Fear and Loathing in Amherst

This post is in two parts. First, Sarah Marshall writes that charter opponents are trying to frighten Amherst voters. Second, Nick Grabbe describes how opponent Michael Burkart tried to generate fear in Tuesday’s televised debate.

Be afraid, be very afraid. That appears to be the Fox News-like strategy of the Amherst anti-charter groups – invent so many outlandish, terrible, what-if scenarios about Amherst’s future that sensible people are too alarmed even to read the proposed charter. I am reminded of my nights at summer camp, when we girls would tell horror stories in the dark – stories we knew were fictional – and so frighten ourselves that we could hardly sleep.

Take a deep breath, everyone. Read the charter (find it at www.amherstma.gov/charter). It is not “all about zoning” any more than it is all about budgets or all about town infrastructure or all about conservation land or all about Community Preservation Act projects. The charter proposes a new-for-Amherst (but widely used elsewhere) form of local government. It does not enshrine or privilege policies on any issue, including  development.

The most vocal anti-charter groups evidence a loathing for developers that baffles me. It’s a loathing that’s understandable when directed at child molesters, for example, but not at people who put up buildings and generate new tax revenue. So what if a handful of people who develop properties for a living are in favor of the charter? Vastly more residents who have no connections to developers also favor the charter. As far as I can tell, they are simply united in their belief that Town Meeting is a bad deal for local democracy, and that the new charter will give us real choices at the ballot box, a more accountable group of elected representatives, and a responsive government that deliberates throughout the year.

* * *

In Tuesday’s charter debate, Town Meeting member Michael Burkart made an appeal to fear that characterizes much of the “no” campaign.

In a series of outrageous conspiracy theories, Burkart predicted that Amherst would turn into a “mini-cityscape” if voters approve the new charter March 27. He said the Planning Board serves the needs of property investors, that charter supporters are in league with developers, and that Town Meeting is the only thing standing in the way of runaway student housing.

Cue the Truth Squad.

The “yes” campaign is a broad coalition seeking greater democracy, not more development, and the chair of Amherst for All is a prominent environmentalist. No member of the Charter Commission majority is a developer or has real estate interests. Yes, in this college town there are a few people with rental properties among Amherst for All’s donors, but at least as many gave money to the “no” campaign.

The only way that Burkart’s apocalyptic vision of five-story buildings everywhere will come true is if voters want that. Yes, we need a debate about the location and trade-offs of development and student housing. But the best way to have that debate is through a Town Council whose members are elected by voters, a Town Council that has the structure and time to really think through questions about development, open space, and Amherst’s tax base.

Burkart wants you to believe that campaigns for Town Council will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the only way to access that money will be for candidates to sell out to shadowy “moneyed interests.” Neighborhood council candidates won’t need money for much of anything besides lawn signs, brochures and Facebook ads. Meeting voters and presenting a popular vision for Amherst will be the determining factors.

Burkart railed against “high-density” housing downtown. The master plan, worked out with input from 1,000 residents, said that development should be concentrated downtown and in village centers, to preserve open space and family neighborhoods elsewhere. And those two five-story buildings downtown? They were approved under the current form of government, with Town Meeting voting to allow the five stories.

Fear is a powerful emotion. A recent flyer from the “no” campaign said the charter “threatens everything we love about our town.” The only thing we have to fear in seeking a system that empowers voters is the kind of fear that charter opponents are trying to generate.

If you agree with this post, please share it with your undecided Amherst friends and neighbors. If you would like a quick scan of 50 previous posts, click on “Posts” above.


Comments 3

  1. After listening to Michael Burkart, I thought that maybe Charter supporters only agreed to debate if he represented the No’s.

  2. There are in fact FOUR five-story buildings downtown — the two new ones, plus the Clark House and the Ann Whalen House.

  3. Thanks for another thoughtful post. I trust that Amherst’s intelligent and well-educated electorate will favor your reasoned and reasonable approach over the opposition’s unfounded predictions of doom and irresponsible scare tactics.

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