Amherst votes in favor of $4.2 million sewer expansion, updating 55-year-old zoning map

By Daniel Nott

Representatives from across Amherst met last Wednesday at a town meeting to discuss and vote on a number of articles concerning updating and expanding town infrastructure and services.

Among other articles, the town representatives voted overwhelmingly for a $4.2 million project to expand sewer lines, and a proposal to update the official town zoning map from a paper copy dating back to 1956, to a modern digital system available online.

Expanding Amherst’s Sewers

The Sewer Extension Project, which was drafted by a firm in Cambridge, MA, will provide a town sewer line for Amherst woods and Harkness Road neighborhood, paid for by the whole of the town.

There was initial skepticism from some town representatives, many of whom were not sure the entire town should be paying for infrastructure that will affect only a small select number of residents.

Aaron Hayden, of the Amherst Select Board, called the new sewer lines a “public service,” explaining that 93% of Amherst has town sewers, which were all paid for by the town at some point.

The average increase per family is projected at $38 annually, but because the money is coming from bonds and Sewer funds, and town is retiring old debt, residents will have essentially no changes to their bill. Without town support, the prices for households to in the project areas could have reached $17,000 – $20,000 for the new sewer lines.

There are over 100 houses that will be affected in Amherst Woods, and Hayden said that nearly 200 houses total would get sewers in the street. Construction will begin on Harkness Road next year, and construction in Amherst woods will start in the following years.

Retiring an Old Map

Representatives of Amherst also voted to officially convert the Amherst Zoning Map from a paper copy that dates back to 1956, to a digital document.

While the Planning Board described the update as “the right thing to do to bring Amherst municipal services into the 21st century,” there were a few skeptics present. Vincent O’Connor of precinct 1 was concerned about the availability to people without access to computers, wondered if GIS was a brand name, and if there was a legal basis for using digital maps for municipal record keeping.

The Planning Board replied that the paper copy would still be available, and that GIS is a widely recognized tool used by nearly all municipalities in Massachusetts.

Before the article passed, Amherst’s legally recognized zoning map was a large format document consisting of over 90  22” x 18” sheets of paper. Over the years, changes to zoning and property had to be hand drawn and placed on these sheets, before multiple copies were distributed to various town offices.

Amherst Planning Director Jonathan Tucker explains the old Amherst zoning map, which is based on information from 1956

The digital Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that has officially replaced the paper document was developed in the 1990’s, but was not legally recognized as the official record until Wednesday’s meeting.

From his office on the second floor of town hall, Planning Director Jonathan Tucker explained some of the important differences between the old copy and the new one.

He described the GIS system as having “vastly greater accuracy,” compared to the old system, which measured the topography in 5 or 10-foot increments.

“The most recent flyover that was done, upon which our Geographic Information System was based, was done with laser-based method for measuring ground contours, which can measure something like 3 inch increments across town, so that the sense of where the elevation is very accurate.”

Tucker also explained that the baseline for all mapping on the federal and state level was changed in 1986, so that the old map was on a different coordinate system than the rest of Massachusetts and the country. The discrepancy also led to a difference in about of foot in elevation.

The difference in elevation is particularly important for the Flood Prone Conservancy (FPC) district, which is determined in part by a “100-Year Flood Plane,” which uses historical data and calculations to determine what the level of flooding would be in an event that would occur approximately once ever 100 years.

“When you’re talking about large, flattish areas, [a foot of elevation] can double the size of the water,” Tucker explained.

However, the map isn’t completely accurate, and the planning board is still working on figuring out exactly where the FPC district lies. According to Tucker, the Planning Board is using funds it received at the Spring Town Meeting to collect data on where the FPC actually is.

“Once we have that data we can change the boundary on the new map to reflect that,” said Tucker.

Tucker also explained that the GIS system would allow the town to continually update their map. “There are zoning changes every 6 months, every time we have a town meeting we usually have some zoning change whether it’s rules or boundaries.”

A page from the old Amherst zoning map showing the Flood Prone Conservancy (FPC) district.

Additionally, property boundaries change even more rapidly than zoning boundaries. Tucker explained that they used to send the Assessor’s maps out to an engineering firm once a year to redraw all of the property boundary changes that occurred in the previous year.

“This would be accurate for about a week and a half, and then it would sort of just accumulate inaccuracy as time went on,” said Tucker.

The changes were all done on the original paper, in some cases with different layers of Mylar and tape that was cut with an Xacto knife, in other cases they were drawn in.

“That district isn’t even there anymore,” he said, pointing to a series of lines on the now decommissioned map, “It hasn’t been there in 10 years,”

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