Amherst TM favors converting old school into affordable housing

  • Jim Pistrang, top, who is the moderator, speaks during Amherst Town Meeting, Monday, April 30, 2018 at Amherst Regional Middle School. Members of the Select Board and others are seated below. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2018

AMHERST — One former school building may become the site of affordable housing, while another will become vacant after this school year, based on action Wednesday at the sixth session of annual Town Meeting, where tensions boiled over late in the night.

After extensive debate on whether the East Street School building should be transferred from the School Committee to the Select Board so the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust can explore redeveloping it, Town Meeting voted 145-27 in support, easily surpassing the two-thirds majority needed.

John Hornik, chairman of the trust, said the idea is to begin exploring whether the historic building can be used for at least 25 percent affordable housing for people earning a minimum 80 percent of the median area income.

Bonnie MacCracken of Precinct 6 said this would be similar to how Soldier On is restoring buildings in Chicopee and Agawam for veterans.

“I’m feeling very comfortable with this project,” MacCracken said. “We need to move forward on more affordable housing in town.”

“I support any kind of affordable housing,” said Gerry Weiss of Precinct 8.

But Mark Kosarick of Precinct 9 said he would prefer to see potential academic uses for the building, last used for overflow classes at Fort River School in the 1990s and an alternative high school program several years ago.

“I feel the building still has pedagogical potential,” Kosarick said.

Reconsideration fails

An attempt to reconsider the elementary school budget to provide additional funding for preschool programming, including the possibility of having a preschool use the Summit Academy site on South East Street, was brought by Carol Gray of Precinct 7. Summit Academy will move to the high school this fall.

Her efforts went for nought when the vote was 106-76 against reconsidering.

Gray’s motion was opposed by the Finance Committee, whose chairwoman, Marylou Theilman, said Town Meeting shouldn’t try to add to the $23.23 million budget.

“We believe the proposal should come from the Amherst School Committee, not a Town Meeting member,” Theilman said.

Nicola Usher of Precinct 1 said she is disappointed by the loss of the preschool at the high school, but there would be unknown costs to continue a preschool program in an aging building that may need significant improvements.

Susan Tracy of Precinct 6 said with a town council form of government, Amherst has a transitional Town Meeting that should only be passing budgets.

“I find this reconsideration motion completely antithetical to that spirit,” Tracy said.

Yet others, like Dorothy Pam of Precinct 10, suggested preschool is essential for all children and more funding might be a good idea.

“Preschool is a necessary transition into life,” said Kenton Tharp of Precinct 1.

Tensions high

After Town Meeting passed new recreational marijuana regulations, limiting the locations where stores can operate in downtown, Town Meeting considered an article that would allow larger supplemental dwelling units, or in-law apartments. The Select Board made a motion to refer the proposal back to the Planning Board.

After a lengthy discussion over whether Town Meeting continues to have a role in zoning issues, tensions came to the forefront when Jerry Guidera of Precinct 9 made a quorum call to determine if enough members were still present at the middle school auditorium to continue business for the night.

Some members expressed concern to moderator Jim Pistrang that Guidera was not in the lower auditorium, where members sit, but instead was seated in the balcony where nonvoters observe proceedings.

After Guidera said a member had used foul language toward him, another Town Meeting member told Pistrang that someone made an obscene gesture at members from the balcony.

After pounding his gavel and asking Guidera to speak with him or leave the building, Pistrang chided Town Meeting members to act more like adults and offered advice that he said he normally gives to middle schoolers he coaches on the Ultimate team.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.