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Amherst-area issues that hogged the headlines in 2012

MIKE BRADLEY
M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury on November 15th.

MIKE BRADLEY M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury on November 15th. Purchase photo reprints »

When 2012 started, it looked like the Amherst schools would change their daily schedules to enable teenagers to get more sleep by delaying the start of classes until 8:30 or 9 a.m. Several administrators had endorsed the concept, and a task force had emphasized the advantages in a report issued in early 2011.

But opposition surfaced at public forums in January and February, especially from parents of student athletes who were concerned about how the later ending time would affect schedules. Kip Fonsh, chairman of the Regional School Committee and a retired teacher, opposed the change, and Superintendent Maria Geryk’s support was lukewarm. Athletic Director Rich Ferro reported that the impact on sports would be more extensive than had been thought.

When it finally came time to vote on the plan in October, after more than two years of study, the committee was swamped with parents and student athletes speaking strongly against it. The committee nixed the plan on a vote of 6-3.

Spending scrutinized

Amherst has long known that it spends more on education per pupil than most schools, and in 2012 it became clearer how much more and what accounts for the difference. The elementary schools spent $17,116 per pupil in fiscal 2011, and the regional schools spent $18,329, compared to a state average for all grades of $13,369.

For the elementary schools, it’s a matter of relatively high teacher salaries and low teacher-student ratios, according to consultant Gail Zeman. She studied the question and reported to the Amherst School Committee in October that other factors are the high number of low-income and non-English-speaking families, the breadth of school offerings, and the rising costs for pensions and health insurance for retired teachers.

“Education is of great value here, and that you should be proud of, but with that there are costs,” she told the committee.

Neighbors fed up

As numerous neighborhood disruptions caused by local college students occurred in the spring and fall, and more homes were turned into rental properties, town officials and a citizens group took steps to address these issues.

Town Manager John Musante launched the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative in 2011 and late in 2012 appointed a working group that is expected to have a fully formed rental registration and inspection program ready for adoption at spring Town Meeting.

The working group is also examining the zoning bylaw that limits a single-family home to four unrelated housemates.

Musante said public forums will take place early in the new year to give people a chance to voice opinions.

The Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods worked closely with the Planning Board and Planning Department to revise town bylaws, including strengthening the nuisance house bylaw and protecting neighborhoods from rental conversions by requiring special permits from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Rezoning rejected

Town Meeting in May rejected for a second time rezoning that would have promoted so-called in-fill development and use of form-based code to guide the appearance of projects in the village centers of both North Amherst and Atkins Corner.

Though the rezoning proposals got majority support, neither could muster the necessary two-thirds needed to adopt new zoning.

For supporters, the defeats meant a lost chance to provide more housing options for families and senior citizens, as well as to increase commercial activity in the village centers.

Those opposed to the rezoning proposals worried that they would cause damaging changes to the village centers.

Diving back in

Prior to 2012, War Memorial Pool had been closed to the public since the end of the swimming season in 2008.

But with persistence from members of Town Meeting and advocacy by town officials, Amherst was awarded $208,320 through a Parkland Acquisition and Renovations for Communities grant to renovate the 1950s-era facility. The renovations included new decking, benches, fencing around the perimeter, a large shade structure to provide protection from the sun and improvements to the bathhouse, such as upgraded flooring, heating and ventilation.

The pool, located at Community Field off Triangle Street, reopened just after the July 4 holiday and became a place for families to swim, as well as for various programs.

“It really is a much more attractive destination,” Musante said.

With the pool complete, the town is now looking at improving other aspects of Community Field, including the wading pool, basketball court and play structures. A committee will be formed to take on that task.

Football division

McGuirk Alumni Stadium stood vacant in the fall as the University of Massachusetts football team upgraded its program to the Mid-American Conference and moved its home games to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

For area businesses, the four to five Saturday afternoons without UMass football represented a loss of revenue from fans who once made their way to the stadium.

Faculty members at UMass expressed concern after an ad hoc committee reported that the university spent $8.22 million on the program in 2012, up from just $3.16 million in support two years earlier.

The cost to UMass promoted some faculty to suggest that Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy be directed to reverse the decision of his predecessor, Robert Holub, and put a halt to the upgraded program, including renovations to the football stadium scheduled to begin in March.

Roadwork wraps

After two decades of planning and more than two years of work that were particularly disruptive to Atkins Farms Country Market, the reconstruction of West Street, Bay Road and West Bay Road was completed. The two roundabouts on West Street now funnel traffic through what was once a congested intersection. With the $6 million project finished, the state is now beginning work closer to The Notch, where the roadway will be straightened and widened.

Library fight

The small town of Shutesbury was bitterly divided in 2012 over plans to build a new library. After the plan was approved at Town Meeting in October 2011 and an override was rejected by voters in November 2011, a revote held in January resulted in a tie.

The issue went to court as both sides disputed votes. In May, Franklin County Superior Court Judge Mary-Lou Rup upheld two anti-override votes and threw out two pro-override votes, making the final tally 522-520 against.

Supporters said that Shutesbury needs a new library, and that a state grant would provide $2.1 million of the total $3.5 million cost. Opponents opposed the tax increase required for the project.

Supporters raised $298,000 to keep the project alive but fell far short of the $1.4 million needed. So the 900-square-foot M.N. Spear Memorial Library will continue to be Shutesbury’s library.

“I hope there is a healing process,” said Finance Committee member Eric Stocker.

Tying in

Leverett resolved a persistent problem in 2012 by voting in favor of raising taxes to pay for a $3.6 million municipal fiber-optic cable network.

Support for broadband in Leverett was strong. The Town Meeting vote was 306-33, and the override vote in June was 462-90. The 39 percent turnout was high for a single-issue election. The 20-year bond measure is expected to increase property taxes by about 6 percent.

“We’re expecting everyone in Leverett to have access to this network in 2014,” said Select Board member Peter d’Errico.

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