Editorial: Welcome decisions on energy, housing, pool 

  • The new Hitchcock Center for the Environment building on the campus of Hampshire College.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Three welcome decisions in Amherst now require net-zero-energy municipal buildings, ensure affordable housing at Presidential Apartments, and restore public swimming at the middle school pool.

Town Meeting on Nov. 8 voted 123-54 for the bylaw that mandates construction so all new and expanded town buildings produce, through renewable sources, as much energy as they consume. Supporters of the measure, led by Mothers Out Front and Climate Action Now, believe that Amherst is the first town in the state to adopt such a bylaw.

Proponents argued that Amherst should be a leader in responding immediately to the climate crisis, and that zero-energy buildings will become more common in many communities during the next decade. Before the vote, 40 Town Meeting members gave the Select Board a letter favoring the bylaw that stated: “The urgency related to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is increasing each year. Amherst must be bold in planning for resiliency in the face of the environmental and economic disruption.”

Though such buildings are more costly to construct, supporters contend that financial savings eventually result from their energy efficiency. The Kern Center at Hampshire College and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment building, also on the Hampshire campus, are two net-zero-energy structures recently completed in Amherst.

The bylaw governing municipal buildings such as a fire station in South Amherst and a new Department of Public Works headquarters was approved over the objections of the Select Board, whose members wanted more study before the town committed to rules that some fear are too restrictive.

No doubt town officials will face new challenges along with the architects and builders they hire to achieve the zero-energy standard. Supporters pledged to help town officials carry out the bylaw. Precinct 4 Town Meeting member Andra Rose said Monday, “We will work with the Select Board and DPW/Fire Station Advisory Committee to seek funds from state and federal governments, and private grants, and to connect officials and committees with experts who can answer technical questions.”

Town Meeting last week also adopted a resolution calling for Amherst to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. That goal, along with the net-zero-energy bylaw, are the kind of bold leadership needed in response to the climate crisis.

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We are glad that the owner of Presidential Apartments has set deadlines — though they are late in coming — to make six affordable apartments available for low- and moderate-income residents.

A special permit issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals in 2013 allowed 54 new units at Presidential that opened two years ago, and required the six “low-rent” units. Allen Cohn, who owns Presidential Development Co. in West Hartford, Connecticut, and the Select Board signed an agreement this year requiring those apartments to remain affordable for at least 30 years, and arranging for the Amherst Housing Authority to hold a lottery to select tenants.

But after people were told they had won the lottery and could move into one of the affordable housing Sept. 1, Cohn said the apartments were not yet available. Building Commissioner Robert Morra began fining him $600 a day on Oct. 18.

They reached an agreement Nov. 9 that guarantees Presidential will make three one-bedroom apartments available by Dec. 17, two two-bedroom units by Dec. 21 and a three-bedroom apartment “as soon as possible, but not later than Feb. 28, 2018.”

That means they finally will be occupied by individuals and families earning no more than 80 percent of the average median income. That is $51,200 a year for a two-person family.

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Residents returned this fall to the pool at Amherst Regional Middle School for lessons and other swimming after a six-year hiatus. The town’s aquatics program moved to the University of Massachusetts in 2011 when town officials could not reach a financial agreement with the regional school district to use the middle school pool.

A new deal was reached during the summer, and the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education department is again scheduling activities at the pool. Though they will move to Totman Pool at UMass during the winter while the high school swim teams use the middle school pool, they will return in the spring.

“We are viewing this year as a pilot year to gauge how much public interest there is in accessing the pool,” said Sean Mangano, finance director for the schools.

So far, the level of interest is high and we hope town and school officials keep the pool open for public use.