Amherst residents stress values in first session on major projects

  • Amherst first responders and civilians gathered at the Central Fire Station on Sept. 11 to mark the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 1929 building poses challenges for as a base for modern firefighting. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 05, 2019

AMHERST — Residents are advising Amherst officials to uphold core community values that include being fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable as the town gets ready to spend more than $100 million on four municipal buildings in the coming years.

Beyond the challenges that come with these large expenditures, town leaders should understand that another value is ensuring the work environment for municipal employees — including teachers, firefighters, public works laborers and library staff — is the best it can be.

Those were among comments offered by more than 50 residents who came out to the Town Council’s first listening session on the four major building projects Tuesday afternoon at the Bangs Community Center.

The projects being considered are a new elementary school that would replace the 1970s-era Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools, renovating and expanding the Jones Library, constructing a new Department of Public Works headquarters, and moving the central fire station south of town center, likely to the current site of the DPW on South Pleasant Street.

Additional forums were scheduled for Tuesday night at the Bangs, with two more to be held Monday at 3 p.m. at the cafeteria at Fort River and at 6 p.m. at the cafeteria at Wildwood.

With an opportunity to offer thoughts about Amherst values, ​​​​​​Molly Turner of Old Town Road said sustainability and protecting the planet are vital, and that the town could accomplish its green ideals through smaller, less expensive buildings.

“It seems to me all these projects need to be scaled back to be affordfable,” Turner said.

Ginny Hamilton of Bay Road, though, said an Amherst value is to respect people who work for the town, which means providing suitable facilities in which to do their jobs.

Lydia Vernon-Jones of Gaylord Street said climate change needs to be weighed in every decision the town makes moving forward, including decisions about the projects.

Kent Faerber of Station Road said strategies for sustainability have to be proven to work if they are to be incorporated into designs.

The feedback will be used by councilors to make the best decisions on whether to build new, renovate or do extensive repairs as each project is considered, Council President Lynn Griesemer said.

In a video played at the beginning of the forum, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said there will be a “sizable commitment of funds” the town will have to make, but that Amherst is capable of doing this with a combination of free cash and the stabilization fund, which currently sits at over $16 million; a good bond rating; and the possibility of Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion overrides. He explained that the choice isn’t between building or doing nothing, but rather between building and doing extensive repairs.

Before breaking into three smaller groups, those at the forum could watch a video, also available on the town website, in which the rationale for each of the projects was explained by a department head.

In his segment, Amherst Schools Superintendent Michael Morris explained that two of the town’s three elementary schools, Wildwood and Fort River, are in deteriorating condition as they approach their 50th anniversaries. Further, he said, the open classroom design causes distractions for students and limits natural light, and safety issues persist.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said that even with its 1990s addition, the 1928 library building on Amity Street, is limited in its ability to meet the needs of patrons, is not fully accessible, and is lacking space for programs and services. Sharry said the building has been called the most dysfunctional library building in the state.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said the 1929 fire department building in Amherst center wasn’t built for EMS service, with certain fire vehicles unable to fit through the doors. There is also no decontamination area and no gear storage separate from living quarters, which are used around the clock by the 46 firefighters in the department.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring said his department’s headquarters is in a renovated trolley barn from 1915, featuring an inadequate ventilation system and a leaky roof, with exhaust fumes from vehicles often entering office space.