Sunday, July 31, 2011

Americana deja vu


Time travel, that staple of science fiction debunked by science fact, is easily accomplished from Amherst with a 35 minute drive north up winding Rt 63 any clear summer evening--as long as it's on a weekend.

Like video rental stores, phone booths or typewriter repair shops, drive in movie theaters are an All-But-Dead breed. That did not, however, hinder the enjoyment for hundreds of folks of all ages who descended on the Northfield Drive In last night, one of only a few such outposts of family entertainment left in New England.

And you could not ask for a better feature attraction than "Captain America: The First Avenger."

Ah the good old days, when bad guys--all dressed in black--were really, really bad; and the good guy bedecked in red, white and blue, was especially virtuous. As usual our hero had perfect timing to save New York, his city of birth, from a devastating sneak attack.

Where oh where was Captain America ten year ago when New York City needed him most?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Colors o'er the Amherst skyline

No wonder the five-story Boltwood Place project is really starting to take shape: the construction crew keeps busy even on a Saturday.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just say NO

I'm not the only one Attorney Regina Tate advises her client--the Amherst Schools--to deny access to public documents.

Back in March parents with a vested interest in Special Education requested the credentials and certifications of the "interim" (going on two years now) Director of Special Education JoAnn Smith, a $99,612 salaried public employee very much in the "public eye".

Under advice of Nancy Reagan--I mean-- Attorney Regina Tate, the Amherst schools refused to comply by invoking "exception C", the privacy exemption.The petitioner appealed to the Public Records Division and received a telling response earlier this month from staff attorney Lori Sullivan:

I have received your inquiry on the status of your public records appeal. A review of the matter reveals that the Amherst Pelham School District (School District) is withholding teacher and staff credentials/certifications. Our office will have to send an administrative order to the School District to try to get them to comply with the request. Once it is drafted and reviewed by the Assistant Director, it will be mailed to both the School District and to you.

According to easily accessed public records information available online: "Specifically, any relevant degrees and certifications listed on an employee’s resume may be subject to disclosure upon request. Public employees have a diminished expectation of privacy in matters relating to their public employment and the public has a legitimate interest in knowing whether public employees possess the qualifications necessary to perform their jobs."

Seems pretty simply to me. But then, I'm not an expensive Big City lawyer.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Too much advocacy?

Hwei-Ling Greeney: passionate advocate for the homeless

The Committee on Homelessness put up a fiesty defense tonight against the Select Board idea of merging them into a new entity more closely resembling the current Housing Partnership Fair Housing Committee, mainly because they are too passionate about advocating for the needs of the homeless.

Hwei-Ling Greeney, Chair of the Committee on Homelessness pointed out that the Housing Partnership has been in existence for almost 30 years and did nothing for the homeless. Ms. Greeney also observed that individual Select Board members did not show up this past winter at the shelter to drop off food or play cards with guests, yet now they are making this momentous decision impacting the shelter.

When Milestone Ministries announced last week they would not renew their contract to run the homeless shelter this coming season, partly because of "micromanaging" by the Committee on Homelessness, the Select Board took direct aim at legislating the committee out of existence. Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe called Milestone's decision "A serious step backwards."

A charge Ms. Greeney said "scapegoated" her committee.

Homeless advocate Kevin Noonan said Town Meeting can be "contentious" yet nobody talks about merging them with the Select Board. He also noted that Pastor Desroches of Milestone Ministries mentioned the "micromanaging" issue almost as an aside rather than a major game changer.

The town has secured $100,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding for the upcoming season to operate the shelter and Ms Greeney said she knew of five organizations that would respond to a town Request For Proposals and be ready to open the shelter November 1.

Had any of the homeless attended tonight's meeting to observe the one hour "discussion" they probably would have felt elated that town government is fighting over them so passionately.

Kevin Noonan called the "vilification" of the Committee on Homelessness "disturbing"

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"A paramount and prevailing right to know"

Click photos to enlarge/read

Let's hope
Amherst Schools' attorney Regina Tate is embarrassed enough by the Public Records Division's official ruling to perhaps feel guilty about billing the client--'We the People'--for such bad advice.

After all, town attorney Joel Bard, a principal with Boston law firm Kopelman and Paige, perused my duplicate request to Town Hall a few months before the Schools and correctly advised Town Manager John Musante to turn over all the requested documents.

I especially like the Public Documents pros addressing the issue of municipal employees outside the "public eye". Attorney Tate seems to think that anything happening beyond the "public eye"--i.e. under cover of darkness--should stay forever buried.

All of those secret deals are now in the realm of the undead.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Another cool move


So Friday as temperatures again hit the century mark the Jones Library, rather than closing at noon for all employees to attend the annual Town/Company picnic, stayed open until 5:30 PM so patrons and passerbys could seek relief from the oppressing heat and read a book, newspaper or use the wifi.

Who says librarians aren't cool?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gateway remains open


Maybe it was the nearly 100 degree heat outside Town Hall as tonight's Amherst Redevelopment Authority meeting concerning the joint effort Gateway Project attracted more major players--Town Manager John Musante and UMass Deputy Chancellor Todd Diacon--then the usual contingent of concerned neighbors, with but one making a friendly appearance.

Or perhaps the prolonged public process and endless meetings with a plethora of public comments has resulted in a "vision" for that strategic corridor that could actually work to the benefit of all the stakeholders--including hard pressed taxpayers.

We voted unanimously to have ARA member Aaron Hayden (former Chair of the Planning Board and current Select Board member) draft a letter to the Planning Board politely suggesting they "adopt" the Gateway Vision as presented by our consultant Gianni Longo.

I suggested we also ask Town Meeting via an advisory article to support the Gateway Vision as that would allow even more public discussion by insiders who thrive on discussion; and if the broad general vision cannot muster a simply majority vote of that legislative body there's no way in Hell a specific plan will someday win over the two-thirds supermajority required for a necessary zoning change

The Town Manager, sitting shoulder to shoulder with Vice Chancellor Diacon, confirmed that "discussions with UMass are ongoing." He added that he was "very pleased with the planning charrettes and the responsiveness of the consultant."

The overall vision demonstrated that the town and ARA "was serious about broad community input." He circled back to declare the vision a "very, very positive step."

At our next meeting August 4 we should know whether UMass buys into the vision and still wishes to donate the prime 2 acre "catalyst" on which everything now hinges. The Town Manager will also have met with state officials regarding grants for infrastructure improvements and additional consulting on a market analysis, traffic study, and form based code zoning.

So before the steamy weather turns crispy cool, we will know if Gateway is a go...or a goner.

Gentlemen, start your brewers!

As the Amherst Brewing Company prepares for an August opening in the former Leading Edge Gym location on University Drive--with a new white picket fence for outdoor dining--the vacated 12,000 square foot downtown location owned by Barry Roberts will be filled by yet another brew pub, High Horse Brewery and Bistro. Manager Jason DiCaprio received Select Board blessing on Monday night and goes before the Zoning Board of Appeals tonight but should also have no problem gaining their unanimous approval.

Only a few years ago I would have been uncomfortable making that prediction.

Musical bar stools anyone?

A cooling place

Sure beats kids (or pressured parents) opening up fire hydrants.

Free Admission at Middle School Pool During Heat Wave

In order to provide everyone in the community a safe place to swim during this recent heat wave, admission to the Amherst Regional Middle School Pool will be FREE beginning Thursday, July 21st through Sunday, July 24th.

Open swim hours at the Middle School Pool are Thursday and Friday 5 pm - 7 pm and Lap Swim from 7- 8 pm. Weekend hours are Open Swim Saturday and Sunday from 1 pm - 6 pm. The Amherst Regional Middle School Swimming Pool is supervised by American Red Cross certified lifeguards.

For a detailed schedule of Town of Amherst aquatics programs visit the department’s website at lsse.org or call 413-259-3065.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Scary" indeed

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Amherst Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe was hardly soothed by the Town Manager's Report--or I should say update--concerning the twin train derailments and the resulting measures taken by New England Central Railroad to address them.

If the cause of both potentially devastating mishaps was a "high water table" (and that area is indeed a swamp) then simply replacing old rotted ties and fasteners does not address the underlying problem, although it certainly helps.

But if that was pretty much NECRs response--surface hardware replacement-- then if they had refurbished those long neglected rails a few months earlier, would it not have prevented both accidents?

A recent study by UMass Hydrogeologist David Boutt published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters demonstrates that as a result of rising temperatures and climate change, average precipitation in the Northeast has increase by 30% since 1900, and water tables have indeed become consistently higher over the past ten years.

Since this a long-term phenomena, chances are it's not going to reverse itself in the short-term future. Combine this soggy weather trend with the activity of beavers in that low lying area and you have a recipe for returning to the prehistoric days of Lake Hitchcock.

Perhaps when the tracks near Station Road are submerged, NECR or the Federal Railroad Administration will address the real problem.

Let's hope they do so before another accident occurs.

Trains, bike paths, beavers and global warming make for a bad mix

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Art in the Park


The Youth Action Coalition--those kids who brought you a permanent mural on the side of the Amherst Cinema building--are at it again, this time with a less ambitious art project dangling in the middle of Kendrick Park: "Amherst Truths."

Oh, if they only knew.

Click photos to enlarge/read

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ghost in the machine

North Whitney Street crossing

I hope the town manager, fresh back from a two week vacation, reads the Amherst police logs as New England Central Railroad made their report twice over the weekend--both times for maintenance issues.

Coincidentally enough the Town Manager is giving an "update on the train derailments" to the Select Board this evening. Spfld Republican Reports


High Street Crossing

Busy Main Street crossing
APD contacted NECR on Sunday afternoon as citizens were complaining the lights and bells had been on for an hour and a half with no train in sight. Again late Sunday night just after midnight another complaint from High Street the next street over for phantom trains setting off the bells and lights.

Well I guess it is better for the alarms to be going off when there's no train a comin' vs not having them go off when a train is barreling through town. I guess...
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High Street crossing Monday 10:45 AM with no train in sight

The same mysterious white powder found on Station Road

Sunday, July 17, 2011

And our flag was still there


Hard to believe it's been over six weeks since that terrible tornado tore its way through the city of Springfield, surrounding towns and neighborhoods. Here's just one of them--and it doesn't come close to measuring up to the damage inflicted on some others nearby.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A moveable feast

Amherst Farmers Market opened for business today (rent free as always) in a new location, a stone's throw from the old one currently undergoing a six week makeover by our DPW. This parking lot, although a tad smaller, is located more directly in the heart of downtown.

Last November a brief "Save the Market" campaign started on the privately owned town meeting listserve where activist rail at the drop of a hat, and market organizers flooded the Select Board with letters/petitions of concern. Unlike the Boy Scouts selling Christmas trees at Kendrick Park (for far longer than the Farmers Market has been in business) the town would never dream of banning or disrupting the farmers--a prized, protected demographic.

After all, the town seal is a book and a plow.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cherry Hill: A sucking sinkhole


Despite Finance Committee assurances to Town Meeting that our lackadaisical golf course would produce "a small surplus for FY 11," (ended June 30) Cherry Hill scored yet another losing season costing Amherst taxpayers $40,000, money that could have funded a police officer, firefighter or teacher--a far better use for tax dollars than subsidizing the Rich Man's Game of golf.

According to draft figures provided by Comptroller Sonia Aldrich, Cherry Hill generated $223,538 in revenues on "operation expenses" of $220,140 which are the only two figures town officials ever wish to compare.

Since Cherry Hill requires employees, the hidden human costs--employee benefits--which are paid out of a separate budget totaled an additional $25,230; and business liability insurance $3,300 plus a big ticket capital item: $15,000 to dig a new well to feed the expensive irrigation system. Total overhead of $263,670 on revenues of only $223,538 equals $40,132 in red ink.

In 1987 Amherst absorbed the nine-hole golf course after a developer proposed 134 high-end houses around the golf business, which he planned to donate to the town or UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture for free. Instead, the town--at the urging of North Amherst NIMBYs-- used the power of eminent domain as an "emergency measure" (thereby making the heavy handed action immune to voter Referendum) costing taxpayers a whopping $2.2 million, the most expensive acquisition in town history.

The golf course operated as an "Enterprise Fund" (tracking all revenues/expenditures) because the business was supposed to cover all expenses--including employee benefits--plus show a profit. After operational losses of over $1 million Town Meeting dissolved the Enterprise Fund status five years ago, allowing town officials to hide costs and issue disingenuous press releases touting "net operating profits."

Nero supposedly fiddled while Rome burned. In the People's Republic of Amherst, town officials fiddle with golf--at taxpayers expense.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Gateway: "Not dead yet!"


I was considering a motion for the next Amherst Redevelopment Authority meeting to use our remaining funds ($30,000) to hire a hitman to take out Amherst Chamber of Commerce Director Tony Maroulis over his Front Page/Above-The-Fold comment in today's Amherst Bulletin: "I think what we came up with for the Gateway parcel is not so exciting." Yikes!

But then I received this email:

Sent: Thu, Jul 14, 2011 11:16 am
Subject: FW: Gateway article corrected quote for blog

My quote was taken out of context within a much larger conversation that was a much more relevant expression of my thoughts on Gateway. I said I wasn't excited about Gateway with the caveat that I said that that money was well spent. Especially since there is consensus around high-density zoning near and around Kendrick Park. The plan was also a rejection of the status quo, which in the end, even if we don't get what I think is exciting is a big step in the right direction.

I also made a lot of salient points about people insisting change is bad, expressed so within the article by Louis Greenbaum. Change is always happening, and we need to make some changes to be the best college town in America.

The project's legacy will be long felt, I believe, even if nothing is constructed on the parcel right away. People acknowledged what's there now is not acceptable, which suggests to me something MUST happen in the future.

Tony Maroulis

##################################

The Bully Reports

The article also makes it sound like the ARA is limping off into the sunset, dejected and defeated. Hardly. At our most recent June 30 meeting the ARA unanimously voted to accept/endorse the plan/concept/vision put forth by our consultant Gianni Longo, and to continue as the lead agency to promote the mutually beneficial partnership with UMass for the development of the former Frat Row, two acres of exceeding prime, open, shovel-ready, property.

Straight line through a round circle


Looks like somebody forgot to go round the UMass roundabout intersection at Eastman Lane/North Pleasant Street. Could have been one of those late Friday/Saturday night kind of things. Let's hope that driver stays away from the two new roundabouts at Atkins Corner when they come on line two years down the road.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Walls do a prison make

Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School: clueless in Hadley

What a dramatic difference in response to incidents of solitary confinement enforced on a child at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter in Hadley last March vs. the "handfull" of times the "pink room" was used at Old Mill Pond Elementary School in Palmer last winter.

After an anonymous complaint sent to the state from a "group of concerned grandparents" about the "prison-like" conditions imposed on 5-9 year old children, the state then demanded to see investigation results and any corrective action implemented.

That corrective action did not take long! The School Committee Chair (probably overstepping her authority) immediately told the Principal to remove the locks and doors on the three cells, errr, I mean"cubbies."

The interim Superintendent stated the public school has "disbanded" use of the rooms (which had a 15 minute maximum time limit for use) and the new principal readily agreed.

Meanwhile back in Hadley at the PVCIC, the two highest paid "public" employees, Principal Kathy Wang and Executive Director Rich Alcorn, who just happen to be married, closed ranks and defended placing a 9-year-old boy, unattended, in a small room...for seven and a half hours!

Even worse, defended their business, errr, school by blaming the victim--branding him a "bully."

In fact, the child was himself the victim of bullying in a bathroom when he pushed another child out of the way to escape. The seven-and-a-half-hour sentence, errr, "in-house suspension" was imposed the next day and without any parent notification either day, even though the mother dutifully dropped off and picked up the boy daily.

Department of Children and Families found the actions of the 3rd grade teacher and principal rose to the level of "neglect," and according to the school's own handbook they were automatically suspended...but quickly reinstated by a unanimous vote of the School Committee, errr, "Board of Trustees", probably with back pay for the week missed.

I say "probably" only because a public documents request for Executive Session minutes of that June 13 meeting was denied by the school's attorney on the grounds it was a "personnel" issue. That decision will be appealed to Public Records czar Alan Cote.

Since Charter Schools upper management--Principals and Superintendents, errr, "Executive Directors"--have nonexistent job qualifications compared to the traditional public school system, could it be the lack of educational training that directly lead to such different outcomes?

Traditional Public School Administration requirements (note 7.09, 7.10)

Charter School Administration requirements (note there are none, other than "staff".)


The Springfield Republican reports:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Town Strikes Back


Town officials are really starting to understand the power of the web. This just posted on the town website:

Town Files Papers to End Anti-Solar Project Lawsuit

In its Answer, the Town is asking the Superior Court to dismiss the suit.

"Our attorneys believe this lawsuit has no legal merit. This is a strong project that received overwhelming support from the Select Board and from Town Meeting and it has widespread support from the community at large," said Town Manager, John Musante. "Discussions with the Department of Environmental Protection are ongoing, and the project will proceed only if the Town has fully satisfied all DEP requirements."

The Town must seek permitting approval from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and from the Town of Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals.

"Some neighbors have concerns about the project, and I continue to reach out to them. Later this month, I will invite them to sit down with me and other Town officials to discuss mutually beneficial ideas about ways we can address those concerns through setbacks, buffers, and other measures," said Musante.

Town Counsel Joel Bard added, "We hope the neighbors will be willing to resolve their concerns with the Town. We think it’s clear, however, that the case should be dismissed and we will be making that argument to the court." -

Atkins North?

Atkins Country Market

Informed sources--a giant leap up from rumor--inform me that Atkins Country Market, a South Amherst destination spot founded in 1887 is, finally, considering expansion via an additional location: the 14,400 square foot former Cowls Sawmill building in North Amherst, hence the designation Atkins North.

Since the sawmill building was constructed in 2004, after the original burned down from a lightening strike, and was built to be wide open with town water/sewer and sprinklers, the transition to retail is pretty much turn-key.

The building and surrounding acreage is zoned business so the change in occupancy will only require "site plan approval" by the Planning Board--far easier than a zoning change which requires a two-thirds vote of Amherst Town Meeting, an entity never know as business friendly.

By far the busiest business in South Amherst and top-ten town employer overall, a North Amherst Atkins operation would create bookend anchors for the entire town and attract new customers from far and wide--especially from up north. Daytrippers attracted to Yankee Candle--a tourist magnet in South Deerfield--would be tempted to make the short hop down to North Amherst.

With the Gateway corridor project--a joint effort between UMass and the Amherst Redevelopment Authority on the northern end of town center--reaching a critical point for a go-or-no-go launch decision, this positive development only a half mile on the other side of campus will clearly compliment the vision for a mixed use signature project on the former Frat Row.

North Amherst Center




Cowls Building Supply

Monday, July 11, 2011

Another accident waiting?

South East Street Overpass

The $73 million in stimulus spending for high speed rail can't jump start construction soon enough. Rerouting passenger service to tracks on the west side of the Connecticut River revitalized by that stimulus spending, thereby circumventing Amherst, will ensure safe travel for Amtrak customers riding aboard the Vermonter.

But New England Central Railroad plans to maintain business as usual for lengthy freight trains snaking along ancient lines through Amherst. After two freight derailments in less than 30 days--one of them (as far as we know) carrying hazardous materials and both occurring within pollution range of the town's major groundwater supply area that furnishes drinking water--it's time to promote safety over profits.

S0 far this year over 3,500 railway "accidents/incidents" have occurred nationwide with 225 fatalities. The Federal Railway Administration only seems interested in investigating an incident if there's a loss of life or major property damage. In rare catastrophic cases the National Transportation Safety Board becomes the lead investigator.

For these relatively routine rollovers we have to rely on the company itself to perform a thorough investigation. As Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe pointed out to Town Manager John Musante after the second incident, "Why should we trust them that this isn't going to happen again?"

Indeed.


The long, lonely wail of a distant train, growing louder as it approaches, is something so familiar to me it blends into background noise--even in the dead of night. Growing up on Amherst's Crow Hill you can't help but be familiar with the sights and sounds of the big metal beasts moving cargo or passengers all the livelong day.

Like the University of Massachusetts, the railroad is something that has been here for generations. My great great grandfather Tom Kelley settled in Amherst to work for the railroad--as did a great many Irish in the mid-19th century. Before becoming a "domestic" for the Dickinson family, he labored as a RR "track walker."

So I know what Tom Kelley would have thought had he taken a 150 yard stroll with me due east from the South East Street overpass. And I have no doubt what he would have done: Reported it!














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Just south of Station Road (where the first accident occurred):










Mysterious white powder drawing a line from Station Road into Belchertown



My previous walk 150 yards west from the South East Street Overpass

Friday, July 8, 2011

Come fly with me

The twins: Marchy and Bergy (after Bruins hockey players)

In addition to the green shirted DPW workers the Amherst Transfer Station also attracts red tailed hawks. The proud mother and father have nested there for over a decade and every year as the weather grows ever hotter, give birth to cute little offspring. This year the kids chose the leaf pile as a playpen.

The twins were born two weeks ago. Mom and Dad will be pushing them out of the tall pine tree fairly soon to make their own way in the world, so if you want to see them up close head out to the transfer station soon.

(Maybe they will take up residence on the old unlined landfill across the street and feed on Grasshopper Sparrows.)

Dad: "Juicy Fruit"

Mom: "Big Red"

Photos by Steve Telega (on his own time)

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Please excuse the ad (I could not afford to buy the software)