Town Meeting and our core values

Niels la Cour

The writer of this guest post worked in the Amherst Planning Department from 1997 to 2007 and coordinated the Master Plan process. He is now senior physical planner at UMass.

So many times over the past 20 years I have wanted to hold up a big mirror in Town Meeting. I’d like to ask members to take a good look at themselves.

I call the Town Meeting system a Tyranny of Those with Time. Members do not fully recognize that their goals are shared by many of us, but they don’t understand how to sustain them financially.

That lack of understanding was on full display in the Spring 2016 Town Meeting. I listened intently as the chair of the Finance Committee gave her report and talked about the $800,000 in new revenue from a handful of new development projects. I was baffled by the fact that it didn’t elicit any reaction from Town Meeting members. (The school decision, in which Town Meeting turned down $34 million in state money, is an example of its fiscal irresponsibility.)

By always preserving land and passing zoning that inhibits needed development, Town Meeting has created an situation where we have lost 35 percent of our young families in the last decade. We have never reaped the benefit of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, which could have paid for more land preservation, police and firefighters, and better public education for the families who do live here.

In Town Meeting, one to two dozen people can sow enough fear and doubt in a few more dozen people, and then they can get enough support to either kill sound zoning or pass a well-intended but ill-conceived zoning that depresses our economy. And they can do this continually, because 80 percent of the seats in Town Meeting are not contested and only 10 percent of the registered voters have participated in recent elections when there’s nothing extra on the ballot.

When I came to work in the Amherst Planning Department 20 years ago, I felt that I had found my dream job. I got paid to do good things for my community. I worked in an open and honest place where we went to extraordinary lengths to operate an open and transparent government.  Amherst ranked #5 in the best places to bike in America, according to a magazine I read in my first days at work. I knew I had found the best place to live and raise a family.

I got to facilitate a Master Plan process that allowed over 1,000 residents to participate and have their voices heard and documented. Having read all of those words, ideas, feelings, in the comments and surveys, I knew that I lived in a community where a vast majority of people cared deeply about the environment and living sustainably.

It is that knowledge of our community’s shared goals that frustrates me with our current system of government and its inability to realize our potential.

But what saddens me most is the fact that Town Meeting members are paranoid about the moderate people who understand that you have to have economic development along with environmental preservation. They question our motives while failing to see that we share core values about our community.

Town Meeting members projected all the conspiracies onto planners and staff, who they thought were surely in bed with the developers. I realized then that they project those things on us, because that’s the way they operate. They are self-righteous and believe that the ends justify the means.


Comments 6

  1. Thank you, Niels, for your effort and hard work. When I opened my music school in 2000, Amherst had 3,500 school age kids. Now there are 2,500 and my little music school is barely surviving. It has become difficult to find music teachers to make a long term committment to Amherst. For me, it was my retirement and I’m stuck here.

    When we moved to Amherst in 1963, we lived in a green house on Dickinson that I can see from my office. When I was 15, I put my first teaching sign in the window at Louis’ Supermarket and they were very kind to leave it there. In 1969, my teacher turned his entire Amherst studio over to me and I began teaching music full-time, full of hope for the future. Hope that with dedication and hard work, I could build a life and live to see what I had built passed on.

    Over the last twenty years, my original plan to expand into the entire basement of my building, two barns, has withered on the vine. The defeat of the bond authorization for the schools override that the voters accepted on Nov 8 sealed it for me. Here I am, at 66, starting over. Thank you Amherst Town Meeting.

    The enormity of their hubris defies the imagination. The loss to people’s hopes and productivity, something that took 50 years to build up, defies the imagination. If you wonder why I am such a strong advocate, I am fighting for my life here. For the lives of my teachers and their families, and for the kids who look to me to show them the way out into the world. Because God forbid they should try to stay here and build a life.

  2. I have been proud to be part of a Planning Board and a Town Meeting have worked together to “unlock” development in downtown Amherst. Some zoning tweaks–increased allowable height/stories, changes to the way height is measured, changes to the way setbacks are measured, increase in the parking district–have led to 4 new downtown projects (the first ground up projects in a generation). Who would have thought the the storage area behind Judy’s could be developed?
    These tweaks, consistent with the master plan, have increased the number of residents living in areas where there already is infrastructure including an amazing bus system.
    It is stunning to see anti-charter leaders, many of whom voted yes on these tweaks, now trying to disown this collaboration (and their votes). Some claimed they were duped. If a former select board chair was “misled” by a zoning article, then our current occasional government is broken.
    We have learned a lot from these new projects that have been built (or will be built soon). Many of us would like to see more owner occupied apartments (vs. rentals) downtown. We need to address inclusionary zoning. We need to attract actual retail to ground level spaces in town. Further fine tuning will help achieve those goals.
    We can’t get there with our polarized Town Meeting. We haven’t always been polarized, and we may not be polarized in the future. But the last 3 years have not been pretty, even when Town Meeting knew that it had to be on best behavior, because of the pending charter question.

  3. I am not clear if in your opinion Town Meeting is bad because it blocks all development including downtown development, or is it bad because it disowns the four new buildings that recently went up downtown?

    Tyranny of Those with Time? They project conspiracies onto planners and staff, because that’s the way they operate on top of being self-righteous, all of them?

    Surely a good way to alienate a large segment of the most politically active people in town from the charter. Is this the best method to help our polarized government? Or to advertise how good the next government will be if we get rid of Town Meeting?

    I wonder if the Council will be as unanimous, as Town Hall and current boards currently are. Will they always, unanimously, without any polarization represent the people? The people, half of whom were for going ahead with the school project, half of them against that investment, give or take a hundred. The people who want development ahead of preservation (the good ones I see), and the people who want preservation instead of development (and all in between).

    So what is exactly the strategy to get to a less polarized government, who can act like the current polarized Town Meeting cannot? Is Town Meeting bashing the best way to get to that?

    In a previous post (http://abetteramherst.org/2017/12/27/lets-avoid-rancor-in-charter-debate/) you decided to keep to a cleaner debate. This is just a friendly reminder in the face of standards lowering again.


    1. Hi Gabor
      Please don’t confuse my reply with Niels’ column. I have been on the Planning Board for about 10 years, and never overlapped with him. Niels and I have a common interest in encouraging sustainable, development in downtown, but we may have different ways of explaining those goals.

      I am convinced that our neighbors are obsessed by the four new mixed use buildings in downtown, because there have been no new buildings constructed in downtown in the last generation. We have gotten used to the shabby one story buildings and parking lots. If downtown Amherst had grown organically (say, a new building every 5 years), then we would barely notice these new projects. Town Meeting had to keep tweaking the zoning by-law in order to finally encourage new achievement. I think those zoning tweaks are Town Meetings greatest achievement, because we are providing new housing on former vacant lots (or underdeveloped sites) and we are increasing the tax base.

      Any one who has ever been on any public board or committee knows that it is very difficult to achieve a unanimous vote. It’s not a sign of polarization or non-polarization. It’s a sign of 9 of your neighbors working very hard to find a common ground.


  4. Am I the only person who has grown weary of the blog comment technique, so common among Town Meeting defenders , of simply throwing questions at a post, as Gabor does above? If you wish to mount a full-throated defense of the status quo, go ahead. But the stance of being perplexed is getting kind of old.

    Speaking for myself, TM has been oblivious to and cavalier and reckless about where future revenues are going to come from, in order to pay for the values we share and the level of services to implement them that we want. As Niels points out, there are broad areas of agreement in town on those values, although you couldn’t tell from watching Town Meeting, where squaring off with the volunteers and professionals at the front of the room has become an art form. No one is talking about retail sprawl in town. No one is talking about a strip of neon and big-box stores on Belchertown Road heading east from town, for example.

    Because we are broadly agreed on what kinds of development we don’t want in Amherst, because we like having vast areas of conservation land, we then have to be that much more careful about turning away from genuinely acceptable opportunities, when they present themselves. There’s more at stake in these instances than there would be in other communities. Having sat in there for most of the past 17 years, I see no sign that large numbers of the Town Meeting membership recognize how delicate our finances are, and how easily we can screw them up. I think that Niels La Cour has been perfectly clear on this point above, so, in response to Gabor’s head-scratching, my first suggestion would be: try reading the post again.

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