Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I didn't forget

Apparently holidays and meeting recaps don’t mix well, so let’s hope Town Meeting finishes up before Christmas.

Here's a scaled-down account of last week’s session, lest I end up two meetings behind.

Bad start: I could hear the gavel bang and the meeting come to order while I was still at the Select Board meeting in the music room.

Gets better: Once I was checked in and settled, a dashing fellow from the Planning Board was speaking to the dismissal of articles 13 and 14 – which proposed changes to the allowed uses in the Professional Research Park zone – due to the new compromise Article 1 of the 11/28 Special Town Meeting.

Gets worse: Gerry Weiss offers an “apology” for saying at the previous meeting that banks are more inclined to finance a project with Site Plan Review approval rather than Special Permit. He’s called a couple of people who disagree with that. Let the equivocation begin.

Dismissed: With Vince O’Connor of the “Coalition for Sustainable Neighborhoods” praising the spirit of cooperation of the Planning Board, its Zoning Subcommittee, and the Planning Department staff, 13 and 14 were unanimously dismissed.

Recused: Harrison Gregg recused himself as Moderator for Article 15 which dealt with property owned by his employer, Amherst College. Jim Pistrang was the sole nominee to fill that interim role, and was elected by unanimous vote of the body.

The gist: Article 15 was originally two parts. The first part sought to expand the General Business district a block to the east, to include Spring Street up to Churchill Street. The second part sought to allow inns, hotels and motels by Site Plan Review in the General Business district, instead of by Special Permit. The proposed expansion the business district would be a tiny and reasonable change and might help to save an historic house owned by the Masonic Lodge for which the most attractive use to that organization under the residential zoning is to demolish it and make a parking lot. The inn/hotel/motel change would make it easier for Amherst College to proceed with planned expansion of the Lord Jeff, and would be a step toward encouraging lodging downtown by making it a “by right” use, rather than an exception, in that district. Planning Board member Jonathan Shefftz presented this article and spoke to these points.

Motion A: Expanding the General Business district seems simple enough and is endorsed by the Select Board, the Finance Committee and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Not so fast: Vince O’Connor moved to divide the motion into three parts, separating the different affected parcels. OK then. He said he supported Motion 1 – rezoning the Masons’ house, and opposed Motion 2 – rezoning a house with rental apartments. What about Motion 3? Stay tuned.

Best points: Frank Wells said Town Meeting would be overstepping its knowledge base to make new zoning proposals from the floor. Jonathan Shefftz spoke to the Spring Street expansion being proposed as a cohesive unit, and said that no consideration or public input had been given to idea of rezoning some but not all of the parcels in question. Gavin Andresen said that while TM is often uneasy about zoning changes, he was optimistic about the potential for Spring Street, and spoke of the recent pleasant surprise of an auto parts store becoming a hot tub place, noting also that such an enterprise isn’t vulnerable to Internet competition.

Results: Motions A1 and A2 pass easily, which means that one side of the Spring Street block is rezoned to General Business.

Here we go: Vince then sought to have the proposed rezoning of the four parcels on the other side of the street – the Lord Jeff and three other buildings owned by Amherst College – referred to the Planning Board, Select Board and Town Manager. He wants to use them as leverage to pressure Amherst College into giving the Town money. Nothing says Town-Gown partnership like applying the big squeeze.

Voices of reason: Jim Brassord from Amherst College spoke to the fortunes of the college and the downtown rising and falling together. Isaac BenEzra spoke to the folly of approving the first two parts of this now-divided motion without approving the third, saying one can’t be “half pregnant,” and emphasizing the need to work with the colleges on efforts that expand the tax base and provide jobs. Larry Kelley said that encouraging expansion of the Lord Jeff makes sense both because it will increase its assessed value and because it will increase the opportunity to collect lodging taxes.

Results: The motion to refer failed. Rezoning of the Amherst College properties passed.

Hotels, motels and inns, oh my: The ZBA moved to divide this motion, separating inns from hotels and motels. The Select Board supported allowing inns by special permit but moved to refer the hotels and motels part back to the Planning Board.

Throwing spaghetti at the wall: Everyone supported the inn part because inns can only be in buildings that are at least 75 years old, while hotels and motels would require the dreaded “new construction.” It was suggested that Site Plan Review shows less concern for abutters and other opponents. Various scary hotel situations were invoked: Look at Route 9! Look what happened with the new hotel proposal in Northampton! Hotels and motels are chains! We also had pictures of pretty downtown buildings that are now gone, to make room for such outrages as the fire station and the post office. (Imagine what horrors lurk if we don’t keep everything as-is – the gas station could become something charming. The CVS or Brueggers buildings might be improved. And heaven forefend – the big Bank of America building… no, no – change is just too dangerous.)

Oh the irony: Select Board member Hwei-Ling Greeney gave every impression of being confused by and mistaken about the details of the proposed change to Site Plan Review, saying that she found in the fine print of the Zoning Bylaw that it would apply to the Limited Business, Commercial, and Business-Village Center districts as well. While she described her concerns about that, her colleagues Gerry Weiss and Rob Kusner displayed overt frustration which I found to be incredibly disrespectful and inappropriate. We are all allowed to be wrong, for goodness sake. Except that Hwei-Ling wasn’t even wrong. Through another oversight on the part of the Planning Board, language about confining the change to the General Business district somehow didn’t make it into the final version of the article, though it had been included other places and had been the clear intent throughout the process of the article’s creation. Egads. These errors aren’t doing the Planning Board any favors in the “you can trust us because we’re thorough and rigorous” department.

Motion to refer: This motion failed in a close tally vote – 76 in favor, 81 opposed. I voted to oppose.

Fixed: We voted to amend the article to add the language about the General Business district to both the hotels/motels part and the inns part.

Back to the Hotels/Motels: At this point and previously throughout the evening, people spoke in favor of the change from Special Permit to Site Plan Review: Lodging can be new, small and nice. There is plenty of protection in the Zoning Bylaw, the SPR process and the Design Review Board to prevent something awful or huge. Wouldn’t it be nice if guests could stay in downtown Amherst and walk to shops and restaurants? Years ago, the Carriage Shops was a motel (who knew?) and that didn’t spell doom for Amherst. The theme of the zoning proposals is encouraging economic development, and this would be a simple, logical low-risk way to do that. We are trying to change the Special Permit message that says: no, we don’t really want that.

Another tally: The change to allow hotels and motels in the General Business district by Site Plan Review failed to meet the 2/3 requirement, with 100 Yes votes and 54 No votes. I voted Yes.

Inns are OK: The vote to approve allowing inns in the General Business district by Site Plan Review passed overwhelmingly, with just a handful of Nos. And I voted Yes for that as well.

The meeting adjourned just after 10:30, after considering one article. We meet again Wednesday, November 28th for the “Special Special.”

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Perpetual motions

Every now and then a meeting is so grueling that I curse this whole blog thing. This was one of those meetings.

Things started well enough – the quorum was announced at 7:40 and the meeting began about a minute later. The Moderator said that he would be recusing himself for Article 15 – Spring Street – (because much of the land in question is owned by his employer, Amherst College) and that Jim Pistrang is willing to serve, should we elect him. As if we would get to Article 15 last night.

The Moderator and Eva Schiffer offered high praise of outgoing Senior Planner for the Town, Niels la Cour, who has taken a planning position at UMass. Eva talked about his decade-long work on the Comprehensive Plan process and his creation of the Town’s tremendous Geographic Information System (GIS,) as well as his overall enthusiasm, patience and expertise. Town Meeting applauded.

Larry Shaffer also congratulated Niels and wished him well. Then he spoke about the zoning articles, and the on-going discussions about Special Permit versus Site Plan Review. He then asked the Moderator and Town Meeting to let Allan Blair, head of the Western Mass Economic Development Council, speak about how those two options are viewed by the outside world.

Because Mr. Blair is not a member of Town Meeting or a registered voter in Amherst, he can only speak with majority consent of the body. In my experience, the vote to approve such a speaker is a mere formality. Not so this time – there were more than a few loud Nos. I was ashamed of us.

Mr. Blair said that he has been working on economic development issues for 25 years in Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties, and has observed that communities that have been successful in diversifying their tax base are those which have expedited their permitting to provide developers and interested businesses with “certainty” about the process. He said that uncertainty of time and effort required to go through the process, and the uncertainty of the final outcome – whether meeting all the criteria will actually lead to an approved permit – causes companies to avoid such communities if they can. He said that certainty of process and timeline is an encouragement and uncertainty is a discouragement, and that Site Plan Review represents certainty because it means the use is by right after all conditions are met.

Mr. Blair spoke only briefly, but it was not brief enough for some. One member interrupted with a point of order to ask if he was being timed. When Mr. Blair was done, another member called it “outrageous” that he had been allowed to speak and that an opposing view was not being presented.

Town Meeting keeps finding new ways to discourage and depress me.

So I can’t take full credit (blame?) for this, because it may have been in the works anyway, but I had suggested to Mr. Shaffer that he get Mr. Blair or someone with such expertise to address Town Meeting to provide an external professional perspective. Why? Because many have noticed that various e-mails, discussions and TM objections have questioned what evidence there is that Special Permit is considered a deterrent and that businesses are really not settling in Amherst because of it. So who might credibly provide that kind of evidence? The Planning Department, which is inexplicably seen as an enemy saboteur by some? Individual TM members offering anecdotal examples? The Planning Board? Oh wait, it’s their recommendation that is being doubted anyway.

If you really want information and perspective, then why would you not welcome the input of an expert external third-party? Why would you regard with disdain professional expertise intended to inform your understanding of the situation? Do you prefer to get your medical advice from random strangers because it is more “democratic” than the “propaganda” offered by a doctor?

And most of all, why would you ask the question “where’s the evidence?” if you didn’t want to know the answer? Here’s a guy who is providing just such an answer, and some in Town Meeting are engaging in the equivalent of putting their hands over their ears and bleating “la la la la la la la – can’t hear you!”

I am constantly baffled by the minutiae which some in TM feel the need to “understand” while being content to not understand – willfully misunderstand? – the larger concepts.

Which is the perfect segue back to the warrant.

Article 11 was about clarifying and regulating the uses that would be allowed in the Research and Development overlay district we created last week with Article 10. It was divided into three motions. (Read the Planning Board Report here.) Motion A was to establish that those R&D uses allowed in the Limited Business district by Special Permit be allowed in the R&D overlay district by Site Plan Review. Planning Board Chair Aaron Hayden prefaced his explanation of this by saying that good rules that are easy to follow protect the town better than vague rules. He also emphasized the Site Plan Review is a rigorous process that doesn’t “give away the shop,” saying that there are 34 rules governing the Planning Board’s approval of a Site Plan Review, and that their vote requires a supermajority with a minimum of 5. He said that the ZBA has 18 rules governing approval of a Special Permit, and that their vote must be unanimous among all three members.

The Select Board and Finance Committee both had unanimous support for the motion. Someone asked about the Board of Health’s involvement in creating the article and their willingness to be involved in its regulation, and Mr. Shaffer provided assurance of both. The ZBA supported the motion. One person spoke against it. Gerry Weiss gave it strong support, saying that Special Permit sends the message that we don’t want that use in our town but we’re willing to consider it; and said banks are reluctant to finance projects requiring Special Permit approval, contributing to Amherst’s reputation for being unfriendly to business.

The question was called; it passed, and the vote on Motion A passed with a declared 2/3 voice vote.

Motion B was to make more intense manufacturing require a Special Permit instead of a Site Plan Review in the only two districts where it is allowed - Professional Research Park and Light Industrial. The motion was changed from the original permit provision in the warrant, which called for one of the rare Planning Board SPs, to instead call for a ZBA SP. That change was due to a compromise reached at a meeting the night before between those two boards. The Select Board and Finance Committee had both supported the original SP designation and assumed that their members would support this change also, though no formal votes had been taken on it. ZBA supported it. There was a question or two, the fixing of a typo, and a small process objection, and then the vote to approve Motion B was overwhelmingly in support, with a few scattered Nos.

Motion C was to add language to the Zoning Bylaw aligning the Town definitions of toxic and hazardous substance with those of the State. With little discussion, it passed unanimously.

Yes – unanimously. Even the usual token Nos acceded to clarifying the definitions of toxic substances. How about that.

Article 12. Ugh. This is where the wheels fell off.

This article (PB report here) was about regulating uses that are secondary to a primary R&D use. It is in three sections: the first proposes changes to the current regulation, and the second two propose new language to be more specific about what is and isn’t allowed and where. In a nutshell, the article sought to allow approval of secondary uses to occur under the same process and permitting authority by which the primary use was permitted. If your use and location required a ZBA Special Permit for the primary use, then that is to whom you would go to seek a permit for a secondary use, and likewise, if Site Plan Review was the primary use authorization, so too it would be for the accessory use. Doesn’t sound too complicated, and the Select Board and Finance Committee both supported it unanimously.

But the ZBA sought to amend it to make all accessory uses require Special Permits, which as I understood it, essentially guts the Planning Board’s proposed change to that section, but accepts the proposed new sections.

Then a ZBA member sought to divide the article, separating out the second of three sections of proposed new language – the long, detailed part – so that sections one and three would be voted on separately from section 2. For those following along at home with your warrant – how sad! – the section of concern was 5.071.

This led to nearly two hours of questions from people who didn’t understand, restatements by people who did, and attempted clarifications by those who sometimes did and sometimes didn’t.

There were legal questions, procedural questions, regulatory questions, and plentiful questions on the differences between principal and accessory uses. Most perplexing of all, there were two separate motions to refer this back to the Planning Board. Why would this be referred back? Because not all the Town Meeting members could wrap their minds around the intricacies of the article.

Could that be because they aren’t on the Planning Board? Because they aren’t fluent in the complex details and confusing language of the zoning bylaw? Because they have no idea how different uses are currently governed and what the proposed changes mean?

Referring the article back to the Planning Board wasn’t going to solve any of those issues. They already understand it – that’s what they’re for. We have a Planning Board and a Planning Department so that we don’t all have to be individual experts on the Zoning Bylaw. It saves a lot of hassle. Or at least, it should.

There is an unfortunate arrogance to the notion that “If I as an ordinary citizen can’t understand this, it must be bad, or must need to be fixed.” There are roughly 250 Town Meeting members. We are variously abled and variously interested. We need to understand the concept of what we are being asked to vote on, and to exercise our individual wisdom accordingly. But we need to recognize that we might not understand every minute detail, and that every one of those details does not need to suit our personal fancy. And we have to have some trust in the process that brought the articles to us.

If we don’t trust the process or we don’t like the outcome it produced, there is no need to pick the article apart or stall it in procedural gridlock. Just vote against it.

Simple. Straightforward. And democratic.

Eventually, there was a tally vote on the motion to refer Article 12 back to the Planning Board. It failed with 56 Yes votes and 107 No votes. I voted No.

After more noodling around, we eventually voted on the ZBA’s amendment. It was defeated in a voice vote. I voted No.

After still more noodling around, we voted on parts one and three of the main article. That required 2/3 majority and passed on a standing vote of 121 to 33. I voted Yes.

Then more noodling on the second section, which had been divided out. That too was sought to be referred back to the Planning Board. That failed in a voice vote. I voted No.

We quickly voted on the original motion for that second section, and that passed in a declared 2/3 majority voice vote. I voted Yes.

In the frenzy of trying to finally get out of there – was it 10:20? I forgot to write it down – the body was offered the opportunity to adjourn until November 28th, but I’m not sure people understood that’s what was happening, and that in order to do so we would have to first reject the motion to adjourn to Monday the 19th. We approved that first motion so now we meet again Monday. It doesn’t make much difference to me. I would like to get this over with sooner rather than later, but I also think a lot of people will probably already be away for Thanksgiving on Monday, so I was leaning toward the 28th.

So the bad news is that it took us an entire evening to parse out two articles. The good news is they both passed. Beats the heck out getting through them quickly but having them fail.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Inching forward

Not so quick this time, but progress was made.

It started off pretty late. The constable’s announcement of the quorum came at about 7:40, and we didn’t start until ten minutes after that. Tough to know what to do about that. People sitting around me were grumbling about the Moderator, but it’s not like he’s up there goofing off – he’s dealing with people who have questions and procedural issues. If he cuts off all that discussion and bangs the gavel as soon as the quorum is called (which should occur at 7:30 – a late quorum is entirely “our” fault as members) then presumably those same questions and procedural issues will need to be dealt with during the course of the meeting. And we had some pretty good examples of that last night too. Maybe forcing such stuff to be dealt with during the meeting instead of right before would put more pressure on people to handle their issues ahead of time – earlier in the day, or days prior – instead of reinforcing the notion that “TM always starts late, so it’s fine for me to be part of that delay.” It really is a self-perpetuating problem – people come late because they know the meeting typically starts late, so that means we don’t achieve quorum until late, and any delay beyond that just makes it all worse. Alas.

Article 8 – CPAC money for Town Hall. We already authorized money for the Town Hall repairs and restoration last spring. This article was about using Community Preservation Act funds instead of straight Town tax money, allowing State matching funds to reduce the amount required from taxation. This issue has gone around and around in recent months – Was this a legal and appropriate use of CPAC funds? Was it “fair” to make this a Historic Preservation CPAC expenditure, thus redirecting the Historical Commission’s CPAC share away from other planned preservation projects? Once the former was decided in the affirmative and the latter achieved an acceptable compromise, this was pretty much a done deal. So many parties were involved in the negotiations on the issues leading up to this article that even Town Meeting didn’t stand much chance of derailing this. And it didn’t. The various parts – $100,000 from the CPAC fund balance for the south stairs and clock tower repairs; $295,000 in borrowing against future CPAC funds for the rest of the exterior masonry work (except for the money that has already been spent – this is the kind of nitty-gritty stuff that has been keeping folks busy on this issue;) and the vote to reduce last spring’s appropriation accordingly, all passed nearly unanimously with only the usual handful of obstinate Nos.

Article 9 – Fair Trade. Yuri Friman talked about the benefits of Fair Trade and the benefits to Amherst of declaring itself a Fair Trade town – only the fourth in the country and the first in Massachusetts: it’s good for the farmers and crafters; it gives them direct access to international markets and earns them better prices for their goods; it promotes sustainable farming and safe labor practices; and it can help draw attention and tourism to Amherst. The article sought to encourage Town purchasing of Fair Trade goods where possible, for the Select Board to promote Fair Trade purchasing, and for the Select Board to consider forming a Town committee devoted to Fair Trade in the future. There was much support, a hint of opposition (a member felt that it wouldn’t make a difference in a greedy world and that it might represent more expense for low-income people,) and the vote to pass it was, again, nearly unanimous with a couple of random Nos.

Then we embarked on what would be the main focus of this Town Meeting: zoning.

We have a lot of zoning articles, with a lot of details, and rather than my describing them all, I recommend you check out the incredibly thorough Planning Board reports to Town Meeting on the Town web site.

We began with Article 10 – which would establish a Research and Development overlay district (part 1) and apply it to parcels on the west side of University Drive between Amity Street and Route 9 (part 2.) The point of the overlay district is to allow certain research and development activity to occur there by right, through Site Plan Review. That means it requires approval via the Planning Board’s Site Plan Review process, which entails: the notification of abutters; a public hearing; conforming to all the necessary criteria in the Zoning Bylaw, as identified by the Planning Board; and earning the 2/3 majority vote of that body. It is by all accounts a rigorous process, but at the end of it, a project that meets all the requirements can proceed.

The R&D uses in question are currently possible under Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Special Permit is a similar and equally rigorous process, but it requires unanimous approval by the three-member panel, and can end in rejection. The ZBA determination allows more discretion. An applicant can come out of the process without the ability to proceed.

What has been identified as the key issue by those who know such things – actual applicants, the Town Manager, and economic development experts – is that the Special Permit requirement is a deterrent to businesses. Without the certainty that their project can proceed – even if it has to be modified far beyond their original intentions – they don’t even bother to try. The Special Permit requirement is said to be an obstacle to obtaining financing because banks don’t want to risk the loss of all the up-front money required to design the plans and pay the professionals to shepherd a project through that approval process if there is no assurance it will proceed. So such businesses reportedly go to other communities where they don’t face that risk.

The point of the articles being proposed by the Planning Board, at the behest of the Town Manager, as he explained so well at the meeting, is to encourage the kind of appropriate business growth and development in Amherst that will help to grow the tax base and reduce the burden on residential property tax payers to cover the growing expense of providing the services our community values. More money from businesses means less money from the rest of us. The less expensive our property taxes are, the more diverse our community will be. And the more new revenue we can bring in, the less we have to cut our schools, Town services and libraries.

To encourage this kind of business growth and economic development, the proposed zoning changes generally seek to eliminate the deterrent and obstacle of Special Permit where appropriate.

“Where appropriate,” or perhaps “if appropriate” is the crux of disagreement on these issues.

In case you missed this development (what do you mean you don’t read every word of the Select Board recaps? That some are quite tardy is another issue entirely…) my husband is a recent appointee to the Planning Board.

So back to TM. Larry Shaffer gave a powerful endorsement to all the articles that will be put forth by the Planning Board. (Those of you paying attention know that not all the upcoming articles originate there, but that will be a topic for a different post.) The Planning Board explained Article 10 and its support. The Select Board gave its unanimous (!) support, as did the Finance Committee. The ZBA did also, though that got rather confusing once ZBA member Hilda Greenbaum spoke against it – more on that later.

Mary Wentworth offered an amendment that would support the creation of the overlay district, but would require that the uses allowed there be by Special Permit rather than Site Plan Review.

The Moderator had to decide whether this amendment was within the scope of the article – seeing as how it essentially rendered the article moot. He ultimately decided that it was, because it would allow for a lesser change than the article sought, rather than a greater change, which would not be allowed as an amendment.

Lesser indeed. The point of the article, you’ll recall, is to make the change to Site Plan Review, and to remove the obstacle that is Special Permit within this proposed overlay district. There is no point in making the overlay district if it has the same use rules as are required outside of its boundaries. An overlay says that in this defined geographical area, we think there is good reason to make the rules a little different. (Often they are used for resource protection, making use rules stricter than a particular zone otherwise requires because it has been determined that different rules are needed to protect the water supply, for example.)

And so this point was made by many, perhaps best by Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, who said that if Mary’s amendment were to pass, it would add a bunch of words to the Zoning Bylaw, but no change. Similarly, another Jonathan – O’Keeffe – said that the amendment should be rejected, and Town Meeting should have a straight up or down vote on the article. Because supporting the amendment was the same as rejecting the article. I don’t know if Mary’s proposal was the result of confusion or an attempt to confuse, but either way, it was a procedural mess.

And with it, more wackiness ensued. As mentioned, Hilda Greenbaum voiced strong opposition despite her previous ZBA vote and erroneously claimed that abutters and other tenants in a building with R&D use would lack an appeal process. (Um, actually the ZBA is the appeal process, as are the courts. Again – confused or attempting to confuse?) Following the rejection of Mary’s amendment we also had surprisingly blatant fear-mongering from Rob Quinn (Site Plan Review could lead to defense work, nerve gas and weaponry being developed right here in Amherst!) and one of those classic “Atlas Shrugged” TM moments: when Ben Grosscup complained that Site Plan Review would render research and technology “disconnected with and unconstrained by democracy” (it’s an approximate quote – I take copious notes, but I don’t record TM.)

On the plus side, the discussion clarified nice and early this whole Special Permit vs. Site Plan Review thing that will continue to be a factor in future articles. Andy Churchill gave a particularly fine presentation on this point, debunking the “SunEthanol as Special Permit success” myth (it was a success, but it shouldn’t have had to be that difficult, and that company vigorously supports the change to Site Plan Review.) Other excellent and welcomed support came from Larry Shaffer and Paul Bobrowski, as well as Gerry Weiss, who tried to reassure the reluctant that the process leading to these recommendations has indeed been good and thoughtful, and should be endorsed.

And Diana Stein, bless her heart, pointed out that research and development can be used for good, not just evil. Green energy, she noted as example, requires R&D.

When all was said and done, Town Meeting passed Article 10. We passed an actual zoning change designed to encourage economic development. Amazing, but true.

But we’re not done yet. The University Drive stuff is considered the “least controversial,” so imagine the battles that lie ahead. Prepare for more stalling and confusion, and lots of “We already passed the University Drive changes – let’s not get all crazy now.”

And count how many times you hear: “Not before the completion of the Master Plan,” and the new “sure-we-want-development-but-not-this-development” buzzword: brownfields.

Or maybe this is the dawn of a new era at Town Meeting. I doubt it, but I’d love to be wrong.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Off to a quick start

Last night was so efficient! I thought I had wandered in to some other town’s Town Meeting. Very impressive.

Started with the usual welcome and procedural stuff. Turns out the meeting wasn’t being broadcast live on ACTV due to some glitch, but it would be re-broadcast. Click here for the channel 17 schedule.

Gerry Weiss acknowledged all the volunteers who had completed two terms of service on a Town board or committee. They were:

Elisa Campbell, Community Preservation Act Committee

Audrey Child, Community Preservation Act Committee

Ludmilla Pavlova-Gillham, Design Review Board

Becky Hurwitz, Disability Access Advisory Committee

Jean Smyser, Disability Access Advisory Committee

Edith Nye MacMullen, Historical Commission

Alex Kent, Kanegasaki Sister City Committee

Cynthia Asebrook, La Paz Centro Sister City Committee

Jerry Jolly, Town Commercial Relations Committee

Larry Shaffer introduced the new Town Counsel, Joel Bard, from the firm of Kopelman and Paige. He also gave updates about the Plum Brook Soccer Fields, praising Guilford Mooring and the DPW (grass is growing, soccer is possible next fall;) and Cherry Hill, praising Linda Chalfant, Barbara Bilz and LSSE (revenues are up, expenses are down, to the tune of about a $30,000 surplus.)

Then it was on to Article 1 – hearing board and committee reports that aren’t available in written form. First we voted to approve this, then we heard the reports.

Barry Roberts, Chair of the 250th Anniversary Celebration Committee, reported on that body’s work to date and its five subcommittees preparing for 2009 (History – chaired by Wendy Kohler; Arts & Literature, chaired by Adrienne Terrizzi; Parade – chaired by Pat Wagner; Community Week Celebration – chaired by Dolly Jolly; and Marketing – chaired by Martha Nelson Patrick.) He encouraged any and all to attend any meeting, get involved and share feedback and ideas.

There were good hand-outs on the back table about this too – a brochure with all the subcommittee info and details of event plans to date, and an announcement of a fundraising party January 10th upstairs at Amherst Brewing Company. Mark your calendars.

James Wald of the Comprehensive Planning Committee gave a recap of that committee’s work on the Master Plan: it’s been a long time in the making; it’s had tons of input; it’s not quite done yet. Thus delayed what is sure to be one of Town Meeting’s epic battles. I actually couldn’t believe we got off that easy last night.

Brian Morton, Chair of the Finance Committee, then delivered a powerful reality check to Town Meeting about the truly dismal state of Town finances now and for the foreseeable future. Not only did he lay all the bad news on the table in no uncertain terms, (we face a $1.9 million shortfall from level-services funding for FY09 – get more of the gory details here,) he also told us what to do about it: pass the necessary zoning changes to encourage real economic development. We don’t see too much of this kind of straight talk and bold calls to action, so some might not recognize it: it’s called leadership. Bravo Brian and the Finance Committee!

And don’t miss the FinCom public meeting on the draft budget guidelines for FY09: Tuesday, November 13th at 7:00 p.m. in the Large Activity Room at Bangs Center. Read the draft guideline document here.

Article 2 – payment of unpaid bills from the prior fiscal year. Despite being broke, we have no unpaid bills, so this article was dismissed in short order.

Article 3 – budget amendments. This is where we have to amend the current year’s budget to account for changes that have occurred since we approved the budget in the spring. There were two amendments: an appropriation of $562,207 from free cash to the Health Claims Trust Fund to cover the $111,000 negative balance and to have sufficient reserves to meet this year’s State-mandated requirement that self-insured trusts like Amherst’s have sufficient funds to meet claims incurred but not yet reported. (As in, you had your doctor’s appointment, but the bill hasn’t come yet.) He explained that this is a temporary advance from free cash and would be reimbursed by continuing a temporary surcharge on employee premiums that was supposed to end in January, but will now remain until this is paid back.

Then we voted on it. It passed unanimously. So simple. Weird.

The second motion on this article was to pay an assessment for the Hampshire County lock-up facility, which the State had been paying for fully, but was now transitioning to being funded by the member communities. 50% community funding is required this year, and based on a per-capita formula, Amherst’s assessment is $31,123. In future budgets, this will be a separate article, similar to the Hampshire County retirement system assessment, but this year requires an appropriation from free cash.

No questions. We voted. Unanimous. Amazing.

Article 4 – property tax exemptions for veterans’ organizations. We have two such organizations in town – the VFW and the American Legion. State law mandates an exemption up to $200,000, and communities can adopt larger exemptions of either $400,000 or $700,000. Because both properties are already approaching $400,000 in value, the $700,000 option was being proposed. The Select Board and FinCom both made the case why we should do this – keep them exempt like other charitable organizations, they’ve made great sacrifices to the country, the organizations are fixtures in the community, etc.

And we did. Simple vote. A couple Nos thrown in for good measure.

Health insurance, fees from the county, veterans – and not a peep from Town Meeting. No passionate speeches on tangential issues. No symbolic registering of opposition. Where am I?

Article 5 – portable classrooms for Mark’s Meadow. Elaine Brighty of the Joint Capital Planning Committee and School Committee explained why the portables are needed: smallest school; only 10 classrooms for 7 grades, some kindergarteners have to go to other elementary schools; some classes end up too large; currently there are two mixed-grade classrooms to deal with problem, but that won’t work for MCAS-focused teaching; no room to expand within the school which UMass owns, etc. The portables will allow for four additional classrooms. She talked about how the $195,000 was already approved through the capital plan in the spring but wasn’t spent then because the portables weren’t needed immediately, and because plans were being formulated to fold them into a larger borrowing package. Alisa Brewer of the Select Board talked about how used portables have been sought for purchase or loan from other communities, how such are not available or not desirable, and how these would be “green” and would remain as Amherst property to be used elsewhere in the future if needed.

Then Town Meeting member Nancy Gordon spoke against the purchase, saying that it didn’t make sense to buy portable classrooms for a school that is going to close.

In case you’re wondering, the simultaneous raising of about 400 eyebrows is silent.

Her logic was impeccable. Why would you put more money into a school you’re about to close? Except that there aren’t actually any plans to close Mark’s Meadow.

But that was precisely the conclusion she came to when she looked at the costs of the school, its student population and recent enrollment trends. She determined that Mark’s Meadow could be closed and its students could be absorbed by the other elementary schools – which she said were “sold” to the Town as accommodating 800 students each – and saving almost precisely the $1.9 million that the Town is projected to be short next year. Well, whaddya know?

Elaine did a very fine job explaining why the other schools are in no position to absorb the Mark’s Meadow population. Other than that, the proposal, such as it was, was pretty much ignored.

Another member provided a tip on where some available portables might be scored cheap, and then we voted. Because it involved borrowing, it required a 2/3 majority vote, and that was achieved.

Decades ago, I was a student at Mark’s Meadow. I was surprised to hear that there isn’t a cafeteria there anymore, and that kids eat in their classrooms. I should go back and check it out to see what things are like today. And maybe Nancy should come too.

Article 6 – dissolve the Senior Trust and transfer its funds. This was really an accounting issue, to transfer funds that had been donated to the 30-year old Senior Trust to the newly-formed Friends of the Senior Center group. All the money in the Trust was donated to support Senior Center activities – there was no town money involved. The old trust had to be dissolved because changes in State law rendered its organizational structure non-compliant. A new 501c3 was formed. TM needed to approve the dissolution and transfer to make everything official. (Per chance you detect bias or skullduggery in the preceding statements, let me note that I’m on the Council on Aging.)

Article 7 – CPAC Open Space. Beautiful nature. Important part of a wildlife corridor. Wood turtle habitat. Crucial watershed area. Must protect the land.

That sums it up mostly. For more details – which were well-presented by all concerned – click here and scroll down.

This article came with a lot of baggage for me. I saw the issue first presented to the Select Board last December. I attended what I think was the first Conservation Commission meeting where acquiring the property was brought up. I watched various unsuccessful machinations to try to get an article on a Special Town Meeting warrant last spring. Bottom line: this was just another incredibly determined effort to thwart development.

There were so many reasons to oppose this article. A) Despite how this has been portrayed of late, this property had NEVER been on the Town’s official list or unofficial radar of priority targets for preservation and conservation. That it is suddenly the highest priority does not mean it had previously been prioritized. B) The idea that landowner Barry Roberts – of all people! the Patron Saint of downtown Amherst – could be harassed into submission like this was appalling. C) This sense that in Amherst, property rights are secondary to public accommodation – People’s Republic, indeed.

And there are more. Rich Morse was insightful and eloquent as usual at TM when he spoke about how we mobilize for and actively pursue biodiversity, while human diversity languishes. Lots of momentum for conservation to keep our town natural and beautiful. Little momentum for economic development to make our town affordable and keep it functioning.

Even Anne Awad, no slouch in the conservation world, opposed the purchase, and defended her stance with conviction: it didn’t include the most relevant part of the parcel and it wasn’t prioritized in the larger scheme.

As a vegetarian bug-saving animal lover who has to talk myself out of the lunacy of leaving the basement open in the winter in case squirrels need shelter from the cold, I get the whole wildlife habitat thing. Deeply. But I also understand that the last house has not yet been built. Trying to keep new people from living in new places for the sake of flora and fauna is about as logical as tearing down our own homes and returning the land to its natural state. Yes, it’s true – your house displaced deer and fox and beautiful trees too.

So where was I? Oh yeah – so many reasons to oppose this article. Right. But I didn’t. I voted for it.

Why? Well, mainly out of practicality. Purchasing the land required $610,000. A State grant would cover $427,000. Private donations would cover $60,000. That leaves $123,000 from Community Preservation Act funds, half of which are State matching funds. That means that just over $60,000 of direct Amherst taxpayer money was being leveraged to buy $600,000 worth of land. (That leaves aside the issue that the State isn’t exactly printing its money in the back room – the grant money and CPA match all comes from the larger “us” anyway, alas.) Additionally, if the Town didn’t buy the land, Barry would likely be stuck in eternal litigation purgatory as the development foes were forced to find new ways of preventing those lots from being built. If that sale price apparently seemed like the best option to him, then it was the least Town Meeting could do.

And obviously, the land has much to recommend it for conservation. I don’t think acquiring it was a priority, but there was plenty to justify it.

The vote to approve the purchase was overwhelmingly in support.

A final word on that: Kudos to the FinCom and Kay Moran who anticipated all the right questions – how much property tax the land brought in currently (about $13.5 K,) how much it would bring in with houses on it (maybe $67K,) and the tempering effect of the cost of services to those houses and those who would live in them.

Wednesday we do it again.

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