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Amherst moves forward on intersection despite vote

AMHERST — Amherst officials will seek a state grant that would pay for improvements at a downtown intersection despite a vote this week by Town Meeting not to pursue easements that may be necessary.

Town Manager John Musante said Thursday that he expects the Department of Public Works and the Public Works Committee to continue examining options for upgrading the intersection of East Pleasant and Triangle streets and to apply to the MassWorks state grant program that would fund the entire cost of the planned improvements.

These improvements could include a roundabout that is slightly larger than the one at the intersection of Eastman Lane and North Pleasant Street, adding dedicated left-turn lanes or just changing the existing signals.

But the decision not to pursue easements, made when Town Meeting Wednesday failed to get a two-thirds vote of support, will likely make the application less competitive. “The authority to acquire easements would be helpful in a grant application,” Musante said.

Select Board Chairman Aaron Hayden said the town would get extra points from the state for having the easements in the process of being secured.

“Even though our chances are reduced, that intersection has to be looked at,” Hayden said.

Amherst twice lost out on similar MassWorks grants, a program that pays for infrastructure improvements tied to economic development. They would have paid for water and sewer work on Pine Street and reconstruction of the road. The rejections were attributed, in part, to failed zoning changes for the North Amherst village center designed to encourage construction of new businesses and residential units.

The warrant article defeated Wednesday would have allowed town officials to pursue easements for privately owned parcels at 75 East Pleasant St. and 231 Triangle St., even though no money was to be appropriated.

Musante said even though the vote failed, the discussion indicates that Town Meeting members understand the intersection needs to be fixed.

“There clearly is not yet consensus on what the most appropriate enhancement to that intersection needs to be, but there is agreement that the intersection needs to be improved,” Musante said.

He added that a University of Massachusetts study indicates that even with more development in the vicinity, the intersection would remain functional and safe. The problems with the intersection are the time it takes vehicles to get through it and potential backups caused by people turning.

Many Town Meeting members expressed concern about the changes that might take place when the five-story, mixed-use Kendrick Place project is constructed, likely later this year. Some questioned how town planners approved the project, which features 144 beds for college students on the upper floors.

Mary Wentworth of Precinct 5 said it was a mistake for the Planning Board to approve the project, while Paige Wilder of Precinct 10 showed on an overhead projector the building’s appearance and how close it will be to the roads.

Elissa Rubinstein of Precinct 10 said the town appeared to have its process backwards, approving a new development before determining how the intersection should be fixed.

John Fox, also of Precinct 10, said the mixed-use building adds new hazards because so many people will be living there and walking to UMass. “We need a clearer picture of the dangers,” he said.

But Bernie Kubiak of Precinct 8, who retired as town administrator in Deerfield, said pursuing the easements just makes the town more competitive in accessing state money.

Musante said a clearer sense of changes to the intersection will result from reviews by the Public Works Committee which will give residents the opportunity to express their views. Musante said the review will include how pedestrians and bicycles, as well as vehicles get through the intersection. It will also provide cost estimates ranging from the most expensive, with the least expensive only changing the traffic signals. Adding dedicated left-turn lanes would likely require taking a portion of land from the town-owned Kendrick Park.

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