amherst, massachusetts, Uncategorized, zoning

Climate change in Amherst, or the perils of terraforming

Elevated levels of uncombusted natural gas (methane/CH4) would contribute to global climate change, says the EPA. The extremely unelevated level of natural gas in Amherst is certainly changing the local climate; the business climate, that is.

Last year Berkshire Gas announced a moratorium on new connections in Amherst and Hadley, as the Springfield Republican reported. Some people claim the moratorium is nothing more than a wretched ruse to intimidate locals into submitting to Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline expansion, putting us in a choke-hold until we cry “uncle.”  One aggrieved customer is suing the gas company and, according to the Amherst Bulletin, looking for proof of the plot via the discovery process.

Plot or not, without natural gas new restaurants will not open and existing ones cannot expand in Amherst’s downtown area, where there is no space for propane tanks. The same goes for any other enterprise that needs natural gas. Unless and until Berkshire Gas lifts its moratorium, businesses will have to adapt to Amherst’s nongaseous climate. So business owners would likely find it helpful if the Town government chose to make that climate a tad more (not less) stable and predictable.

I have no doubt that our Planning Board hopes to do just that with its proposal to define with greater precision the term “mixed use” in the Town’s building standards. Encouraging mixed use development is one of the goals in Amherst’s Master Plan (see 2.5 D; 3.2; and LU.2C) and the Planning Board’s hope is consistent with that goal. Whether the proposal is consistent with that goal is another matter altogether. After all, if you wish to deter an activity, burden it with complicated regulations that require expensive legal advice to ensure compliance.

For example, the current building standards do not dictate how much of a mix constitutes mixed use (hence the urge to redefine the term), whereas the proposed new standards would prohibit residential purposes from taking up more than 40% of the gross floor area of the main floor of a mixed use building, including amenities, service areas, and stair/elevator towers, and bar more than 25% of the residential units in any one building from having four or more bedrooms. Why 40%, why 25%, and would a developer need a lawyer in order to comply?  I don’t know, I don’t know, and I should coco.

Drafters run the risk of defining a term to death, and I fear this definition will leave mixed use fighting for breath in Amherst, particularly after Town Meeting has had its way with the proposal.

All of which brings to mind NASA’s definition of terraforming, i.e. “the process of transforming a hostile environment into one suitable for human life,” which in turn reminds me that, all too often, well-intentioned efforts to engineer a favorable business climate in Amherst end up looking like Matt Damon doing this.

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amherst, massachusetts, zoning

Delusionary Zoning

My adopted home town, Amherst, Massachusetts, has the habit of focusing on a pressing and complicated problem and making it just a bit worse. One current example is the proposal to increase the amount of affordable housing in the town by making houses even more expensive to build, an effort that brings to mind a political quote from some years ago. During one of the quotidian crises in Northern Ireland’s peace process, I recall Ian Paisley, Jr., (son of the famous Reverend Ian Paisley, Sr.) saying something that must have made père Paisley’s shoulders sag and eyes roll.

“We are standing and looking into the abyss,” declared Paisley junior, “so we must all move forward together.”

Although a doctor of divinity rather than of physics or medicine, Rev. Ian Paisley, Sr., would have understood that when standing at the edge of an abyss, the unforgiving law of gravity renders it better for your health to move backward rather than forward.

By the way, after a cursory online search I have unearthed no evidence that Ian Paisley, Jr., ever said any such thing. The possibility that I fabricated the quote to serve my purposes should cast no doubt on its veracity, however. This approach to truth is good enough for Neil deGrasse Tyson — a top scientist with his own TV show — so it should be good enough for me, a small-town New England attorney with no scientific qualifications and no TV show.

Returning to the situation that brought Paisley’s alleged (by me) quote to mind, a number of townsfolk wish to amend Amherst’s zoning bylaw, namely Article 15. This provision is titled “Inclusionary Zoning” rather in the way the governmental agency responsible for shortages in Orwell’s 1984 was called the Ministry of Plenty. Currently the Inclusionary Zoning bylaw requires that if you build 10-14 new homes — note that adjective — at least one of them must be “affordable,” a term that the bylaw defines, if that is not too generous a verb, in the manner that I present later in this post.* Said affordable units must be “comparable to market rate units in terms of quality of their design, materials, and general appearance of their architecture and landscape.”

The proponents of the amendment would like to (1) mandate that in any project involving ten or more new units the proportion of affordable units shall be ten per cent; (2) ensure that the affordable units are equivalent to, not merely comparable to, the market rate units in terms of quality, style, and number of bedrooms; and (3) re-define the word “new” so that it includes not new. That last item, which deserves an entry in the next edition of the Dictionary of Newspeak, says that “new dwelling units” shall include: “Substantial renovation of 10 or more dwelling units in existing buildings, where renovation involves the material replacement of 50 percent or more of the interior of affected units, including but not limited to the removal or relocation of walls.” Old dwelling units, in other words.

So if you own a building that contains ten market-rate units and you decide to invest money in renovating them, from now on one of them will have to be “affordable,” i.e. generate less money for you. Assuming you are a rational economic actor, what are your options? Either refrain from renovating, or renovate away and then increase the price of the other nine units to make up for the cost of the “affordable” one.

If you are wondering why the bylaw needs amending, I should make clear that the reason is not because the current version is working like a charm, with new affordable units popping up all over the place like smoke shops. Amherst is hardly awash in affordable housing. No, the proposed amendment arises from the failure of the current version to encourage the construction of affordable homes. Why an “Inclusionary Zoning” bylaw should have failed in this way is not hard to work out.

Raising the price of a product tends to deter people from purchasing it. Taxing tobacco is supposed to deter smoking, for example. And taxing carbon will deter fossil-fuel use, supposedly. Harvard economist Lawrence Summers says so, and as a former economic adviser to President Obama he must know what he’s talking about (ahem). With consumer products a concept known as the price elasticity of demand comes into play, and it refers to how much, if at all, a change in a product’s price will cause a change in demand. Here, however, we are considering supply. So how much will a change in the price of house-building affect the supply of houses?

If Amherst’s results to date do not provide sufficient data for you, please consider Washington, D.C., whose experience suggests that the supply will fall. After six years of the “inclusionary zoning” policy, the number of low-income units built in Washington stood at two. Not two thousand or even two hundred. Just two. According to this report from the Center for Housing Policy, in suburban Boston 43% of the communities with “inclusionary zoning” could point to no new units at all, while more than 33% could not say how many, if any, had been built.

But as in our nation’s capital, the advocates in Massachusetts respond to the failure of the old policy by demanding more of the same; much more. The old Soviet commissars in charge of pig-iron production would have approached this problem in a similar manner. If the inmates of the Workers Paradise fell short of the target announced in the Five Year Plan, the apparatchiks would simply raise the goal. You couldn’t produce 10 million tons of pig iron? How does 17 million tons sound?

Ignorance is strength. Unaffordable means affordable. New means not new

The happy difference, of course, is that if home-builders do not meet the production targets set by the commissars in Amherst’s Ministry of Plenty, they do not go to the gulag; they just go to Hadley, crossing an invisible,unpatrolled border devoid of mine-fields and watch-towers.

Article 15 is the equivalent of a tax on new homes. There are several words for this sort of zoning, but “inclusionary” is not one of them. “Delusionary” would be more accurate.

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* What does “affordable” mean? In Amherst, the answer depends on the buyer, not the unit. Article 12.24 of the Zoning Bylaw states:

“Affordable housing units are units which may be rented or purchased by those who meet the guidelines for maximum annual income for low-income or moderate-income family or household. The income limit for low-income shall be 80% of the median income for Amherst and the income limit for moderate-income shall be 120% of median income for Amherst.”

In other words, a unit is “affordable” within the meaning of the bylaw if the purchaser meets the income guidelines. If an income- qualified buyer finds a lender with a high tolerance for risk, e.g. one whose dodgy loans will be covered by the taxpayer, that buyer may purchase a market-rate unit which, ta-da, becomes “affordable.” Let us go forward together and make a list of all the ways this could go wrong.

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Uncategorized

Questions: A Symptom of Cultural Incompetence

Amherst, Mass. (March 24-25, 2014): Election day was looming and we had a two-way race for school committee.  I saw a Facebook post suggesting that I should vote for the non-white candidate primarily because she is not white. My questioning the soundness of this advice triggered a lengthy exchange, which I post below in its entirety, omitting only the thumb-nail images, time stamps, and “likes.”  If you suspect that the exchange involved the predictable accusations of race-baiting and its more cloying variant, cultural incompetence, you will not be disappointed. Read on so long as (1) you have the stomach for jargon, cant, and condescension (2) you keep, within easy reach, one of those bags usually found down the back of the seats on most commercial aircraft. First, some background:

I can surmise a great deal about a person at first sight, most of which often turns out to be wrong. One feature I notice almost immediately is skin color, an observation that shakes loose various assumptions previously tethered to the bed of the mental deep, whence they shoot upward unbidden, unwelcome, and largely unhelpful. In other words, your skin color tells me something about you, but not much. Skin color is such a notoriously unreliable indicator of character, competence, intellect, and intentions, that it strikes me that come election day I should not base my voting decision on a candidate’s relative wealth or paucity of melanin.

Some people feel otherwise. Among their number, Professor Amilcar Shabazz, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he serves as the Chancellor’s Faculty Advisor on Diversity and Excellence, helping further the University’s efforts “to institutionalize a climate of inclusivity that promotes a robust exchange of ideas, cross-racial and cross-cultural interaction and engagement, and the opportunity for all to participate.” The day before the election Professor Shabazz announced that his “number one reason” for supporting a particular candidate for our local school committee, Vira Douangmany, is the fact that she is not white. According to Professor Shabazz four of the five current committee members being white constitutes “an unacceptable level of domination by one racial/ethnic group.” So regardless of their abilities, performance, and even their cultural competence (more of that below) the racial identity of these four white committee members — and that alone — means one of them has to go. Fodder, you might think, for a robust exchange of ideas and some interaction of the cross-racial and cross-cultural variety.

So, I wondered, should voters take into account factors such as, say, a non-white candidate’s political opinions? As you will read below, Professor Shabazz construed this line of questioning as evidence that I “do not recognize diversity as a compelling community desideratum” and announced that he did not “have time to ponder and debate with a lawyer who ought to know better.” Yes, a lawyer: the cruelest cut.

This might not merit our time and attention but for the matter of Professor Shabazz’s role as a sitting member of the school committee, whose statutory tasks include establishing policies for the school district, heaven help us all. For all I know, dismissing questions as evidence of ignorance may be standard operating procedure for Professor Shabazz in the classroom, although it would tend to vitiate any claims that he is helping foster a “climate of inclusivity that promotes a robust exchange of ideas, cross-racial and cross-cultural interaction and engagement, and the opportunity for all to participate.” But coming from someone who holds elective office and occupies a position of some influence over our school district’s policies, this contempt for discussion about issues of race and voting is regrettable.

Now, here is the unexpurgated Facebook exchange as of close of business on March 25. Enjoy.

 __________

Amilcar Shabazz

I have been asked why I support and encouraged VIRA DOUANGMANY to seek to fill a seat on the Amherst School Committee, here are three reasons:

Reason #1

I am a strong advocate for diversity. I am the only member of our five-member committee who does not identify as white or Euro-American. This is an unacceptable level of domination by one racial/ethnic group in the face of our current demographic reality:

Enrollment Data by Race/Ethnicity (2013-14)

Race/Ethnicity % of District

African American 9.1

Asian 12.9

Hispanic 19.8

Native American 0.1

White 49.3

Pacific Islander 0.2

Multi-Race (Non-H) 8.5

 

So with more than 50% of the children in our schools identifying as an ethnic group NOT white it is unacceptable to me to have a school committee that is 80% white.

I have gotten to know Vira over the past five years and I know her as someone who will bring fresh perspectives and insight to the school committee that can make it more representative of and responsive to our diverse student body and their families.

Reason #2

Vira has a keen analytical mind that will keep asking the right questions until she gets answers that make sense and will not surrender or compromise on matters of principle.

Reason #3

She is fearless and will not be intimidated by the Amherst mentality where only the “h” is silent.

For these reasons and more I look forward to exercising the democratic right to vote that our ancestors shed blood for people who look like me to have. My vote will go for Vira Douangmany for Amherst School Committee

Peter Vickery

Just to be clear: Your number-one reason is the fact that she is not white?

Amilcar Shabazz

Peter Vickery: Yes, was my message unclear?

Stefanie Cole

Peter, you seem to be suggesting that diversity is not, in and of itself, an appropriate goal for a policy. Until the institutions of power are regularly populated by people of diverse race and gender identities, identities that are somehow inline with the existing community populations, we are still in a position where the power structures of our communities reinforce white male patriarchy. Until the power institutions reflect the population realities, we will never be able to deal with the pain of our history and move beyond it to a world where race and gender are the neutral conditions of existence that they should be. We have a long way to go before we get there, it is imperative to empower members of the non-dominant groups if we are ever going to build an anti-dominance world.

Peter Vickery

So anyone who votes for Katherine Appy is reinforcing white male patriarchy?

Stefanie Cole

They aren

Peter Vickery

Are?

Stefanie Cole

They aren’t voting to break it down, at least with regard to race. They aren’t taking into account the fact that we indeed live in a world where your race and gender can act as a cue to your worth in leadership roles. If the committee was anywhere near representative of the racial dynamics of the population, it would be a different story. The composition of leadership in a community should reflect the people of the community. However, since the other candidate is also a woman, then it depends on her own relationship to patriarchy whether or not voting for her will reinforce that aspect of the problem. If the candidates are equally qualified, or nearly so, and appear equally capable, then yes, absolutely diversity should be an electoral goal.

Peter Vickery

Hang on a minute then. I’m just going to check with Katherine and find out whether she’s for patriarchy, against it, or somewhere in between.

Stefanie Cole

Welcome the ‘red herring’ to the argument:)

Amilcar Shabazz

Peter Vickery wants to personalize things and take us down a straw man road (or Aunt Sally in his case). Not going there.

Kate Atkinson

I sincerely hope that none of us is voting based on the color of the candidate. I would like to think that Amherst of all places can make decisions based on the best applicant for the position

Kate Atkinson

let me add however that she has my vote based on #2 and #3

Peter Vickery

If I understand the terms straw man and Aunt Sally correctly, I think I stand accused of having misrepresented an argument. So a quick reminder: I asked Amilcar to confirm that his number one reason for voting for Vira is the fact that she is not white. Amilcar did so. I then asked Stefanie whether she meant that people voting for Katherine Appy are reinforcing male patriarchy. She said they are. Where is the misrepresentation?

Stefanie Cole

I did not say that at all. I said the point is pretty much mute when you have 2 female candidates. After that, it depends on to what extent the dominance attitudes are dealt with. Both female candidates address the problem of underrepresentation of women, only one addresses both race and gender issues, again, assuming they are otherwise capable people, diversity in leadership is an important community goal.

Peter Vickery

Before you deleted “are” that is indeed what you said.

Stefanie Cole

I expect most adults are quite capable of the functions necessary to perform well on a school committee. The point is to faithfully represent the constituents of the school. That can be accomplished through diversity initiatives and excluding known criminals or people with conflicting financial interests.

Stefanie Cole

That was a typo. It said aren… I accidentally hit enter before I finished my comment. You will notice the wording of my published response has the word aren’t.

Carol Ross

Peter Vickery, question for you. What is your point and goal?

Carol Ross

Amilcar, your reasons are sound and respected. Thank you for bringing light to the whole. Only those who question their own validity will find issue with your stance. Pro diversity does not mean anti white. Unfortunately for some lacking cultural competence, that is the interpretation.

Perry Conley

Diversity does not exclude white people. I wonder if any research has tracked the pragmatic and empathatic knowledge of white v. Nonwhite people with disabilities. My subjective take it that is much easier to discuss pragmatic issues with people if color.

Peter Vickery

In an election where both candidates qualify by Stefanie’s standards (neither corrupt nor criminally convicted) and one of the candidates is white, must I vote for the non-white candidate? What is the culturally competent thing to do? Is the answer the same or different if the white candidate is Bernie Sanders and the non-white candidate is Bobby Jindal?

Stefanie Cole

Now you are talking national politics. School committee’s are typically non-partisan. They are suppose be about representing the broad interests of the local constituency, especially children and their caretakers.

Stefanie Cole

As opposed to the typically over-represented interests of administrators, lawmakers, and business interests.

Kurt Geryk

Peter, people can use their vote however they want and to seek to fulfill whatever agenda they please–Peter, echoing Ms. Ross’ question, be clear and tell us, what is your issue?

Peter Vickery

OK then, let’s drop the party labels and make the candidates a white social worker who ardently supports the reasoning behind the federal DoE’s “dear colleague” letter about remedying disparate impact in disciplinary decisions, and a non-white business owner who believes teachers should make disciplinary decisions based on conduct not skin color. Who should the culturally-competent voter support?

Kurt Geryk

Whoever you say they should, Peter, you obviously know the “correct” way to choose a candidate.

Stefanie Cole

Dunno. I’m from Kansas City and will not be voting in the election. My point is about the purposes of school committees, to represent the interests of children and their caretakers. A diverse community needs diversity on its school committee as a result of said purpose. You came into the argument seemingly focused on the validity of diversity as a social goal. If you have a genuinely deal-breaking issue that caused you to have preference for the one candidate over the other, it would have been easier to leave out the race-bating complaint, which is in and of itself a tactic to bully and dominate.

Kurt Geryk

Lawyers.

Peter Vickery

My issue? If I question the wisdom of making skin color your number-one reason for supporting a candidate I can almost guarantee that I will be called, before too long, various synonyms for bigot, e.g. a culturally incompetent, race-baiting, dominating bully. As issues go, I think that is one worth raising and demonstrating.

Stefanie Cole

So says the guy from the dominant group. Again, diversity is a very important goal in and of itself. It you don’t understand that, I assume it is because you cannot admit to the existence of systemic dominance, call it whatever you want. You don’t have to be racist to be race-baiting, you likely think you are post-racial or something. That because you don’t openly abuse people of color, that you are somehow neutral toward issues of race. You might think everyone gets where they are based on merits and that there are significant differences between individuals that make them more or less capable for jobs. That really isn’t true, the differences between individuals performance is largely determined by the power positions they hold in institutions. If you want to give a non-dominant group a chance to perform, they have to have access to power positions in the existing institutions of their community.

Peter Vickery

For those of you keeping score at home, that was the argumentum ad hominem.

Stefanie Cole

Do you admit that there is systemic dominance? I suppose there are many reasons why you could do not agree that systemic dominance exists that don’t have anything do to with your status as a member of the primary dominant group.

Peter Vickery

I shall be happy to answer that question just as soon as you have answered mine with something a little more reasoned than “dunno.” By way of a reminder, my question concerned a hypothetical election in which the candidates are (1) a white social worker who ardently supports the reasoning behind the federal DoE’s “dear colleague” letter about remedying disparate impact in disciplinary decisions, and (2) a non-white business owner who believes teachers should make disciplinary decisions based on conduct not skin color. Who should the culturally-competent voter support?

Peter Vickery

Forgive the forthcoming pause. I have to engage in such culturally incompetent, dominating, race-baiting, patriarchy-perpetuating pursuits as work and child-care. But I look forward to rejoining the dialogue.

Stefanie Cole

I really don’t know. I would need a couple of months to study the issue in detail, it would be important to unpack the philosophical underpinning of the differing positions. Issues are complicated. I have spent many years studying issues of race, power, and institutional will, on that I have plenty of confidence in my stance.

Amilcar Shabazz

Peter Vickery started us down the road of fallacious arguments and I immediately tuned out. I was tempted to be kind and think his issue was that I put my commitment to diversity in our representative, democratic bodies like our School Committee as “Reason #1” was tripping him up. I was going to say that my numbering did not indicate a rank order of significance. I now realize that Peter does not recognize diversity as a compelling community desideratum. If he did he would not be making these comments and raising these questions. We can spend time pondering an infinite number of hypothetical situations asking what should a “culturally competent” voter do. Why would I want to spend my time doing that. We have a real-world election taking place right now with people to help to get to the polls. We have our signs being taken down and voters being intimidated right now. We have a school committee meeting tonight where a teacher who was horribly attacked in our high school wants to make a statement but… So sorry folks but I don’t have time to ponder and debate with a lawyer who ought to know better.

Stefanie Cole

My spring break has given me too much time to argue with people who are wrong on the internet. I should have followed your lead and bowed out earlier. I have a paper to write, my first political economy oriented paper on the Oklahoma City Sit-ins, coincidentally. Peace.

Carol Ross

Peter Vickery, your question is a valid question for someone who has not had a lot of experience with multiculturalism. Cultural competence is simply a matter of having had experiences and exposure to a diverse range of people on many social levels. I feel that perhaps your intensions or your reasoning may be misguided and uninformed. Both Ms. Appy and Ms. Douangmany and most of the people in Amherst, of all colors, understand the need for diversity. This issue is not widely contested by those who understand the value of diversity in communities, which is why I asked what your point was. What is contested is hegemony. We cannot begin to consider playing a leveled game in a field that has not been leveled. What makes Amherst unique is what this current election is all about. What makes Amherst special IS it’s diversity. Amilcar, as he should, is supporting and upholding the values that we have ALL come to value…diversity!! If a homogenous society is preferable to you, and that’s your point, then perhaps that’s just what you should say, because a culturally competent person would already understands this. Contrary to popular belief, there are lots of culturally competent white people in Amherst, who share those values and beliefs.

Peter Vickery

Thank you for your patience and understanding. If I truly valued diversity I suppose I would write things like the post below. [link]

Peter Vickery

But now it’s definitely over and out from me.

Amilcar Shabazz

i have read the blog and that is why the whole thing was so perplexing. Of course things are complicated and I respect that the election poses many with a difficult decision to make. I made my decision and will accept whatever decision the Amherst electorate makes. I have served with the incumbent for the past two years and can continue to do so for the remainder of my term if that is how this plays out. I hope, however, that voters will not miss the opportunity to seat a person who is as dedicated as anyone I’ve known to the betterment of all, especially the least fortunate, AND who will add much needed diversity. Vira will tell the immigrant child, yes, you matter too; her presence on our school committee will tell the child living in public housing you matter and should do your best in school; she will tell our Asian children that they matter and can bury the model minority myth and step out boldly into the public sphere (regardless of whether their politics are along the lines of bobbie jindal or yuri kochiyama); GO VIRA!

Kurt Geryk

Peter, I think Amilcar’s point is that considering numberless hypothetical election match-ups is a futile endeavor and we should rather focus on local and real world exigencies (and not that we should shut down the debate because the issues are complicated.)

Carol Ross

Peter, thanks for sharing your post! And thanks for speaking up and being willing to have real and honest dialog. This post represents precisely why I returned to Amherst. Critical thinking, passion, an ability to agree and disagree…and diversity. I so appreciate being able to tackle the real issues instead of pretending they don’t exist. Thank you, Amilcar, Peter, Kurt, Stepanie and Perry!! Great discourse!!!

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Conclusion

Great discourse, mon oeil. Unlike Ms. Ross, I cannot put the foregoing into that category. Ms. Douangmany’s qualities and opinions seemed of little if any relevance to my interlocutors in comparison to her skin color, and by raising this issue I was, in their eyes, not only culturally incompetent but a bullying race-baiter to boot. Melanin trumped all.

One participant did state, “I sincerely hope that none of us is voting based on the color of the candidate. I would like to think that Amherst of all places can make decisions based on the best applicant for the position.” This statement did not elicit accusations of cultural incompetence, perhaps because the participant immediately followed it with the reassuring announcement that she would, indeed, vote the right way, i.e. for Vira Douangmany.

Finally, if you know of any instances of voter intimidation in Amherst on March 25, 2014, per Professor Shabazz’s claim, please let me know.

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