Friday, June 22, 2007

Twelfth Night

This was it. Another epic Town Meeting was coming to an end. But not until we got through four more articles.

Before that however, an announcement: Members from precincts 5 and 8 wouldn’t quite be done with TM tonight, because they will hold elections to fill vacancies at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, June 25th in the Large Activity Room at Bangs Center.

Article 33 – Energy conservation and the dark night sky. The gist of this is that it seeks to create a general bylaw regulating external lighting at businesses and apartment complexes. It involves phased-in deadlines, requirements for shielding lights so that they point downward, and penalties for non-compliance. Vince O’Connor was the petitioner of this article.

After a comically prolonged period of trying to clarify, explain and read the amended motion, Mr. O’Connor spoke to its merits – conserving energy and having the dark sky. He said that by making it a general bylaw rather than a zoning bylaw it made for a level playing field for everyone, rather than having it apply only to new businesses and apartments while grandfathering all that exist before the bylaw’s creation. He said he didn’t think enforcement would be an issue because “peer pressure” and cost savings would encourage compliance. He said it didn’t address the University and colleges – the primary local dark sky wreckers, particularly UMass, reportedly referred to as “the city” and “space” by children of colleagues in my row, for how the campus doth glow.

The concept of the article was good, but …

Town Counsel said it wasn’t workable. The Town Commercial Relations Committee hated it. The Energy Task Force apparently didn’t like it. Even the Select Board didn’t support it.

The Select Board moved to refer it to the Town Manager, which I had thought was a good compromise, particularly when Alisa Brewer raised the point during the SB meeting that it is not of high enough priority to have him deal with it by the fall, and got them to defer it to a soft spring deadline. But a wise and eloquent TMer pointed out that Town staff have plenty of work to do already, urging defeat rather than referral.

Oddly, that was a reality check for me. At that moment I realized that I was becoming so inured to bad policies and proposals that this one had seemed OK by comparison. Since I started recapping Select Board meetings, I have been exposed to such a barrage of inappropriate, impractical and plain-old lousy ideas and justifications that I think I’ve been building up a tolerance to them. I was failing to think critically about this. Dark sky is good, energy conservation is good, other places do it, and referral would fix the proposal’s many flaws. The good outcome of the proposal and its relative overall benignity had put me into “Fine. Whatever.”-mode.

I’ve often described Amherst as “government by squeaky wheel,” and Mr. O’Connor is among our squeakiest. That he was even getting to me speaks to the effectiveness of that technique. Thanks to Rich Morse for jolting me back to consciousness.

We had a tally vote on this – which included a brief SBer-Moderator incident that I feared might escalate into another YouTube highlight. That Gerry Weiss – what are we gonna do with him?

No, of course it wasn’t Gerry.

Anyway, the tally vote on referral failed, 73 Yes to 83 No, and I voted No. We immediately voted on the main article, which despite the clear defeat via voice vote, we tallied anyway, and sure enough, it failed 52 Yes to 102 No. Again, I voted No.

Article 32 was to abolish the Amherst Redevelopment Authority, another O’Connor petition. This has been discussed in some detail at the April 23rd, May 10th, and June 18th Select Board meetings.

The Select Board moved to dismiss the article. The Finance Committee supported dismissal. An ARA member spoke to the legitimacy of recent write-in candidates winning ARA seats.

The vote to dismiss was overwhelmingly in favor with just a few Nos, and I voted Yes.

Article 27 was to purchase an Agricultural Preservation Restriction on 45 acres of farm land on 116. Conservation Commission member Nicki Robb spoke about the value of this parcel for farming; that it is part of a block of APR land in that area in both Amherst and Hadley; that it has been actively farmed for 9 generations; that there are 2 chunks of the parcel excluded from the APR and maintaining their Light Industrial zoning designation for potential development use; and that the full appraised value APR – which equals the development value of the land – is $450,000, but Amherst’s portion is $90,000 and the State kicks in the rest.

In response to questions, David Ziomek, Director of Conservation and Planning, said that there are about 1,900 acres of APR land in Amherst currently, with perhaps 500 acres of prime-soil land still to be protected. He explained the complicated zoning of the parcel and its Flood Prone Conservancy and Farmland Conservation overlays, and how that limits development potential and value, as represented by the appraisal. He said that the two excluded pieces include the site that was formerly an auction barn that has good taxable development potential, and a smaller piece that could become a scenic highway pull-off, among other uses. He emphasized the land owners – the WD Cowls business and family – maintain ownership and the developable rights in the excluded parcels.

A member spoke about the need to balance open space with economic priorities for the future, and suggested that the exclusions for developable land could have been larger, hence supporting more potential business activity. He said he has long supported APRs but would probably oppose this one.

An Agricultural Commission member spoke about the high quality of the farmland and its importance for being contiguous to other protected parcels. She spoke of values of farming in terms of producing crops to feed animals and people, and in being a traditional and taxable form of local industry.

A member asked if there were considerations being made regarding a goal for how much protected land Amherst is seeking – as much as possible, or achieving a specific amount? He talked about the changes in agriculture and the implications for the future, and what that economic sector would look like in Amherst without government intervention.

Mr. Ziomek said that the Town’s Open Space and Recreation Plan is being updated, as required by the State, and that he intends to have a draft done this summer, and that it will dovetail with the Master Plan process. He said that Master Plan working groups were also looking into issues of prioritized land protection. He said this particular parcel has been identified as a priority for at least 12 to 15 years. He said the excluded part with the auction barn is the size it is because it is easier to redevelop developed land and that land is considered to be already developed.

A member spoke about past APRs on the East Street corridor and Pine Street, and why those were important and necessary, but that he opposed this one, primarily because of its location, which he suggested was better suited for development.

There were more comments about the quality of the soil and land – this is row crop farm land, not dairy farm land, because it is large and flat and has good soil – and the value of farming to the local economy.

A member said he would like to see more data related to proposals like this with details including the long-term economic impact. He said that preservation needs to be considered in the context of potential revenues, and how much land is left to be developed and preserved.

Rob Kusner of the Select Board said that the only parts of this parcel that were developable are the two parts that have been excluded from the APR, and that that is reflected in the appraisal.

The voice vote on appropriating $90,000 from CPAC money for Amherst’s share of the APR on this land was overwhelmingly in favor. This was another one of those times when discussion of the article would make you think the body was more evenly split, but the vote ends up being lopsided. I voted Yes. I too have wondered if Amherst is going to try to preserve every piece of land possible and eventually start turning developed land back into open space, until the town is one giant lovely view and wildlife habitat. It would be like Quabbin, without the water. But I was persuaded by the fact that this has long been prioritized for preservation – quite unlike the “we’ll go to any lengths to thwart development” situation with the Strawberry Fields land on South East Street, or the Haskins View land on East Leverett Road, neither of which has apparently ever been part of the Town’s Open Space Plan. I also thought the fact that the land is zoned such that it can’t be developed was quite compelling. I completely agree with all the comments about balancing financial needs with preservation needs, and considering the long-term economic impact of preserving specific parcels, but I was persuaded that those were not significant factors with this parcel. Though thinking about that now, it does make me wonder why we need to take steps and spend money to keep land from being developed that supposedly can’t be developed anyway. Hmmmm. I wish I had thought to ask that.

There were two other parts to Article 27 which amounted to technicalities – the ability to borrow the amount equal to the State’s share of the APR in anticipation of the grant money being received, if the process needs to take place sooner than we have that money in hand; and granting authority to the Select Board to acquire and hold the interest in the land, and to do so in partnership with the State. Both passed easily with just a smattering of Nos, and I voted Yes to both.

Article 28 was another APR, this one in South Amherst. All the details aren’t complete yet though, so it was referred back to CPAC and will come back at fall Town Meeting.

And speaking of thwarting development, the Town Manager gave Town Meeting an update on the Andrews-LaVerdiere Meadow Street land lawsuit, and how Town Meeting’s decision in that is now part of case law, and honestly, if I were to go any further on that subject, my brain would explode.

And then we were done.

I will be offering some reflections on this Town Meeting in a few days, on the inAmherst site.

Thanks to all who commented and e-mailed. Some excellent points were raised and good discussions were had – and continue – and I appreciate that very much. We muddle through this process of trying to do what each of us thinks is best for the Town. We surely don’t all agree, but we are all well-intentioned.

Enjoy the summer.


Anonymous said...

Thanks again for all your hard work reporting on Town Meeting and the Select Board sessions. I almost feel like I'm back there again (is that good, or bad?)

Larry Kelley said...

Article 27. Hmmmm: So if Mr. Kusner is correct (and we know what a genius he is) that “the only parts of this parcel that were developable are the two parts that have been EXCLUDED from the APR, and that that is reflected in the appraisal” then why the Hell did we spend $450,000 of taxpayer money to buy DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS?

Mark said...

Because, the land is developable. Large sections of it are developable - with a section carved out for flood prone conservancy. A couple of years ago a development proposal came before the planning board on these parcels. The proposal was to put a road in through the light industrial zoned land to provide access to the residential low density zonedland. The proposal was just for land subdivision but had 6? house lots with another large estate lot.

Mark said...

Looking at the Amherst GIS map viwer I see that the auction property had another subdivision request submitted this year:

Permit Case ID: SUB2007-00005
Type SUB
Status REC
Exp Date

Mark said...

Here is the Planning board agenda for June 20, 2007


7:30 PM SUB 2007-00005, North Amherst
Business Park – W.D. Cowls, Inc.

Request approval for a 7-lot
preliminary subdivision at 169 Meadow Street. (Map
4B/Parcel 6 & Map 5A/Parcel 131; LI & R-LD zoning
districts) [continued from May 16, 2007]

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Thank you for all this info, Chris. Someone brought up this subdivision application at the meeting, and Dave Ziomek responded, and frankly, I didn’t really understand what either of them were saying. While the land is apparently developable, its development potential is quite limited, hence the low appraisal price. Isn’t that true? This isn’t something I know much about. Surely if the land had great potential, the appraisal would be higher AND the landowners would want much more for the development rights – or they might not be amenable to preserving it for farmland at all. As Mr. O’Connor is so fond of saying – and he’s right – people don’t typically act against their own economic interests.

Larry Kelley said...

God would I love to play poker with either of you two, or Mr. Ziomek (the younger…dad strikes me as pretty savvy), or Town Meeting.

The fastest way to sell your property in Amherst is to bluff you're going to develop it (of course in this case we didn’t even get the property for $450,000…but then we also spent almost $300,000 to preserve the look of a brick house in North Amherst).

If they had not developed it after NINE GENERATIONS do you really believe they would suddenly do it now?

Anonymous said...

Town meeting is now over (finally). The last night was marked by the presentation of a half-baked article “to conserve the night sky by increasing energy efficiency” or something like that. While some might have agreed that it might be a good idea, the article was so vague in detail as to be completely unworkable. Thank goodness then that the majority of TM wisely decided it wasn’t worth the time and effort of our town’s paid employees to sort it out, and the motion to refer to the Town Manager was defeated. Gee, maybe the Town Manager has more important things to do such as finding ways to reduce our structural deficit and find new ways to raise town revenue....

Finally, as this is likely my last comment on spring TM, I would like to correct a proclamation made by Gerry Weiss after the budget was completed (June 18th). He stated that although we were going to have to take about $238,000 out of reserves, really it was $120,000 less because of the $120,000 remaining (unspent) from this year’s elementary budget. This is not true. Perhaps Gerry Weiss did not hear Mr. Morton explain to us that $100,000 of that $120,000 had already been anticipated and was already included in the reserve amount. Thus, at best, we have to take about $218,000 out of reserves. If the War Memorial pool and added money for charities had not been added to the budget by the SB, then we would have only taken about $118,000 out of reserves this year.

Let’s hope for more accountability and responsibility at the next TM and less political grandstanding.

Anonymous said...


I did hear Mr. Morton clearly. I checked with John Musante about that figure. John calculates that every year, there will be $100K of unspent money from all town accounts - library, schools and town gov't. In a $70M budget, that's a reasonable expectation. He did not expect that there would be $120K from the schools. So, your math may prove to be correct, that the only money leftover will be from the Elem budget, but that's not how he projects the $100K. We'll have the final figures within the next few weeks, but perhaps not final until the fall. Stay tuned.

And yes, had we not put money into pools and human services and subsidies for low income families and elder services and libraries and schools and police and information technology, we would have been able to put a lot more money into the bank than we are projected to.(currently at $1M+) Its all a matter of priorities - thankfully, we all have different priorities, and that's why we have a large citizen government, so the priorities of a select few don't rule.

Anonymous said...

Ah, there's Mr. Weiss again, posing as he has through his entire short political career as a small "d" democrat, a champion of democracy. Thankfully, we have "a large citizen government", he says, so that "the priorities of a select few don't rule."

Let's just hold on a minute here. There's a real limit to Mr. Weiss's belief in democracy, that is, at the point where we would have a menu override ballot in which contributions from the public treasury to private charitable organizations would go for a town-wide "yes or no" vote. Mr. Weiss would never stand for such a democratic moment, because he knows that the town's residents would vote the appropriation down.

Mr. Weiss is thankful that we have a government with decision-making, including the public appropriating of money for private charities, that is ignored by substantial segments of the populace. We have elections that voters either sleep or puzzle their way through. At this point, this is a government that is still dominated by "a select few" of citizens who agree with him, some of whom are elected over and over by a miniscule numbers of voters. The existing status quo, he calls it "democracy", I call it "oligarchy", works for him. It's not about democratic accountability, no matter how he tries to dress it up.

I am not opposed to these appropriations when we are flush with money. But let's be real: they have happened because of the general indifference of the electorate to the intricacies of the town's budget. They happened because of Town Meeting's elitist sense of noblesse oblige, not as some expression of democracy.

Anonymous said...

I would support a full menu override. In fact, I did propose such an override and I was unable to gather any support for it.