Wednesday, January 1, 2014
Political Battle of the Year 2013
Nothing in Amherst brings out the wrath of NIMBYs quite like a proposed housing development -- especially when the prospective clients are, gasp, students. Even though two recent housing studies overwhelmingly concluded Amherst needs more housing -- especially student housing.
The Retreat, a resort like enclave of stand alone cottages clustered in the woodlands of North Amherst targeting a UMass student clientele, was announced in late February. The reaction was instant and overwhelming.
As in negative.
By the time of the first informational public hearing at the Jones Library in April a coalition of concerned citizens, "Save Historic Cushman," formed and their ubiquitous calling card, red & white 'Stop The Retreat' lawn signs, had already been planted.
Neighbors of proposed development already seeing red April 16, "informational" meeting Jones Library
The first major political confrontation would be at the annual spring Town Meeting where warrant articles only require ten signatures to get on the official warrant.
Article #43 called for the town to "Purchase a Conservation Restriction" on 154 acres of woodland for $1.2 million in northeast Amherst that is already under a purchase-and-sale agreement for $6.5 million. Once again to stop a large development of badly needed housing.
At the June 3rd session of Town Meeting the esteemed body not only failed to muster a two-thirds vote to take the 154 acre parcel by eminent domain, but they terminated (with extreme prejudice) the naive heavy-handed proposal by supporting my "move to dismiss" the article by a 98-90 vote.
Plan B then became convincing the Select Board to invoke the "Right of first refusal," since the forested property had been in a state conservation program for many years. Of course that "right" would be a tad expensive as the private deal between Landmark Properties and W.D. Cowls, Inc amounted to $6.5 million dollars.
Neither the Planning Board or Conservation Commission could be convinced to recommend to the Select Board the expensive purchase. Although the July 29 Select Board public meeting was packed with angry neighbors, the Select Board wisely choose not to play that expensive card.
Once again the "Save Historic Cushman" crowd was resoundingly told "No" by town government.
At the beginning of this month (December 2) the Select Board once again held a public hearing to decide whether they should make a recommendation to the Planning Board, who now holds the fate of the project in their hands.
Once again the usual suspects showed up in force voicing the usual concerns. The Select Board decided to send Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe to the December 4th packed-beyond-building-code-limits Planning Board meeting to remind the board just how important this issue is and that they need to get it right.
Since Planning Board members are old enough (well most of them anyway) to remember the classic Frankenstein scene of angry villagers armed with pitchforks marching towards the castle under the bright glow of crackling torches, perhaps no such reminder was necessary.
Landmark Properties presented their "preliminary" cluster development design to which the Planning Board issued a set of recommended alterations. Landmark will come back in this New Year with a "Definitive Plan" incorporating those tweaks.
The battle continues ...