Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fall Town Meeting

Fall Town Meeting is done after two three-hour-long meetings. I didn't do much homework beforehand, because I just didn't care terribly much about most of the articles-- there was the usual administrivia and then a few zoning tweaks which I thought would be uncontroversial.

I did do a little homework on the proposal to require 1,000 square feet of recreation space for new multi-unit developments. If people want recreation space, then they'll buy condos or rent apartments that provide it. This requirement may be well-intentioned, but it seems to me it would just have the unintended consequence of encouraging sprawl.

So I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to see how much sprawl it might cause, worst case. Take the 10,000 or so households in Amherst, count each as a "dwelling unit", multiple by 1,000 square feet, and you get: about 230 acres. Which is just a little over 1% of the total acreage in Amherst.

Eh. Not enough to get worked up over. But I'm still glad this article didn't pass (see Clare's post for details).

I suppose one of these years I'll figure out that anything can be controversial here in Amherst. Two examples:

First, I thought the establishment of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund would sail through with little discussion. Who would vote against Affordable Housing, especially when it was unanimously supported by the Select Board, Finance Committee, and Fair Housing Committee?

Well... me and a majority of other Town Meeting members, it turns out. I voted against it for three reasons:
1. There were a couple of wording problems that made me think maybe nobody had really thought hard about what it really said. For example: "at least one [trustee] shall be the Town Manager..." Huh?
2. I didn't hear any compelling reasons why we need this right now. I heard "this will be another valuable tool in our arsenal..." I wanted to hear an example of something that would be difficult or impossible to do without a Trust Fund.
3. I'm pretty skeptical of most Affordable Housing Projects. If you want to make housing more affordable for everybody, then let developers BUILD MORE HOUSING.

Many of the arguments against this article were petty (there seemed to be a turf war going on, with Hwei-Ling trying to guarantee a trustee spot to a Homelessness Committed person and Vince seeming to argue that we don't need no stinking Trust because the Affordable Housing is the Community Preservation Act Committee's job...) or ridiculous (arguing that the Town might be legally liable for something the Trust does right after Town Counsel stands up and says the opposite is just blatant fear-mongering). Sigh.

The other Article that was surprisingly controversial was to allow "predominantly by appointment" visits to offices in the Light Industrial zoning district. Town Meeting approved a similar change for a bunch of other zoning districts last year, and Light Industrial was (I gather) accidentally left out. Amherst has just a teeny-tiny bit of land zoned LI, it's easy to miss.

It eventually passed, but man! It seemed to take forever! All to allow by-appointment-only visits, and only after getting a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

To get a little perspective: the Light Industrial zone is the only Zone in Amherst where "Storage and Processing of Radioactive Waste" is allowed-- by Special Permit, of course. If the article had failed, then Town Meeting would have essentially been saying that Radioactive Waste was less of a danger or nuisance than having people visit an office building by appointment.

Which, come to think of it, might actually be true-- a lot more people die every year in car accidents than die from radioactive waste...


Anonymous said...

While sharing your impatience with the sudden unwillingness of Town Meeting to accept the (now female) Town Counsel's opinion and with Ms. Greeney's adventures, I'm wondering, Gavin: did you really see the Town Manager's presence as a trustee as a problem in advance of Vince speaking about it? Were you really watching that closely? (I wasn't.) And is this the "horror of horrors" that it was portrayed as? That the Town Manager, who unlike others would have some institutional memory over time within the Trust and is ultimately answerable to the people of the Town, would have a single vote? There was something else going on with Vince and some of the other vocal opponents of this, who somehow portrayed this as an affront to existing town institutions. Wierd.

Although it's provocative and fun to read, your solution to the affordable housing problem is more theoretical than practical: let developers build more housing. In Amherst? You've been here: you are well aware of the political and logistical obstacles to that.

Rich Morse

Gavin Andresen said...

I didn't see the Town Manager's presence as a Trustee as a problem even after Vince brought it up. The confusion over whether or not the Town Manager would be a voting or non-voting member WAS a problem, as was the odd wording ("at least one" trustee shall be the town manager is either just plain sloppy or some sort of weird legalese).

It was an odd little power struggle; if I believed that an Affordable Housing Trust would be effective for more than a small handful of people I'd probably be upset...

As for letting developers build more housing: Amherst is taking baby steps. For example, allowing more duplex development (which we passed) is a step in the right direction.