Columnist Johanna Neumann: Halfway there — 2023 a year for major green projects in Amherst

Johanna Neumann

Johanna Neumann FILE PHOTO

By JOHANNA NEUMANN

Published: 02-03-2024 10:53 AM

Happy 2024. After my last column, I got feedback from a reader who pointed out that I missed a topic in my round-up of environmental progress in 2023. She mentioned that I had completely failed to mention Amherst voters overwhelmingly approving plans for a new elementary school building and the environmental benefits it will bring.

First, I did a double-take. I had been working to educate voters about the need for a new school and building support for the project since 2016. Honestly, the years blurred in my head. Had it really been in 2023 that voters gave their final and resounding approval to plans to replace Fort River and Wildwood schools with a new school at the Fort River site that would run entirely on renewable energy? Indeed it had. I’m grateful for the correction.

Thanks to that vote, over the coming months, we’ll get final approvals and then celebrate as our new school comes together, which will bring significant environmental benefits to our town.

Environmental benefits of the new Fort River School

Unlike the existing school buildings, the new Fort River School will be energy efficient and fossil fuel free, producing as much energy as it uses. It will feature efficient, all-electric systems powered by clean renewable energy systems such as ground source heat pumps and rooftop solar panels. Add to that other environmental sustainability features including reduced water consumption, efficient building design, non-toxic materials, water refill stations without lead in the fixtures, and we’ll have a cleaner, safer school for everyone.

Our new school will put a serious dent in our town’s contribution to global warming. Over the coming years, other cities and towns, many of whom will be looking to put new federal clean energy incentives to work, will look to Amherst to see how it’s done.

‘Oh, we’re halfway there …’

Beyond the school building itself, its approval unlocked progress to address Amherst’s major capital projects, which have been on the punch list for decades. Of those four, the elementary school and the library renovation and expansion both got their final approvals in 2023.

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Still on the list are a fire station for South Amherst, and a proper Department of Public Works headquarters (DPW). I’ve written about the necessity of each of these projects over the years and how important it is that they not be pitted against one another.

2023 was a banner year for infrastructure investment in Amherst. With the Town Council’s 12-1 vote in April and 82% of voters approving the debt exclusion override in May, the elementary school building project passed with flying colors. Likewise, 65% of voters approved the library project in 2021 and this fall, our Town Council approved it with a 12-0-1 vote. Today, when I think about the four capital projects, a BonJovi song comes to mind: “Oh, we’re halfway there… woah, living on a prayer.”

Living on more than a prayer

Thankfully, when it comes to the capital projects, Amherst is living on more than a prayer. Town leaders have been planning for these projects for decades and have positioned us with a solid financial foundation to take them on, including a AAA bond rating and low debt load. Our town’s leaders understand the importance and interconnectedness of these four projects, and if past votes are any indication, so does our electorate.

So, in 2024, at the same time that we advance and cheer on the school and library projects, we need to do all we can to advance the fire station and DPW. We will need this infrastructure in place to handle the challenges of the 21st century.

And we face challenges aplenty. Like all communities on earth, Amherst is vulnerable to climate change, with the impacts already apparent. We need to continue to act with urgency to stop burning fossil fuels while also investing in the natural systems that buffer us from the worst impacts of a warming world. And global warming is not the only challenge we face. Our teachers want to live in Amherst, but can’t afford it. Our village centers feature cars and gas stations instead of people and gathering places. Our roads are pot-holed, our bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is piece-meal. Each of these problems has solutions, and we need to clear last century’s punch list to position Amherst to solve them.

And, as Jon Bon Jovi clearly knew when he sang “take my hand, we’ll make it I swear,” by working together we can get it done.

Johanna Neumann of Amherst has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.