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Amherst residents prize their quality of life and want to protect what they have, according to those attending a series of planning meetings being held by town officials.

For the first time in nearly 25 years, Amherst is developing a new comprehensive master plan, and scores of residents turned out for three meetings Tuesday and Wednesday to comment on their hopes for the future.

According to planning officials, most residents want the next 20 years to be a lot like the present.

"The feeling was . . ., 'We're pretty happy with the way things are. . . . Let's hold on to that,' " John E. Fernsler, a town planning consultant, said Wednesday.

Fernsler and others who are helping to draft the master plan say Amherst residents may be concerned about increasing development, traffic congestion and the loss of green space, but by and large, they appreciate what they have.

As a result, any new plan for the town will likely include strategies to preserve the quality of life and avoid service cutbacks, officials say.

"Residents love it here and they are satisfied . . . (but) they have high demands about the services they get," Fernsler told about 30 people who attended a Wednesday afternoon planning session in the Hutchinson Hose Company hall, 5005 Sheridan Drive.

The planning process, which began with a series of workshops last fall, will culminate with the drafting of a new master plan after members of the public have their say in so-called "visioning" sessions. Planners will continue to seek public comments from block clubs and other groups throughout next month, they said.

Public comments are being sought on three major topics:

Land use and development -- how should Amherst use its remaining vacant land and deal with new developments while redeveloping older areas of the town? Studies show that only 20 percent of the town is still regarded as vacant land.

The character of the community -- what qualities should the town have when it reaches its 200th birthday in about 20 years? Residents are being asked for ideas for how to deal with traffic congestion, housing, shopping, schools, cultural and natural resources, and other community assets.

Public investment -- what improvements are needed in transportation systems, utilities, parks and recreation areas, and other public facilities? According to studies, Amherst has a generous amount of park and recreation space, but most of the space is concentrated in larger facilities. Meanwhile, there is a lack of neighborhood parks, and residents consider their waterways to be under stress, planners say.

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