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Editorial: Let Retreat project in North Amherst face town reviews

The process to build 170 units of student housing in the Cushman section of Amherst has begun to move forward and, as expected, neighbors of the proposed development are upset. They want the town to buy the land and stop the project in its tracks.

We think the Select Board should follow the Planning Board’s advice, turn down the chance to buy the land for preservation purposes and let the development wend its way down the permitting path.

That should be how the community decides whether or not this development is a good idea.

Property owner W.D. Cowls Inc. has a $6.5 million offer from Landmark Properties of Atlanta to buy the 154 acres bounded by Henry Street and Flat Hills Road. We agree with the Planning Board that matching the developer’s offer is too steep a price for the town to pay. Amherst has the right of first refusal because the land, used to produce timber, has been in the state’s Chapter 61 program.

That allows Cowls, which bought the property in 1855, to pay reduced property taxes.

Cowls president Cinda Jones has said that some portion of the land will remain wooded and continue to be managed by her company. That section of the land would likely remain accessible to the public for hiking and hunting. Exactly which part of the tract Landmark will build on has not been determined. At the moment, Landmark has provided a bare-bones sketch of its plans.

And so, what permits it will need remain unknown. Town Planning Director Jonathan Tucker has pointed out, however, that there are streams and wetlands on the land that will likely require Conservation Commission review and approval. Once Landmark decides what it wants to build and where, it is also likely the proposal will have to go to the Planning Board for subdivision and site plan approval.

Those who live in Cushman do not want to see an influx of students filling the two-, three- and four-bedroom cottages that Landmark has proposed. They fear that number of students, and their visitors, will disturb the peace of their neighborhood and ruin the pristine woodland that is home to bears, deer, turkeys and salamanders.

But Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek, who serves as the director of conservation and development, said he doesn’t think preserving the property is a high priority for Amherst. He said that both the Mount Holyoke Range and Lawrence Swamp have more biodiversity and ecological value than the timberland. And who is to say, if the town does hand over $6.5 million to Jones, that her company wouldn’t offer a different tract to Landmark?

As a consultant reported recently, Amherst is grappling with a rental housing crunch and the town needs to find ways to alleviate that. Students from the University of Massachusetts, along with other colleges in the area, want to live off campus.

That’s a reality for a college town. The demand makes it harder for families who need rental housing to find places to live in Amherst. Planning Board member Connie Kruger said that the property Landmark is eyeing has the potential to be part of the solution. Let the process determine whether that is true.

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