Saving lives by design

October 12, 2017:-  In car-v.-human collisions, humans come off worst. Last year almost 6,000 people died as a result of being hit by a moving vehicle, the highest number since 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pedestrians are at less risk — but not zero risk — when they use a crosswalk, and the degree of safety depends to some extent on the crosswalk’s design.

So if you like your streets walkable and safe (and that’s definitely my preference) you might be interested in the draft Crosswalk Design Standards that Amherst’s Transportation Advisory Committee is considering. The committee is holding a public meeting at 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, December 5 in the Town Room, Town Hall.

In the meantime, to review the proposed standards, click here.

Recreational marijuana update: 8 stores for Amherst?

September 18, 2017:-  This evening the Select Board held a listening session to hear suggestions from the public on the subject of local regulation of marijuana stores. Before opening the floor to public comment, the Select Board heard from Geoff Kravitz, the Town’s Economic Development Director, who identified places where recreational marijuana license-holders would be able to site their stores. Several of the possible locations are on University Drive. One is on Pray Street (where I have my law office, coincidentally).

The state law prohibits towns from limiting the number of marijuana stores to fewer than 20% of the number of alcohol-package stores. So if Amherst has, say, 40 such stores it cannot set the maximum number of marijuana outlets at fewer than eight (20% of 40). That is the very number that Rob Crowner said the Planning Board would likely recommend. So, if Town Meeting concurs, over the next few years Amherst could become home to eight recreational marijuana stores.

My request to the Select Board was a simple one: Dedicate all the funds that Town receives from marijuana stores (taxes and impact fees) to harm reduction. Adolescents who use marijuana regularly face an increased risk of depression and suicidal ideation, and tend to suffer from diminished cognitive skills, according to the American College of Pediatricians. The cost of trying to remediate that damage is likely to consume every dollar we receive from marijuana taxes and then some.

That would be better than becoming dependent on marijuana, the way the Commonwealth as a whole depends on the State Lottery to pay for public education. If you were ever curious about the source of Local Aid, look no further. About $980 million comes from the people who buy lottery tickets. All sorts of people buy lottery tickets, of course, but the typical purchaser is not a champagne-swilling, yacht-sailing member of the One Per Cent with a weekend getaway on Nantucket. For an overview of who wins and who loses in the lottery, click here.

It is bad enough that we have opted to flout the Controlled Substances Act and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States in the knowledge that our course of action will result in widespread harm. It would be even worse to profit from that harm and get hooked on the resulting tax dollars the way we are hooked on the State Lottery. Let’s not supplement our institutional gambling addiction with a marijuana addiction. Better to set the money aside, I think, and use it to try to undo some of the damage we have chosen to cause.

Expect to see at least two marijuana-related articles on the warrant for Fall Town Meeting, which kicks off November 6. If you would like to chime in, just complete the form below.

Office hour: Friday, October 27

September 8, 2017:- Fall Town Meeting is scheduled to start November 6, and when the warrant is ready you will be able to review it by clicking here. If you would like to meet with me to discuss anything on the warrant please come along to my office hour at noon, Friday, October 27 in the Amherst Room of the Jones Library. In the meantime, feel free to post a comment below.


September 8 2017_3

Marijuana Moratorium?

September 5, 2017:- Should Amherst place a temporary moratorium on marijuana establishments? That is one of the questions before the Select Board’s zoning subcommittee on Wednesday.

Last month, the Amherst Bulletin ran a story on the subject, quoting Economic Development Director Geoff Kravitz, who pointed out that the statewide Cannabis Control Commission will issue regulations that delineate the role of local licensing authorities, but not until next March. That gives very little time for the Town to prepare for the license applications, which will start arriving in April.

To my mind, a temporary moratorium seems like a wise move. What do you think? To vote in my informal poll, just scroll down.

— Peter

P.S.  Here is what I wrote back in 2012, shortly before the statewide vote on medical marijuana:

On November 6, Massachusetts voters are probably going to legalize medical marijuana. Based on the experience of other states, a very likely outcome will be an uptick in marijuana use among high school students.  Another outcome, which the latest science tells us we should expect, is that their IQs will decline as a result.

Here in Amherst, we talk about education out of both sides of the mouth. We expect academic excellence. But at the same time we acquiesce in high-schoolers’ use of euphoriants that permanently reduce IQ levels. In fact, most twelfth-graders in Amherst Regional High School think we do more than acquiesce: Approximately 60% think that our community’s laws and social norms actually favor drug use. We are sending high school students mixed messages at a time when they need and deserve greater clarity.

On the one hand, we all agree that Amherst values education.  It may be a cliché, but people really do move here for the schools. On the other hand, we tolerate (some would say promote) the use of cannabis, largely in the herbal form of marijuana.  If we really want to help our kids get through school and move on to happy, fulfilling lives, one of the most effective steps we can take is to get our stories straight. In order to do that, we need an open, community-wide conversation about our expectations.

Incidentally, this article is not a plug for prohibition. As it happens, I support legalizing medicinal marijuana, even knowing that it will probably result in greater marijuana use among high school students. Understanding the likely consequences of my vote means I have a share of the responsibility for fashioning a workable public policy response. That response requires a public conversation, and a starting point would be the survey that the Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth (SPIFFY) conducted in the high school last year.  The survey results show how two of our communal standards – commitment to academic excellence and tolerance for marijuana use – are at odds with each other.

So will marijuana reduce your chances of getting into a good college? Heavy use of cannabis, like heavy use of alcohol, causes lasting damage to the teenage brain. An article in this year’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, based on a 25-year study, showed that people in their 30s who started using cannabis as adolescents experienced serious neuropsychological impairment.  Memory, attention, and IQ all suffered. And the longer the subjects smoked for, the worse the damage.

While the SPIFFY survey reveals that about 70% of twelfth-graders thought their parents considered marijuana use wrong, almost 60% thought that Amherst’s laws and community norms actually favored drug use. What high school students are hearing from the town as a whole – contrary to what their parents are telling them – is that pot is harmless. But the study that tracked smokers over 25 years points to the opposite conclusion: Smoking marijuana regularly from adolescence onward causes brain damage, with the effects starting during the teens.

This should not come as too much of a surprise, given that we already know the brain undergoes rapid development in the teenage years. What should surprise us, however, is our failure as a community to connect the dots and think through the policy implications of this basic fact: Brain damage can have a negative impact on your SAT scores. If we want students to excel academically, we should not encourage them to smoke pot.

Thanks to the survey, we know what our high-schoolers think we think. They think we think it’s OK to smoke pot. Are they right? They deserve to know one way or the other. With leadership from the School Committee and Select Board, a community conversation about marijuana use could provide our high school students with a clear sense of what we really think.

Done and dusted

May 16, 2017:- Town Meeting concluded last night, which means that Amherst’s legislative body will not convene again until the Fall. Attendance had started to drop off anyway, and the Moderator warned that if we had to re-assemble on Wednesday we might not manage to muster a quorum. If 80% of success is showing up, Town Meeting is flirting with failure.

As for Town Meeting’s permanent work in hand, i.e. trying to manage the pace of change, the assembled members rejected a citizen petition to rezone several parcels near the Mill District in North Amherst and another citizen petition to give tax credits to landlords who rent to Section 8 voucher holders. A majority voted in favor of a Planning Board proposal that would allow more than half the bedrooms in a rental property to be of the same size so long as all the tenants meet the Town’s affordable-housing criteria.  Yes, in Amherst there is a rule prohibiting equal bedroom sizes.

We made relatively short work of a motion from Michael Burkhart, a representative from Precinct 6, who moved to reconsider the public safety budget so as to claw back $5,000.00 from the Police Department. Mr. Burkhart referred to a recent allegation of bullying at a local school and said that the police had spoken to one of the students involved, who is a student of color. Therefore the Town Meeting should cut a chunk out of the police budget. Admittedly, I may have missed a step in the syllogism, but I really was paying close attention to everything Mr. Burkhart said. I distinctly remember him declaring that this was exactly the sort of thing Black people had fled the South to escape, or words to that effect. The motion failed, I am pleased to report.

Town Meeting endorsed a carbon-fee program modeled on the one adopted in British Columbia (BC) in 2008. Since 2008, greenhouse gas emissions in BC have gone up rather than down. But based on experience I concluded that this inconvenient truth would not have swayed more than a handful of votes, not when there was an opportunity to publicly espouse a policy whose proponents said that it would do something to stop climate change. So I conserved both time (a precious non-renewable resource) and CO2 by keeping my mouth shut and my opinions to myself.  For progressive critiques of the BC carbon-tax click here and here.

At a little after 10 o’clock, we learned that the petitioners who had put an article on the warrant in favor of “universal background checks for weapon ownership” had asked to have the matter dismissed. I suspect that by “weapons” the petitioners meant firearms, and that they did not really want background checks for citizens who buy other kinds of weapons, e.g. crossbows, longbows, knives, batons, and the multitude of other objects that can constitute weapons in the eyes of the law, including (and I am not being facetious) footwear. Sadly, with the matter dismissed, we may never know.

More next Fall.

Update: yes to Fort River study

May 4, 2017:- Yesterday evening (Wednesday) Town Meeting voted to appropriate $250,000.00 for a feasibility study of the Fort River School site. Mine was one of the votes in favor. If we are going to renovate or rebuild the school, which we should, the feasibility study is an essential step.

I also voted in favor of appropriating funds for a new boiler in Wildwood Elementary School, which school has been educating small Vickerys for 15 years or so. It will have to be an oil-fired system because, as the Superintend of Public Works reminded us, a natural-gas system would be useless while the natural-gas moratorium remains in effect. And with the moratorium likely to last at least another two years, an oil-and-gas model would not make economic sense.

Up for debate next week, the “sanctuary community” article and the Jones Library proposal. If you would like to know why I shall be voting against the former and in favor of the latter, please click here.

Town Meeting update

May 2, 2017:- Yesterday evening at Town Meeting I voted in favor of creating a new Local Historic District (LHD) in the Lincoln-Sunset-Fearing neighborhood. The measure passed overwhelmingly, with only 19 votes against.

My wife, Meg, who chairs the Historical Commission, supported the article but made clear to me that our marriage would survive my voting against. Fortunately, I did not need to put that to the test: The proponents — including Professor Max Page, Director of Historic Preservation Initiatives at UMass — made a compelling case for the historic significance of the neighborhood and for the wisdom of imposing a mild brake on changes to its appearance.

Although an LHD requires homeowners to seek clearance for alterations to the exterior, it does not prohibit new structures, solar panels, interior modifications, or unorthodox choices of paint color (!), nor does it impose any mandates regarding upkeep. This new LHD excludes the buildings on North Pleasant Street near Kendrick Place on the edge of the downtown, so should not inhibit development in any way along that stretch.

If you would like to discuss any of the remaining items on the warrant (and there are a lot) please come along to the Jones Library’s Amherst Room where I will be holding an office hour 1:00-2:00 p.m. Tuesday, May 9.  Otherwise, please feel free to gt in touch via the contact form below.


Jones Library renovation and expansion grant

April 25, 2017:- Article 23 on the Town Meeting warrant seeks approval for a renovation and expansion project for the Jones Library and authority for the board of trustees to apply for a Massachusetts Public Library Construction Grant.  Last week I enjoyed a guided tour of the Jones Library and reviewed the preliminary designs for the proposed renovation and expansion.  I also read the brochure from a group called Save Our Library, which opposes the proposal, and looked at their website.

At the end of the library tour I was convinced of the need for significant renovation along the lines set forth in the preliminary designs. Particularly compelling for me was the need for clear lines of sight so that staff and parents can keep an eye on the children, a challenge that has troubled me since we started visiting the Jones way back when our eldest (now 21) was a wee toddler. The current arrangement presents real safety concerns, which the renovation would remedy.

Nothing in the opponents’ material persuaded me to change my mind; quite the contrary, in fact. Reasonable people can and do differ over these things, and I was open to persuasion, but the Save Our Library group goes overboard, so much so that it discredits whatever valid points the plan’s opponents may have. For example, the brochure ends with this pronouncement: “It takes energy to construct a new building. It saves energy to preserve an old one.”

Well, yes and no. Sometimes it takes more energy to keep using an older building than it would take to build and maintain a new one. Right now the Jones houses some fragile documents in a climate-controlled room. But the room does not have a door because of fire-code issues. Consequently much of the energy expended in the attempt to control the climate in that room is wasted. Preserving that arrangement does not save energy.

Similarly, their contention that the plan, which they characterize as the “Demolition-Expansion Plan” and a “generic cookie-cutter design” would “essentially pave paradise and put up a parking lot” greatly overstates their case.  I have no doubt that the townspeople who joined together to form Save Our Library have the interests of the community at heart and I commend their devotion to the cause. But they are in danger of giving hyperbole a bad name.

I intend to vote in favor of article 23.

If you would like to know where I stand on some of the other articles on the Town Meeting warrant, please click here.  As always, I welcome your questions and comments.

Thank you

March 29, 2017:- Thank you, voters of Precinct 2, for electing me to Town Meeting. I promise to serve you to the best of my abilities, and to abide by these words of Edmund Burke regarding a representative’s duty to his constituents:

Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.

Actually, I am not altogether sure about the sacrificing-my-pleasures bit! We are talking about Town Meeting here, not the House of Correction.

As always if you would like discuss anything on the Town Meeting warrant, please feel free to email/call.