Friday, May 31, 2013

Overlay, Underlay, Ondalay

Where do you stash your cash?

While Amherst may have the highest property tax rate in the region because of the high cost of our public schools and high percentage of tax exempt entities, town officials are kind of stingy when it comes to the "overlay account."

A reserve taken off the top of annual property taxes collected (our number one source of revenues for the town's $68 million budget) and held in case someone disputes their assessment. Massachusetts Department Of Revenue recommends municipalities withhold 3% ($1.2 million) but since Amherst runs a tight ship we apply only 1% or $400,000.

Currently for FY13 (which ends June 30) we have a balance of $229,345.37, having used $183,485.14.

But of that amount used the majority was not for property tax abatements brought on by complaints of overly zealous high assessments. Every year Amherst Town Meeting unanimously approves "Personal Exemptions" which benefit veterans, blind or disabled citizens, senior citizens, surviving spouses, etc.

This year that amount alone came to $134,000 -- or more than two thirds. While there still may be an appeal to the Appellate Tax Board on appeals handled at the local level safe to assume $200,000 will end up surplus.

Not exactly a slush fund since any monies expended would need Town Meeting approval, but still somewhat "found money" that can be line item targeted toward endeavors that may be a tad controversial.

Kind of like what happens with Community Preservation Act money. Town Meeting spends that as though it flowed from the Quabbin Reservoir.

The Town Manager had originally thought about financing the $60,000 joint study with UMass by using $30,000 from the overlay account but then simply went with a free cash appropriation. Since the Chancellor was scheduled to champion the article, no special help was required.

In addition to the $200,000 that will be left over this year, the overlay account for FY2012 has $37,000 and FY2011 has $27,000 and, finally, FY2010 still has $1,000.  Or a grand total of $265,000.

Additionally the town has $4,326,501 in Free Cash and $1,821,401 in Stabilization.  Oh yeah, and $202,000 that Town Meeting appropriated two years ago for War Memorial Pool renovations that was never used due to a state grant covering the costs. 

(Just don't tell anyone.) 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Let's Do The Time Warp

"Portal" in Kendrick Park

The town is trying to raise the last $3,000 necessary to buy this $10,000 piece of art that has been located in Kendrick Park for three years now.  The "Portal" is a symbolic entryway connecting downtown Amherst to our number one employer, UMass Amherst.  

Kind of what the "Gateway Project" would have been.  Only smaller.

NIMBY Backpedal

 What, no Frisbees?

UPDATED Friday morning with Cinda response to Anons

Now that the first eminent domain article failed on the floor of Amherst Town Meeting, mainly due to Finance Committee advice,  socialistic NIMBY zealots are getting a tad nervous with the other -- even more controversial -- eminent domain article, coming up for discussion Monday night.  Also unanimously opposed by our fiscal watchdogs, the Finance Committee. 

Amazingly they are trying to back away from the heavy handed use of eminent domain.  Since most red blooded Americans believe passionately in property rights (even in Amherst), they probably should have thought of that before placing the article on the warrant.

Note opening sentence

  Gerry Weiss Can we have a sane discussion about right of first refusal? I could be wrong, but I believe that when land is taken out of 61, the Town has the right of First Refusal. It's the law and it's not personal. And if my memory serves me, it's not even Town Meeting that decides on whether to buy the land, it's the Select Board in consultation with various committees and the Town Manager. So, no one can take this land against your will via the right of first refusal. As far as Town Meeting goes, again, they can't take your land. They can give authorization to the Town to commit a certain amount of money toward a purchase. That's what Town Meeting does as far as land deals goes - it is the money authorizer; the Town (Musante and the SB) has the final say on making an offer or taking by eminent domain a property. I'll bet a lot of money that the Town of Amherst will not take your land by eminent domain.
Cinda Jones There are two questions on the table, Gerry Weiss:
1) Does 2/3 of Town Meeting support Article 43?; and
2) Does the Select Board, after receiving community input and advice from the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board, want to advantage its Right of First Refusal (ROFR) under Mass. General Laws, Chapter 61?

These are two completely different questions.

(You say this is "not personal," but Save Cushman supporters have made this very personal by making groundless complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection and Amherst Conservation Commission on our logging jobs approved by the MA Department of Conservation; engaging in daily public harassment of our young forester; making anonymous public personal attacks on me; and committing vandalism at my brother's retail store.)

The Save Cushman group's Warrant Article 43 asks if the Town will vote "to acquire from WD Cowls, Inc., or their successors by Eminent Domain, purchase, gift, or otherwise in fee simple as a conservation restriction, easement, or other interest therein..."
Regardless of what Warrant Article 43's supporters now claim they meant, Article 43 expressly authorizes the town of Amherst to take land by eminent domain against the will of the owner. If its advocates do not want that legal authority, then the eminent domain language should be stricken from Article 43.
Unlike in Article 43, under ROFR the town has the option of, within 120 days, taking over a Purchase and Sale Agreement. The purchase and sale contract being considered by the town today as a bona fide offer has an immediate $50K deposit due and a purchase price of $6.5 million, with a closing within 2 years. This contract is for purchase of the land. It’s not for a CR.
Under the ROFR the town can't do what the Warrant Article 43 asks unless it uses Eminent Domain. If the town uses its ROFR to buy the property under the contract terms, it can't say, "we want to buy a CR" (a CR is not for sale) or "we want to fund raise for a while and then buy 70% to conserve and 30% when we get that money and then on 30% we will develop something the community wants but not student housing."
In conclusion, Gerry, to answer your questions, yes the town can authorize the expenditure of $1.2 million, but the only way Save Cushman can do what they want is through a hostile Eminent Domain taking of Cowls' land. I'm not a willing seller and I will not under any circumstances sell a Conservation Restriction when I have a contract to sell the entire property for $6.5 million, providing much needed student housing in a cluster development that permanently preserves a large portion of the property.

Response from Cinda to Anons 5/30 4:47 &  3:59

Here are some facts that should help answer your questions a paraphrase as:  Would we be seeing the Retreat proposal (for a student-occupied residential subdivision in the woods) at this time if we had we passed some of the several recent Village Center zoning change proposals that would have allowed more units in existing already-built areas? 

According to the just-released Amherst Residential Market Demand Assessment Amherst’s household growth has lagged behind other Pioneer Valley towns with less than 1% growth between 2000 and 2010 but during this same time period the town’s population increased nearly 3,000 people – all college students.  The report states that “the lack of new residential development (particularly to support the increase in student population) has led to” several serious problems including neighborhood home to rental conversions and serious affordability issues.

According to the March, 2013 released Housing Production Plan for Amherst:

-        In the 50 years between 1960 and 2010 Amherst’s population grew 176% and our housing only increased 125%. 

-        59% of people living in Amherst are college students. 

-        Student competition for scarce rental units is driving up costs and making Amherst unaffordable for families, seniors, and town employees.

-        More than half of our housing units – 54% - are renter-occupied.
Way more than half of these - 3,300 of 5,400 units - are occupied by students. 

-        Amherst’s Master Plan was quoted in the Housing Production Plan, identifying as a key objective: “supporting the creation of taxable student housing that will lessen the pressures on residential neighborhoods.”  The Master Plan directs the location of such housing to existing village centers, on town water and sewer. 

People have said “UMass students should be living on UMass land.” 
Well… UMass tried to gift the town the Gateway corridor for private development of student housing on what’s now UMass property.  But we said no.

Folks have said “Cushman is the wrong place.”
But we said no to JPI building 400 units on the Hadley side of Route 116 and then “No” to the Hope Church building on land near the University and existing multi-unit rentals. 

We said “No” three times to re-zoning proposals that encouraged infill at the town’s existing village centers of Atkins Corner and North Amherst. 

Amherst is at least 10% below its housing needs.  Our recent and future growth have to go somewhere.  Where do we want it?  If we don’t decide, the market and existing conditions will.

Antidotally, I can tell you that over the past 12 years I’ve had at least a dozen student housing developers approach me looking for appropriate sites for well-managed student housing developments.  Their models were all apartment style or high rises.  There is no place in Amherst that’s not already built where we allow this. 

In October 2012 I received my first call from Landmark.  I was just getting out of my mouth “yes I know there’s huge demand and need for this housing, but there’s no place available that’s zoned appropriately in Amherst and zoning change requests prove impossible lately” - when Jason said Landmark’s model is a gated residential subdivision of cottages – that he was looking for land zoned for residential homes.  I thought “Holy cow.  Somebody finally figured out how to do it.” And the deal was made pretty quickly. 

My answer to your question is “Yes.”  Had the Village Center rezoning passed, or had we zoned some place in town appropriate for more units, and specifically some places appropriate for student housing, there would be a lot less demand for residential subdivisions in the woods. 

Demographics are changing.  Seniors (the likely fastest growing population after students) want to live in Amherst’s Village Centers where they can walk or bus to restaurants or shops.  Young folks starting out in the work force enjoy a more in-town experience too.  We can’t change the fact that more than half of all renters in Amherst are students, but allowing more units of housing in Village Centers will generate a healthy mix of seniors and professionals as well.

Until Amherst stops saying “NO” to every Town Meeting zoning change proposal that would allow more units in sensible locations, there will be development people question in locations where it’s allowed.  


Amherst In Bloom

Snell Street Rhododendrons

As we head towards a quaint New England summer, made less so by the lack of a July 4 Parade, Amherst becomes a different town. Especially now that our number one employer, UMass/Amherst, is on hiatus. Friendlier, more intimate, and a l-o-t less busy.

And prettier (well, mostly).

 Having just taken down one Kellogg Avenue Pin Oak the church decided to trim the remaining two

400 of these (for the birds) NIMBY stop signs have sprouted all over Amherst

11 Phillips Street sprouts weeds

621 East Pleasant Street sprouts tents

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sound & Fury

 Demonstrators in favor of article 42 (taking Echo Village Apartments) outside auditorium
Amherst Town Meeting dodged a bullet this evening -- actually two -- by voting to refer article 42, the expensive eminent domain taking of Echo Village Apartments (minimum of $2.6 million) back to the Housing and Sheltering Committee for further study, but by only one vote, 95-94.

Echo Village Apartments now managed by Eagle Crest Management aka Jamie Cherewatti

Then Town Meeting voted to adjourn ten minutes before the 10:00 p.m. deadline rather than taking up article 43, the other eminent domain article that could prove many times more expensive than the previous one.

The Finance Committee voted 6-0 against both the controversial articles and that sobering vote tally clearly convinced Town Meeting to be wary of using eminent domain. 

Earlier in the evening Town Meeting voted to spend $60,000 to help buy the 5 acre Rock Farm on South East Street. The four Select Board members in attendance all voted against the deal but it still narrowly acquired the necessary two thirds vote, 125-57.

Total cost of the public/private deal is $500,000.  A benefit to Greenfield Savings Bank, who holds the mortgage, and immediate neighbors living on South East Street.

4 standing no votes from Amherst Select Boad

As part of the deal two lots were pre auctioned at just over $130,000 each.  One will go to a private builder who will construct an expensive house and the other to a social service agency that will build a group home for developmentally disabled individuals, thus tax exempt. 

Over half of Amherst is currently owned by tax exempt institutions leading to one of the highest property tax rates in the region for the other half of property owners who are on the tax rolls.

Pig In A Poke?

 Rock Farm, 650 South East Street

Tonight Amherst Town Meeting will be asked to tap Community Preservation Act funds -- that reserve of money that falls from the heavens -- to the tune of $125,000 to complete a public/private land deal that essentially only benefits neighbors living along South East Street.

I was surprised to learn no environmental study of the land had been completed, as a even a cursory examination of the property reveals potential environmental hazards:  three rusting 55 gallon oil drums.

Just one of the downsides brought on by using Other People's Money:  a lack of due diligence.  

55 gallon oil drum near collapsed structure

Another 55 gallon drum under debris

Rock Farm, South East Street Amherst. with 55 gallon drum hiding in plain sight

More good reasons to vote NO on Article 24C

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

And Another One Gone

Four mighty oaks line west end of Kellogg Avenue last year

Kellogg Avenue looking barren with two pin oaks gone

While it took 114 years to grow from tiny acorn to a towering shade tree, it took less than four hours today to reduce the majestic pin oak on Kellogg Avenue into a tidy jigsaw puzzle of logs loaded on the back of a big truck.

The tree stood on Kellogg Avenue, town land, but unfortunately its roots trespassed on church property.  The Unitarian Universalist Society Church is in the midst of a major expansion, so cutting the roots in their way would have inevitably led to the death of the tree anyway.  Ah, the price of progress.

The diminished view from Rao's Coffee

Last week Amherst Town Meeting voted to grant the church $106,000 in public money  to restore a stained glass Tiffany window, Angel of the Lilies.

The cost to the general public for this expansion seems to keep going up.

By Any Other Name

Roadside memorial for Livingston "Liv" Pangburn, age 22

A heartfelt tribute has appeared on the site of the terrible truck vs bicycle accident that took the life of a promising 22 year old on Sunday late afternoon just off the entry to Amherst College on always busy Rt 9, probably made more so by Amherst College commencement functions that same day. 

I could tell by the original response of the first Amherst police officer on the scene that it was bad ... really bad.

So I continued to send out live updates as I heard them over the scanner and got to the scene less than an hour after the incident to (carefully) photograph the intensive investigation.

By 7:42 p. m. when I was first to publish (beyond simple updates on Twitter) the awful news, I could not get two reliable sources to confirm the accident was indeed fatal, so I held off on that ever so final piece of information.  Even though I was convinced of the awful truth.

Much later that night covered the story and early next morning the Memorial Day print edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette had it on the front page.   But both of them had used the wrong name and gender for the victim based on information supplied by the District Attorney's office, normally what you consider a "reliable source."

Since the DAs office is considered ultra reliable and since the information they were providing was after hours "breaking news," safe to say neither of the established mainstream media outlets bothered to corroborate the name of the victim with a second source.  

Because friends  and family of Livingston "Liv" Pangburn would most certainly would have told them about how he would wish to be remembered.  

Kind of like the epic mistake made by too many mainstream media outlets covering the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where early widely circulated reports misidentified the brother as the shooter.  

Being first has always been an important motivator for journalists -- especially now with the ability for instant online publication.

Being right, however, trumps it every time.

In an email to the entire Hampshire College community yesterday Presdient Jonathan Lash avoided pronouns altogether:

"It is with deep sadness I must let the community know that Hampshire student Livingston Pangburn, 11F, died in a bicycling accident in the town of Amherst on Sunday.  Counseling Services will hold walk in hours tomorrow Tuesday May 28 from 3:00 - 5:00 p.m. for those needing support.  We will honor Liv's memory in the fall, when students return to campus."

I'm also told by a Hampshire College professor:

"Hampshire academic records now allow students not only to choose their names (e.g. if they prefer a nickname to their full name etc.) but also include a preferred pronoun: that way, the teacher or administrator does not have to guess, or student does not have to assume the burden of correcting them etc."

Monday, May 27, 2013

Long Remembered

 Southwick cemetery a little before noon

Under a picture perfect clear-as-the-eye-can-see blue sky with just enough breeze to bring the flags and pendants and "colors" snapping to life, today was a Memorial Day to remember.  As they all should be.

Counting Hadley's parade yesterday I managed to attend three small town Memorial Day celebrations -- Amherst, Hadley and Southwick -- and if my kids were queried  Hadley would probably win "best in show" but only because of the quantity of candy thrown from the procession.

Kids scramble for candy

Marching bands, police, fire, military, tractors, trucks, antique cars, boy scouts, girl scouts, politicians all marching before crowds of thankful cheering spectators.  The only thing missing -- thanks to the "sequester" -- were those magnificent war birds screaming low and fast in tight formation causing all eyes to instantly snap skyward. 

And instantly make you think, "Thank God they are ours."

Memorial Day without a flyover is kind of like an Irish wake without a toast. 

Amherst Color Guard


Veteran Agent, Amherst Politicians



Boy Scouts

Hadley Politicians and Senator Rosenberg

Antique Truck

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Amherst Fatal Bike Accident

 State Police in yellow center, Amherst College PD left, APD right. Large truck top of hill (with MSP looking under) was involved

A truck vs bicycle accident occurred late Sunday afternoon around 4:15 p.m. at the East Drive entrance to Amherst College off College Street (Rt 9) and Dickinson Street killing the cyclist, Livingston Pangburn from Newton, age 22.

At 7:30 p.m. Massachusetts State Police were still on the scene performing an accident reconstruction investigation.

APD photographing the scene (helmet and pool of blood behind cruiser)

The mishap was initially called in by Amherst College Police and the first Amherst Police officer on the scene immediately called for a supervisor, who then requested State Police.  AFD transported the victim to Baystate Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

All The PR Fit To Print

Umass/Amherst, Flagship of Higher Education

According to a blurb in PRWeek "The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is seeking PR support for an outreach effort to grow enrollment at the school."  

More specifically, "the campaign is set to take place after the University completes a year-long project with qualitative and quantitative research to develop messages to improve perceptions of the institution. The university system hopes to increase enrollment by making it students' first choice as they pick schools ..."

Value of said contract?  $450,000.     Okay, nothing wrong with a little promotion I guess -- but $450,000!

I always thought that's why UMass/Amherst has an Office of News & Media Relations with a full time, year-round staff of seven with a combined salary expense this year of $451,628.

And that does not include John Kennedy, Vice Chancellor of University Relations at $222,784;  Nancy Buffone, Public Relations Manager at $89,553; and Lisa Queenin, News Office Director of Community Relations at $69,596 or a total of $833,561.   Including employee benefits and health insurance easily brings the grand total to well over a million per year.

And it's not like any of these folks are knocking themselves out over the summer. 

Proud flagship Umass/Amherst has already made a major leap to "improve perceptions of the institution" by joining the town to combat off campus bad behavior by a tiny minority of their students.  And that is something worth marketing.

But does it have to be so, um, expensive?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lighting The Way

Crosswalk bollards that light up now straddle Snell Street

The Public Works Committee meets next week and will discuss "Amherst College placing bollards on Snell Street," in the public way.  Safe bet they will support the safety move and then pass on that recommendation to the all powerful Select Board who will then vote to approve the project, which is pretty much completed.  

While the more expensive regular full sized pole mounted lighting do a better job illuminating the crosswalk and immediate area, the stubby bolards illuminate just the pedestrian and create a contrast that is more visible to a driver.

Elaborate crosswalk below President's House S. Pleasant Street

A few years ago Amherst College also installed major crosswalks on South Pleasant Street and College Street contiguous to their campus.

Although Amherst College is, like UMass, a tax exempt institution it is also the town's number one taxpayer ( to the tune of $491,364 last year) due to all the houses it owns that are rented to staff, and two businesses that also are on the tax rolls:   Lord Jeffery Inn and Amherst Golf Course.

In addition the College donates $90,000 annually for Amherst Fire Department services. 

Meanwhile the Amherst DPW is installing new LED lighting in all town streetlights, a project funded by a $300,000 state energy grant.  Town Meeting recently voted $130,000 in capital funds for a new bucket truck that could help speed up the project. 

DPW relamping South Pleasant Street

Friday, May 24, 2013

BabeTown Belligerence

621 East Pleasant Street, Amherst aka Babe Town

So after seven consecutive $100/day fines the owner of the van parked on the lawn at Babe Town, a venue for underground music concerts, showed great initiative and backed it up the ten feet required to come into compliance with Amherst zoning bylaw.

Moved 7 car parking problem to Sherman Lane Saturday morning (neighbor submitted photo)

I also could not help but notice the new addition on the overgrown front lawn: a pup tent, that went up when a 4' by 8' plywood illegal sign came down. Maybe the bear gets to sleep there at night.  And no, neither the bear or pup tent or combination therein are illegal.  But you gotta wonder what 's next, Christmas lights?

House next door for sale.  "Shocked, shocked I say ..."


On my way back from the Hampshire Athletic Club, I routinely stop at the Cumby's on lower College Street (assassins take note). Around 11:45 a.m. today, a college-aged youth accosted me with his cell phone snapping at least a dozen pictures as I left the store heading to my car carrying my coffee, egg salad sandwich, and diet root beer.

 Shy college aged youth presumably resident of 621 E. Pleasant aka BabeTown

At one point I stopped and looked directly at him saying, "Can I help you?"  But he just kept snap, snap, snapping away. So I open my car door, as he snaps more pictures of my car and license plate, grab my iPhone and he then bounds back to his car leaving the parking lot like a bank robber fleeing the scene of a crime.

Well, I had to run out to North Amherst anyway, in my roles as a Town Meeting member and reporter, so as I drove by 621 East Pleasant Street, aka "Babe Town..."

I could not help but notice from the very public street that East Pleasant Street is, the very same college aged youth sitting on the front porch of his Daddy's mansion.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

 AFD Ladder 1 to the rescue

AFD assists the DPW replacing main cord to town flagpole this morning.  Big flag was blown down in the thunderstorm two nights ago.  Cord was 15 years old and due for replacement.  Flag will go back up later today, in plenty of time for Memorial Day observance on Monday.

 Saturday morning

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Private Interest, Public Money

 Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst.  Tiffany location now boarded up

I can't remember the last time going into a night of Town Meeting not knowing how I was going to vote on any particular article.  Last night there were two such articles -- both dealing with historical preservation -- and I'm not overly confident either of my votes will turn out right.

The Tiffany Window inside the Unitarian Church -- even in its tired state -- is an absolute thing of beauty.  When viewed from inside the church looking out.  But when looking from the outside in, not so hot.  And $106,000 of public money is a LOT of money.

Angel of the Lillies Tiffany Window from the inside

I also wonder why St Brigid's Church directly across the street can manage to do historical capital projects without asking for town tax money.  

St Brigid's Church this morning

And there is the matter of them whacking the 100+ year old healthy pin oak for the convenience of their expansion.  Sure they grudgingly made an effort (that probably cost less than $3,000) to see if the towering tree could be saved.

Town took down unhealthy Pin Oak near telephone pole

If someone from the town had said a long time ago that you can do your expansion only if the tree survives, you can bet they would have come up with a plan that saved the tree.  And if that plan and change in construction cost an extra $100,000 they would still be $6,000 to the good.

Because now the town is partners in their construction project anyway, to the tune of $106,000 to save the Tiffany.
Health Pin Oak (center) coming down soon

So I voted "No."  Next year after the Tiffany goes back into the wall facing North Pleasant Street, one summer night around 7:00 p.m. I'll take a look and then decide if it was worth it.

Ashes to ashes, towering tree to large stump

On the other ancient hand I voted "Yes" to Article #36, a zoning change for historic lots on Main Street just below the even more historic Hills House, thus increasing its value to a private landowner, who is also a Town Meeting member.

The measure passed -- but just barely -- by the required two thirds majority 120-55.  And I say just barely because I almost voted no and if only three more yes votes had also changed their minds ...

The pitch to Town Meeting was the property would be sold to Amherst Media to build their new station because big evil corporate Western Mass Electric is kicking them out of their longtime location on College Street.

Amherst Media (formerly ACTV) current location to be demolished soon

And since Amherst Media is a non profit they could build there anyway, but the change in zoning means they can build on more of the property and lease some of it to other businesses.  Of course if they can't raise the millions required to buy the land and build the new building, the current property owner can simply sell it to another more commercial concern.

Historic Main Street lots.  Beautiful view even on a lousy day

I would have felt a lot more comfortable having a contract saying the zoning change is only for the deal with Amherst Media and if that falls through so does the zoning change, but government doesn't work that way.