Friday, March 29, 2013

Strangling Supply

 Rock Farm, South East Street Amherst (note 50 gallon drum with liquid)

The number one reason for the high cost of housing and even higher cost of property taxes in Amherst, with a resulting crop of slum houses that spring up in response, is a bad byproduct of the simplest equation in the sacred book of capitalism: supply and demand.

Amherst is now more than half owned by tax exempt institutions that contribute far less than their fair share of Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, thus homeowners (since Amherst has an out of whack 90% residential and only 10% commercial tax base) have to contribute almost twice as much.

Witness Hadley's tax rate of $10.22/$1,000 vs Amherst's $20.39/$1,000.

Yet anytime anyone tries to build housing in town to stimulate supply, the NIMBYs go on the attack ... trying to get the town to buy the property to maintain their scenic views.

The most expensive taking in town history -- the Cherry Hill Golf Course in 1987 -- is an expensive case in point ($2.2 million). A plot hatched by North Amherst neighbors opposed to a Planned Unit Residential Development that would have added 134 high end housing units to the town.

 Rock Farm (A) South East Street, Amherst

Now after NIMBYs drove developer Scott Nielson into bankruptcy after he tried to build 23 high end condos and one single family house as a PURD, they want the town to buy this 7.4 acre open space off South East Street for $500,000 using $125,000 in Community Preservation Act money.

And it's the typical formula of using a variety of funding sources (much of it public money), including selling off two building lots for a ton of money. So rather than getting 24 units of desperately needed housing the town only gets two. And rather than generating $200,000 in annual property taxes it will only generate one tenth that. A lose/lose scenario, unless of course you live in the neighborhood.

Safe bet Amherst Town Meeting will approve the $125,000 in CPAC spending. The only place you will find more open space in Amherst is between their collective ears.


Tom McBride said...

Unbelievable, I didn't believe Hadley was still at about $10, but it still is at $10.22. I was trying to think of the right word, we in Amherst are getting reamed. And for what?! I have no idea.

Hilda Greenbaum said...

Not only is the tax rate lower in Hadley but evaluations are also considerably less than those of comparable properties in comparable locations in Amherst. The end result is that Hadley taxes are 1/3 of Amherst's! And their roads have NO ruts!

Walter Graff said...

Again, when you have a town council, everyone can have a word, but no one is really responsible. Everyone can vote, but the mask of the group makes any decision the result of a vote, but not the end product that leads back to anyone. When you make bad decision after bad decision, no one has to show a face. It's a colonial form of government that is more appropriate for the Puritans and needs to be desperately updated to fit this century.

Emily Dickinson is dead. The horse-drawn carriages are gone. Farmers markets are on Saturdays in the parking lot. Amherst RFD is a bit bigger than it likes to admit. And it needs a mayor-town council government to better delegate and decide. Namely it needs a government that is held responsible, rather than a group that collects a check regardless of the continuously poor decisions it makes with no fear of retribution.

Change the government to one where responsibility becomes a factor and it will be the first big step towards being the town it deserves to be.

Anonymous said...

What are people thinking? Maybe that it's not such a hot idea to build 19 units of luxury condos (including 5 houses) on a dangerous road right next to the bike path (a heavily used state park), a vernal pool, wetlands, the meeting place of the Hop Brook and Fort River, and hundreds of acres of open land filled with wildlife, including endangered and threatened species.

Is housing so badly needed when many $450k+houses have been sitting unbought on the market for months and months? Is there a housing crisis when home prices have dropped? (Als, when half the houses in Amherst are rental properties owned by landlords, homeowners are not bearing 90% of the tax burden, it's 45%.)

People are thinking about future generations. Of preventing more accidents on a dangerous road. About protecting critical habitat for fish, birds, turtles, etc. Of smart growth principals of building in village centers and implementing the open space plan which calls for acquring this site. Of the real costs of development and to make sure even more will come to Amherst and use the bike path. That's why so many people and groups have come together and support this important purchase.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

The nice thing about traditional New England government is that so many people do get a say.A lot of people are informed about what is going on in town and volunteer to help the community. The result? Well, look around and see how many properous, beautiful New England towns there are and how well our children do in school and the world. You don't see many people being hauled off to jail for public corruption and there is little other crime.

Larry Kelley said...

Last time I was on the bike path I rode past both Malls in Hadley which are within spitting distance.

And they are a lot busier than South East Street will ever be.

Besides, that truck eating bike path bridge slows down traffic pretty well.

How close are you folks to your $50,000 goal?

Janet McGowan said...

Getting closer and closer, Larry. People have been very supportive. You can donate on-line at and designate the contribution to South East Street -- or just send them a check with South East Street on the memo line.

We were hoping that the lot next to the road would go to build 2 low-income housing units, but couldn't find the money to do it. Perhaps someone could buy that lot and donate to Habitat for Humanity.

I am happy to talk to anyone about this project. The map you've posted is the best argument for why this land needs to be protected. And it doesn't even show the connecting open lands at Wentworth Farm, the Poor Farm, the Lawrence Swamp and along the Amherst College fields and wildlife sanctuary. The fact that you can ride from Belchertown almost to Hadley without seeing development is pretty incredible.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the whole point of the Community Preservation Fund is to do just what is proposed, preserve open space.

Walter Graff said...

..."The result? Well, look around and see how many properous, beautiful New England towns there are and how well our children do in school and the world."

Sure in lot's of towns except Amherst. We haul off plenty of "residents" each weekend to either jail or the hospital in a system that has not enough equipment, and is understaffed in both police and fire.

The school system is nearly $600,000 over budget, and while the cost per student in Amherst is one of the highest in the state, Fort River school is ranked 481 out of 890, Crocker Farm 498 out of 890, Wildwood 353 out of 890, Amherst High 112 out of 343.

This is what we get, no accountability, too much administration that makes $100k plus all while enrollment in schools has dropped for years, and now the programs that define children and create minds that think (art, music, and language) are being cut. Don't forget the lame income of tax base vs spending on anything and everything.

Sure everyone knows what goes on and the few that care complain, be it at school meetings , council meetings, or voiced each week in the local paper, yet it falls on deaf hears and is circumvented by decisions that are decided privately behind closed doors regardless of the letter writing, meetings, or the speaking out.

You are correct Amherst nor any city of it's size suffers from serious crime. That has little to do with having a Mayor.

As for corruption, I'm sure many of the Amherst residents (as many have expressed here) would tell you the way this town is run and the way money burned on frivolous projects and horrendous decisions made by the governing body is just as bad if not worse than corruption. Only difference, no one has to be accountable so there is no hauling away.

Speak to any of the towns as far north as Greenfield and as far south as Springfield and anyone will tell you that there are some wonderful towns run in a very great way with great schools and peaceful ways of life.

Then they will tell you about Amherst and it's government (that can't fly flags on 9/11 so as not to offend anyone), the ridiculous way the town is run, how it's a town that is unaffordable to live in, and as a result has a bloated school system that people have left in droves in the last ten years.

And somewhere in there they will tell you that the distinction of Amherst is it's the joke of western Massachusetts.

The jokes chimps tell said...

"Well, look around and see how many properous, beautiful New England towns there are and how well our children do in school and the world. You don't see many people being hauled off to jail for public corruption and there is little other crime."

And the weed here gets you high

as a figgan Georgia pine.

Don't leave that out.



Larry Kelley said...

Actually Anon 3:45 PM the WHOLE point of CPA is "Open Space, Historic Preservation, Affordable Housing and Outdoor Recreation."

And my point is the more you use it as a weapon to kill free market housing projects, the less likely you are to get "affordable housing" in town.

Anonymous said...

I don't get that Amherst is unaffordable to live in propaganda. It seems if you repeat this lie enough it must be true, even though even the most cursory search of real estate listings shows it stuffed full of affordable houses for sale. I spoke to a realtor friend I know just yesterday about a beautiful house that was completely remodeled and was on a quiet street. The asking price was hardly out of reach to to any middle-class buyer--it was $250,000. It sold for $209,000. This give you a mortgage payment of only around $736 a month. Cheaper than renting! So please, do your homework before repeating this foolishness.

Dialing for Ponziville dollars said...

"So please, do your homework..."

You do that for us when you whip up a listing, right?

(just askin')

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering how you plan to vote on this article at town meeting if you're so concerned about the discrepancy between Amherst and Hadley taxes/quality of living. And, in general, what has your voting record been related to economic development opportunities that have come before TM that may have had a chance of changing the residential/commercial equation? For example, how did you vote on the village center rezoning initiative recently put before town meeting that would have allowed more infill in the established North Amherst Village Center?

I understand your concern about the environmentally sensitive nature of this parcel and agree with the master plan objectives related to "smart growth" principles that focus on village center infill. The problem is that those initiatives get nixed by neighbors too (see above). So what are we left with? Proposals like the one currently being put forth for the Cushman Village, Henry St. area, home of the salamanders... where there is neither a bike path for commuting or a regular bus route. What are we to do, as a town, if the no building anywhere, by or near anyone mentality continues to prevail? In my view, we'll have more encroachment on single family neighborhoods, with speculators buying up available properties and turning them into rentals. And who are the protective forces to call on to prevent that form of environmental degradation? Kestrel Fund, CPAC...? I don't think so.

So, what I'm asking for here is a commitment, not just for protecting sensitive parcels that are in each of our immediate vicinities, but a concerted effort by all of us to look at our overall housing needs as a TOWN, along with an acknowledgment of the wisdom inherent in our master plan. Where does it make sense to have more concentrated pockets of housing with accompanying commercial services to serve them? How can we make that happen in a sensible way that doesn't overly encroach on the peace and well being of already existing neighbors? Lets stretch a bit, utilize the collective intelligence befitting the college town that we are, and face productively (not just reactively) into the realities before us.

Anonymous said...

Only language has been cut from the school day. It will be offered after school instead.
Art, music and PE have NOT been cut. Time to stop spouting that particular lie!

Anonymous said...

Just curious. How do you decide what comments to post? Why is it that this Walter person or that "Dr." Ed whatever have reign over your blog. Are they family / friends? I fully understand this is your baby and you have every right to edit to your hearts content. But over a year or so after being introduced to "Only In Amherst", I've found my comments never EVER are heard and or posted.

I'm a national movie critic who moved to the five college area a few years back. Some local friends suggested your blog for a quick lesson in the battle of old-time townie types vs liberal college professors.

Well, I have to say my friends up to this point were spot on wrong when it comes to this blog. There's no battle, no fight, no civil kind of argument. Debate and comment are pointless. It's your way or the highway and that always been a journalist's downfall.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:23
Why should i care that
your some movie critic?
Is that suppose to impress us country folk.

Tom McBride said...

Janet McGowan, what are you talking about?, at least we can ride on the path. There are people who would desperately like to own a home in Amherst, to have their own lawn to mow, to send their children to the Amherst schools, to give them a brighter future, what EVERY parent wants. We sit in our gilded cage and say "nuts" to the rest of the world, people who have dreams for their children like we have for ours.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:47: good points. Hopefully, the housing study funded by town meeting wil help us along in figuring these critical questions out. I definitely support working with neighborhoods, business owners, landlords, planning board, etc. in figuring out what zoning changes are needed (although maybe it's not only zoning that's needed). People are working hard, but maybe not together. Hopefully, the planning department will take the lead in working closely with neighborhoods, seeing what people want, looking at options and bringing to town meeting zoning changes that have community support. We need to move ahead together.

Janet McGowan

Anonymous said...

Hi Again, Janet. The problem, I think, lies in relying too heavily on what neighbors "want" as opposed to what the town "needs". A lot of time, thought and expense was dedicated to the creation of our master plan, which pretty much lays out a path for balancing our collective values, including environmental, and needs (including economic and housing). That plan wouldn't, in my view, favor the increased sprawl you're opposing, especially in environmentally sensitive areas away from public transit. It would favor the kinds of initiatives that have been failing by small margins in our recent sessions of town meeting, though, that seek to build density (hopefully along with commercial development and enhanced public transit) in village centers. I understand the reasons for the objections and hope that the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative and the increasing pressure that has begun to be put on the University to step up to it's obligations will help smooth the path for greater openness to this idea. We can't just nix every opportunity for growth in our housing and commercial stock because it affects us personally. We have to think beyond ourselves to the greater good of both our town and our environmental future.

Tom McBride said...

If we bring ideas of expansion to town meeting it will be dropped. Town meeting is deaf to that. It should be left up to the select board, who I might add had to go through a more rigorous process to get elected.

Anonymous said...

No one will know unless they try. Why not?

Anonymous said...

But Tom, the Select Board is not the governing body... Town Meeting is. The Select Board oversees policy. Town Meeting regulates the way we operate. Unless we change our form of government, there's no getting around Town Meeting as the major force in decision making.

Tom McBride said...

Right, that's what we should do, change our form of government.