Darcy DuMont, a candidate for Town Council, has proposed a moratorium on approval of downtown development until new zoning can be enacted. DuMont, who did very well in last week’s preliminary election, is appealing to residents’ understandable unease over the rapid change in the visual landscape of the northern part of downtown Amherst.
But there are many reasons why a moratorium is not the best way to address the issue.
First, it’s probably illegal, and could cost taxpayers lots of money in lawyers’ fees when someone challenges it in court. Amherst did have a moratorium on new construction in the late 1980s, but the reason for its enactment was that we needed to make sure we had the infrastructure to accommodate growth. Legally, that’s a more tenable defense than distaste for the appearance of existing buildings whose location is consistent with the master plan.
Second, that moratorium in the 1980s spurred an escalation in housing prices. That’s because the supply of new housing was stopped while demand continued to grow. Higher property values might be great for those of us who own houses, but they would worsen the problem of young families being unable to afford to live here.
Third, a moratorium isn’t necessary to address the look of downtown buildings. The Town Council could enact Form-Based Zoning, a proposal that Town Meeting rejected when it was proposed for North Amherst and the Atkins area. This could help lead to new buildings that are, in DuMont’s words, “suited to the inviting, historic character of Amherst.”
Fourth, a moratorium would do nothing about the buildings that already exist, or the one planned for Spring Street, which has already been approved. DuMont says she wants downtown buildings to be more sustainable, but ignores the fact that Kendrick Place and 1 East Pleasant are extremely energy-efficient, and their central location gives hundreds of people the opportunity to live and commute without cars.
Fifth, and perhaps most important, those downtown buildings, plus Olympia Place off East Pleasant Street, enabled Amherst’s budget to balance this year without major spending cuts or tax overrides. If you say you wish that those buildings had never been built, I want to know whether you’d prefer laying off teachers and police officers or asking residents to pay more taxes.
The annual salary increases for Town employees (a “level services” budget) were affordable this year within the state-imposed limits on tax hikes. But there were large unanticipated expenses, especially for health care. Coming to the rescue was $800,000 in tax revenue from “new growth,” chiefly new buildings, which the state allows towns to tack on to the amount they can raise by taxation.
Amherst residents have expensive tastes when it comes to municipal spending. We pay our employees well, and have a very low teacher-to-student ratio. That’s commendable, but someone has to pay the cost. That someone has usually been residential taxpayers, whose quarterly bills have gotten sky-high. What’s so bad about developers helping to pay the costs of having enough teachers, police officers and firefighters?
It’s curious to me that DuMont, and many other people decrying those downtown buildings, wanted to keep Town Meeting when we voted on a new charter last March. It was Town Meeting that approved the five-story height and rejected Form-Based Zoning! And why do people fixate on that fifth story? There are many buildings in Amherst that are that tall or taller.
DuMont says that she is “not against development.” Let’s hear her proposed strategy for development that would bring in a similar amount of tax revenue.
Before she became a candidate for Town Council, DuMont was a teacher and a climate change activist. I am in complete agreement with her on the urgency of addressing climate change, but I don’t think a moratorium on downtown development does anything to act locally on that issue.
There’s an overall solution that would accommodate the increasing number of UMass students and provide tax revenue to the town, while limiting the kind of downtown development that so many people don’t like.
It’s called a “public/private partnership.” If the state would allow it, this would enable the Town of Amherst and UMass to cooperate on building taxable housing for students on land owned by UMass. This housing could be built on University Drive or, combined with retail and offices, on the former Frat Row on North Pleasant Street, the “Gateway” site.
The Town Council should work with our new state representatives to convince state officials that this would be a good way to help out the community that incurs the costs of hosting the flagship state university.