The Council must establish a long-term agenda. I view the following areas as top priorities.
DEVELOPMENT AND GROWTH
Ensure smart development that enhances the character and vibrancy of downtown and in village-centers.
The Council will have oversight of town planning and zoning by-laws. How we develop matters!
Broadening the tax base with economic development is a priority. New developments can potentially contribute to the vitality of Amherst, ease the financial burden of current property tax payers, and preserve our open spaces and environment. But we need to proceed in ways that enhance – not compromise – our Amherst community and small-town quality of life.
People move to Amherst seeking small-town charm, excellent schools and cultural events that would be rare in a town of our size without our colleges and university. To expand the town’s commercial tax base and nurture its cultural vitality, new development has to be physically attractive; it has to draw people to village centers; it has to include public spaces and sidewalks; and it has to bring in new businesses while keeping existing ones in town.
Realizing these goals will not only require paying attention to the designs and scale of new developments, but also to the impact of more intense development on other municipal services. Parking clearly needs to be a top priority. It is a lifeline for our downtown businesses and community.
I will work with the Council, town staff and residents with expertise in sustainable, positive development strategies and local businesses to ensure that economic development enhances the cultural and social life of Amherst. We know from other towns’ experiences that there are creative planning, zoning and design policies that can enable development in ways that build on a town’s character and strengthens the vitality and quality of life of residents.
To assure smarter development, I support assessing and likely changing our zoning by laws, with attention to height, side-walk width, step-backs (third floor starts further back), parking and affordable housing.
In concept, I support form-based zoning. If done well it could enable downtown or village center density while providing public space. The resulting scale and shape of buildings should relate well to streets, other buildings and community character. Intensive residential development downtown consumes scarce parking. We have to make explicit the cost of additional parking and ask developers share in these costs.
The Council will also need to build on continuing efforts to forge partnerships with our two colleges and UMass that more equitably share the costs of sustaining Amherst municipal services and schools. The colleges’ and university’s tax exempt status renders sixteen percent of Amherst’s land nontaxable. Updating agreements to address pressing Amherst needs could ease burdens on residents and businesses and support capital spending on roads, schools, parking and public works.
Invest in strong, excellent schools, including preschools.
Our schools are central to the vitality of Amherst and families across a broad income spectrum. The Council must work with the School Committee to implement a plan to fix our schools, especially our elementary schools. And we need to expand access to affordable preschool.
With the decline in the number of elementary and regional school students, the town will need a long-range plan of how best to use and adjust our classroom capacity. From 2008 to 2019, we lost nearly 1,000 students (down from over 3,200 to 2,380 students). To build consensus, the Council will need to work with the School Committee, Superintendent and parents to have an informed, transparent discussion of how best to reconfigure, finance and support our schools.
Even though many of these issues are primarily in the domain of the Amherst and Regional School Committees, I believe that fostering a plan to fix our schools – a viable, affordable plan that garners broad community support — should be a priority for the Council. The plan will need to include replacing or rebuilding aging elementary schools and finding resources to support preschool.
Prioritize capital spending by urgent needs while minimizing taxpayer impact.
In addition to schools, Amherst has a backlog of costly infrastructure needs including a new fire station and public works building, and a library renovation. The potential municipal costs in the April 2018 Joint Capital Planning Committee capital plan add up to more than $100 million in town budget expenditures for major building projects over the next decade. In addition the town has a $12 million backlog of road repairs. And these numbers do not include capital spending for other needs.
In the Council’s first years, Amherst will have tough choices to make regarding timing and costs. As an economist, I want to start with long-term projections of the revenues and costs and have information on alternative choices in terms of costs and financing. A detailed, comprehensive, long-range plan will focus discussion on priorities and thereby help build voter consensus and confidence in the Council’s oversight.
For the Council to make sensible decisions it has to have realistic revenue projections and alternative debt service projections that are based on the timing – i.e., the construction and financing – of the proposed new projects.
Given the backlog, the Council and town will need to prioritize projects based on the urgency but at the same time seek to minimize taxpayer impact. Doing so will require asking whether there are less costly approaches that could meet the needs.
Too often in the past, we have voted on costly town capital investments one at a time without learning enough about other planned projects, their relative urgency and their costs.
To be fiscally responsible and accountable to residents, I will work with Council members and town staff to articulate and publish a ten-year potential action plan to enable informed public discussion. My goal will be to provide residents with information about urgency, timing, costs of alternative choices, and tax consequences in advance. Rebuilding or replacing our aging elementary schools and a new fire station would be my choice as the starting point for a phased spending approach to the backlog of capital projects.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Improve support for our community’s quality of life and diversity.
Quality of life: We need ways to get around safely – including pothole-free streets, sidewalks and safe intersections. Streets with better bikeways and bus service could also reduce the number of cars downtown and in village centers.
Affordable housing: Affordable rents for low and moderate income families preserve diversity and make it possible for employees who work in the town to live in Amherst. I support making affordable housing a priority for long range planning and Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing efforts to act on this priority.
Seniors: The number of Amherst residents who are 65 or older is increasing and approaching the total number of children under the age of 18. As a college and university town Amherst will continue to attract retirees. This is also a great town for healthy aging as long as we assure transportation and support services, including a Senior Center and services for the home-bound.
Make Amherst more ecologically sound, for the future of the planet.
I support Amherst’s zero-net energy by-law that applies to new municipal buildings. Further, I am committed to initiatives that will reduce fossil fuel consumption and foster renewable, sustainable energy.
We could do more in Amherst by expanding zero-net energy design to major library and private developments, and solar to new homes. I also support Amherst joining with other towns to aggregate electric purchases in a multi-town community energy initiative (Amherst-Northampton-Pelham). This would pool community electric purchases to draw on and stimulate solar and renewable energy sources.
Other initiatives include: promoting solar installation, including municipal and community solar on public land and replace fossil fuel as a source of heat in town buildings; strengthening regulations to reduce vehicle “idling” – this could include higher penalties and a “finders” fee such as the used in New York City where citizens receive a share of the fine ($300) for reporting and documenting idling beyond 3 minutes (tougher than the MA law.) A penalty – ticket – for idling and a means of prevention such as citizen reports could avoid consuming police enforcement time.
I included such ideas in response to a questionnaire by the Massachusetts Sierra Club. My replies in addition to my family’s long support of the Sierra Club resulted their endorsing my candidacy. I am honored to be the only candidate endorsed in District 1.