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Amherst officials delay process related to land sale in Cushman

— Before a proposed upscale student housing project in the Cushman section of Amherst can get to a municipal permitting process, the town will have an option to purchase the timberland on which it would be built.

But this 120-day, right-of-first refusal process, triggered by the state’s Chapter 61 program that allows a property owner to pay reduced property taxes, will not yet begin due to an incomplete purchase and sale agreement between W.D. Cowls Inc. of Amherst, and Markland Inc. of Athens, Ga.

The agreement calls for just over 153 acres of land in the Cushman section of Amherst to be sold for $6.5 million. Only a portion of the property is slated to be developed, with the rest remaining wooded with public access to trails and protections for the habitat.

The Select Board this week sent a letter to Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls, informing her that town attorney Kopelman and Page has determined the purchase and sale agreement doesn’t comply with requirements of Chapter 61 that a “bona fide offer” exists.

Town Manager John Musante said Tuesday that the town needs to have a complete request before the Planning Board and Conservation Commission to begin evaluating whether these are parcels the town should acquire.

“This means the 120-day clock hasn’t started ticking yet,” Musante said. “We are committed to due diligence for this process.”

The initial concept for “The Retreat” development would be 170 cottage-style homes, a mix of two-, three- and four-bedroom units, with open space and amenities available to tenants.

Residents who live near the property in question have submitted a petition that will appear on the annual Town Meeting warrant seeking $1.2 million to purchase a conservation restriction on the land that borders Henry Street and Flat Hills Road. According to the Select Board letter, no bona fide offer is in place because W.D. Cowls may be able to retain between 79 and 119 acres, depending on the scope of the project, and the transaction is also subject to final project approvals from permitting entities in Amherst.

“The agreement is, in essence, merely an option to purchase. An option, i.e., an agreement, that permits the buyer to terminate the contract after investigating the development potential of the property, is not a bona fide offer,” the board writes.

Jones said she couldn’t comment on the deficiencies in the application, referring questions to James Martin, an attorney with Robinson Donovan Attorneys at Law in Springfield, which drew up the purchase and sale agreement and noticed the town.

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