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Editorial: Clampdown on rentals in Amherst

Amherst Town Meeting made a positive contribution this fall to the campaign to minimize conflict between students renting off-campus houses and their neighbors.

But this problem calls for a multifaceted solution, and new zoning rules alone can’t be expected to eliminate late-night noise in residential neighborhoods.

As a result of Town Meeting action, dwellings converted for rentals must get special permits and must have an owner or resident manager on site. The “nuisance house” bylaw was beefed up so that the costs of public safety responses to problems can be charged to property owners.

Town Meeting wisely rejected a proposal to require absentee landlords of single-family homes to get special permits, with members saying that would infringe on property rights and create problems for professors going on sabbaticals. But Town Meeting did require property owners who are seeking to rent duplexes they don’t live in to get special permits.

Students at the University of Massachusetts have been increasingly moving into houses in residential neighborhoods, and more houses up for sale are being purchased not by families but by people who seek to profit by renting them to students. Because students and longtime residents have different lifestyles, especially on weekends, there has been friction, particularly in neighborhoods near the campus.

It’s important to remember that only a small percentage of UMass students are disruptive and only a portion of those get into trouble with police. And let’s not forget that UMass and the colleges provide Amherst with economic stability and high property values.

But the concerns of residents awakened by partying neighbors at 2 a.m. are genuine. The strain on Amherst’s emergency services on weekends is expensive and poses risks for residents who need assistance with health or crime problems. Many groups have roles to play in addressing the situation.

UMass officials have tried to teach students how to party responsibly, and have reached out to landlords. They could do more to inform the public about disciplinary actions taken against offending students and organizing joint patrols between the Amherst and campus police.

The Amherst police have worked hard to prevent problems and deal with ones that arise. Town Hall officials have stepped up building code enforcement in student rentals. Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe has been a mediator among all the actors in this drama. The Planning Board did a good job of working with a coalition of neighbors before Town Meeting. Responsible landlords have tried to get their peers in line.

The residents of Fearing Street and other neighborhoods have properly brought their complaints about unruly students to the town’s attention. UMass has not done enough to create housing for students as it increases enrollment. At the same time, the town has failed to keep up with the demand for housing by refusing to allow denser development in village centers, mostly because of the fear of an influx of students.

Some young people who are away from home for the first time and unaccustomed to so much freedom will always overindulge in ways that disregard the feelings of others. We believe a continued focus on practical solutions, such as those voted by Town Meeting, will go a long way toward lessening the problem.

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