Amherst Town Meeting bans plastic  bags

TM also sends public art proposal for more study

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 02, 2016

AMHERST — Single-use plastic bags will be prohibited at Amherst stores beginning Jan. 1.

With only brief discussion Wednesday, May 25, at the eighth session of annual Town Meeting, members voted 110 to 30 in favor of the ban, bringing Amherst in line with Northampton and other communities in Massachusetts that no longer allow the bags to be distributed at supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants.

Newspaper bags and plastic bags used to hold produce and meats at supermarkets will be exempt from the town bylaw.

The petition was brought by Kevin Hollerbach, a member of the town’s Recycling and Refuse Management Committee and a graduate student in sustainability science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Hollerbach said Amherst residents use an estimated 12 million polyethylene bags each year.

The goal of the bylaw, he said, is to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags when shopping.

Much of the bylaw language was softened before being brought to Town Meeting, including the possibility of shutting down stores that do not comply with the new rule. Only $100-per-day fines can be issues to businesses for non-compliance.

The Select Board endorsed the measure by a 3-1 vote, with one abstention. “We don’t see the need for them. We can do without them,” said board member James Wald.

Select Board Chairwoman Alisa Brewer, who cast the dissenting vote, said there are questions about how the ban will be implemented and whether the town has the resources to enforce it and educate businesses about the measure.

“The last few months have restored my sense of optimism about the future of this country and the planet that my niece and my future children will inherit,” Hollerbach wrote in an email after the vote.

Back to the drafting board

Meantime, Town Meeting asked the town’s Public Art Commission to do more study on a proposal that would allow public art to be funded, in part, through future capital projects.

That this Percent for Art bylaw would not allow performing arts to be funded, the potential cost of it and the possibility of the town manager deciding what should be funded rankled Town Meeting members enough to refer the article back to the commission by an 89-to-72 vote.

This means Amherst will not yet become the second community in the state, following Cambridge, to adopt such a bylaw.

Commission member Eric Broudy said with Wildwood School, Jones Library, the Department of Public Works and the Fire Department all exploring building projects, there would be sufficient funding for arts to improve the quality of life for everyone in Amherst. A 0.5 percent surcharge would be added to each dollar spent on these projects.

The measure would also have applied to capital improvements of over $100,000, providing occasional boosts to funding future art projects.

But the bylaw removed performing arts from eligibility as being more ephemeral and not a permanent installation.

Northampton Jazz Festival founder and Precinct 10 Town Meeting member John Michaels said excluding musicians was inappropriate, especially with Amherst being home to such artists as Archie Shepp.

“I think this is really, really shortsighted. I think we can do better by those people,” Michaels said.

But Mandi Jo Hanneke of Precinct 5 said visitors appreciate the Amherst History Mural and the Hope the Cow sculpture.

“Public arts has been an important part of this community, and I think we should find a way to fund it, even if it’s only visual arts,” Hanneke said.

Meg Gage of Precinct 1 said she is fully supportive of arts for the economic benefits, pointing to MASS MoCA in North Adams. “The creative economy is a real thing,” Gage said.

Irv Rhodes of Precinct 7 made the motion to refer back to the commission, citing a worry about a clause that allows the town manager to be the final arbiter of what would be approved.

Others objected to the cost. Larry Kelley of Precinct 5 said the cumulative costs of the projects, at more than $100 million, would mean more than $500,000 extra spent for public art.

The Finance Committee voted 5-1 against recommending the bylaw.

“We are going to ask our taxpayers to have increased burdens,” said member Timothy Neale.

The Select Board, though, supported the measure, comparing it to the Community Preservation Act surcharge that protects open space and affordable housing.

“Like the CPA this can bring necessities to all of us,” Wald said.

Richard Morse of Precinct 7 said the article shows lack of confidence that townspeople will support arts voluntarily.

“I can get behind the idea of public art, but I think it needs to be thought out more, to have more of a deliberative process,” Morse said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.