Monday, March 11, 2013

Expensive Takings

Spring Town Meeting Warrant articles only require 10 signatures

Amherst Annual Town Meeting will discuss and vote on two warrant articles calling for the "nuclear option," i.e. taking by eminent domain two very expensive parcels -- one a forest about to be developed for student housing in North Amherst and the other an apartment complex in East Amherst that formerly catered to low income, Section 8 tenants.

If taken, the Cowls property would cost the town $6.6 million (not to mention significant annual tax revenues by removing property off the tax rolls) and the Echo Village Apartments a little less than half that, for a total expenditure of $9.6 million.  

In 1987 Amherst did take by eminent domain the Cherry Hill Golf Course for $2.2 million, the most expensive taking in town history, in order to kill a 134 unit development proposed by Cambridge architect Robert Kreger. 

Chapter 61 rules and regulations (Cowls property is currently Ch 61)

Click to enlarge/read


Anonymous said...

Expect a long and expensive court battle for both. I thought the fall was the time to worry about fires but obviously it's already time to start burning taxpayer money.

Dr. Ed said...

What is the impact of the Kelo decision on this sort of thing? There is absolutely no way that Amherst could argue that by taking either property the town would enjoy an increased tax revenue from the parcel, which is what New Haven argued (although I heard that the proposed development was never built and the land remains vacant).

I also ask out of ignorance -- if the rationale for taxing farm/forest land at a much lower rate than what it otherwise would be taxed at is to ensure that it remains used as agricultural or tree growth land, how is it possible for the land to then be sold and developed?

In other words, if this is a device to preclude the land from being developed, then it should inherently preclude it from being developed, ought it not? Otherwise, all it really does is give the owner a lucrative tax break until such time that a developer is ready to purchase the land -- an incredible investment tool for the owner but not really any guarantee to the community -- which IS subsidizing this -- that the land will be farm or forest in the future.

Cinda, I am at least as conservative as you, I know that any governmental entity will spend all they can and then waste some more -- but that's another issue.

I am asking this as a theoretical "good government" question -- and I also want to make it clear that I not criticizing the Jones Family or anyone else here, I am only asking this in terms of the macro and the principles behind it.

Am I missing something here, or is this lower tax rate nothing but a "until the owner can get a better deal" type thing -- and if so, why is it good public policy when the owner wouldn't/couldn't develop it earlier anyway?

Dr. Ed said...

Bear in mind, I am assuming that Amherst needs to raise exactly X dollars in taxes -- if they had more they would refund it and there would be a rip in the space/time continuum if they got a penny less -- and this is not true.

But if Amherst needed X, and had a property valuation of Y, the individual parcel's tax bill would reflect the parcel's percentage of the total valuation -- or Z.

If some properties are taxed less -- for whatever reason -- then everyone else has to pay Z plus a fraction of what the other property owner didn't pay.

It is the same thing as electric bills. I don't know how many people know that there is a R-02 electric rate for low income people -- which actually makes electric heat the cheapest form of heat. Well, everyone else pays more to make up what the utility doesn't get.

Anonymous said...

and who are the sponsor's of these inane articles...

Larry Kelley said...

I grabbed these photos at noon today before the Town Clerk had certified the signatures, so the signatures were not yet public documents.

But I did see Vince coming out of Town Hall as I was going in ...

michaelseward said...

The reduced tax rates of programs like Chapter 61 and Chapter 61A do allow you take it out, but if you take it out for development purposes, you have to pay back taxes. This shouldn't be confused with an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR), which is a deeded restriction and can not be taken out, except for maybe by an act of the legislature.

Larry Kelley said...

Yes, the company buying the property from Cowls are aware of this. And if they can afford to pay $6.6 million for the property I think they can handle the back taxes.

michaelseward said...

Oh, I know. I was merely offering a clarification on the chapter programs for Dr. Ed.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't rezoning the land be so much cheaper? This is leftover zoning from the subdivision and srprawl 60's and 70's.

Anonymous said...

This town is a joke! we love our educational institutions, we love to talk about the pride and care we take in educating young people in our town and the country. Yet we they need a place to live or someone wants to develop something so they have a place to live, the sky is falling. On one hand we say we want dense village centers, but when you try to change zoning in north or south an Amherst a minority gets all up in arms. They want development the way they see fit even though it is not their money being used for development. So when investors give up on developing north and south Amherst and move to the woods, the same minority gets all up in arms about why we are not sticking to village centers. What a bunch of hypocrites. Worst of all some of those people are apartment owners themselves. When are these nimbys going to get the fact that all of this push back is part of the student sprawl problem they have today. They just keep making it worse. So keep up the good work ruining our town.

Anonymous said...

I think you can support denser development in village centers and not want disruptive student housing in those centers. Who would want people vomiting, urinating and screaming on your property at 1 a.m.? Not me. Get the students' behavior under control and opposition to denser development will relent. Get UMass to build more dorms and control it's students.

Dr. Ed said...

I was merely offering a clarification on the chapter programs for Dr. Ed.

Which he appreciates, and with the citation, will read the law on at some point.

But I still can't help but think that Ch 61 & 61A really aren't accomplishing anything in that you are able to invest in an asset that is taxed at far less than its value with the balance of the taxes essentially deferred as the asset appreciates and (as Larry notes) essentially becoming a cost to the developer to whom you eventually sell the property.

Also -- correct me if I am wrong -- these back taxes are based on what the town had assessed the property for over the years, not what it actually sold for -- memory is that it was assessed at $4M and sold for $6.6M -- which means that it was only assessed at 2/3 of what its actual commercial value is anyway.

If the goal is to keep the land in a less financially productive use for a perceived common good, then the bar to development should be higher than this -- it seems to me that all this does is benefit the investor who plans to develop land in the future.

Dr. Ed said...

One other thing -- I note that these are actually three different parcels of land and I am reminded of what I was once told about the first Depression.

The 1920's were tough times for farmers, and Massachusetts was no better than anywhere else, and the Cowl's family had money -- for some reason, they had money in the 1930's when few did.

And when things got really tough and you gave up, you could take your deed to them and they would buy your farm and you could go to the city and look for work there. I am told this is how much of the now-forested land was acquired and how they became the largest landowner in Massachusetts.

Just because it is forest land now doesn't mean it was a century ago -- no more than the Quabbin was pristine wilderness a century ago.

My guess is that the two smaller parcels were houselots and the larger one was a farm. If so, this is land which was residential during the 19th century and the proposed development is only a 21st Century restoration of the land to its historical use.

This is re-use, not development. Although it really is a pity that something can't be done with the old sawmill property -- and knowing how softwood was processed into lumber during the 20th Century, I do wonder about HazMat issues as well.

If nothing else, a century's worth of trucks were maintained somewhere, and while the motor oil may have been burnt, there were a lot of nasty cleaning chemicals & paints used and folks tended to just dump them out back.

Dr. Ed said...

Who would want people vomiting, urinating and screaming on your property at 1 a.m.? Not me. Get the students' behavior under control and opposition to denser development will relent. Get UMass to build more dorms and control it's students.

Two things here.

First, I fail to see why UMass has authority of what its customers do off campus -- this is like asking the Amherst Housing Authority to control what its tenants do downtown -- or in Boston.

Would it be problematic if the legislature ordered the AHA to revoke the Section 8 Voucher of anyone who had a family member show up at a demonstration in Boston? Or take Wisconsin, where there was disorder and violence -- should every state employee who was present be summarily fired for just being there?

Second, this is why the issue of age discrimination at UMass needs to be addressed. Not everyone goes to college at 18, and increasingly, not everyone has the money to do so -- starting in the '80s with women whose children were now grown and now involving a lot of people coming out of the military, the cadre of "non-traditional" students has grown.

A "non-traditional student" is defined as someone starting college after the age of 23 -- and UMass is not a friendly place for them.

If you are tired of drunken 18-year-olds then you want to have more "non-traditional" students at UMass and there are three things you need to do: (A) Lobby UMass to make itself friendlier to older students, and those of you who work at UMass need to look at age discrimination the way you view race and sex discrimination. (B) There needs to be things for 30-year-olds to do and places for them to meet others -- why does ABC not have problems, not everyone is into kegstands. (C) The negative and paternalistic concept of "UMass student" needs to end. Take someone like Gerald Mooning who has been to Iraq twice -- he's not going to act like a 5-year-old nor is he going to tolerate being treated like one.

Right now, every UM student is treated like a child, and it has gotten a lot worse over the past couple decades. This does three things -- first, it drives away the mature students who aren't going to puke on your lawn (or will clean it up the next morning if they do), but who also aren't going to put up with the stuff you are increasingly imposing on them. Second, it legitimizes this childish behavior. And third, a lot of students who don't approve of the childish stuff any more than you do really resent being lumped in with the troublemakers and in doing so you loose their support.

I firmly believe that 80% of the housing rented by students would not pass an honest inspection, and that at least a third of it should be outright condemned for serious safety issues. You offer that kind of environment and the people whom you have living in it tend to be of a certain nature.

If you have affordable housing that you would live in, you are going to attract a different kind of person living in it. If you have a university that is more hospitable to someone over the age of 22, you are going to have a different student body.

Or you can hire more cops.

Anonymous said...

Looks like another 61A property is being converted on University Dr. Assessed at $4600, just listed for sale (0 University Dr.) for $890,000