Friday, August 28, 2015

A Final Request

Monday night marks my 14th annual visit (the 1st being in October, 2001) to the Amherst Select Board to request 9/11 be added to the permanent short list of events the 29 commemorative flags fly in the downtown to commemorate, both celebratory -- like July 4th -- or Memorial Day, which is somber.  

And over the course of my lifetime days just don't get any sadder than the morning of 9/11, which dawned as bright and beautiful as any day in the history of our country. 

But this will be my last such visit.

The board will either agree to allow the flags to fly every year rather than once every five years, thus ending the need for such annual visits; or they will say "No," to finally -- irrevocably -- suck the vital essence from my soul.

Because if this particular Select Board (where 4 of 5 individual members have previously supported annual flying) can't now come together to do the right thing, then all hope is lost.

Click to enlarge/read

Amherst Town Meeting, 2007 (another good reason to nix Town Meeting)

A Lot Off The Top

DPW Tree crew strategizing how to safely take down large tree off Triangle Street

This massive 100' poplar tree is coming down piece by piece in what can only be described as a challenging removal.  Mainly because it's so BIG, and its location next to a commercial building.   

 Height of tree pushes the limits of the bucket truck

The tree was recently hit by lightning and could not be saved. 

Shot from 150' up

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Viva La Revolucion!

Amherst Town Government comes up for voter scrutiny ... again
1st of 3,500 signatures 4:35 PM today

The most epic local political battle in the entire history of our town will see a return engagement in 2016 as Amherst For All, has initiated the movement to place before voters formation of a Charter Commission to study and present a new improved form of local governance.

In other words, a death sentence for 257 year old Amherst representative Town Meeting, which many people now think is no longer "representative."

Amherst, a "college town", has the lowest median age in the state (22) where the majority of residents are renters; but Town Meeting is mostly populated by a gray-haired crowd of homeowners.

Who yell at the 22-year-olds to "get off their lawn!"

While self absorbed NIMBY/BANANA zealots have never reached a majority level in Town Meeting, the problem is they only require one-third-plus-one minority to stop any reasonable pro-development zoning article. And that low benchmark was reached a long time ago.

 Amherst Town Meeting last May

Amherst's tax base is 90% residential and only 10% commercial, with over half the property in town owned by tax-exempts, mainly our higher education entities:  Amherst College, UMass and Hampshire College respectively.

On April 3rd, 2001 Amherst voters -- with a voter turnout of 17% -- endorsed the formation of a Charter Commission which came up with a mayor/council form of government, but one that also retained a town manager.

Question 1 (binding): Charter formation?  Question 3 (non binding): Should we dump Town Meeting?

In April, 2003  -- with a voter turnout of 31% -- that ballot question to change our form of government failed by only 14 votes, 2414  to 2400 (with 21 blank ballots cast).  Two years later -- with a voter turnout of 35% -- the same question lost by 252 votes, 2,953 to 2,701.

Fast forward to this afternoon.  According to Town Clerk Sandra Burgess:

The petition must contain the signature of 15% of the number of registered voters in that city or town at the time of the last state election.

Because this is state law, the number of registered voters includes inactives.

The total number of registered voters at the last state election (2014) was 21,430.  So if you were planning on filing a petition to place a charter question on the 2016 Annual Town Election Ballot you would have to collect 3,215 signatures to force the question on the ballot.  

Town Clerk Sandra Burgess accepts Ballot Committee papers from Adam Lussier

To make the deadline for the 2016 annual election ballot all the signatures must be confirmed 100 days before the election (the exact date has not yet been set) so roughly by mid-December.  Considering the Charter Commission created at the annual 2001 election required almost two years to collect the (2,600) signatures, an ambitious time line.

Back then, however, the signatures were collected pretty much single handedly by one very determined man, Stan Durnakowski, using the tagline Amherst needs a (strong) Mayor.

Mr. Durnakowski was also elected to the Charter Commission but he couldn't convince a quorum of fellow commissioners to support a strong mayor.

The Charter Commission instead opted for a weak mayor, maintained a "professional" town manager but did at least ditch town meeting in favor of a city council.

The 9-member Charter Commission is elected on the same ballot that voters approve forming said Commission, so it's important Amherst For All put up a slate of candidates who will represent their views for reforming town government.

Under Massachusetts Home Rule Amendment to the state's constitution the newly elected Charter Commission then has 18 months to produce its "Final Report," aka a blueprint for a new & improved government.  During that time period the Commission must hold at least two public forums.

The BIG difference today vs 2003 when the Charter change failed by only 14 votes is Social Media (why you're reading this here first).  Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin were not even born, and blogs were in their infancy.

Thus the power of the web will be a key factor this time around.

And when the cyber-smoke clears I foresee Stan Durnakowski looking down from above, giving us a thumbs up ... with his bespectacled face glowing with a broad grin.

Select Board member Jim Wald (who would be out of a job) and concerned looking Town Meeting aficionado Vince O'Connor (who would also be out of a job) look on as the Town Clerk briefs Amherst For All Steering Committee

Official Kick Off Signature Drive Launch Party is September 2nd @ The Pub from 5-7PM 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

$ From Heaven

Little Red Schoolhouse:  Worth $500,000 to move?

Just as a concrete example of how some activists think Community Preservation Act money raised each year by a tax surcharge on all residential property (except tax-exempts of course) free money to be plundered on a personal whim, I give you last night's CPA pubic meeting:

Carol Gray now admits the moving of Amherst College owned Little Red Schoolhouse would cost in the $325,000 to $375,000 range and at the moment she has not raised a single penny towards that (relying instead on CPA historical preservation funds) and currently has no site secured for the relocated building to call home.

Amherst College Facilities Director Jim Brassord was in attendance and pegged the actual amount -- based on quotes from a contractor who already moved two College owned buildings -- as being "North of $500,000."  Ouch!

 Carol Gray left, Jim Brassord back row in white shirt

I left the meeting near 9:00 PM after Ms. Gray gave her presentation, as she was the 3rd and last item on the agenda.

But Vince O'Connor, who chimed in freely during the three presentations, then commandeered the meeting and gave close to a half-hour pitch to squander $300,000 in CPA funds to rebuild the (supposedly historic) Mill Street Bridge.

 Posted agenda for last night's CPA meeting (note Mr. O'Connor's crusade is not mentioned)

Mill Street Bridge closed 3 years ago due to safety concerns

Since this ridiculous item was not on the agenda (and had it been I would most certainly have stayed to cover it) the CPA Committee -- under Open Meeting Law -- should not even have allowed the discussion.  

Not to mention the state is planning to rebuild the Mill Street Bridge next year with STATE MONEY.

Mr. O'Connor brought a warrant article to Amherst Town Meeting last spring to reopen the bridge but it failed handily.  A vote to "refer back to committee" is Town Meeting's nice way of saying "go away."

 Vince O'Connor bridge scheme unanimously rejected by Public Works Committee in April

Back in 2007 the town spent $287,000 in CPA money to preserve the view of the historic Kimball House on North East Street, even though it is (still) owned by Roger Cherewatti, who then built the most expensive house in Amherst immediately behind it.

Which kind of takes away from the view.

If the CPA Committee approves funding either Ms. Gray or Mr. O'Connor tilting at windmills,  taxpayer should figure out how to recall appointed members of the committee.

Three's A Crowd

321 Lincoln Avenue, Amherst's Great White whale

After two years of cat and mouse attempts at enforcement of the zoning bylaw limiting 321 Lincoln Avenue to only two apartments ("two family") one of which must be "owner occupied" Building Commissioner Rob Morra declared victory with a signed legal document recorded 4/27/15.

The first thing You-Pan Tzeng did after buying 321 Lincoln Avenue three years ago was try to remove the "owner occupied" zoning requirement that legally came along with the building, which he of course knew about prior to purchasing it.

Tzeng lost that court battle but not before costing Amherst taxpayers over $15,000 in legal fees.

Neighbors along Fearing Street and Lincoln Avenue had been complaining almost since the day  he purchased the property, mainly about the extra tenants and the noise and cars that come with them.

But Inspection Services can't simply walk into a house unless invited to do so by a legal resident.  Last winter Morra received a call from a Boston attorney requesting he inspect the premises at 321 Lincoln where his daughter was a tenant.

They had been told when signing a lease that the house was only two apartments -- hers and the one below -- but the daughter clearly heard sounds associated with a 3rd unit above her.

At last the Building Commissioner had the legal grounds to do a complete inspection. Once Mr. Morra confirmed the presence of a stand alone unit on the 3rd floor -- complete with bedroom and kitchen -- he could assess fines of $100 per  day

Tzeng could not throw out the legal tenants from either of the two apartments (especially when one has a lawyer dad) because they had a signed lease and the third illegal unit was "owner occupied" by his daughter who attends UMass.

Hmm ... what to do?  Surrender!

This time, Moby Dick did not escape.

Click to enlarge
Cracked structural beam just discovered in June at 321 Lincoln Avenue

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Building On Rental Success

Mandi Jo Hanneke, Rob Morra (Building Commish), Pat Kamins, Maurianne Adams

Building Commissioner Rob Morra told the Rental Bylaw Implementation Group this afternoon that after 18 months the new Rental Permit Program is going better than expected but could still be improved -- most notably via a strengthening of the bylaw.

The second Fiscal Year of operation started July 1st and by the end of the month 1,260 properties had renewed their permits, almost exactly the same number who enrolled the previous year.

About 30-40 new properties joined the list but about that many dropped off because they were no longer renting, so it was pretty much  a wash.

With the $100 annual fee the program generated a $126,000 in revenues while break even for administrating is probably in the $165,000 range, a target figure that was given to Town Meeting two years ago when the program was first enacted.

The Town Manager could possibly consider a fee hike next year to increase revenues, bringing the program to a break even mark.

The main change Morra would like to see is the ability to (re)inspect properties that have been the subject of complaints and found by his department to be in violation of building/health codes.  In Fiscal Year 2014 his department found 214 violations.

Currently a landlord "self inspects" the property and town inspectors only become involved when a tenant lodges a complaint.  Morra pointed out that in some of the most egregious violations found the landlord/manager had checked off the self inspection form indicating that all was fine.

Kind of like what Iran nuclear self inspectors will be doing in the near future.

The Rental Bylaw Implementation Group was not overly enthusiastic about strengthening the bylaw just now (but maybe in the spring of 2017) to allow for mandatory inspections, siting mainly privacy concerns.  They also wish to see data to show how many of those 214 violations last year were repeat offenders.

Another idea presented by Morra was also met with wariness, also due to privacy concerns:  A joint task force made up of police, fire, health department and the new UMass neighborhood liaison (Eric Beal) with a mission to tour a usual suspect street or neighborhood.

The goal would not be to simply hand out enforcement tickets but to educate and inform residents of their rights to live in a safe rental property.  Morra thought if the pilot program does come to fruition it would kick off in late September or sometime before Halloween.

The Rental Registration Bylaw was overwhelmingly passed by Town Meeting two years ago as one means of bringing rowdy Party Houses under control, but mainly to prevent tragedies that can occur when slum lords have free reign.

So far this important public safety program is two for two.

Signs of Summer's End

Black Lives Matter group protest in front of APD at high noon today

Yes when you live in a "college town" there are some unmistakable signs that summer is quickly coming to a close and our population is about to double with students flocking to our three institutes of higher education.

From the ubiquitous  "Welcome Back Students" signs in shopkeepers windows to the downtown traffic jams created by a co-mingling of cars and college aged youth.

Political activism will pick up where it left off last spring with the current cause de jour being "Black Lives Matter."  Today at noon a group of about 30 marched around and through the Town Common and set up shop in front of the Amherst Police Station at 111 Main Street.

They were pretty much ignored by APD, although not by the local bricks and mortar media or pedestrians in the downtown.  Which, I suppose, is the general idea.