Proposed off-campus student housing development sparks community

By Shelby Ashline

Concerned about the effects of developing a new housing complex in the woodlands of Amherst, an organization called “Save Historic Cushman” has brought together community members in opposition of the potential construction.

Andrew Watt/Flickr

Landmark Properties, working out of Athens, Ga., is considering buying 146.6 acres of woodlands in Cushman, on which they would construct multi-bedroom cottages primarily geared toward students. A total of 175 units were proposed, which could house approximately 641 residents, according to the Amherst town website.

According to Jack Hirsch, president of “Save Historic Cushman,” safety is a primary concern.  Hirsch said that Landmark Properties asked the town to modify the roads that would be constructed throughout Cushman as a result of the development.

“All of those modifications basically make the roads less safe,” said Hirsch, adding that the roads would potentially have “narrower turning radiuses” and “steeper grades than the town allows” in order to save money during construction.

The organization is also concerned about the population of spotted salamanders, which are native to Massachusetts. They worry that Landmark Properties will use harmful pesticides on the lawns of the cottages, or that the salamanders will be harmed during the construction itself.

Members of the organization also appreciate the traditional building patterns of the old mill town and its preserved historical aspects, and fear that the entire atmosphere of rural Cushman could be changed as a result of the development. The project would more than double the area’s population.

Residents of Cushman also fear their property values could decrease as a result of the development. However, not all of the 200 members of “Save Historic Cushman” actually live in the village; concern is felt by “citizens from other parts of Amherst and further afield” as well, according to the organization’s website.

Hirsch feels the ideal outcome would be to have the land put in a conservation trust and for construction to be avoided.

However, Landmark Properties is interested in developing in Cushman to accommodate student needs.

“The Town of Amherst has a shortage of rental housing,” said Jason Doornbos, senior vice president of development at Landmark Properties in an email.

“There has been very little new housing built over the past several decades to keep up with demand in Amherst,” Doornbos continued. “Our product type fits within the current zoning of the Town, is open to any member of the community who qualifies and allows us to offer a variety of features that address concerns we have heard from the community, such as property management and maintenance.”

The process by which Landmark Properties would receive approval for their construction is lengthy.

First, Landmark Properties submitted a Preliminary Subdivision Plan application to the Amherst Planning Department on Oct. 28. The application outlined the proposed layout of roadways and lots on the Cushman property.

According to the Amherst website, they proposed to divide the acreage up into a roadway and 136 lots, 123 of which would be developed as house lots.

The Planning Board is holding a public hearing on the Preliminary Subdivision Plan for Landmark Properties’ development, which they call ‘The Retreat,’ on Dec. 4, according to the Amherst website. Amherst residents are welcome to voice their opinions at the hearing.

The Planning Board then must file its decision, along with any recommendations for improvement of the plan, with the town clerk by Dec. 13.

The Conservation Committee will also be involved. Landmark Properties must file a Notice of Intent, showing where all of the elements of the project are located in relation to streams, wetlands and other bodies of water.

The Conservation Committee will issue an Order of Conditions explaining exactly what steps the developers must take to minimize impact on the environment.

Then, Landmark Properties will be asked to formulate a Definitive Subdivision Plan, which is expected to incorporate the recommendations made by the Planning Board. It will be necessary for the company to conduct extensive study of the environment in order to determine where construction is feasible and how the property might need to be changed to support the development.

In addition, the company must file a Site Plan Review Cluster (SPR-C) application with the Planning Board. This plan would be more detailed, outlining the specific locations of buildings as well as any proposed planting, paving, drainage, etc.  Both plans must be approved, and public hearings will be held throughout the process.

Finally, Landmark Properties must file a Building Permit application with the Amherst Building Commissioner. Because construction can only be started after the company has worked its way through this complex system of regulations, is it difficult to say how long it will be before construction can commence, if at all.

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected]