kusner's latest post sums up the problem well. He asserts that our overriding concern should be to "do no harm." Since every proposal on every subject harms someone -- regardless of how much help it may confer on others -- this approach provides the premise for an endless series of conclusions that we ought to do nothing.

Fortunately, we can reject Mr. Kusner's specious logic without abandoning Hippocrates. In fact, Hippocrates never said "do no harm," nor does the oath bearing his name allow physicians to sit idly by awaiting the perfect treatment. The Hippocratic oath demands action on the part of the physician, even in the face of some uncertainty.

Here is the relevant portion of the actual Hippocratic oath, in both its classical (c. 400 b.c.) and modern (1964) forms:

"I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous."

"I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism."

Our town -- the patient -- is sick, and its condition is declining regularly and rapidly. The measures that are required are clear: a broadening and diversification of the tax base so as to allow the patient to retain its full faculties and vigor.

What about the "twin traps"? We are hardly in danger of overtreatment. One could not imagine a more conservative therapy than that embodied in Art. 23, and all the other ideas actually on the table are careful and moderate to the point of minimalism. But in Mr. Kusner and others we see the clear expression of "therapeutic nihilism."

It is difficult to be a moral person in a complicated, cross-pressured world, and the temptation to cling to what we have rather than expose ourselves to the risks of something new is strong. But as Hippocrates pointed out, effective action requires judgement, and the balancing of necessary benefits against inevitable costs.

As our financial situation has deteriorated, harm is being done in Amherst every day in the form of lost community capacity and escalating residential tax burden. Failure to address the root cause -- especially on the part of the community's elected executive body -- represents a choice to perpetuate that harm. What would Hippocrates do? One doubts he would withhold treatment while the patient suffers.

Several folks have expressed puzzlement about opposition from Rob and others to even the most modest economic development measures. I really don't think it is hard to understand. If you share the view that the budget cuts and the narrowing of the tax burden are a problem, then you will be predisposed to look for a solution. You will not necessarily settle for any solution at any price, but you will have a bias for action. If you do not share this view, or at least a sense of urgency about it, then you will prefer to wait and see, to refer, to study, to obfuscate, to delay, etc. An individual's behavior is the surest guide to his or her attitude.

So the question to ask ourselves and others is clear: what is it about the road Amherst is heading down that so many seem to find attractive?

One other thing. I hope we will have no more of this "the Planning Board should cooperate with the Select Board" stuff. Both bodies have jobs, and they should do them. If they find common ground, great. If not, then the nature and cause of their disagreement should be subjected to public scrutiny. The fact that the SB remains hopelessly out of step with what the community needs is not a reason for everyone else to lose their heads.


Anonymous said...

"Since every proposal on every subject harms someone -- regardless of how much help it may confer on others -- this approach provides the premise for an endless series of conclusions that we ought to do nothing. "

Really!? And the rest follows from "logic"?!

Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

> Bryan Harvey here (I hate having to
> go the end to see who "anonymous" is!):

Brian -

Without further fanning the flames on the actual subject matter under discussion here, I just wanted to point out that if you desire, when you post your comments, you can select the option labelled "Other", rather than "Anonymous". This gives you the opportunity to enter your name, which then shows up in the header of your comment, like my name here. You don't have to do this, of course, but it makes the discussion a little bit easier to follow.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kusner alluded to the so-called Hippocratic Oath. Though its modern medical incarnation may not literally be "First Do No Harm", there is universal agreement that this phrase (in Latin "Primum Non Nocere", via the Roman physician Galen) captures the essense of the idea, and likely comes from Hippocrates Epidemics, Bk. I, Sect. XI, a translation of which reads: "Declare the past, diagnose the present, foretell the future; practice these arts. As to diseases, make a habit of two things — to help, or at least to do no harm."

Whether or not this principle should be applied to zoning is a question which Town Meeting alone (and not Mr. Kusner nor Mr. Harvey) can decide.

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

I am really impressed by the thought and reasoning and detail that have informed this discussion. People have, on the whole, expressed their views clearly and often eloquently.

It is unfortunate that Rob is in the position of having to carry the full burden of discussion for “his side” of this topic. As a member of the Select Board, he clearly has more power and prominence than regular TM members, but he is still only one vote on this and any issue. I do wish we had contributions from others who oppose Article 23. Those of us who support it do so for a variety of reasons; presumably the opposition is as diverse as well.

I hope this continues. And I hope it stays focused on the details of the issue – this article and economic development policy in general. If it devolves into provocation and sniping, then we discredit ourselves and the debate.

Thanks very much to all for participating!

Anonymous said...

At last, it's over!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thanks to Stephanie for taking a deep breath, and stepping out from behind the curtains when
the torches start blazing. She is doing a pretty good job capturing the flavor of Town Meeting, but here's an unfortunate example (now that Town Meeting is over for the spring, I can don my other professional hat - er, helmet - for a bit, and hope she won't take offense at using her writing as an exmaple) of how the casual use of language can make it dfficult to have a rigorous, logical discussion:

"We say we want a vibrant downtown, but this could draw business away from there. Right. Because nothing gives a downtown that fun, bustling, vibrant flair like professional offices. Downtowns are about retail, restaurants and entertainment. Sure, other kinds of businesses like to be in that mix, but they don’t contribute to the vibrancy. It’s nice to be able to stop in at your accountant’s office or your lawyer’s office while you’re downtown doing other things, but if downtown were all lawyers and accountants, you wouldn’t have been there in the first place."

There is a subtle but elementary mistake here, a problem of quantifiers, which may make this seem "logical" to the casual reader, but nonsense to the careful one.

Just to make it clear, suppose (for the sake of illustration) that we live in a perfect world and all of us really do want to be able to stop at our lawyer's office downtown, perhaps so we can take our Hippocratic Oaths on the way
to have a cup of chai at Amherst Coffee (or Rao's, depending on which side of the political spectrum one is on...). Thus it would be very important that ALL ATTORNEYS' OFFICES ARE DOWNTOWN to ensure our particular lawyer has an office there.

But that is *NOT* logically equivlant to the statement that ALL DOWNTOWN OFFICES ARE ATTORNEYS', and thus downtown is just a hell-hole of lawyers, without a doctor - or even one
mathematician's office - to be found! (Geez, what if they weren't merely all lawyers, but all criminal prosecutors?! Or experts on libel law!?! Speaking of purgatory!!!!!)

This, in effect, reflects the same kind of error using logical quantifiers which happens in the quoted statement above. If we cannot recognize this error or agree on basic facts of logic, then we cannot have a rational discourse on these complex topics, since even if we could agree on the premises, we might - erroneously - draw quite different conclusions using this "logic".

Even if we cannot agree on the premises, isn't it better that we at least agree to use logic?
Of course, none of us is perfect (especially this post-er), the world is far from perfect, and we are prone (or supine?) to make mistakes from time to time, but I hope the points here are clear....

Jonathan O'Keeffe said...

Hippocrates would no doubt cry "Ignoratio elenchi!".

While it is clearly true that the statement "ALL ATTORNEYS' OFFICES ARE DOWNTOWN" is not equivalent to "ALL DOWNTOWN OFFICES ARE ATTORNEYS'", this distinction is irrelevant in the context of the original remarks, which did not make either one of these assertions.

The original argument is best analyzed as a syllogism:

--- The ratio of professional offices in a downtown correlates inversely with its vibrancy.

--- Encouraging professional offices to locate downtown increases the ratio of such offices.

--- Therefore, that which encourages professional offices to locate downtown reduces the vibrancy of said downtown.

This has been accepted as a valid logical structure since the days of Aristotle. One may dispute the individual premises of the argument, but if the premises hold, then the conclusion is by necessity valid.

Anonymous said...


Of course you have a valid syllogism here, but
I hope you can recognize that your first statement is of questionable validity, and the second is false. So your conclusion is also of questionable validity, possibly false.

Concerning the first: Why is the ratio the relevant quantity? Why not instead assert vibrancy
is proportional to the number of great restaurants? Or to the density of great restaurants (the number per block, or per acre, or per cubic centimeter)?

As to the second: if we encourage higher density downtown and in village centers, both the number of professional offices and the number of other vibrancy-enhancing activities can increase there in proportion to each other, and the ratio is fixed.

So even if we accept your first statement as a valid premise, as long as town and village center density can be incresed keeping your ratio fixed (or - if you take my premise - at least by not reducing the density of vibrancy-enhancers), then we're in business, right?

As a matter of fact, I believe it IS a good idea to
increase downtown and village center density, while keeping as much of the outlying parts of town in renewable-resource-based activity, like agriculture and silvaculture, as possible. (Might that be Hubley-Kusner Manifesto? ;) And I have acted pretty consistency to support both, at this Town Meeting (e.g. though Articles 18 and 19) and in the past.

Finally, regardless of what you believe should be done in the real world, my previous text analysis of the sloppy use of quantifiers stands. While I agree my example was contrived, it still exposes the heart of the problem with the quoted text:

"We say we want a vibrant downtown, but this could draw business away from there. Right. Because nothing gives a downtown that fun, bustling, vibrant flair like professional offices. Downtowns are about retail, restaurants and entertainment. Sure, other kinds of businesses like to be in that mix, but they don’t contribute to the vibrancy. It’s nice to be able to stop in at your accountant’s office or your lawyer’s office while you’re downtown doing other things, but if downtown were all lawyers and accountants, you wouldn’t have been there in the first place."

I am grateful for the opportunity to engage in this dialogue with you, exposed as it may be,
but really have to call this quits now - at least
we haven't cut down any trees (at least not directly) to publish all this (virtual) ink!

Best to you and Stephanie,


Eva Schiffer said...

"Only in Amherst...!"