It’s been a busy, exciting and challenging first three months as your junior Councilor. For a relatively small municipality, governance in Amherst is (not surprisingly) complicated. There are over thirty working committees, boards and commissions. I requested, and was assigned, to serve on two Council committees, the all-important Community Resources Committee (CRC) and Governance, Organization and Legislation (GOL).
To date, some of the most pertinent issues to our District that I’ve been working on include:
Updating the Residential Rental Property Bylaw
Together with Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke, Michele Miller and Pam Rooney, we’ve initiated the process of revising and strengthening the current Residential Rental Property Bylaw, which hasn’t been updated since initially adopted in 2013. At its April 21st meeting, Town Council referred the bylaw revision process to the Community Resources Committee. With the benefit of nearly eight years of experience with the current (and “inaugural”) rental property bylaw, the Town recognizes there are opportunities to strengthen certain sections to ensure that (among other goals) rental properties:
1. remain up-to-date and compliant with respect to health and safety codes;
2. are properly maintained inside and out;
3. adhere to the requirement that no more than four students reside in a non-owner-occupied dwelling; and
4. that property owners apply for, and obtain, a permit to rent.
Parking on Lincoln
Cars parked 24/7 on the blocks between Amity and McClellan continue to pose a safety hazard as our residential streets accommodate UMass’s overflow parking needs. In fact, some cars park on the street for days at a time. No one is disputing that there should be parking on Lincoln, but it should be time-limited or restricted between 9:00am – 5:00pm on weekdays during the months UMass is in session. Looking ahead to the opening of the two new dorms on Lincoln and Massachusetts Avenue, adopting some parking restrictions on the streets closest to campus remains a priority.
The Planning Department has stated that a consultant will be retained to determine the structural feasibility of adding an additional level to the Boltwood Garage, which, when originally designed, was built to accommodate a second story at some later date.
Buried Line Coverage
Here’s a new item to add to your list of things you didn’t know you needed.
Recently, 94-year-old Elsie Fetterman received an almost $18,000 bill for a water leak she didn’t know she had. Evidently, if there’s a leak or a problem with your water or sewage between the town line and yours, even if the trouble isn’t on your property, you are responsible for the costs of repair.
In West Springfield and many other towns throughout the Commonwealth, Buried Line Coverage can be obtained as a separate policy at a nominal cost – around $15 a month – from the Town itself. The insurance is through a private carrier but administered through the Townships.
I’m in the process of investigating if this might be a possibility for Amherst.
Amherst is delighted to announce that on March 21st, Mr. Earl Miller assumed the position as inaugural Director of the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service (CRESS) Program.
A Holyoke native, Mr. Miller comes to Amherst from his previous position as Director of Recovery for the Western Massachusetts Division of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. As Director, he oversaw employment services for the region and chaired the Trauma Informed Approaches Task Force. He also led the Department’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives and participated in numerous state-wide initiatives on policy, procedure, and program development.
We look forward to Mr. Miller joining us at a District 3 meeting later in the year.
The Drake is opening! – I’m thrilled to share that April 6th is the opening date for The Drake, a performing arts and music venue on the corner of Amity and Pleasant (former site of the High Horse). The Drake’s website will go live on April 4th, including a calendar of events, tickets, etc. Save the date of Monday, May 2nd from 2:00 – 4:00pm for the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.
Opportunities for Involvement
Applications are being accepted for impending vacancies on the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Local Historic District Commission.
Planning Board vacancies: Community Activity Forms (CAFs) are currently being accepted for two upcoming vacancies on the Planning Board, each for three-year terms. The terms will extend from July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2025.
Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) – Full Members: CAFs are currently being accepted for two upcoming vacancies for full members of the ZBA. These are three-year terms, extending from July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2025. Zoning Board of Appeals – Associate Members: CAFs are also being accepted for up to four (4) associate members, each with one-year terms.
Local Historic District Commission – There is currently one vacancy on the LHDC.
Livable Amherst Community Survey: The Town is inviting residents to take the below linked survey to help make Amherst a more Age & Dementia Friendly Community. This survey will help us to collect input from residents on what is needed to create a safe, healthy and inclusive environment for older adults, people living with dementia and the people who care for them. https://amherstma.gov/3652/Age-Dementia-Friendly-Community-Project
Jones Library: The staff and Trustees of the Jones Library are soliciting community input to inform spring and summer programming for children and teens. They invite residents to complete a short survey that will help staff to look at what type of programming families would like, where it should be offered, when it should be offered, etc. (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfCdzQ-M0hZ_GpSjgPn80Rkj42K-Up6ii_KFlHEQr0u_wTV2A/viewform)
District Updates – Northampton Road/Route 9 Construction
- Caracas Construction has begun working on road construction along Northampton Road. This project is part of the Mass DOT roadway reconstruction project, that extends between University Drive and South Pleasant Street. The roadwork also involves putting in a new water line that will improve the quality of water in the Dana Street/Blue Hills Road area, which can get stagnant and discolored in the summer.
- The developer of the project at the corner of Northampton Road and University Drive South will begin construction of a new mini roundabout at the intersection of University Drive South and Snell Street.
Further updates on these construction projects will be provided at the April 24th District 3 meeting.
Upcoming Meetings and Events
District 3 Meeting – Sunday, April 24th from 2:00 – 4:30pm at the Jones Library
Joint Office Hours with Dorothy and Jennifer – Saturday, April 16th from 10:00am to noon in the Amherst Room on the 2nd floor of the Jones Library
Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) Meeting – Thursday, April 28th at 6:00 pm – Sunset Fearing LLP Proposed Townhouse Development. [Request for a Special Permit to allow the construction of 2 apartment buildings and 4 duplex buildings, with a total of 17 residential units, including 2 affordable units located at 164 & 174 Sunset Avenue]
To join the ZBA meeting via computer: https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/88261557433. To join the meeting via telephone: Call (646) 876-9923, enter webinar ID when prompted: 882 6155 7433. When prompted to enter your participant number press #.
Town-wide Clean-Up – Saturday, April 30th from 10:00am – Noon. Please email me and/or Dorothy if there are any particular streets, parks or trails that you would like to have included.
I’m here for you
With all the issues that come before the Town, I’m always open to ideas and conversation. Please feel free to contact me about whatever’s on your mind. I love going on walks!
A Fork in the Road – Whither Amherst?
Amherst has been losing its families and year-round population, in favor of a six- or seven-month population. Is that sustainable?
Recently, I was surprised to learn that a Phase II Zoning Priority List for 2022 included an item referred to as off-campus “Student Housing District” envisioned for a neighborhood close to UMass. Fortunately, we were able to have this item temporarily “tabled,” but I’d like to respond nonetheless, in the hope that it won’t resurface at a later time.
From where I sit, creating an off-campus student housing district could well exacerbate many of the challenges we’ve been working to resolve. I would say we already have a student district on some of the streets closest to UMass on its southern border (in the former Precinct 10 of District 3 – what will be the new Precinct 4B of District 4). These are streets in which in almost every house is a student rental. Over the past 20+ years, as more and more single-family houses flipped to student rentals, families and other long-term residents living on these streets moved away. The result is a minimal adult presence to provide a neighborhood watch.
This past December, the police were called to 20 Allen Street where a party had gotten dangerously out of control. Not only was the house condemned for numerous health and safety violations, but the residents of this “satellite” fraternity had transported two unresponsive female students to the house across the street (perhaps so those hosting the party would not be held responsible for the consequences). And this was not the first time this type of noise and nuisance activity had occurred. Unless the envisioned “student district” includes the kind of supervision present in on-campus dormitories, I don’t see how we wouldn’t simply be creating a student party zone.
One Planning Board member suggested that a “student district need not be narrowly focused on students but could simply allow a great many units to be built that would be available to anyone in the housing market.” Based on the last Council’s interest in lifting footnote m from the Dimensional Regulations Table, I suspect it’s envisioned that these “great many units” would be built in the General Residence (RG) districts closest to UMass. Even though RG residents chose to live close to town in neighborhoods already zoned for greater density than most every other residential district, I’d venture to say that none of us moved to Amherst because we were seeking to live in a densely populated environment. Many of the streets in District 3 include houses on smaller lots, with neighbors happily living in close proximity to one another. Re-zoning to create even greater densification (for the purpose of developing pricey student housing) is asking these neighborhoods to sacrifice our already limited greenspace and trees to “reduce pressure” (a term I’ve heard used) on the more protected neighborhoods and subdivisions further from town.
It might also be noted that almost all new (privately financed) housing in Amherst has been built to serve the student housing market not to accommodate families and other year-round residents. (Renting houses and apartments by the bedroom yields the greatest return on investment.) Between 2015 and 2022, Amherst permitted over 700 new rental units (with multiple bedrooms), mostly for students – and only 61 new single-family homes. With monthly rental fees set by the bedroom, houses and apartments can be rented to students at rates that remain out of reach for most families and other non-student households.
On a more macro level, I question the call for “a great many more units to be built.” As per the 2020 Census, between 2010 and 2020, Amherst’s population only grew by 1,444 residents. All of this growth was in District 3; approximately 1,300 of these residents live in the two new Honors College dorms. During the same ten-year period, UMass increased enrollment by ~5,000 students, leading to the conclusion that our family and long-term population decreased over that time. In fact, in 2017, based on research conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donnelly Institute, John Hornik estimated that there were “667 fewer families [in Amherst] with children under 18 than there were 15 years before.” This loss of families with children is clearly evident in the declining enrollment in our K-12 schools – a trend that does not bode well for Amherst’s long-term viability.
The loss of single-family and “starter” homes to student rental conversions is further contributing to our declining family and year-round population.
The question becomes: if Amherst continues to lose families and other long-term residents – if we become a town that’s 75-80% students, most of whom are only here for roughly six – seven months out of twelve – is that sustainable? Can Amherst survive with a seven-month economy? In fact, it is precisely those neighborhoods closest to downtown where we need to maintain a robust year-round population. In District 3 – where many of us have the option to walk into town — we are the “bulk” of the people who patronize downtown businesses on a day in and day out basis throughout the year.
Rather than building a great many new units for students, I would argue that, to maintain a viable, vibrant, and sustainable town, Amherst should include among its priorities, retaining and expanding its long-term population. We should not be so willing to sacrifice our long-standing neighborhoods of year-round residents to the student rental market.
I might also note that several smaller towns that are home to large state universities (including State College, PA and Newark, DE) have adopted Minimum Distance Requirements to great success. These, and other college towns, have worked hard to modulate student housing not to consolidate it within stable, family-friendly, off-campus neighborhoods.
In my next newsletter, I will share strategies that other college towns have implemented to ensure that neighborhoods, which have long been home to year-round residents and families, keep from reaching the “tipping point” at which non-student households move away. After all, it is our long-term residents who serve on our governing boards and commissions, send children to our K-12 schools, and have a long-term stake in Amherst – one measured in decades not semesters.