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Amherst Select Board won’t oppose Cushman development

The board voted 4-1 Monday to oppose an article that will come before annual Town Meeting, which begins next week, seeking to place a conservation restriction on the 154 acres or buy the property outright before it can be developed by Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga.

W.D. Cowls Inc. intends to sell the land, land, located between Henry Street and Flat Hills Road, for $6.5 million to Landmark so it can construct 170 upscale cottage-style apartments.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said she favors Landmark’s plan going through the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals process to see if it is acceptable for the town and doesn’t want to take the land off the table.

O’Keeffe said it’s possible such a project would be beneficial to Amherst.

“It would take pressure off the existing housing,” said O’Keeffe, citing a recent housing production plan that demonstrates housing growth has not kept up with population growth.

“I find us confronted by a housing crisis. There is extraordinary student demand on our housing stock,” O’Keeffe said.

This has put pressure on affordability for families and young professionals, and created a market for limited liability companies to buy single-family homes and convert them to rentals, O’Keeffe said. The town can’t keep saying no to such student housing projects and is confident that the impacts of such a project could be mitigated through the planning process, she said.

Select Board member James Wald said he also wants to see the process run its course. The town’s housing problem could be addressed, as there is no way the University of Massachusetts will ever house all its students on campus, he said.

“Magical thinking won’t get us very far,” Wald said.

Select Board member Alisa Brewer said the town has been successful in keeping out such large-scale student housing. “I am not willing to continue taking that line,” Brewer said.

Though not thrilled with the location, Brewer said it could be safe and viable and might be worth pursuing.

An opponent of the proposed development, Jack Hirsch of Flat Hills Road, said the bottom line is that a woodland parcel is threatened. “I think the land speaks for itself,” Hirsch said.

The land, he said, was identified as part of a seven-year action plan and is between two wildlife corridors, as well as being used for passive recreation, and is home to yellow-spotted salamanders.

“We are working very hard to find funding sources. We’ve contacted a number of them,” Hirsch said.

These include the Kestrel Land Trust and the Mount Grace Trust.

Hirsch said the proposal, known as The Retreat, would threaten the historic Cushman village center, and there is no protection for neighbors from this cluster subdivision despite being in an outlying area.

If built, Hirsch said he expects a “party alley” along Pine Street, from North Amherst center, that will tax police and fire resources and create headaches for the town for years to come.

“I see this as adding to the problems, not reducing the problems,” Hirsch said.

He asked that the Select Board consider the full 120 days for the right of first refusal based on the land being in the state’s chapter 61 program.

Diana Stein was the lone Select Board member who argued that it would be good to preserve the forestland and the wildlife population housed there.

“I just don’t see this as worth what we’re giving up,” Stein said.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said it is too early in the process to evaluate whether the land is worth preserving since there is no plan yet to consider. The Conservation Commission will be the first to consider whether it is a parcel the town would like to buy.

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