Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ex officio

Well, that was different.

Instead of wondering where to sit, my seat was assigned.

And I spoke to more articles last night than I spoke to in all the sessions of the previous two years combined.

And my hand wasn’t all cramped up at the end.

Very different indeed. Unfortunately, the peculiar way I have spent all my previous meetings has left me frighteningly unprepared for this. I barely looked up before. What do the people at the front tables do? What is the etiquette of facing the audience?

I was afraid to look at my friends, lest I grin and wave. Do I scan the crowd? Stare at the folks in the first couple rows? Gaze blankly into some non-specific spot in the distance? Looking at the person speaking is fine, unless he or she is at the podium or at the other table, neither of which I could really see.

And most of all, what do I do with my hands?? No wonder people knit. Sitting there for a few hours with my pen and notebook retired was a fidgety torture.

Then there’s the whole posture and body language thing. Sit up straight. Try not to cross my arms in a manner that seems hostile or bored. Try to keep my feet flat on the floor. Like, sit up straight! Stop fussing with my scarf. Resist the urge to froof my hair.

So the bad news is, I just can’t blog these meetings anymore, and I’m sorry about that. I really enjoyed doing it, and I felt good about providing that kind of a record of what we did and how we did it.

And I learned SO MUCH. Taking those kind of notes, and turning them into (mostly) coherent summaries forced me to understand the articles and the arguments in a way I probably would not have otherwise. And though I never would have imagined it two years ago, this was a major factor in landing me at the Select Board table now.

You probably know that I am now writing about Select Board stuff here, and trying to maintain inAmherst.com in some form.

Which means there’s a great big opening in the TM blog/coverage department that is just begging to be filled.

Whaddya think? It’s fun. It’s free. It’s helpful. People appreciate it. And you just never know what kind of new experiences it might lead to…

Continue reading...

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.”

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Time flies -- Fall TM is almost here

In preparation for Fall TM, you might be interested in the following:

TMCC’s Zoning Orientation Forum – 7:00 p.m. in the Town Room at Town Hall

Rebroadcasts of the Warrant Review Meeting on ACTV’s Channel 17 (It’s on at weird times – you might want to tape it. It runs a little less than two hours.)

  • Wednesday, October 31 – 5:00 a.m.
  • Thursday, November 1 – 7:00 a.m.
  • Friday, November 2 – 7:00 a.m.
  • Saturday, November 3 – 7:00 a.m.
  • Sunday, November 4 – 10:00 p.m.

Independently-organized Precinct Meetings – There’s still one left. It's for Precincts 4 and 10, but anyone can go: Saturday, November 3rd, 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., 284 North Pleasant St. (Corner of McClellan St.) Hosted by Howard Ewert 256-1445

Always good info on the TM section of the Town web site.

Here’s a radio interview with Yuri Friman about Fair Trade. (Scroll down to October 16th.) He is the petitioner of Article 9 on that subject.

See you Monday!

[11/1 update: new and more convenient warrant review broadcast times added -- don't miss comment below!]

Continue reading...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Post-TM reflections finally up

A few days, a few weeks – whatever.

It took until the end of July, but I finally put up my TM post mortem. Click here to read it, if you’re interested.

Continue reading...

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.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Penultimate, perhaps

The school year is over. The Middle School is sparkling clean. The music room, where the Select Board meetings are held before Town Meeting, has had all its posters and student work removed, and the chalk boards look brand new.

But we’re still here.

Week 7, session 11, hour 30-something.

If there were key announcements at the beginning, I missed them – sorry. The SB meeting ran late, and I was a bit discombobulated, switching mental gears and juggling my notebooks and materials as I checked in and sat down.

By the time I was “ready,” Marilyn Blaustein was already presenting the JCPC’s recommendation on Article 22 – $154,000 for repairs to buildings and facilities, $50,000 of which is grant money. The list (page 68 in the FinCom Report) is non-controversial enough – there were a couple of questions about what certain items were, and naturally, a dig at Cherry Hill from You Know Who. One member proposed that there be an item-by-item explanation, but we had really already had that in Ms. Blaustein’s intro and the body apparently didn’t feel the need to discuss each one in that much detail. The voice vote on the $154,000 was decisively in favor, and I voted Yes.

Article 23 was the $755,000 borrowing authorization, with $675,000 being for Town Hall brick and mortar repairs, and $80,000 being for required accessibility upgrades to the East Street School. This time, we got a pictorial tour of Town Hall masonry problems from Facilities Director Ron Bohonowicz. We’ll try not to worry too much about the threat of falling capstones before the repairs get made, but if you see Town staff wearing helmets as they enter and exit, you’ll know why.

Much discussion about this article was about using CPAC historical preservation funds to pay for these repairs, and indeed a motion was made to refer the recommendation to CPAC for that purpose. Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss is particularly interested in this topic, and spoke of how discussions would be held with all the relevant parties this summer to pursue the possibility of using those funds for the debt service on this project. At first glance, this seems like a no-brainer, but the issue and trade-offs are more complex. The common argument against this is that repairing Town Hall should be a capital expense, just like repairing any other Town property, and that using historical preservation funds for that purpose means NOT being able to use those funds for the Historical Commission’s preservation priorities. You can always borrow to pay for capital needs, but the CPAC money is the only source for headstone restoration and other historical preservation projects. It is an interesting discussion, and we’re sure to be hearing a lot more about it.

We also got one of those wacky TM procedural moves where a motion can be divided on the request of one member, thus separating the Town Hall stuff from the East Street School stuff. This makes a little sense if you support referring the Town Hall part to CPAC, but as Kay Moran of the FinCom/JCPC pointed out, the article is a borrowing authorization, and if the big money for the Town Hall repairs are separated out, the cost of the East Street School repairs aren’t large enough on their own to be worth the borrowing expenses.

Many made the point that referring the Town Hall part to CPAC would delay repairs further, resulting in more damage and higher repair costs, as well as the possibility of higher interest rates on borrowing next year if CPAC declines to fund this. One member spoke of the importance of Town Hall as the primary historic building in town, and his desire to fund it with the CPAC money. Mr. Weiss agreed with the sentiment, but said that referring the article for that purpose was not necessary as that funding was already being pursued in parallel with this borrowing action, and I think that was the key point.

After a multi-step voting process dealing with the divided motion and the related referrals, we ultimately rejected referring anything to CPAC and we approved the borrowing of $755K to cover both projects, and that is how I voted as well.

Despite all this CPAC talk, it wasn’t until Article 24 that we actually were dealing with a CPAC article. This was the Affordable Housing one, seeking appropriation of $155,000 in CPAC funds for three $50,000 loans to be used for down payments by qualified applicants to buy homes in Amherst. It would also establish a revolving fund for such payments, which would be paid back with interest when the homes are sold, and it sought $5,000 to pay an agency to set up and administer the program.

Nancy Gregg, Chair of the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee, explained that the loans would be available to those making up to 80% of the Area Median Income, an eligibility amount she said would currently be about $57,000 or less. She said preference would be given to those who live or work in Amherst. She said that it was important to have housing options for a wide variety of people.

Ms. Blaustein explained how CPAC funds work: that Amherst’s money comes from a property tax surcharge that we recently voted to increase to 1.5%; that the State currently matches the local money 100% with money collected from real estate deed transfer fees; that the 100% match might be reduced if those transfer fees are insufficient or if more communities adopt the Community Preservation Act, thus more widely spreading those matching funds.

Mr. Weiss said the SB vote to support was unanimous and that they thought it was a good use of CPAC money.

A member said he appreciated the sentiments of the article, but he vehemently opposed it for a variety of reasons: that it duplicated the efforts of other programs; that repayment of the loan once the house is sold ties up the money for a long time making the revolving fund concept unworkable; that it wasn’t contributing to the permanent stock of affordable housing and didn’t follow the standard practices of buying land and building affordable homes.

Ms. Gregg said the Housing Partnership Committee had considered many options including deed restrictions, but that they thought this was the best option. She said the committee also pursues the standard practices, and is working on a building project now that will still be three years before anyone will live there.

Vince O’Connor, of CPAC, made a substitute motion to essentially provide the $155K for affordable housing, but with its use unspecified. He said that the original proposal wouldn’t lead to affordable units that are countable under Chapter 40B (more about this later) and said that Community Development Block Grant Funds had already been sought for the same purpose, and that it made better sense to make those loans with those CDBG funds that have many strings attached, rather than CPAC money which can be used with greater discretion.

CPAC Chair Peter Jessop urged defeat of Mr. O’Connor’s motion and said that “affordability” depends on each person’s wallet. He said there are already affordable units under development, that this addresses a different need, and that the down payment loans are modeled after similar effective programs in the State.

Eventually, it was moved that the original article be referred back to CPAC to try again, for the concerns already stated. Someone said that the article needed more detail, someone else said that that complaint could always be made about any article and that the committees and staff should be trusted to make this work. Another member said that this was just one piece of the affordable housing pie and that it was good to be pursuing many different approaches.

After another complicated series of votes (I don’t actually have a record in my notes about voting for the O’Connor motion. Is that because the vote on the main motion trumped it? Did I just not write it down? Who knows…) the motion to refer back to CPAC was defeated and I voted No, and the original motion passed and I voted Yes.

This one was more interesting live than it was in my recap, which is probably true of everything. I found some of the points opposing the article compelling and thought-provoking. But the bottom line for me was (well, there were two bottom lines, one of which is my standard: if you can’t trust the Housing Partnership Committee to weigh all the options and come up with the best recommendation, then what is the point of the committee?) that this is another way of addressing affordability, and that many options are needed. There is a tendency, a kind one, to be sure, to think about the poorest of the poor for issues like this. But the range of housing needs and range of what constitutes affordability is quite broad. I thought the article and those speaking in favor of it addressed that point well.

More CPAC. Article 25 – Historic Preservation. Edith MacMullen, Historical Commission Chair, spoke of the committee pursuing its recommendations via the five-year plan it had created three years ago, and how they try to do their projects in a logical, cohesive and timely manner. She said they have four categories they try to fund annually: capital projects, interpretation and outreach, research and planning, and an annual set-aside of funds. She said the report given to Town Meeting details their status on projects to date, and she explained that much of their work requires consultants and RFPs and cooperation with other Town entities, and that it takes significant time to complete each project and spend the money appropriated toward it. The article sought $141,000 for historic preservation projects.

There was the slightest discussion about a couple of items on the list – expensive signs, an archaeological survey of the Bay Road/116 intersection – but really, this was all about two issues: a proposed fence at South Cemetery, and to a lesser degree, past unspent funds.

The unspent funds issue is a funny one. I would think my very simplified sentence above would be enough of an explanation to satisfy most people on that topic, and Ms. MacMullen’s more detailed explanation, at this and other meetings, would surely satisfy nearly everyone else. But Mr. O’Connor and the Select Board both remain unsatisfied, which suggests to me that the concern originated with one and was then adopted by the other. It has not gained much traction outside of that circle, however.

So then there’s the fence. There has been loud opposition to this fence. At this and other meetings, people have spoken about it being unnecessary, and worse, being decidedly negative for a host of aesthetic and practical reasons. Because people are generally averse to change, I’ve taken these objections with a grain of salt, though they are certainly compelling. And as we know, it is my instinct to defer to the expert wisdom of a committee. So I’ve been waiting to hear the other side of this issue.

I must say, I was really surprised to find that there wasn’t one. Guarding against potential vandalism was the only example given, and it was even conceded that the fence wouldn’t provide much protection against that anyway. With all the known opposition to this fence, I would have expected a well-planned and persuasive response, but there was none.

This perplexed me. My brain was still trying to reconcile this when it was time to vote on the Select Board’s amendment to reduce the funding recommendation by the $40,000 cost of the fence. I didn’t know what to do. So I abstained. Like the song says: If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. The amendment was resoundingly approved, with just a couple of Nos.

With a little more discussion about other elements of the funding list, we voted nearly unanimously to appropriate $101,100 of CPAC money for historic preservation.

Article 26 is the most straight-forward of all the CPAC articles – appropriating $15,000 for the Conservation Department to do surveys and appraisals as due diligence on properties being considered for acquisition or protection. That’s all there is to know. It was unanimous, except for one No. Who objects to this and why??

Articles 27 and 28 were moved to the end of the warrant, so we’re up to Article 29. This is the latest salvo in the long running assault on the Survival Center. As I am tired of thinking, writing and raising my blood pressure about this, I will skip this summary. (If you are a glutton for punishment, you may wish to read this and this. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Suffice it to say that the motion to refer it to the Community Development Committee passed decisively with only a handful of Nos, and I voted Yes.

Article 30 is to appropriate to the stabilization fund those monies collected but not spent for FY08, in the wake of the successful tax override vote. You may have noticed that we didn’t have a successful tax override vote. Hence, no money to stabilize us. Dismissed.

That’s a nice description, actually. The town has been destabilized by the failure of the override. Quite true.

Moving on.

Time for the postponed reconsideration of the budget and assessment for the Regional Schools. This was to fix the fact that we (not me, but the body) had voted to appropriate a 2% assessment for the region, even though we knew we would in all likelihood be compelled to pay the 3%. We need an appropriation to match an expenditure, so this needs to be taken care of. Some blah blah, then we voted, officially approving the $27,567,000 budget and Amherst’s assessment of $12,385,188.

And then to finish off that saga: Article 31 – Free Cash. This is to appropriate from Free Cash (that’s reserves for all those just joining us) the amount necessary to balance the budget, and that means paying that extra 2% of the regional assessment. For reasons I’m not sure of, we are appropriating $237,893, not the full $238K we’ve been discussing, but what’s $107 dollars after we’ve just dealt with more than $60 million?

Before voting, we got a reprise of the lament about balancing the budget on the backs of our neediest citizens, as well as a plea to move the elections sooner so Town Meeting can start sooner (and with an additional appeal to make mighty Amherst the first to vote on the Regional School budget and not be at the mercy of our pipsqueak neighbors. Are we done yet?) I fear that Town Meeting expands to fill the time you give it, so adding extra time on the front end doesn’t seem too appealing to me.

The vote to appropriate those funds from Free Cash to balance the budget was nearly unanimous, with, of course, a couple of Nos.

So it’s after 10:00, and everyone expects to adjourn, but Mr. Weiss moved to consider Article 11, because it requires the attendance of the Planning Board, who can’t be here Wednesday, necessitating either taking this up without them, or coming back next Monday. No one wants to come back next Monday, so the motion, which is required for taking up an article after 10:00, passed. Half a dozen or so people left immediately, but most of us hung in there for Mr. O’Connor’s proposal to change the zoning bylaw to require that the affordable housing units required under the inclusionary zoning section (15.10) be mandated for low income, as opposed to the low or moderate income option currently allowed. His stated concern is that moderate income units don’t count toward the requirement that a minimum of 10% of the housing inventory be affordable, under Chapter 40B of Mass. General Laws, and that if Amherst were to drop below that threshold, it would be vulnerable to the kind of large-scale housing project that can result from a developer seeking a Comprehensive Permit, or 40B application. He said Amherst is vulnerable to falling below 10%. His other stated concern is that the decision about whether the affordable units are the moderate- or low-income types is left to the permitting authority, being the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals, and he thinks that is too much power to rest with those bodies.

I see a number of ironies here. One is that the kind of predatory, “unfriendly” project that could be fast-tracked if Amherst fell below 10% would be larger scale affordable housing projects. If your goal is more affordable housing, a 40B application would surely accomplish it more quickly and with a larger number of units than the inclusionary zoning section of the bylaw. I don’t know squat about zoning, but in my cursory read of this, for example, it seems to me that the main thing a 40B application trumps is local NIMBYism. Is that so bad? Another irony is Mr. O’Connor’s concern about the power of the Planning Board and ZBA with regard to making such decisions. I can understand his concern if his other philosophy about those Boards – that they should be made up only of non-professionals – were to triumph (and regrettably, that seems to be the case.) A group devoid of important professional knowledge probably is less likely to make the best decision for the Town, but isn’t he playing both ends against the middle here?

These, of course, were not the objections raised by the estimable and newly-former Planning Board member Rod Francis. (What does it say when smart people get so fed up with how onerous it is to try and serve Amherst that they not only quit their Boards, but they move away? This is either an outrageous shame or a brilliant insight that should be strategically applied. Hmmmm. No, no, no – it’s just an outrageous shame. Don’t anybody be getting any ideas now.) Anyway, Mr. Francis made the points that the Planning Board is deeply concerned about affordable housing in Amherst, and that the amendment would take away the ability to negotiate for the moderate income units, which is the level often described as workforce housing, something Amherst also wants and needs. He said that in the two years that the inclusionary zoning section has been part of the bylaw, developers considered about three projects that would qualify (according to the Planning Board report on this article: “apartments/townhouses, Open Space Community Developments, and Planned Unit Residential Developments (PURDs)” of ten or more units) and didn’t pursue any of them. He said that this change would make the rule more restrictive, hence less attractive, for a developer. He said that affordability requirements will lapse on some local complexes in the next few years, and that that is of greater concern for the affordable housing inventory, and that there is time to deal with Amherst potentially falling below 10%, because that determination wouldn’t be calculated until the next census. He said we have until 2011 to have a plan and make serious decisions about dealing with low income housing, and that we shouldn’t thwart a possibility for moderate units.

Ms. Greeney spoke of the Select Board’s 4-1 recommendation to support referring the article to the Planning Board and the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee, to return with an update or a better plan next spring. A member spoke against referral and in favor of the article, citing the perils of falling below 10%. Another member, one from the HP/FH committee, said he preferred that the article be defeated rather than referred back, and said that many partial truths and partial bits of information were being cited in support of the article. He said that the Town needs units in both the low- and moderate-income categories, and that this would reduce that flexibility.

Time to vote. Another tough one. I’d definitely prefer that it be defeated, but referring it was better than passing it. I voted to refer back, which seemed like the safer bet at the time, but I now regret that. It would have required a 2/3 majority to approve the article, and that was probably not achievable. But let’s see, having voted with the majority (referral passed on a standing vote of 64 Yes to 57 No) I could now move to reconsider it for the purpose of defeating it.

Evil laugh: Bwaa-haa-haa-haa-haa!

But I won’t.

Wow, this really is going on too long, and my brain is turning to mush.

Continue reading...