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Amherst needs to protect its neighborhoods

Last Thursday, the roar began just before midnight. Men’s voices, shouting, rose in the air, as if enraged — conjuring visions of rebellion, of pitchforks and factory gates. I lay in bed terrified, picturing a mob breaking through fences heading toward the house. Who were these people making so much noise? And why did they sound so angry? I hoped it wasn’t truly anger I heard. I knew it was a student party, and prayed it was just exuberance. But I didn’t know.

My experience with students is incongruous. A fraternity had put a bag on my porch collecting for the needy. My heart had swelled; I had felt such warmth and compassion for them. As I lay in bed listening to the shouting, moving on 3 a.m., I assured myself that the screamers were just innocents who may have had too much to drink. Maybe they had just seen one too many movies like “Superbad” growing up. (In that movie cartoon-like cops apologize for raiding a party and ‘cockblocking’ a kid.)

“Ah, these kids just don’t know what they’re doing!” I thought. But as I embraced that truth, I became even more nervous. As noted in these pages, police have been hurt; students poisoned; educations disrupted or even terminated, and worse, we all know that someone is going to be seriously or mortally wounded one day if this continues.

Who is responsible for this potentially life-threatening chaos? The answer came to me that there could only be one logical answer. We are. We the citizens hold the cards about what happens in our town.

This problem is not going away unless we as a community respond to it responsibly and with definitive action. Students living off-campus in neighborhoods need supervision; they’re crying out for it. Town planners may have fantasized at one point that it would be a good idea to let developers buy up lots of land near the university and fill townhouses, duplexes and houses full of unsupervised students (this is sometimes even presented ironically as our moral obligation), but we now know that this is an idea whose time has passed, that such an idea can have no moral or ethical weight in Amherst. And worse, such unregulated situations could represent financial ruin for the town.

By allowing increasing ­non­-owner occupied houses full of students, Amherst is essentially internalizing all of the costs of student housing (police, fire, health, safety, sewer) and externalizing all of the profits, which are increasingly going to out-of- town corporations.

What does that mean? A private corporation hosts the party, walks away with the money, and lets Amherst taxpayers clean up the mess and pay for it. Not a good business model for our town.

Studies show that the only non-nuisance houses are owner occupied (surprise: when a true adult is on the premises, students behave). For this reason the only truly safe and solvent decisions we can make are to change our zoning laws to reflect a more informed model. For this reason, I am writing to urge members of Town Meeting, which begins Nov. 19, to vote in favor of the new bylaws and zoning laws which will hold landlords accountable for what happens at their commercial rentals, prevent the dividing up of residential land for building student housing inside of neighborhoods, and most important of all, encourage instead owner-occupied rentals. By doing these things, we can keep our neighborhoods safe, we can keep our neighborhoods affordable for all, and we can fulfill our true moral obligations to the students.

Patricia Stacey lives in Amherst.

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