Saturday, August 24, 2013

War Over "The Retreat" Continues

 Landmark Properties has agreed to "save the salamanders"


Where you stand on the Retreat depends on where you sit.

Jack Hirsch, whose column appears in this week's Amherst Bulletin, lives in Cushman, so it makes sense that he doesn't want to see open space near his house turned into a student housing development.

I live near the Regional Middle School, and have three student houses within 200 feet of me (the closest house to the Retreat will be more than 300 feet away). I think it makes sense for student housing to be clustered together, under close supervision, rather than spread out on residential streets, in houses owned by absentee landlords.

In my Bulletin column of Aug. 16, I gave three reasons why I think this development is in the interest of the town as a whole. In this week's Bulletin, Hirsch responds to two of my reasons – and ignores the third.

First, I argued that the Retreat will bring in $395,000 a year, as estimated by the town assessor, in desperately needed tax revenue. Hirsch maintains that Landmark Properties, the owners of the Retreat, may not pay their taxes.

There's no evidence that Landmark has been a tax evader in other towns where it has built student housing. And even if it didn't pay its taxes, Town Hall could easily put a lien on the property until payments were made.

Jack Hirsch ill-fated presentation to Amherst Town Meeting

I thought Hirsch was going to say that the $395,000 would be offset by increased costs for police and roads, as some Cushman residents have maintained. Maybe he's realized the absurdity of that argument. Some of the $395,000 might be offset by increased costs, but it's well established that the biggest loser for the town in the tax-vs.-expense calculus is single-family houses (like the ones in Cushman). 

That's because of the cost of educating children (the Amherst elementary schools spend $17,000 per student). The Retreat will not have many tenants with children in the schools.

Second, I argued that if Amherst continues to resist new student housing, speculators will have even more incentive to buy up single-family houses when they come on the market and convert them to student rentals. That's because the demand for rentals will far exceed the supply. 

First-time home-buyers will have a harder time competing with speculators, and there will be more conflict between students and longtime residents.

Hirsch responds that there are 14,000 UMass students living in the Amherst area, so the 700 beds in the Retreat wouldn't make a difference. UMass plans to expand its student population, so any contribution to the housing stock will reduce the flow of students onto residential streets. Those extra students won't go away if the Retreat isn't built; they'll just live in neighborhoods like mine. 

Hirsch did not respond to my information that many of the houses northeast of the Retreat site have had septic system failures, and are close to tributaries of the Atkins Reservoir, a major source of Amherst's drinking water. 

When the Retreat is built, the developer will pay to extend the sewer line to Flat Hills Road, making it much less expensive for the town to extend it to the streets with failing septic systems.

This was not speculation; it was the opinion of the superintendent of public works. The Cushman people like to present their cause as being environmentally virtuous, defending the spotted salamanders that live on part of the Retreat site and decrying the cars the students would have (but why would they drive them to campus, where there's little parking, rather than take the bus?) 

I'm not surprised that Hirsch ignores the news that the Retreat would help clean up an environmental hazard caused by his neighbors.
Stop The Retreat:  Campaign is starting to list

The letters written by Cushman residents, and the red-and-white signs they've convinced friends in other parts of town to put on their lawns, may lead some people to believe that Amherst will be voting on whether to allow the Retreat. No such vote will take place, because Landmark Properties has a legal right to built student housing on this land. 

The plan will be reviewed by the Planning Board and Conservation Commission, but they don't have the power to reject it. These two panels and the Select Board voted nearly unanimously not to have the town buy the land to prevent the development.

It isn't clear to me how “Save Historic Cushman” plans to stop the Retreat. Will the opponents lie down in front of the bulldozers? The organization has hired an expensive Concord attorney, who has filed an appeal in Land Court maintaining that the Retreat is a dormitory, which is prohibited in this zoning district. 

More appeals will probably follow, in an attempt to delay the Retreat. But in San Marcos, Texas, it took Landmark 20 years before before it got approval to build the student development. Are the Cushman residents willing to keep paying their attorney that long? 

For now, they are willing to have the town spend public money on their appeals.

I think they should use their time and energy lobbying Sen. Stan Rosenberg, soon to be the Senate president, to get a law change that would allow a public-private partnership to build taxable housing on property owned by UMass. 

That would provide clustered student housing near the campus, but allow Amherst to reap the tax benefits.

The Retreat may have some negative consequences on Cushman, chiefly weekend traffic, but the neighborhood will still be “historic.” For Amherst as a whole, the Retreat has substantial benefits.

Nick Grabbe is a former Amherst Bulletin editor/reporter and a long time Amherst resident.


Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the properties that ought to be taken by eminent domain are those whose failing septic systems are likely to contaminate our drinking water.

Hence, you either (a) thank your lucky stars that the Retreat is coming and tie into it's sewer line, or (b) find some other place to live.

OR buy your own damn sewer line, which I doubt you all could afford...

Anonymous said...

There is no way that narrow winding road is big enough for the increased traffic the Retreat will bring. What will the cost be of widening it?

Anonymous said...






Walter Graff said...

Big babies Larry. These are the same folks that want to save the earth, love regardless of color, and share in all the wealth. That all sounds great until someone tries to do it in their backyard. Amherst thought they'd live in a bubble forever.
Works from the inside, but eventually your bubble has to deal with what's outside.

Anonymous said...


Your logic seem backwards. Building a housing a development is not preserving the earth.

Anonymous said...

The argument about sewers is inconvenient for the Stop the Retreat folks.

Reminds me of the Strawberry Fields debate, which the opponents ultimately won. At one TM session, one of its most vocal opponents was confronted with the environmentally friendly fact that the proposed development would be located adjacent to the bike path, making it easy for residents there to make carbon-free trips into town or to the University.

Her response was essentially "Never mind!"

Mr. Grabbe has some intestinal fortitude, and I would imagine that the silent majority appreciates it.

Anonymous said...

Why must the term "war" be used to characterize this issue?

Does LK celebrate AND incite incivility?

Anonymous said...

Good point on the overuse of the word "war".

But incivility is something we have seen from Retreat opponents, also, who display a certain degree of desperation.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that one person's in civility legitimizes others'?

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that one person's incivility legitimizes others'?


I am sick and tired of my side playing by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules while the other side continues to repeatedly hit below the belt.

I'm a firm believer in "do unto others as they are doing unto you" -- the people crying loudest about incivility are those whose personal mantra is "by any means necessary."


I'd prefer civility. I'd prefer content-neutral rules which we all agree to follow -- but the politically correct academic left abandoned all of this a half century ago and needs to understand that some of us have had enough and can be every bit as ruthless and despicable as they are.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see the Retreat people play hardball -- pay a few thousand dollars for an architect to draw up plans for a massive 5000 unit all-low-income (tax credit) development which builds on every square inch of that land.

And then give a copy of the plans to the town, the neighbors, the Salamanders, and everyone else, and say "Trick or Treat."

Say "folks, either we have broken ground on The Retreat buy this Halloween or we will instead build this -- and you can't stop us. Have a nice day."

They might need to explain that this would be something on the scale of Boston's infamous Columbia Point Housing Project -- which would instantly become an APD/AFD nightmare for all the reasons that Columbia Point used to be in Boston.

While, like The Retreat, this would be taxable property, it would bring 10,000-15,000 additional children into the schools, and at $17K each, Amherst would have a net loss of at least $20 Million in additional school costs alone -- which Amherst doesn't have.

Guesstimate 5000 teenagers -- some Eagle Scouts, some into drugs 'n' gangs -- but all teenagers and developmentally less mature than UM students -- and as this is about half the UM on-campus population and memory is that the UMPD has 63 officers, figure the APD needing at least 30 more officers at whatever a cop costs, each. Figure an AFD commitment greater than to UMass (more non-ETOH medical) but at the lower MassHealth/Medicaid reimbursement rate.

This would bankrupt the town -- and as to that "narrow winding road", do you have any idea how many cars would be on it?

Anonymous said...

Hey, at least it's not the Triangle Street wars. People are allowed to have their say, even when you don't agree. What's wrong with that?

Larry Kelley said...

Nothing. But in this great country of ours, the majority rules.

And as the Planning Board Chair said recently to a North Amherst NIMBY "that boat has already sailed."

JC said...

I have not seen the response written by Mr. Hirsch to Mr. Grabbe’s piece in the bulletin, but there is at least one very good reason for him to ignore the concerns about failed septic tanks contaminating the Atkins reservoir (if he did), and that’s because the argument is bogus. The inconvenient truth that Mr. Grabbe is overlooking is physics (specifically fluid mechanics). As it happens, water flows down hill… which means that water from Flat Hills and much of High Point, Overlook, and Market Hill flows away from Atkins Reservoir, not toward it. A glance at the topographical map will show the reality of the drainage. And while it may be true that there are issues with septic system failures in that part of Amherst, those are homeowner problems and hardly the public health disaster that Mr. Grabbe suggests. These scare tactics are transparent and baseless. Perhaps the good people of Landmark are willing to make yet another promise to extend the sewer lines up into Shutesbury to the properties that are actually in the Atkins Reservoir drainage, but I don’t see Mr. Grabbe lobbying for that.

In his post, Mr. Grabbe states: “I'm not surprised that Hirsch ignores the news that the Retreat would help clean up an environmental hazard caused by his neighbors.” Well, I’m not surprised that he’s not surprised that Mr. Hirsch “ignores” that statement, and that is because it is a concern that Mr. Grabbe has manufactured, presumably in an attempt to generate further support for the terrible idea that is the Retreat.

Mr. Grabbe does touch on one good idea toward the end of his post, and that is to look for a productive solution to the student housing problem that would keep students on campus and benefit all in the community. To my knowledge, that is exactly the kind of solution that those with Save Historic Cushman are seeking.

Anonymous said...

If housing is built on UMass property, it should be tax exempt outside of covering the cost of emergency services.

Anonymous said...

Which means that that housing will generate exactly ZERO money for the tax base.

Does anyone think that we have a problem with the tax base in this town?

Or are we simply going to be a town only for the monied classes?

Anonymous said...

Not just the surface topography near the Atkins Reservoir, but the slope of the subsurface bedrock, which tilts downsward toward the southwest. The septic system failures on Highpoint are not a direct hazard to the reservoir. They *are* a problem for the homeowners there, however, and should be the homeowners' responsibility - unless the Town insists, yet again, on giving away the benefit of sewerage which the rest of us on the sewer system have had to pay for originally (when our houses/subdivisions were built) and over the decades (through our sewer bills)....

Paula Barrows said...

Interesting how many people will hide with anonymity when posting their views.

Fire Sale in Cushman said...

And in the meantime, FOR SALE signs are popping up all over Cushman and bordering streets, as people bail out of their rapidly-depreciating homes.

Did Mr. Grabbe and the other Retreatists factor in the lost property taxes from devalued private homes in Amherst and Shutesbury?

Larry Kelley said...

"Rapidly-depreciating homes?"

I would love for you to prove that myth with assessor records (easily linked to online).