Monday, December 31, 2012

Local Story Of The Year

Safe & Healthy Neighborhood Committee:  Rob Morra Building Commissioner, Tim Nelson AFD Chief, Stephanie O'Keeffe Select Board Chair, Rt: David Ziomek Asst Town Manager 

It all started with a mid-September brief entry in the Amherst Police Department weekend logs, a sort of administrative notation of the type rarely reported by the Daily Hampshire Gazette.  But with a highly recognizable business name combined with a palpable sense of urgency,  I found it utterly fascinating:

"Firefighter Mike Roy (Fire Prevention Officer) received information that Lincoln Realty had warned the residents that an inspection was imminent and that they needed to assist in hiding code violations. I assisted with contacting the DA's office and the Clerk of Courts seeking an administrative warrant to enter the apartment for inspection."

My reliable AFD source confirmed the existence of a revealing email to town officials sent out on the day of the September 13 fire, clearly describing an orchestrated effort by apartment complex owner and then President of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Kathryn Grandonico, to cover up the existence of illegal basement bedrooms in the 14-unit  Gilreath Manor apartment complex.

Illegal for two reasons:  the space is not Health Department approved for human habitation (and contained deficiencies in fire and carbon monoxide detection); and with the two illegal basement bedrooms the total number of students occupying the single-family unit exceeded the 22-year-old town bylaw prohibiting more than four unrelated housemates per unit.

My public document request for the student's email took longer than the ten-day response time required by law, and was not fully complied with since it did not contain any of the follow up responses by town officials to Hannah, the jittery UMass student. But the document clearly illuminated a cover up ... at least on the part of the apartment complex owner.

Like that other infamous cover up from 40 years ago, it's not the original "two bit" act that sparks the blinding spotlight of exposure, but the after-the-fact attempts to cover it up.

If Ms. Grandonico had simply fessed up to an age old lucrative practice of packing more renters into a unit than allowed by law with a promise it would not happen again, the story would never have seen the light of print (not that my bricks and mortar friends have given it all that much coverage to date).

Now, however,  it has become a major test case:  Will the town be able to enforce the unrelated tenant zoning bylaw with $100/day fines, or can the landlord simply deflect responsibility by blaming the tenants?

The answer will decided the fate of Town Manager John Musante's "Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods" initiative.   The SHN committee, a who's who of heavy hitters in town government, is working on a bylaw proposal for spring Town Meeting requiring rental registration.

And this sweeping bylaw would NOT grandfather existing rentals.  This promises to be a battle as epic as the 1999 "Smoking Ban in Bars War" when Amherst, over bitter opposition of business owners, led the way on what is now common practice. 

Thus the outcome to my 2012 story of the year will be a critical component for the 2013 issue of the year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Winter Weekend

Thistlebloom Farm, South East St, Amherst

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dean of Discipline

Hobart Lane:  A usual suspect

As Party House apologists are fond of pointing out, UMass is the largest employer in Amherst, thus making us a "company town," thus making disturbing behavior that disrupts neighborhood tranquility town wide mere collateral damage to be endured for the greater good.

Or something like that.

Last year Amherst police politely handed over to UMass the names of 652 students arrested for rowdy behavior : Noise, Nuisance House, Open Container, Unlicenses Kegs, Under aged Drinking.

Since UMass is only in session roughly seven months out of the year, that amounts to 23 arrests per week.  Just this past semester APD made 105 arrests for Nuisance House violations alone.

Since Nuisance House tickets are issued to all tenants that can be found on the premises at the time of the disturbance, it usually amounts to three per incident which works out to 35 dwellings or two per week (usually on weekends.)

All the above statistics are reactionary.  A neighbor calls 911 to complain about loud noise or other disruptive behavior and the police show up.  By then things are already out of control.

UMass, our largest employer, needs to hire an Off Campus RA to proactively patrol the usual suspect streets and enforce the student code of conduct, which UMass now claims to apply to off campus behavior.

A combination between bar bouncer and Jr High School Principal in charge of behavior.  The town recently hired a code enforcement building inspector to better police slumlords who specialize in high demand student rentals.

Since UMass provides the supply side, it's only fair they share in the oversight.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Better Life? Nyet!

Vladimir Putin on the prowl

You would think a conservative macho dude like Vladimir Putin would respect and appreciate family values; or more specifically, the value of having a family.

By enacting a ban on United States couples adopting children from his country, the  Russian President has -- for all intents and purposes -- sentenced far too many of these children to a life without love.

If he really wanted to get back at the United States for political humiliations, he should have just challenged President Obama to a wrestling match.

There's still China

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Newsmaker Of The Year

Umass Amherst founded 1863

What would Amherst be without the flagship University of Massachusetts?  A lot less newsworthy, that's for sure.

Yes, in all of the top Amherst news stories over the past 12 months -- from the alleged gang rape in a dorm, the "riot" after the Superbowl, the death of a young woman from a fall the University kept secret for ten days at family request, or the weekend in and weekend out Party House winners racking up a record breaking number of $300 nuisance house tickets -- the University of Massachusetts has played a central role. 

Of course alcohol has also played a contributing role in all those noteworthy stories as well.

On the plus side, however, Amherst has a 3.9% unemployment rate compared to the state average of 6.6% ... mainly due to our beloved economic Juggernaut, UMass. 

All in all, not a bad trade off (depending on your proximity to a Party House I suppose).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Dr. Is, finally, In

Atkinson Building, 17 Research Drive, Amherst

I first met Katherine J Atkinson (aka Dr. Kate), at a distance anyway, when she spoke before a packed church at a memorial service eight years ago for her Dad, Dr. Rollin Johnson, an orthopedic surgeon who gave a legion of patients, including me, a second chance at enjoying life via his gifted expertise with joint replacement.

The writer in me was struck by the unfairness of his sudden passing, only a year into a well-earned retirement.  His dutiful daughter directly addressed what a lot of us mourners were thinking, saying what we didn't  know is that her dad suffered a heart attack twenty years earlier, and fully recovered.

But, if he had succumbed then -- and not been able to help us overcome our debilitating ailments or to guide his daughter along the same path to becoming a healer -- that truly would have been the definition of "unfair."

So I find it both fitting and fair that after five l-o-n-g years of work, including contentious political debates before Amherst Town Meeting and the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Atkinson Building -- providing a new home to the Atkinson Family Practice --  would open for business less than a week before Christmas.

Amherst's very own, "Miracle On Research Drive."

The new building harnesses sustainable energy via solar panels on roof
Ginger, the color coordinated therapy dog
With 3,500  patients, having ten examining rooms cuts down on waiting

Friday, December 21, 2012

Assistance At The Top

 DPW Director Guilford Mooring (left), Dave Ziomek (Rt) @ War Memorial Pool

Town Manager John Musante gave Dave Ziomek an early Christmas present with the announcement today that Mr. Ziomek will assume the role of Assistant Town Manager starting January 1, with a raise in pay from his current $89,126 up to $97,904, an increase of $8,778 or 9%.

Of course rank and file unions have settled for around 2%, and even the Town Manager only received a 1.5% raise back in October.   Although his current pay at $142,100 will be 40% higher than his new assistant and $25,000 higher than next highest paid department heads, police and fire chiefs.

The position of Assistant Town Manager is not a new one. Michael Letcher was Assistant Town Manager from 1983 until leaving in 1991. Then Town Manager Barry Del Castilho left the position vacant for budgetary reasons, and it stayed unfilled until Musante assumed the position under Town Manager Larry Shaffer.

When Town Manager John Musante was seriously injured in a fall last year, Dave Ziomek was appointed acting Town Manager by the Select Board in an emergency meeting, and served in that role for six weeks.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Landlord Blinks

 Gilreath Manor (3 buildings) Hobart Lane, Amherst

Based on new information -- the truth -- Grandonico Properties, LLC lawyer Lawrence Farber requested a last minute continuation at Thursday night's Zoning Board of Appeals hearing to appeal punitive fines issued by Building Commissioner Rob Morra for violation of the town's zoning by-law limiting unrelated housemates to four per single family dwelling.

For those of you who think fines do not make a difference in changing behavior, take note:  Commissioner Morra issue the first fine on Monday and they will accumulate at $100 per day, unless the ZBA (at that rescheduled meeting in mid January) overturns the decision of the Building Commissioner, a highly unlikely scenario.

According to Commissioner Morra:  "Mr. Farber is requesting a continuance which must be granted tonight by the ZBA after they open the hearing.  If granted, the fines will continue and, in my opinion, must be appealed to district court within 21 days.  It is also my opinion that the ZBA is ruling on the application of ZBL Section 11.45 in this case and not the fine itself which must be heard by the court – although I am aware that all may not agree with me."

The statement submitted by UMass Legal Services attorney Carol Booth clearly demonstrates a pattern of dishonest behavior by the owners of Gilreath Manor,  carefully designed to circumvent Amherst's zoning bylaw.

Kind of appropriate I guess, for a story that started with an illegal bedroom basement fire, ends with "A Smoking Gun."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hobart Show Down

 Hobart Lane Gilreath Manor #28

Hobart Lane is already well known for the annual Hobart Hoedown, dating back over 20 years.  But the street immediately bordering UMass could easily have become forever burned into memory for a far more serious spectacle had the basement fire in an illegal bedroom at #28 Gilreath Manor on September 13th resulted in the deaths of residents, all of them UMass students.

Tomorrow night the Zoning Board of Appeals will hear an appeal from Grandonico Properties, LLC a "foreign limited liability company," meaning they are "organized under the laws of Delaware," the most lax state in our nation for protecting consumer rights (which is why all the credit card companies organize there).

The owners of Gilreath Manor wish to challenge the Building Commissioner's threat of fines for violating Amherst's 1990 zoning bylaw forbidding more than four unrelated occupants in a single family dwelling.  The town attorney has come down squarely on the side of the Building Commissioner with an unambiguous opinion:

"The property owner has been aware, or been made aware, of the multiple violations on the Property, and that further evidence may demonstrate that the owner authorized use of the dwelling units in excess of the allowed number of residents."

Attorney Joel Bard continues, skewering another of the landlord's defenses:  "The tenants rights of possession may not be asserted as a defense in order to insulate the property owner for liability for zoning violations on her property."

The Amherst Board of Health has NOT issued a variance for low ceilings in the basements at Gilreath Manor, so currently they can be used for nothing but storage or utility, not even for watching TV or doing homework on a computer station ... let alone sleeping.

On September 13, with inadequate fire protection and two bedrooms illegally crammed into unit #28, a disaster was narrowly averted.  Initially, town officials were slow to react to problems uncovered in the aftermath of the fire; I even went so far as to brand it a cover up.

But they seem to be fully on board now with making this a test case for the public good.

As President of the Board of Directors for the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Kathryn Grandonico should be setting a positive example for all Amherst landlords to follow, not acting like a carpetbagger -- putting profits over public safety.

Emails Hannah, Town Officials

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rewired WiFi

Fred Hartwell installs WiFi unit on Main Street lightpole  this afternoon

So after the spiffy new Cisco wireless routers were installed around town last month, IT Director Kris Pacunas noticed they were not performing up to promised specifications.  And when you are paying $75,000 for a new toy, promised specifications matter.

Cisco sent out a crew to try to bring the units up to speed, but could not make it happen.  Thus the town did what any consumer would do:  sent the items back for a full refund. 

The IT department then went into tech-geek mode and came up with their own "access point" gizmo's using component parts from a number of different manufacturers.  Now, according to Pacunas, the newest new system, using five antennas, is ten times faster, with three times the coverage, all for $43,000 or a 40% savings over the original system.

 Newest units could be painted black to match ornate poles in the downtown

The newest system also has "client link" (version 2.0) so it works well with smart phones and tablets, which more and more Americans use to access the Internet.

As of today 18 of the units have been installed and the entire system of 27 (possibly 28) units should be fully functioning by January 1st.  A Happy New Year indeed for all us Internet junkies. 


Mission Cantina, 485 West Street, South Amherst: about to more than double in capacity 

Acting as Liquor Commissioners last night, an enthusiastic Amherst Select Board unanimously approved an "alteration of premises" thus allowing Mission Cantina to serve alcohol in the newly expanded space, which effectively doubles the physical size of the popular South Amherst eatery.

Select Board member Aaron Hayden noted how happy he was to take part in this bureaucratic procedure for Mission Cantina as it  "demonstrates a very successful business." SB member Diana Stein then quipped, "Which means you have to wait to get in there."

The restaurant opened in the summer of  2011 and has seen lines out the front door almost since day one.  The original facility only has four tables seating a total of sixteen, while the new addition will add five tables seating twenty, or more than doubling the restaurant's seating capacity to thirty six.

The Zoning Board of Appeals approved a Special Permit required for the expansion/renovation on August 3rd, although owners did note on their Facebook page that it required seven months to acquire a building permit.

The $45,000 expansion, is now almost complete with a mid-January opening expected.  In addition to business as usual -- great food -- Mission Cantina plans to start serving a lunch menu and staying open into the late night. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Visible Symbols

 Crocker Farm Elementary School, Monday morning

So for the first time in memory, I was actually happy not to see an overt police presence, even though that was the expectation.  Not that uniformed officers make school children or their parents nervous.

At least, normally, not in Amherst.

But these times are far from normal.  The shock waves from Friday's mass murder are still profoundly in the present, like the dark gloomy weather that delayed by two hours the opening of the Amherst schools this morning.

A police department is, by nature, reactionary.  You see something wrong, call 911, and they come quickly.  But they can't possibly stand guard, at all our schools, during all their hours of operation.   For that we would need to mobilize the National Guard.

And is that the message we want to send to our kids:  Our schools can only be safe when patrolled by armed guards?

Amherst has come a long way in implementing strong security protocols, a byproduct of Jere Hochman's tenure circa 2003-2008.  Before that, the doors remained open during school hours.  In spite of what happened at Columbine in 1999.

But then again, when I grew up in Amherst a generation ago, my mother never felt the need to lock the front door at night.

Our flag is at half staff today to honor and remember those innocent lives lost ... but will soon return to its routine position atop the staff.  Friday however -- like 9/11 -- was a morning to never forget.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Do Over?

 Scott Brown could put his left over campaign paraphernalia to good use

President Obama may has just given the GOP an early Christmas present if reports coming out in reliable mainstream media are true, that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry will become the next Secretary of State. 

Yes, Governor Patrick could stack the deck somewhat by appointing a real contender to occupy Kerry's senate seat rather than just a warm body term-limited to the day of the special election, as was done when Senator Kennedy died.

And look how well that turned out for the democratic party.

When it comes to special elections, Scott Brown has already accomplished the unthinkable -- snatching the throne occupied by a political deity for almost fifty years. 

Obviously in his recent farewell address, Scott Brown all but announced a return to the campaign trail:  "Depending on what happens, and where we go, all of us, we may obviously meet again."

A lot sooner than most democrats expected, obviously.

The horror ... the horror ...

Last week when the first dispatch went out over the airwaves saying a child was hit by a school bus at an Amherst elementary school, my mind instantly flashed back to the horror of three years ago where a 2-year-old child broke free from his mother at a bus stop and ended up under the wheels of moving bus.

One of my daughters at the time was the same age as the child killed in that horrific accident.

Yes, it's human nature to always initially fear the worst: You hear about an earthquake in a foreign county where friends or family are vacationing, and instantly assume they have been impacted. Last week I titled that post "A Parent's Worst Nightmare," because nothing can be worse than losing a child. Nothing.

So I'm at a loss to now come up with a headline that captures the bottomless horror of an incident that erases the lives of twenty innocent children, all of them the same age as my youngest.

As CNN anchor Aaron Brown watched the second tower collapse live on air on that unforgettable morning he said somberly, "There are no words ...".

Once again, as our entire nation mourns, there are no words.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Power Of Symbols

 Amherst Town Common: A Menorah, Merry Maples, Town Hall, Oh My

When I was growing up in Amherst in the shadow of a smaller, quieter UMass, we townies had a minimum cut off for folks who transplanted here -- mostly because of the University -- as to how long it required before they could call themselves a  "local":  roughly 20-25 years. 

And of course the very first thing they needed to learn was not to pronounce the h in Amherst. 

So only you "locals" would remember off the top of your head the reason why the Am'erst Merry Maple is not called a Christmas Tree.  And why there's now a Menorah on the town common alongside those "holiday" trees.

In November, 1990 the Jones Library Board of Trustees voted 4-1 (Arthur Quinton being the lone opposition) to ban "religious displays" at the library, including a small five foot tall Christmas tree that traditionally adorned the Children's Room.

The reaction was instantaneous and largely negative:  A tidal wave of Letters to the Editor and columns in the Amherst Bulletin (back when it had influence), public meetings, and even vandalism to the Menorah.

Because the Jones Library is a building governed by a Board of Trustees, they were well within their rights to implement the ban, even though it was excoriated by critics town wide.

Amherst cannot prevent a private group, like the Chabad House, from erecting a religious symbol on the town common; but the town itself, because of the separation of church and state, cannot put up a manger scene, or Menorah.

Even in the Jewish community opinion was sharply divided:   Jewish Community of Amherst stated public space (the Jones Library or Town Common) should not display any religious symbols, and the more liberal Chabad House invoked the "Constitution allows religious freedom" argument for the Menorah, and also agreed the Christmas Tree in the library was fine. 

So the simple answer today is: a private group, Chabad House, continues to make the effort to display a Menorah on the town common; but no private group has come forward to display a Christmas Tree.  Since the Merry Maple display is private, erected by the Chamber of Commerce and most recently assisted by the Business Improvement District, they can call it anything they want, including, gasp, a Christmas tree.

The original sentiment behind banning the blatantly Christian symbol so revered this time of year was of course not to offend ... anyone.

Although in so doing, the Jones Library Trustees managed to offend almost everyone

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Taking No Chances

 Lt. Ron Young (center) APD head of Detectives questions young man (seated) in custody

Sad update (Friday afternoon):  Amherst School Superintendent Maria Geryk's statement on today's tragedy

Gov Patrick has ordered flags lowered to half-staff until 12/18/12 as a mark of respect for the victims of the senseless acts of violence perpetrated in Newtown.

When a PVTA bus rider called 911 around 2:20 Thursday afternoon to report a man perched on a high roof of Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity with a gun, in the very heart of UMass/Amherst, police took no chances, descending on the scene in force along with UMPD.

An arrest was quickly made and the young man transported to Amherst Police Department headquarters.  According to Captain Jennifer Gundersen, the gun was a BB gun.

William C. Lewis, of 4760 Doylestown, Penn., was charged with disorderly conduct and possession of a weapon while committing a breach of peace.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Stand Up Act

 College Inn Apartments, East Amherst

Since I have never said anything nice about this major absentee landlord, and property manager to other less than sterling Party House owners, I guess that makes the following tip of the hat a man bites dog story:

Eagle Crest Management, owner/manager of College Street Inn, tipped the Amherst Police Department that domestic violence was taking place in one of their apartment units.  Back in October Police arrested Timmy Shawn McGough, 10 Belchertown Rd #1, Amherst, MA, age 40 on charges of Asault and Assault-and-Battery 2nd offense.

And yes, that is two times too many.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Expensive Losses

UMass McGuirk Stadium (pre-expansion)

Hard to say if the initial 12 game football season that resulted in 11 losses made a major difference in the whopping financial losses this year for UMass football, but it certainly did not help.

At $8 million dollars in red ink (at least it's somewhat in the spirit of the holiday season) that comes out to $727,000 in losses per loss.  That a lot of loss.  Not to mention the hit Amherst businesses have taken ("intangible costs") now that "home" games are 100 miles away.

Earlier this evening the UMass Faculty Senate barely beat back a challenge from members wishing to vote on an motion to have the flagship University football program withdraw from the Mid-American Conference (MAC).  The motion required two-thirds support just to get to the point of being allowed on the floor for a discussion and vote, but failed.

Only narrowly, however, as it received 60% support.

While the Athletic Department only wants to acknowledge $715,068 in losses due to lousy attendance, the watchdog Ad Hoc committee casts a wider net, bringing up all the hidden costs.  Advertising alone was another $700,000 -- all of it paid for by External Relations using taxpayer money.

Throw in the $2 million for renovations to McGuirk Stadium, and Title 1X mandated gender equity scholarships of $260,105 plus the original FY13 Football budget of $7,160,339 and your grand total comes to just over $10 million spent on BIG time football.  Offset by gate receipts and sponsorships of almost $2 million, leaving a loss of $8,220,461.  On a football team with a 1-11 record.

Or ... many, many scholarships for a bevy of deserving students -- the serious ones who keep partying to a minimum.

Better Red

South Amherst Common Christmas, err, Holiday Tree

Monday, December 10, 2012

DUI Dishonor Roll

Late Friday into early Saturday seemed to be the bewitching hours for all things alcohol in our about-to-become-quiet-little-town this past weekend. Starting with somewhat the sacrilege ... although compared to our two DUI offenders, harmless enough I suppose.

At 11:44 p.m. (Friday) police observed a male party, ETOH (drunk), urinating on the fence along the Emily Dickinson Homestead on Main Street just down the road from APD headquarters. The perp was "apologetic for his actions" and sent on his way.

At 1:42 a.m. (Saturday) dead in town center, between the Central Fire Station and Antonio's Pizza, a dangerous driver was stopped after failing to yield at the intersection.  That infraction led to a Field Sobriety Test and the follow up charges of DUI, alcohol in vehicle, and possession of an open container:

Kelsey Schmidt, 36 Spinnaker Street, Sandwich, MA, age 21, UMass student

At 2:22 a.m. soon after police had broken up a loud party of over 100 people, with 50 cars parked along Stanley Street, one of the vehicles was facing east in the westbound lane and backing up.  Arrested for DUI, operation to endanger/reckless driving, and marked lanes violation:

Deshawn Townsend, 13 Ames St, Dorchester, MA, age 22, UMass student

A Civil Offense

UPDATE: 1:30

According to my friends at MassLive the driver of the car was Nikhal P. Kapur, 32, of 13 Ware St., Cambridge,  who was issued a citation for failure use care in starting and failure to stop for a school bus with its red flashing lights illuminated.


This morning when I drove to Crocker Farm Elementary School to drop off my two daughters, co-Principal Derek Shea was in the parking lot directing traffic.  The horse shoe paved road/parking lot directly in front of the main entrance is always barricaded off a short while before-and-after school starts to accommodate all the buses.

It can be a tad confusing for distracted drivers who arrived in a hurry just before the buses line up ...

 Crocker Farm Elementary School main entrance

At the Amherst Police Department briefing this morning  Detective Richard MacLean said stoically, "There is nothing more to be released on that," referring of course to the Amherst school child hit by a driver who went around a stopped bus with its flashing lights on.   But he did say something may be forthcoming from the District Attorney's office later today.

Well, no.

According to Mary Carey, the DA's Communications Director, since the infraction was civil rather than criminal, and the driver only received a ticket, the DAs office will not be involved. Thus the name of the driver is not necessarily a matter of public record, and will only be released at the discretion of the Amherst Police Department.

So what I can tell you from police logs is this:  The reporting party who called 911 first reported it as "child hit by school bus."  The initial cruiser was dispatched at 14:44:21 (almost 2:45 pm), and arrived on the scene at 14:49:00 (about four and a half minutes later) and cleared the scene at 15:15:22 (roughly 25 minutes later).

The vehicle involved was not a big yellow school bus, but a blue 2012 Mazda.

I can also tell you, from an ultra-reliable source, the cited driver was NOT a staff member who works at Fort River School. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

He Said, She Said

The accidental Sunday fire, caused by careless disposal of a cigarette,  killed two; the next day Gregory Levey purposely immolated himself in town center using two gallons of turpentine

The 911 call came in early Sunday morning at 6:21 a.m. while most of Amherst was still fast asleep.  Smoke was billowing from the roof of a large two family dwelling on North Pleasant Street on the northern outskirts of town center, the kind of report -- called a "box alarm" -- that gets the undivided attention of emergency dispatch, who then instantly radios APD and AFD.
 284 North Pleasant Street

Despite the desperate attempts of first responders to quell the flames,  two students died from smoke inhalation.  The house was divided into two apartment units, each with six occupants, a violation of Amherst's zoning ordinance limiting unrelated tenants to only four.

Additionally the attic, where the deaths occurred, had been turned into bedrooms without a second means of egress, a clear violation of building safety codes.   

That was February 17, 1991.  Fast forward to September 19, 2012: A fire starts in an (illegal) basement bedroom apartment at #28 Gilreath Manor on Hobart Lane, quite possibly due to an overloaded electrical circuit.  Fortunately the blaze starts near high noon rather than late at night, so it is quickly extinguished by AFD.
 Gilreath Manor, Hobart Lane, Amherst

The basements are not zoned as a sleeping space, do not have an approved second means of escape and some lacked working smoke detectors.

Later that day town authorities receive an email and phone calls from residents concerned that building owner Grandonico Properties systematically wants students to hide evidence of illegal basement bedrooms from town inspectors.

Town officials keep the matter quiet (this is after all Amherst, where even the H is silent), but managed to get Grandonico to make basic safety upgrades to all the units. 

But now Grandonico Properties is fighting an official order from Building Commissioner Rob Morra to cease and desist renting to more than four unrelated tenants, a violation of town zoning bylaw.  The owners response mimics the three monkeys:   see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

In other words, it's all the students' fault.  Grandonico only allows four tenants to sign the lease, therefore they cannot be legally held responsible if more than that occupy the space.

Interestingly, however, their lease states:  "Any payment not received from a Lessee shall only be accepted, if at all, on behalf of the Lessees and shall not constitute any relationship or tenancy with said party."  In other words, we will take the money but the look the other way from who may be contributing to the final amount.

In an official response to the Building Commissioner's order, Grandonico Properties, LLC is taking the matter to the Zoning Board of Appeals on December 20 ... Unfortunately when UMass is on break, thus making it unlikely students will come testify about what they were told by the owners when first signing a lease.

Even more interesting, the owners are trying to force the "legal" residents to sign a statement "under the pains and penalties of perjury" that they are the only occupants authorized to live in said premises. 

Since Building Commissioner Morra has yet to actually issue a fine to Grandonico Properties, it's unclear what legal standing can be created by the Zoning Board of Appeals, as only Amherst Town Meeting can modify or change the four unrelated tenants bylaw.  And an appeal of a monetary fine would go before a judge in District Court.

The permits acquired when the basement egress windows were installed were for an occupied space to be used as a study or entertainment room not a bedroom.  Thus the owners may not find the Zoning Board overly sympathetic to their cause. 

Either way, Grandonico Properties should have realized they got off easy.  What if that blaze on September 19, 2012 had been a replay of the tragic 2/19/91 fire?  They would now be facing jail time.

Obviously somebody has failed to learn from history.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Every Parent's Nightmare

Buses wait for their precious cargo at Crocker Farm School

Details are sketchy at the moment but we do know that an Amherst Middle School child was struck by a vehicle upon exiting a school bus near the Fort River School on South East Street at approximately 2:47 pm Friday.

Amherst police and fire personnel swiftly made the scene and the child was taken to Bay State Medical in Springfield as opposed to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton (usually indicating serious injury, but in this case simply precautionary).

Amherst School Superintendent Maria Geryk sent me this statement early Friday evening.

MassLive reports 

UPDATE (Saturday 7:15 pm)

I had forgotten that I broke the story three-and-a-half years ago about the DA finding no criminal negligence with the bus driver in that stunningly sad story of a child dying under the wheels of an Amherst school bus.  Although that horrific scenario flashed through my mind instantly yesterday when I first heard dispatch vectoring emergency personnel to S. E. Street for what was originally reported as a bus hitting a child.

I Hear The Train A Comin'

 Now with the new line markings, folks traveling Main Street will also better see that they are approaching a railroad crossing

The Irish, mainly, built the railroad spur cutting through Amherst just below the Dickinson Homestead circa 1850, and the first train chugged over them in June, 1853.

Around the time of construction, a youthful Emily Dickinson wrote to her brother requesting he return to Amherst to kill some of the Irish as they were "so many now, there is no room for the Americans."

Of course Miss Emily got over her disdain for the Irish.  In her last will and testament she specifically requested six hard-working Irish laborers who tended to the Homestead, carry her white casket out the back door, across a field, to West Cemetery.

Unlike her father Edward, who had the proverbial bring-the-town-to-a-complete-halt kind of fancy funeral with a grand procession through town center.

Kelley Square, as it is still called on the assessor's map, is located only 75 yards southwest of this Main Street railroad crossing.  My great, great grandfather Tom Kelley purchased the property from Edward Dickinson in 1864 for $1,216. 

Edward had purchased it from the railroad five years earlier for only $100, so not a bad Return On Investment.

At its peak Kelley Square hosted three houses, fruit trees, roses, grapes and a barn.  Maggie Mahar, Miss Emily's loyal servant, protector and friend ... the "North Wind" of the family, retired to Kelley Square after the final Dickinson died, where she lived out her days.   Called back, finally, in 1924.

The last remaining house on Kelley Square was demolished in the 1970s and the land returned to the wild.

The trains, however, still chug through Amherst.


USS Arizona 12/7/41

USS Arizona today

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (12/7/41)

“With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounded determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God.” (12/8/41)
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Total killed at Pearl Harbor 2,402
Attack begins:  7:48 a.m.
USS Arizona explodes: 8:10 a.m.
USS Arizona:  1,177 killed in action, the highest loss of live in US naval history. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

By Any Other Name

 Amherst Bulletin: above the fold, front page headline

Journalism and justice share a common goal:  both seek "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."  And oftentimes it's not pretty.  Or as jaded cops would say, "It is what it is."

Today's weekly Amherst Bulletin is an embarrassment to anyone who holds high that sacred tenet of journalism still taught in J-schools (I know because I was just in a classroom two days ago) to seek the truth and report it.

On Friday November 29, the Daily Hampshire Gazette belatedly reported the November 19th death of 19-year-old UMass student Sydne Jacoby from injuries sustained in a fall on Fearing Street the late night of November 16, after becoming sick from, according to a best friend's Facebook post, "a high level of intoxication." The next day that Gazette story is sent out over the Associated Press national wire.

Well they sort of reported it, leaving out her name -- the very first W in the oldest journalism formula in the sacred reporter's notebook:  Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. 

And now that I'm thinking about it, they also obscured the "How". 

On Thursday November 28 -- a day before the Gazette story -- the LI Herald published a prominent article about the sad untimely death of Ms Jacoby, publishing her full name, but leaving out the detail about alcohol. 

On December 2 my story is published, and the following day the Massachusetts Daily Collegian follows up with a banner front page headline containing her name, and briefly mentioning the alcohol connection -- but only using the attribution of AFD Chief Tim Nelson from the Gazette article (where he had been specifically assured the young woman's name would not appear).

But today's Amherst Bulletin story, buried on page 5, is unchanged from last week's original Gazette article.  And the reason for leaving out her name is still the same excuse that UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski refused to release her name.  Even though her name had appeared in a variety of published sources.

The front page, impossible-to-miss lead Bulletin story is, however, a direct byproduct of the this exceedingly sad episode:  "More College Women Treated For Drunkenness."  Amazingly they fail to connect the dots to this most blatant deadly example from just two weeks ago.

Yes, the family did not want her name released -- but then, no family ever wants anything remotely negative to be associated with a deceased loved one.  If we start allowing a family to edit a story then we are no longer reporters, we are PR flacks. 

Ten years ago a horrific fire at the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island claimed 100 lives, the 4th worst fire catastrophe in our nation's history.  What if every relative told the media not to release the name of their loved one, or the fact they died in a bar?

What if we had 100 different media outlets simply reporting one local person died recently, but left out their name and the fact they died alongside 99 other people in a bar with substandard safety protocols?

As a direct result of that devastating fire (and the resulting avalanche of news publicity), Massachusetts passed safety legislation requiring sprinklers and "crowd managers" in bars with a capacity of 100 or more.

By shining a bright light on unsafe conditions -- especially ones that have led to a tragic outcome -- public officials are far more likely to actually do something about it. 

We need to get a handle on the abuse of alcohol in our quaint little college town.  Now!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Delayed Due To Alcohol

AFD ambulance. The quicker the response, the better 

If you -- my Amherst neighbor -- or a loved one required immediate aid last weekend in the form of highly-trained first responders riding aboard a well-equipped Amherst Fire Department ambulance, you quite possibly would have had to wait, upwards of double or triple the normal response time, for a "mutual aid" ambulance to arrive from a surrounding community.

No, it was not a mass casualty plane crash or train wreck that caused all of our ambulances to be engaged.  It was drunk college aged youth -- eight of them at UMass, four at Amherst College (all women), and another four off campus.

And yes, one ETOH UMass female also had to be treated for "trauma" from a fall, only two weeks after another UMass female student died from head trauma after a late-night, after-party fall.

This is unacceptable ... embarrassing ... and downright scary.

    AFD 1st Weekend December     

What a difference a week makes!  When our three institutes of higher education were closed for Thanksgiving break.

AFD Thanksgiving Weekend

Cutting Dangerous Corners

So you have to feel bad for the current owners of Bruno's Pizza who, through no fault of their own, suddenly had to shell out big bucks to safely deal with the three old gas storage tanks with old gas still remaining,  unexpectedly uncovered during the Main Street reconstruction project.

Since the conversion from gas station to food service happened in the 1970s the previous owner -- Bruno Matarazzo -- probably had no idea those tanks were there as well.

But the recent oil tank problem at 45 Phillips Street is another matter altogether.  When you pack more than the four unrelated tenants allowed by law into a one family wood frame unit -- especially a demographic that likes to party -- an extra amount of wear and tear should be expected.

And since Mr. Gharabegian's property card for 45 Phillips shows not a single permit pulled for any improvements since he purchased the mansion back in 2007, obviously he's not the neater half of The Odd Couple

While on cite doing a follow up investigation at the problem house, Amherst Fire Department Assistant Chief Don McKay noticed an oil stain in the basement and a hole in the floor that looked as though oil had drained down it, and a brand new oil storage tank, installed without a permit.

Apparently the original 275 gallon tank was damaged during a basement party.  

In addition to the the $400 in fines levied against Mr. Gharabegian for all the various infractions related to the dangerous practice of fly-by-night installation of a potentially explosive product, the Department of Environmental Protection is also investigating whether 45 Phillips will become Amherst's Love Canal. 

45 Phillips

Have a nice day Mr. Gharabegian.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

DUI Dishonor Role

While there were no party house noise/nuisance arrests for the second weekend in a row, the pervasive impact of the party culture was still felt in the scary form of irresponsible individuals piloting a potentially deadly weapon while under the influence of alcohol.

Over the weekend APD arrested four drunk drivers, two of them in the heart of the downtown.   While I keep saying it only takes one to slaughter an innocent family, pedestrian or cyclist, what number gets your attention?  How many near misses did each of these four have prior to the long arm of the law reeling them in?

Because every drunk driver bagged, had been driving for a while. Take this guy for instance:  Cruising through the center of town at 1:00 AM early Saturday morning with his high beams on and two flat tires.  Yeah, that will get you noticed.  He was heading north on North Pleasant and took a left onto Hallock Street, where he was safely pulled over, administered a Field Sobriety Test, which he failed.
North Pleasant Hallock Street intersection 

Shane Bowen, 5 Eastern Ave, Northampton, Ma, age 21.  DUI, operating to endanger, failure to use care in turning.

Sunday was the most dangerous day to have been on our roads as the other three arrests all occurred in the early morning hours.

At 2:26 AM in the main intersection of town center Christopher Phann, 14 Robinson St, Lowell, MA, age 20 ran a red light and was arrested on Main Street for DUI.

At 2:49 AM on Meadow Street in North Amherst Joshua Quinn, 12 Fairmont St, Elmsford, NY, age 19 was arrested for DUI, speeding, under 21 possession of alcohol, open container, alcohol in vehicle.  

At 5:44 AM  on South East Street Michelle Buonasaro, 20 Robinwood, Norwood, MA, age 22 was arrested for DUI and failure to stop.

Monday, December 3, 2012

After The Fall: Cover Up?

 UMass Du Bois Library

Did UMass/Amherst, still reeling from a reported gang rape incident where alcohol played a strong supporting role, purposely sweep under the rug the unfortunate death of  19-year-old Sydne Jacoby because alcohol probably played a strong supporting role?  Well ... yes.

As some of you may remember, I broke the unfortunate story of the gang rape, 18 hours before my bricks-and-mortar media friends formed a pack and descended on the UMass Police Station.  My ultra-reliable source on Saturday said UMass was going to go public with the story at a press conference at 1:00 PM Monday, so I published on Sunday evening.

By noon Monday my source thought the press conference was not going to happen.

A public statement acknowledging the rape (carefully avoiding the word "gang") appeared on the UMass news website only an hour before the press conference, which did happen -- but looked very hastily thrown together.

Now, only five weeks later, the pattern continues.

UMass has always acknowledged the sudden death of a student with a public statement, no matter the circumstance, from suicide to a routine auto accident. And if they had issued a simple statement on Monday November 19, the day Jacoby died, simply acknowledging the death -- even if withholding her name -- that would probably have been the end of it.

But when the local paper announces the sudden death ten days after the fact, and then does not even report the name of the victim because UMass refuses to release it, you have to wonder.  One key detail is reported as the Gazette quoted AFD Chief Tim Nelson (who was assured the name of the victim would not be used) stating the young woman had been drinking.

My other first responder sources say it was a quite a lot.  And a self described "best friend" posted to a Facebook page on November 18 -- two days after the fall, when Jacoby was still in a coma -- soliciting prayers:

"Unfortunately on Friday night, Sydne was the victim in a terrible accident. She was leaving a party with her two friends and wasn’t feeling well due to her high level of intoxication. It was then that she fell backwards and crashed hard onto the concrete, hitting her skull and causing her to immediately become unconscious. When the ambulance had arrived she went into cardiac arrest twice, but thankfully they were able to bring her back both times."

Obviously alcohol played a role in this terrible tragedy.  Obviously UMass doesn't want people to know that.  Question is who -- or what -- are they trying to protect?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Sad Rewind

Fearing Street, near UMass/Amherst 

On Friday November 16 at 23:43 hours  (11:43 PM) an Amherst Fire Department ambulance responded to Fearing Street, a well-traveled route students use to get to or from a party.

A vibrant young woman, out with friends for a night of fun (that, naturally, involved alcohol) fell, hitting her head on unforgiving concrete.

When paramedics arrived, she was unconscious.  Standard AFD practice for a an unconscious patient due to head trauma is to bypass nearby Cooley Dickinson Hospital and go all the way to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

Two months ago on a particularly rowdy party weekend a young male student, out drinking with his friends in the late night hours, fell near the Newman Center hitting his head and was rushed unconscious to Baystate Critical Care Unit.  Fire Department personnel were amazed when he was released the following afternoon, having earlier stated somberly it "did not look good."

This time, however, it was not good.  This time the young student died.   Sydne Ilyse Jacoby was only 19. She leaves behind a mother, father, brother and 837 friends on Facebook.  500 mourners turned out for the funeral service.  Her local newspaper described her as "an angel."

That mid-November weekend AFD transported five students from the UMass campus to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital for being ETOH, a shorthand code for ethanol -- drinking alcohol -- or in these particular cases, way too much of it.

Amherst Police also busted three party houses that weekend, arresting nine "college aged youth" for noise and nuisance infractions.  One house with four arrests were all young woman.

At another of the houses a 17-year-old girl was arrested for being a minor in possession of alcohol, partying with over 500 young adults packed into one family house only zoned for four tenants.

Police also arrested a drunk driver who almost ran over an officer who had stopped another vehicle.

All in all, sad to say,  in the picturesque college town of Amherst, home to three institutes of higher education, a rather routine weekend.  Now suddenly, sadly, made far from typical.

Until it happens again.

Friday, November 30, 2012


 3rd tank, also with one foot of the volatile liquid remaining, was buried along eastern side of building

The old expression "bad things come in threes" certainly played out over the past week for a small business located at the highly visible intersection of Main/Triangle/Dickinson Street just below the Emily Dickinson Museum .

The first underground storage tank, resembling a large aerial bomb dropped from a B52, was bad enough considering it lay almost directly under the main entry immediately in front of the building.

Assistant Fire Chief Don McKay was instantly suspicious there would be a second  due to a large connecting pipe visible on top of the tank, which sure enough proved accurate. The third tank alongside the building came as more of a surprise, kind of like the initial discovery.

The first gas pump appeared in Amherst in 1905 on the corner of Kellogg Avenue planted there by Melrose Paige. Probably installed properly, since Mr. Paige went on to become Amherst Fire Department Call Chief in 1911, and by 1925 he was Chair of the Amherst Select Board.
At first, no permit or license was required to sell gasoline, although this being Amherst, regulation soon followed.    The first license to sell gasoline was recorded at the Town Clerk's office in May, 1914.

By the late 1930s Amherst hosted 24 "filling stations" and the citizens did not want a 25th. At a routine Monday night Select Board meeting in July of 1939, eighteen citizens turned out for a public hearing to protest a gas station permit for a proposed business (by a large oil company) on North Pleasant Street.

Their battle cry was a simple but inflammatory one: North Pleasant Street, the busiest commercial street in Amherst, should not become "gasoline alley".

The Select Board denied the permit.

The building on Main Street where the underground tanks were just discovered is located very near Classic Chevrolet, formerly Paige's Chevrolet, founded in 1883 -- the first auto service business in Amherst.

Patterson's Garage, Main Street Amherst circa 1940 

Prior to becoming a pizza shop it was an entrenched location for auto service: Ledoyt's Garage shows up in 1923, two years later becoming Bilger's Garage, and in 1936 Main Street Garage.  Between 1940-1950 the location was operated as Patterson's Garage and, finally, Dick's Auto Service operated by Dick Stedman.

 Amherst Record ad 11/28/1963

A valve fitting found on one of the tanks was manufactured by the Evertite Corporation, a business established in 1935, indicating that Main Street Garage is probably responsible for the tanks -- although they could have gone in years earlier and were added to or replaced after 1935.

Now of course the explosive question:  how many more large underground tanks, with gasoline still in them, remain buried and forgotten around town?
The tanks, measuring 5 feet in diameter and 16 feet long, were peeled open after a chemical solution poured in to neutralize explosive fumes, siphoned,  and then replaced with an equal amount of concrete.  Old gas was taken to a "waste burning facility" by New England Environmental, Inc so it did not completely go to, err, waste.

Board of Health regulations banning underground tanks in the aquifer recharge zones was a volatile issue in 1983, vociferously protested by local farmers, gas stations owners and others with underground tanks. Those who, according to then Board of Health Chair Davis Ross, "had a vested interest in not being regulated."