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A neighborhood meets on local issues

Nick Grabbe

More than 60 people who live just south of the UMass campus got together Sunday to learn about and discuss issues distinctive to their neighborhood.

I don’t live in that part of Amherst, but I have many friends who do, and I came to the meeting at the Jones Library to see how this kind of neighborhood action works. As a member of the Charter Commission, I supported the requirement that the 10 district councilors convene at least two public meetings a year.

I was very impressed, not only with the turnout Sunday, but with the information provided, and the preparation and moderation by District 3 Councilors Dorothy Pam and George Ryan. It was gratifying to see an example of active public participation in the new form of government.

A townwide test of this level of involvement comes Thursday at 6:30 p.m., when the Town Council and town manager will explain the options for next year’s budget and listen to residents’ comments. It will be in the Regional Middle School auditorium, the same place where Town Meeting used to take place. This is also a meeting that is mandated by the new charter.

On Sunday, District 3 residents listened to a series of presentations by their neighbors, heard reports from Pam and Ryan, and formed small groups to talk more informally. The longest and, to me, the most interesting presentation was on student rentals, a perennial issue in this neighborhood.

Rolf Karlstrom, a UMass professor who lives on Fearing Street, said the problem of rowdy parties and late-night noise has diminished but not gone away. He cited the rental permit bylaw and closer attention by UMass officials as reasons for the improvements, and listed some proposals for further action.

He referred to “the march of the landlords,” when as many as one family residence a month was converted to student rentals. The bylaw requires permits for these rentals, and landlords can lose their permits for violations. No one has, but that’s because the threat of revocation of permits has resulted in the problems getting fixed, he said.

The problems arise almost exclusively in houses owned by absentee landlords and not from owner-occupied rental housing, he said. The conversions have slowed down, but he urged residents to file complaints when they see problems, he said. The permit process is complaint-driven.

Karlstrom proposed a bylaw that would require a minimum distance between student rentals. He also suggested that complaints be linked to property owners, rather than to addresses.

Ryan said he has been meeting with UMass officials who supervise fraternities and sororities, and also with a town-gown committee that examines problems resulting from student alcohol consumption.

Pam made one of the most interesting points of the afternoon when she referred to the Town Council’s upcoming decisions on priorities for capital improvements, mostly construction of new public buildings. When she speaks to constituents, many talk not about the need for a new fire station or elementary school, but rather about crumbling sidewalks and streets. She’s looking for help in creating a “most wanted” list.

It was good to see Angela Mills, one of three new community participation officers, at Sunday’s meeting. She encouraged residents to sign up for volunteer committees, and said that everyone who does will be interviewed.

This district had the lowest voter turnout in November’s election, but the year-round residents have a history of cohesion that long predates the new charter. Perhaps readers who know of neighborhood meetings that have been held in other districts can cite them in the comments below.

In other news from Sunday’s meeting:

  • Pam announced that she holds office hours the first Wednesdays of the month from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in the Jones Library’s Amherst Room.
  • Bob Pam announced a kickoff event for the Jones Library centennial. It will be March 21 at 6 p.m.
  • Maurianne Adams and Jennifer Taub talked about the background and purpose of the local historic district in the neighborhood.
  • Ryan spoke about the proposed 28 units of housing for low-income residents and people who have been homeless on the south side of Route 9, saying that the plan will require a special permit.

Comments 2

  1. Too bad the Historical Commission voted down 68 units of new housing on the Bertucci’s site (without so much as a Form B) when they imposed the demolition delay last fall— that surely pushed student housing into other, adjacent neighborhoods. If the Fearing folks don’t like the rapid conversion of family housing in their neighborhood into student housing, they should take it up with their neighbors on the historical commission who dumped it on them. Maybe the Planning Board, which includes the Historical Commission, can explain it to them.

  2. Planning Commission has lots of explaining to do on a number of issues.When do they meet and do they publish a blog, as they should? Each member should be quizzed on the blog.

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