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Karen Merrill: It is time to solve off-campus housing problem

To the editor:

I applaud the Gazette’s decision to run a three-part series exploring the off-campus student housing problem in Amherst. But the paper missed an opportunity by not investigating the latest development in this story: the announcement by W. D. Cowls that it would sell 154 woodland acres near Amherst’s Cushman Village to Athens, Ga.-based Landmark Properties, which plans on building “The Retreat” — 191 “cottage-style” units that will house between 650 and 700 students.

Some of the same forces that are rapidly converting neighborhoods in central and North Amherst to student rentals have also landed this large, out-of-state firm at historic Cushman’s doorstep. Just as the weak housing market has brought in local investors like Jamie Cherewatti, so too has it opened up a space for forces like Landmark and other highly capitalized developers of student housing complexes.

The Amherst zoning bylaw also enables local and outside investors to capitalize on the student housing market. As the Gazette series makes clear, the conversion of single-family residences to student rentals in the town has happened rapidly under Amherst’s zoning bylaw. Likewise, we in and around Cushman are threatened by a zoning bylaw that could enable the destruction of both our community and the largest contiguous woodland forest in North Amherst. Landmark will submit its plan to the town as a cluster subdivision, which in Amherst is a by-right approval process. In contrast, most municipalities in Massachusetts control cluster subdivisions through a special permit, which allows the Planning Board discretionary review.

The special permit process allows a Planning Board to say no. So while the public will be allowed to comment on Landmark’s plan in public hearings, and the relevant town boards must oversee the permitting process to make sure Landmark’s plan conforms, the board ultimately does not have the power to prohibit the plan. Not unlike our neighbors near the University of Massachusetts, we are struck by how little protection the zoning bylaw affords us, residents of Amherst who have planted roots in the Cushman area, as opposed to the absolute right the zoning bylaw potentially hands to a land developer with no ties to our community.

It is no wonder, then, that citizens across Amherst have organized — be it the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods or our group, Save Historic Cushman.

Now is the time for a truly private-public partnership to solve the off-campus student housing problem in Amherst. We look to both UMass and Amherst town leaders to join with our citizens’ groups in that effort.

Karen Merrill

Amherst

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