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.