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Student housing proposed for timberland in Cushman section of Amherst

GORDON DANIELS
Cinda Jones, president of W. D. Cowls Inc., says she has reached an agreement to sell 154 wooded acres to a Georgia firm that proposes to build a 170-unit student housing project.

GORDON DANIELS Cinda Jones, president of W. D. Cowls Inc., says she has reached an agreement to sell 154 wooded acres to a Georgia firm that proposes to build a 170-unit student housing project. Purchase photo reprints »

A 170-unit student-housing development featuring cottage-style homes is being proposed for 154 acres of wooded land on Henry Street.

W.D. Cowls Inc. President Cinda Jones said Monday that she has reached an agreement to sell the land, in the Cushman section adjacent to the salamander crossing tunnels, for $6.6 million to Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga.

Jason Doornbos, vice president of development for Landmark, said his company has been looking at Amherst for a while because of the growth of the University of Massachusetts and the lack of student-specific housing options.

“We feel like our product type can help alleviate the stress on conventional single-family neighborhoods,” Doornbos said. “This gives students their own place.”

Called “The Retreat,” the development would be a mix of two-, three- and four-bedroom homes on a wood-lined street with open space and other amenities available to tenants.

“The only thing we know at this point is it will be low-density, cottage-style housing,” Doornbos said.

Relieving student pressure

Jones said the development would respect the existing salamander habitat and the look and feel of the property from the road.

“We’re trying to keep the amount of land developed small, and as large a wooded buffer as possible,” Jones said.

The site is ideal, she said, because it can be connected to the existing public water and sewer lines. The Atkins Water Treatment Plant on Market Hill Road is nearby and, in fact, could provide one of the entrances to the property. The other option, Jones said, is to come in at the intersection of Pine and Henry streets.

Tony Maroulis, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber or Commerce, said he supports the project.

“The benefit I see is there is a need for high-quality student housing that is itself separate from local neighborhoods,” Maroulis said.

With UMass planning to increase its enrollment and a rising number of rentals already located in neighborhoods, Maroulis said Landmark’s project would relieve some pressure and bolster the housing inventory.

“This is the type of solution that restores some balance,” Maroulis said.

Landmark has developed similar projects in college communities, including Tuscaloosa, Ala., Tucson, Ariz., and State College, Pa. Maroulis said the on-site management typical of these developments could minimize problems.

Jones said she has been aware since returning to Amherst in 2001 of the need for well-managed off-campus student housing.

With efforts to rezone property in North Amherst center for a mix of housing for families and students being nixed and no progress on the controversial Gateway district featuring mixed-use buildings between the university and downtown, this is another attempt to get rental housing built in town.

Changing use

The parcel, known as the Eastman Tree Farm, was purchased by W.D. Cowls Inc. in 1855. It is currently in the state’s Chapter 61 program, which allows Jones to pay reduced property taxes on it as timberland.

It also gives the town the right of first refusal to purchase the land, though Jones speculates the town would have difficulty meeting the price.

“We need to figure out what land ought to be conserved and what land has higher, better use,” Jones said. “There are things that need to be conserved and things that need to be built. You just have to figure out where.”

She said Cowls would continue to manage whatever portion of the land is not needed by Landmark. The portions of the property that remain wooded will likely remain accessible to the public for hiking and hunting, she said.

Town residents may question whether the proposal meets the terms of the master plan, which supports denser development in town centers while preserving open space in outlying areas.

“It’s largely within the master plan’s Cushman village center circle and it’s on town utilities,” she said, “That’s why it fits in the master plan.”

Jones said Landmark has sent letters to all abutters. In it, the company describes the development as “an award-winning, high-quality, highly amenitized lifestyle” for students

Lawrence Britt, of 238 Flat Hills Road, whose backyard extends into the proposed student housing complex, said he is concerned about the project. He said he worries about turning the pristine woods into a student resort where there will be a “giant booze party” every weekend.

Barbara Ford, of 300 Flat Hills Road, said she, like other neighbors, appreciates the wooded area.

“It’s used for biking, horseback riding, and some motorized off-road vehicles,” Ford said. “There’s a lot of wildlife, bears, deer, turkey.”

Edith Nye MacMullen, of 344 Flat Hills Road, said she has been a regular walker on the land and knows many parts are filled with ledge, which could make development more challenging.

At this point, MacMullen said, she has many questions, though also has concerns about more traffic and a change to the semi-rural area.

“From a selfish point of view, I’d hate to see the woods developed,” MacMullen said.

Ford said she needs more information about the company and how it would manage the property, as well as how close the housing units would be to her home.

“It would be too bad if we got something urban here,” Ford said.

On the other hand, it could work, she said. “This could be out of sight, out of mind,” Ford said.

Process uncertain

Similar housing projects have been proposed but never gained traction, with stumbling blocks including the need for rezoning, the need to acquire land and the property being unsuitable.

Jones said this plan is different, because a subdivision is a use allowed by right there.

Planning Director Jonathan Tucker said in an email that town officials will need to see a more complete proposal before the exact permit path is determined. He said there are some intermittent streams and wetlands that would likely require Conservation Commission review and approval.

If Landmark is seeking to build a cluster subdivision, it would require both subdivision and site plan review approval from the Planning Board, Tucker said.

“Many kinds of permits might apply. We won’t know until we see what’s being proposed,” he said.

If Landmark acquires the property, it will begin working with municipal planning staff on the specific proposal, Doornbos said.

He said the permit process will determine the timetable, but the project likely wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until fall 2015, or perhaps not until fall 2016.

The last major student housing proposal surfaced four years ago, when Edwards Communities Development Co. of Columbus, Ohio, attempted to secure several parcels on the west side of Sunset Avenue between Fearing Street and Brigham Lane for 800 beds of undergraduate housing. The project never moved beyond informal conversations with residents in the neighborhood.

In 2004, JPI Development of Irving, Texas, tried to buy 14 acres off Rolling Ridge Road near North Pleasant Street in Amherst from the Hope Church to build about 200 units, 150 of which would have been used for college students, with the remainder set aside for affordable housing. The plan ran into stiff opposition from residents, and the developers, needing a comprehensive permit, were rebuffed by the Select Board in early 2006 before they ever reached the Zoning Board of Appeals.

In 2001, a 150-unit complex with beds for up to 500 students was brought before Hadley officials by Campus Partners Inc., of Philadelphia. The project, proposed for land on Rocky Hill Road opposite Alumni Stadium, never moved beyond the conceptual stage, as it immediately faced substantial obstacles, including the wet condition of much of the property, the need to tie in to Amherst water and sewer and the requirement for Hadley voters to rezone the land to accommodate it.

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