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Rental issues top Town Meeting agenda in Amherst

Fall Town Meeting will be presented a series of zoning articles designed to counter the growing number of problem rental properties and supplement the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative launched by Town Manager John Musante.

Consideration of the 19-article warrant will begin Monday at 7 p.m. at the middle school auditorium.

Four zoning changes are being brought forward as petitions from the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, whose aim is to control the properties in proximity to the University of Massachusetts campus that have become attractive for absentee landlords to turn into student rentals.

Maurianne Adams, a member of the coalition, said the petitions are a tool to maintain family-friendly neighborhoods and should not be construed as anti-student.

“We very much value our students,” Adams said.

The articles include stemming the conversion of single-family homes by requiring owner occupants, which is seen as a way of promoting better behavior, requiring a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals for any homes subdivided in residential neighborhoods, and enhancing the nuisance house bylaw by increasing penalties on owners and limited liability corporations for disturbances at the dwellings.

John Fox of Fearing Street told the Select Board that people with little interest in the town are continuing to buy up property.

“I would suggest to you a real brush fire is occurring, and the brush fire is growing and growing,” he said.

Another petition article discouraging demolition of existing dwellings by prohibiting their replacement with any buildings that are larger in size will also be on the warrant. The Planning Board is unanimously recommending against this proposal because it “would have the unintended effect of freezing most residential development and mixed-use development everywhere in Amherst.”

The Planning Board is bringing five articles focused on townwide housing issues, of which student rentals are one segment.

Perhaps the most debated one would require any owner of a single-family residence to obtain a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals in order to rent it. The possible first-in-the-state rule has not won support from either the Planning Board, whose members are deadlocked on it, or the Select Board, which has expressed concerns about its possible effect on property values.

The additional Planning Board articles are crafting new definitions for lodging and boarding houses, separating duplexes into separate use categories, owner occupied allowed by right and non-owner occupied, which would require a special permit, clarifying the language for converted dwellings and adding new residential zoning definitions.

Foam container ban

Besides zoning, one of the biggest practical impacts Town Meeting could have is instituting a ban on restaurants and other food vendors from using expanded polystyrene in takeout containers. These are said to be not easily recyclable and, because of their bulk, take up landfill space at a time when many regional landfills are closing, say proponents.

Cynthia Brubaker, a member of the League of Women Voters, said that lower costs for alternatives though a one-year hardship deferment will be available.

Money matters

Town Meeting will be asked to place $585,342 in state-certified cash reserves into the Other Post Employment Benefits, or OPEB account. This is an estimated $72 million liability for the town, covering its share of expenses for retired employees.

The town has $4.33 million in free cash and $1.87 million in its stabilization account.

A $1 million road bond will allow the town to continue catching up with what Department of Public Works Director Guilford Mooring describes as “local, minor streets.” This continues road projects that began in 2011 under a $4.5 million road bond and resumed this year using both chapter 90 state roads money and Community Development Block Grant funds.

A total of $1.12 million in appropriations is related to acquiring two properties for open space and recreation and improving the North Common, a popular gathering spot in downtown.

The plan, said David Ziomek, the town’s director of conservation and development, is to leverage $391,672 from the town’s Community Preservation Act account to access state money that will be used to fund the land preservation projects. These include a 20-acre property at 615 Bay Road located at the base of the Mount Holyoke Range and a 16-acre portion of the Brunelle property on Potwine Lane. These would be supplemented with a Local Acquisition for Natural Diversity grant and a partnership grant from the state’s Department of Conservation Services. Using a Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant, the town is hoping to complete a $528,907 project to rehabilitate the North Common, a portion of the Town Common where weekly peace vigil and annual events, such as the lighting of the Merry Maple in December and the Veterans Day ceremony.

Other articles include:

∎ giving Musante the authority to enter into contracts for solar energy for more than three years and up to 30 years, allowing Amherst to act as host customer for solar projects and giving flexibility to pursue solar agreements;

∎ accepting easements on Olympia Drive and Authority Way related to an affordable housing project known as Olympia Oaks;

∎ amending the public water supply protection bylaw to bring it into compliance with state law.

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