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.