April 30, 2008 Select Board Meeting

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008, 6:30 p.m. Music/Language Room at the Middle School

Present:  Select Board members Gerry Weiss, Anne Awad, Alisa Brewer, Diana Stein, Stephanie O’Keeffe; Town Manager Larry Shaffer


Mr. Weiss announced May Day activities for Thursday, May 1st on the Common and in Northampton, and the Saturday, May 3rd open house at the Amherst Survival Center from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

Ms. Brewer announced that the Farmers Market opens for the season Saturday, May 3rd, and that the annual League of Women Voters Book Sale would take place on the Common Friday and Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Public Comment

No one from the public offered any comment.

Article 21 – Community Preservation Act – Open Space

Conservation Director David Ziomek explained the various sections of Article 21.

Part A is an annual request to appropriate money for land appraisals and surveys that are required due diligence in considering the purchase of land and Agricultural Preservation Restrictions (APRs.)  The amount requested has gone up over the years as the price of such services increases.  Mr. Ziomek said that a typical appraisal costs approximately $5,500 currently, so this request would roughly fund four. 

Part B is a similar request, specifically for due diligence on potential recreation land.  Mr. Ziomek said that the Leisure Services Commission has not made this request before, but that there are parcels under consideration for the future that would benefit from this.

Part C is to appropriate $80,000 for an APR on land in South Amherst owned by the Tietjen family.  Mr. Ziomek said that the land has been a conservation priority for 20 years, due to its proximity to the Lawrence Swamp.  He said that the Tietjens are willing sellers and that the amount to be requested at Town Meeting has been reduced to $80,000 from $100,000, now that appraisals of the property have been completed. 

Part D is to appropriate $2,500 for due diligence on a South East Street Property intended for development by property owner Scott Nielsen.  Mr. Ziomek said that Mr. Nielsen had once been a willing seller, and that the Conservation Commission had offered the $2,500 – half the cost of an appraisal – to neighbors and others seeking to acquire and protect the land, as a challenge for them to raise the other half of the appraisal cost.  Mr. Ziomek said that the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) had originally voted to support this request, when it was believed that there was a willing seller, and that upon a subsequent vote to dismiss Part D due to the new information, the vote was tied, so the dismissal vote failed, meaning that the original vote in support stands.  Mr. Ziomek said that some felt that it was worth earmarking the money for this purpose in case Mr. Nielsen decides in the future that he would be willing to sell the land. 

Part E was to appropriate $35,000 toward the purchase of Mr. Nielsen’s property, but will be dismissed because he is not a willing seller.

The Select Board then asked questions and offered comments on the different segments of Article 21. 

Mr. Weiss asked what would happen to the $2,500 if it were appropriated – if an appraisal of the property be done anyway, or if the money would sit unused until some future time.  Mr. Ziomek said it would not be standard practice to appraise a property without the permission of the property owner.  He said that if the property owner never became a willing seller, the money would remain unspent until such time as a future Town Meeting rescinded the authorization.  Mr. Weiss said he wanted to make sure that the money couldn’t be spent unless there were a real deal for the land, and Mr. Ziomek said that that would be the case.

Ms. Brewer asked what sort of priority the Nielsen property has had historically with the Conservation Commission, prior to the neighborhood groups seeking to protect it.  Mr. Ziomek said that the Conservation Commission pursues properties consistent with its goals to preserve prime farmlands, to fill in missing blocks of contiguous open space and to protect watershed lands, and so forth.  He said that the Conservation Commission felt that the Nielsen property was close enough to existing conservation land that it met “some of the criteria” for trying to acquire it.  He said that the land fits into the conservation priorities, but that the purchase price was daunting.  He said that the $2,500 and the $35,000 were to assist the neighbors and other concerned citizens in their efforts to acquire it. Mr. Ziomek said that the Open Space and Recreation Plan does not identify specific targeted parcels, but looks at areas of town, and said that this land fell into the priority area, but that he couldn’t say how high of a priority it would be.  He said that CPAC had asked him about the “feasibility” of this acquisition, and he had said he didn’t consider it to be very high because the asking price was more than $1 million for seven acres of land.

Mr. Shaffer said he would recommend that the Select Board recommend dismissal of Part D, though it would not hurt to have the money sit there unspent.

I said that I couldn’t support Part D because the recent history of the property has been contentious in the community, and that it would feel like a hostile act for the Town to earmark money for appraising a property that the owner does not wish to sell. 

I asked if the Tietjens have known that their land has been a key priority for the Town for so many years, and what sort of communication with property owners occurs.

Mr. Ziomek said the Tietjens have long known, and that they want the land preserved, and to keep agricultural production occurring on part of it.   He said that there is ongoing communication with landowners whose property fits the Town’s conservation profile, and that they will often say they aren’t ready yet, and ask to be called back in a year or two or more.  He said that he maintains a “tickler file” to re-contact folks in the future, and that the landowners will sometimes get back in touch with him sooner, because they have changed their minds, or their circumstances have changed in some way.  He said the challenge is to line those properties up in such a way as to match the Town’s priorities, the available APR and self-help grants, and the Town Meeting cycle.  He said he currently has a backlog of properties that owners want the Town to preserve, and that he has to get them through the Conservation Commission and Town Meeting processes.  He said that the State’s APR program has a lot of money right now, so he is pursuing a lot of APRs.

Mr. Weiss asked if there are properties targeted for the appraisal money, or if it is just handy to have available.  Mr. Ziomek said he does have properties targeted, but that the timing of the whole process is important, because the appraisal needs to be fresh – within six months to a year old at the time of the purchase, due to market changes.

Ms. Awad asked if some of the $20,000 from Part A could be used to appraise this property if Mr. Nielsen were to change his mind.  Mr. Ziomek said yes.

The Select Board voted unanimously to support Part A – the $20,000 for due diligence for open space.

The Select Board voted unanimously to support Part B – the $20,000 for due diligence for recreation space.

The Select Board voted unanimously to support Part C – the $80,000 towards an APR on the Tietjen land.

There was discussion on how to handle Part D, because a motion to dismiss is expected, but is not certain.  Ms. Awad said that she would not be willing to support a motion to not recommend the $2,500 for half the due diligence on the Nielsen property, but would support dismissal.  The Select Board opted to have two votes – one to not recommend, and one to support dismissal, so that we can speak to either possibility.  The vote on the motion to not recommend Part D was 4 to 1, with Ms. Awad opposing.  The vote to support dismissal of Part D was unanimous. 

The Select Board voted unanimously to support dismissal of Part E – the $35,000 toward purchase of the Nielsen land. 

Article 27 – Municipal Parking Zone  (7:00)

This article was presented to the Select Board a couple of weeks ago.  Planning Director Jonathan Tucker explained that the language that had caused concern in the original article draft had been changed to remove potential vulnerability that the Town might be required to provide significant parking for some businesses in this zone.  With that language changed, the Select Board voted unanimously to recommend the article as amended.

Article 33 –Petition for LEED Standards

Discussion of Article 33 on recommending development of a Zoning Bylaw amendment on LEED standards was deferred to a future date when the petitioner could be present.

Article 36 – Petition to Transfer Sum from Free Cash to Stabilization Fund  (7:10) 

Petitioner Stan Gawle explained that his article seeks to transfer $1,736,847 from free cash to the stabilization fund, so that a total of $2.6 million will be in the stabilization fund.  He said that that sum represents approximately 5% of the operating budget, which is the percentage that Town reserves must be maintained at in order to maintain the Aa3 bond rating.  If the bond rating were lowered, the Town’s borrowing costs would increase.  [Note: Just like an individual’s credit rating affects the interest rate received on things like mortgages and car loans, the Town’s bond rating affects its interest rates when borrowing.]  Mr. Gawle said that having that amount in the stabilization fund would offer better protection from reckless spending, because appropriating money from that fund requires a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting, as compared to the majority vote required for appropriating money from the free cash account.

Mr. Musante said that the Finance Committee’s recently-approved Financial Policies and Objectives document includes thresholds for moving funds from free cash to stabilization, (click here, and go to page 5.)  He said that the Finance Committee would be willing to discuss changing that threshold, but would want to do so in a more comprehensive discussion, seeking input and approval from the public, as well as the Select Board, School Committee and Library Trustees, which was the process used to create and approve those policies over the last year.  He said that the Finance Committee would ask that the article be referred to them for further consideration.  Mr. Gawle said he was not opposed to it being referred. 

The Select Board voted unanimously to support referring Article 36 to the Finance Committee.

The meeting adjourned at 7:28 p.m.   The next Select Board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, May 5th, in the music/language room at the Middle School.  I had thought it was going to be at 6:15, but since the agenda again says 6:30, that is apparently when we’ll meet.



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