Thursday, January 31, 2013

ZBA Accepts Surrender

ZBA Chair Eric Beal, Thomas Ehrgood member, Rob Morra Building Commish, Attorney Larry Farber in hot seat

It took two hours and ZBA Chair Eric Beal seemed to want to let the public thrashing of a prominent local landlord go on for two more hours, but he finally relented and voted along with his two fellow board members to allow Grandonico Properties, LLC -- AKA Lincoln Realty -- to withdraw their appeal of the Building Commissioner's $100/day fine for violation of the town bylaw restricting one family units to four unrelated housemates.
 Town Attorney Joel Bard, Jeff Bagg town planner, Hilda Greenbaum ZBA member

Originally the Grandonicos appealed the Building Commissioner's decision, claiming they should not be fined because they were unaware of their tenants (overcrowding) actions and should therefor not be held accountable.

The tenants -- all UMass students -- contacted UMass legal services and their attorney, Carol Booth, put together overwhelming testimony showing the Grandonicos were well aware, and in fact encouraged, violation of the town zoning bylaw.
 Seven roommates!

After a potentially catastrophic fire that started in an illegal basement bedroom of #20 Gilreath Manor on September 13, the tenants were told by their landlord to hide evidence of bedrooms in the basements, which borders on obstruction of justice -- a criminal charge.  

After these documents became public due to the ZBA hearing (and this blog), the Grandonicos wished to turn off the spotlight by simply withdrawing their appeal.  Tonight they got their wish.
Click to enlarge/read

But the ZBA still strongly reaffirmed the right of the Building Commissioner to levy fines on the landlords for infractions that occur on their property.  A message that will not be lost on other landlords in town.

Front Row: Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, Jonathan O'Keeffe Planning Board, Alisa Brewer, Select Board rear seat front

Essential Equipment Temporarily Down

AFD Engine 2 (Quint)
Both the Quint (Engine 2) and Ladder Truck 1 are currently out of service due to maintenance issues leaving the town without its own aerial platform truck, a vital tool for firefighting ... but, thankfully, for only two weeks.

And in the meantime, Worthington has kindly donated the services of their ladder truck until either one of ours returns.  

The Quint is a multi-task unit that acts as both pumper and ladder truck with 75' vertical range and can seat six fully equipped firefighters.  The town purchased it in the summer of 2009 for $635,000.  And yes, it was in service last week at the deadly Rolling Green Apartments fire.

Ladder Truck 1 is a 1988 LTI with a 102' aerial platform.  Each of the two ladder units carry a 1,000 gallon per minute gun on top of the ladder to attack fire from above.
Ladder Truck 1 at University Drive Laundromat dryer fire
 Quint in action at Rolling Green fire. Photo courtesy of Steven O'Toole

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Revenge of the Ninja

Ninja agent in full regalia 

Our visit to a not very authentic Japanese ninja movie studio park magically whisked me back over 25 years to perhaps my biggest battle of all, fought not in a karate ring but on the pages of martial arts magazines, local TV news and BIG city daily newspapers from coast to coast, back when print was in its prime.

After promoting an anonymous customer satisfaction survey asking what else our little karate school could offer in services, I noticed a good number of written requests for "weapons" training.  And the handwriting was decidedly childlike.

I started asking kids where they had even heard about throwing stars, double edged daggers, blow guns and the like.  "In school," came the response "Lots of kids are talking about it, and some are even bringing them to class". 

Yes, we're taking white bread, peace loving, affluent Amherst. 

At the time the martial arts industry was in a full scale "Ninjamania" meltdown.  Fueled by Hollywood movies and amplified further by California based martial arts magazines promoting ninjas on their covers --usually in violent poses, with flashy weapons about to skewer or decapitate an opponent -- and page after page of ads for mail-order martial weapons of every kind.

Publishers were getting rich off the ads, weapons dealers were selling a boatload of products, and unfortunately, kids nationwide were getting their naive little hands on dangerous weapons, because the postman does not check IDs. 

In Massachusetts many of the weapons -- nunchakus, doubled-edged knives, and throwing stars -- had been banned by emergency legislation signed by Governor Michael Dukakis in 1972.   Police officers were coming under attack with a variety of these weapons by street gangs and angry mobs during the racially charged Boston school busing crises. 

So how, I wondered, are kids in Amherst getting their hands on these particular dangerous weapons that were clearly outlawed?  A classic Catch 22:  although made illegal by state law it was not illegal to use the federal post office to circumvent our state law by ordering from weapons dealers located in states that had no restrictions on the pernicious products. 

It took an entire day but I managed to talk my way past a secretary or two and get the Postmaster General in Washington, DC on the phone.  When I asked him if he knew his organization was trampling on our state law by delivering illegal weapons he said, matter-of-factly, "I'm not surprised".  He then pointed out in California tear gas pens were illegal by state law but he knew they were routinely being delivered. 

"There's nothing I can do about it now" he said.  "You would need to get a federal law passed … "

Thus began a two-front war: Getting the politicians to close a loophole allowing the mailorder of dangerous martial arts weapons,  and informing parents nationwide that their children could be playing with these dangerous devices. 

I kicked off my crusade by mailing every US senator in Washington, DC a multi-pointed throwing star (which were illegal in the city) with the tag line typed on the outside of the envelope:  "Illegal weapon, legally enclosed."  The Associated Press covered my press conference as did all the local and regional media in Massachusetts and the king of TV national news shows, ABC's 20/20.

Senator Kennedy, who knew all too well the danger of mail-order availability of weapons (like the Italian-made 6.5 Mannlicher-Carcano rifle obtained by Lee Harvey Oswald for instance) was quick to respond to my letter of concern, although rookie Senator John Kerry never did.

But the big break came when Kennedy's legislation picked up an unlikely co-sponsor:  Ultra conservative long-time Sentor Strom Thurmond.  Now the bill, S-1363, was called the "Kennedy/Thurmond Bill". 

What caught the southern Senator's attention was my secondary concern over "states rights".  What caught the media's attention was the unlikely pairing of two polar opposite but highly respected legislators.

In the winter of 1985 I testified as an expert witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator Kennedy.  Black Belt Magazine publisher Michael James, worried about advertising revenues, testified against the bill as did martial arts icon and Washington, DC based Tae Kwon Do instructor Jhoon Rhee who was worried it could become a slippery slope leading to legislative control over martial arts instruction schools. 

At one point in his testimony Senator Kennedy respectfully interrupted Mr. Rhee to ask, "Do you use these weapons in your schools here in DC?" "No," he quickly replied, "they are too dangerous".   Reporters in the packed hearing room almost fell out of their chairs. 

The bill came out of the Judiciary Committee with a 11-1 favorable vote, only Arlen Specter voted against it citing concerns from the NRA.  I sent a weapons package to Spector's wife Joan who was then Philadelphia City Council Chair and soon thereafter a local ordinance passed essentially banning the more dangerous of the weapons in Philadelphia, thus shutting down the supply sent out nationwide by the largest mail order dealer of the time, Asian World of Martial Arts. 

The bill never made it to the floor of the 99th Congress for a full vote and therefore died of neglect.  Senator Kennedy never refiled it when the 100th Congress convened.  But by then the industry had taken strong measures of self regulation.  Weapons ads now carried the disclaimer, "will not ship to where prohibited by law."

And perhaps most important of all, the "Ninjamania" fad died.  Another of my secondary concerns was that ninjas were, essentially, hired assassins.  My TV sound bite at the time was "they would kill their own grandmother, in her sleep, for a price."

Hardly something American children should be holding up as heroes to emulate.

As we left the Toei Kyoto Studio Park my daughters could talk about nothing other than "ninjas".  And yes, we did make a souvenir purchase -- but not any of the plastic toy weapons.

A pair of black ninja tabi boots, which allows one to walk softly ...

Top row: Nunchaku, brass knuckle knife, push dagger. Middle row: Ninja claw, throwing starsBottom row: Balisong Philippine knife, and my favorite: a razor sharp double-edged dagger made from high impact plastic rather than metal, so you could easily sneak it aboard commercial airplanes.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Website Winner

Amherst Town Website

The MMA -- that's Mass Municipal Association, not Mixed Martial Arts -- awarded the town of Amherst an Honorable Mention certificate for community websites in the population range of 15 to 50,000.

This is the first year the organization that bills itself as "the voice of cities and towns in Massachusetts" has given an award for municipal websites.

In 2009 Common Cause Massachusetts designated Amherst an e-Government award winner for "transparency in Massachusetts municipal websites."

Like any good website is a huge time saver for both town employees and citizens, as well as tree saver.  The always on 24/7 site allows citizens direct access to paperwork, and maintains efficient lines of communication for mundane meetings, or potentially lifesaving bulletins in the case of an emergency.

The site went live w-a-y back in July, 1998 as before assuming the current address in June, 2004.   The site now routinely attracts 1,500 unique visitors daily (but has seen a peak of 4,600) and has thousands of subscribers who get information notifications by email, text message, or RSS feeds.

Amherst is also one of only a hand full of municipalities in the state that offers extensive free WiFi in the downtown.

Drinking To Excess

Amherst Fire Department ambulances

While Amherst Police Department made no arrests over the weekend for rowdy behavior at any of the usual Party Houses, Amherst Fire Department was swamped with ETOH (alcohol poisoning) calls to UMass, the proud flagship of higher education in our state.

In fact, 80% of the EMS calls were alcohol related.  80%!  And one of them was a combination "ETOH and trauma," meaning the young college aged male hurt himself because of the incapacitation brought on by too much alcohol.

Just as a young college aged female died not long ago on Fearing Street, a notorious party pass through path, after collapsing and hitting her head on unforgiving concrete. 

In addition to alcohol sucking up the valuable time of our first responders, AFD also had a false alarm fire call to my friends at Alphs Delta Phi, 778 North Pleasant Street (who recently threatened me with a lawsuit to protect their sterling reputation) for "marijuana smoke" setting off a fire alarm.

Way to go frat boys.  I wish we could send you a bill for the $300 or more it cost the taxpayers of this town.

In addition to these babysitting drunk runs to Cooley Dickinson Hospital, AFD was also busy with the medical emergencies we expect them to handle. So much so, that they had to rely on "mutual aid ambulances" four times (see EMS calls marked with *).

And no, oddly enough, none of these reinforcements were required because of the late night/early morning ETOH calls hogging our ambulances.

Just goes to show how routinely stressed the AFD is even without factoring in drunken college kids which, on weekends, is a BIG factor.

Monday, January 28, 2013

DUI Dishonor Roll

Early Friday morning was not a particularly safe time to be driving in Amherst, although APD made it safer by taking two drunk drivers off the road, both of them female UMass students, and both incidents close to the flagship campus jam packed with potential accident victims. 

Stopped originally for speeding and "marked lanes violation" (swerving) at 1:17 AM on North Pleasant Street near infamous Hobart Lane, police arrested 21-year-old Hannah David, 58 Mt Vernon St, Fitchburg, MA, for Driving Under the Influence.

And a couple hours later at 2:58 AM on Phillips Street, the other infamous street in town, police stopped 20-year-old Meghan Fleming, 10 Valentine Road, Hopkinton, MA for "marked lanes violation".  The officer then noticed a "strong odor of alcohol, bloodshot glassy eyes, and slurred speech."

Ms Fleming took the Portable Breathalyzer Test and failed with a PBT of .173% -- more than twice the legal limit.  She was, however, smart enough to refuse the more sophisticated, fixed/stationary breathalyzer back at the station -- the one that provides results that are admissible in court.

So, theoretically, she loses her license for 180 days, unless of course she beats the DUI charge, which is now made harder to prove without the more sophisticated breathalyzer results.  And the fact she refused to take it cannot be used in court as evidence.

Although police also found a marijuana pipe and a small amount of the drug in the vehicle, so that will provide evidence to back up the DUI charge.  

Yeah, great system we have here in Massachusetts.  

Earlier in the week two other young ladies -- both UMass students -- were also taken off the road, handcuffed, and escorted back to APD headquarters under arrest.

Sunday, January 20 at 6:10 PM police stopped 22-year-old Lauren Derouin, 196 Triangle St, Amherst, and arrested her after she failed a Field Sobriety Test.  She did, however,  refuse to take the breathalyzer. 

Wednesday, January 23 at 1:09 AM police stopped 21-year-old Emily Rookwood, 3 Madison Rd, Marblehead, MA, for speeding (estimated 45 in a 30 MPH zone).  She failed the Field Sobriety Test and was transported back to the station, where she refused to take the breathalyzer test.

Sashiburi, Mr. President

The Kennedy Room, Hotel Boston Plaza Kusatsu 

After an entertaining, comfortable, two hour ride on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto we took another 20 minute ride on a  crowded commuter train to Kusatsu and then walked about 100 yards to the Boston Plaza Hotel.  It was an old world hotel modeled on -- you guessed it -- elegant Boston hotels.

 Commuter Train, Kyoto Station

Apparently the owner is big on Boston, and at one point wanted the entire block around his hotel modeled on a Boston street scape; but even he was not rich enough to pull that off.  And I suppose if you're a big fan of Boston it makes sense to also be captivated by the Kennedy mystique.

The Kennedy Room had wall-to-wall framed photos of our former President (although none of them aboard PT 109 or the Dallas motorcade) and Mrs Kennedy looking like the fashionable First Lady she was.

And just to show how elegant the rooms were: heated toilet seats. 
Toto Washlet

Strategic Withdrawal?

Burned out remains at Rolling Green Apartments, Amherst

Against the tragic backdrop of a deadly fire at Rolling Green Apartments, I'm not surprised Grandonico Properties, LLC -- AKA Lincoln Reality -- is attempting to quit their foolish appeal of Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra's December 17, 2012 citation carrying a $100/day fine for violation of the towns 20+ year old zoning bylaw forbidding more than four unrelated housemates in a one-family unit.

But I hope the ZBA does not  allow them (requires a unanimous vote) to simply surrender and slink away under cover of darkness. I hope they take up discussion of this important issue and vote unanimously to reaffirm it.

By taking up this health and safety issue that Grandonico sought to circumvent, and now wish to pull a Roseanne Roseannadanna "never mind",  the ZBA can send a stern message to a minority of unscrupulous landlords who put profits over public safety.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Proud Symbol of Efficiency

Shinkansen, AKA "Bullet Train"

We took the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, from Tokyo to Kyoto.  The ride was super smooth, wicked fast, and the train looks like something out of a science fiction movie.

The marvelous machine can hit pretty close to 200 MPH when at full throttle, although the tracks usually straddle big open space which mitigates somewhat the feel of high speed, so it's not like the thrill you get from an amusement park roller coaster ride.

The price, however, is expensive.  Our tickets were $240 round trip but Jada, my six year old, was free. 

The inside of the train is clean and spacious, and the seats are comfortable with plenty of leg room (after 14 hours cramped in an economy airplane seat that alone is reason to celebrate).  Uniformed employees bow respectfully whenever they enter or leave a car.

The train seats around 1,300 passengers, runs on schedule and, unlike China, has never had an accident. 

All We Are Saying ...

Rt 9, East Amherst (under a full moon)

Last Call (for tipsy transit)

UMass Hagis Mall drop off 2:08 AM early Sunday morning 

The UMass "Sober Shuttle", an after hours bus run from downtown Amherst back to campus, kicked off this weekend and by the looks of things -- a packed bus -- seemed successful.

But then, maiden voyages often are.

 A crowd of around 30 waits for 1:20 bus at Post Office town center 1:17 AM early Sunday
According to Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor, “The truth is that there is only a very small segment of students who cause some, if any, disruptive behavior in our community, and it is my hope that this initiative will be another step by the university and its students to help reduce that problem and extend an olive branch to the town.”

Agreed.  Well, mostly.  Except the part about "if any" disruptive behavior.  If Mr. Kapoor is uncertain that any disruptive behavior can be traced to UMass students then he certainly has not been paying attention these past few years.  Or maybe just not reading this blog.  Or both.

My only fear is that the buses running late will encourage students to drink more. 

The other major problem we have with a minority of UMass students is ETOH calls (alcohol poisoning) tying up our ambulances, making them unavailable for other life threatening emergencies.

So making it safer and more comfortable for students to stay out even later, drinking, when just one more can put someone over the edge is certainly not going to help solve that part of the problem.

Sober Shuttle (Rt) bumps up against Sunderland Bus (left) 1:20 AM Sunday Town Center

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Japanese Garden. Tokyo, Japan

This mini waterfall was part of a larger Japanese Garden not far from our Sheraton Hotel in pretty much the heart of Tokyo -- kind of like New York's Central Park, only a lot quieter.

On Saturday we observed a couple of wedding receptions using the gardens as a backdrop.

Friday, January 25, 2013

On Golden Pond

Golden Palace. Kyoto, Japan

The Golden Palace is one of the most historic and popular sites in Japan. Standing out all the more against a backdrop of what appears to be the unofficial dress code of Japanese citizenry:  dark colors, usually black.

And of course the ubiquitous surgical masks used to ward off germs worn by almost a third of the population when out in public.

Typical dress: dark suit, white mask
School children both public and private wear school uniforms

Tokyo High

Tokyo Japan, as seen from Tokyo Tower

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Observations From Afar

 Osaka Japan

As an apartment complex back home was being ravaged by an inferno,  I was happily touring a fire department sub station in Tokyo, Japan. 

Tokyo FD. Mini ladder truck 
Not that I'm superstitious -- even though 25 years ago my Amherst apartment burned down on a Friday the 13th -- but my intuition radar probably should have been buzzing after checking in to our plush hotel room a couple hours earlier:  Room 911.

Even with the restart of UMass and our other institutes of higher education, considering Monday was a holiday, I figured it would be a slow news week in Amherst.  Guess I was wrong.


Once you have experienced a major structure fire up close and personal -- smelled and tasted the acrid stench, listened as the crackling grows deafeningly loud while your field of vision narrows to nothing because of thick black smoke -- not much else in life scares you.

So you simply hope to never meet again. Ever.

The beast paid a call on Rolling Green Apartments early Monday morning.  As with all encounters, it was both uninvited and unexpected. 
 Rolling Green fire. Photo courtesy of Steven O'Toole

And a young man who was majoring in hospitality and tourism management at UMass will never get to put those service skills to use.  Ever.

The investigation will be as thorough as the fire was destructive, maybe more so.  I will be surprised if it turns out the cause can be traced to irresponsible management, as the complex is owned by one of those big corporations with too much to lose.

With Section 8 housing, HUD loans, a large insurance carrier and all the other private sector bureaucracy involved,  safe to say Rolling Green Apartments have been inspected more times than the Town could possibly afford to if rental registration bylaw passes town meeting this spring.

The problem in Amherst with substandard, dangerous rental housing comes not from large professionally managed complexes like Rolling Green, Puffton Village, Mill Valley Estates, or any of the other three complexes on East Hadley Road.  It's largely the lone houses transformed into (illegal) rooming houses that are accidents waiting to happen.

Except of course for Gilreath Manor,  the 14 unit complex out on Hobart Lane,  a sort of white crow that disproves the theory all multi-unit complexes are well run.  A very good reason why all responsible landlords in town should cheer public officials' new found ambition to actually enforce safety and zoning ordinances that have been too long ignored. 

With the same basic design as the Rolling Green complex (with an attic unprotected by fireproof flooring) but made far more dangerous with faulty fire detection and too many students packed into each unit, the Gilreath Manor fire could have been far more murderous had the blaze broken out in the early morning hours rather than high noon.

Town Manager Musante's proposed 2014 budget fortunately includes funding for a "full time fire prevention inspector position;"  but, unfortunately,  no added positions for front line responders like those brave men and women who descended on a killer conflagration early Monday morning.

The Town Manager also touts the weekend "joint patrols" between UMPD and APD which is of course a good thing.  But AFD can't very well partner with UMFD as UMass does not have a fire department.

As I've mentioned before, UMass needs to hire an off campus RA to deal with nuisance party houses before they require APD response, and they should pick up the tab for an additional two AFD first responder positions.

The beast will come calling again.  Because fire is never completely eradicated.  Ever.

Fire victim relief efforts for Rolling Green

Relief efforts for Peshkov family

Friday, January 18, 2013

Celebrate & Mourn

 Odd juxtaposition: Commemorative flag, Christmas decoration, main flag at half staff

No, the seldom seen 20 some-odd commemorative American flags are not up in town center to commemorative Martin Luther King Day.  They are flying to herald Inauguration Day.

On the night of September 10, 2001 -- The Eve of Destruction -- the Amherst Select Board voted 4-1 to allow 29 commemorative flags to fly on six "holidays" and once every four years for Inauguration Day (and yes, amazingly, they even flew for President Bush's two terms).

9/11 has become a seventh infrequent occasion for the commemorative flags to fly, only once every five years.  As some of you may remember, this past 9/11 the town received international notoriety for not flying the flags to remember the most historic day of our lifetime.

The main flag is currently at half-staff to mourn the passing of Pfc. Antonio Syrakos of Lynn, who died January 10, 2013 in an off base accident near Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Governor Patrick routinely lowers the flag for any state resident in the military who dies, be it in combat on foreign soil, or an accident back here in America.

Another even more sobering statistic of the casualties caused by war:  This past year Army suicides outpaced military combat casualties in Afghanistan.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sport & Fair Play Takes A Huge Hit

Amherst Regional High School sports teams nicknamed "Hurricanes"

With all the endless talk about bullying in our schools and adults in charge stepping up to take responsibility to do the right thing, especially in Amherst, Ground Zero for all things touchy-feely, you would think Monday night's high school basketball incident would be about as likely as a UFO landing in town center.

According to published reports, ARHS player Tyrell Jackson purposely crashed into South Hadley coach Jeff Guiel. Twice! Even worse, Jackson claims he was ordered by assistant coach Eric Wheeler to perform the mugging, and soon thereafter was put in the game by head coach Jim Matuszko.

Sure it's fairly common practice in team sports to have one or two players who act as "enforcers". They are not known for their advanced skills at the game but more for their brawn. And their job is usually to protect the gifted star who may be targeted by their goon counterpart on the opposing team.

But this incident goes laps beyond that shady practice, and borders on criminal assault. Let's not forget that a District Attorney broke new legal ground charging South Hadley High School students for their repugnant actions that lead to the death of Phoebe Prince.

Or Penn State harboring a pedophile to protect the image of their sacred football program. Or Lance Armstrong, hero to so very many, repeatedly lying about using performance enhancing drugs.

Athletes are supposed to be role models, as are their coaches! This shameful incident brings into disrepute the players and staff, the sport of basketball, Amherst Regional High School, and our entire town.

There's an ill wind blowing, and it's only going to get worse ...

Backstory in emails

The media is the message:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bloodless Budget

 SB Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, John Musante, Sandy Pooler, FinCom Chair Andy Steinberg

Unlike the venerable Amherst Schools the Town Manager today presented to the Select Board and Finance Committee a level services budget that stayed within their suggested cap of 3%, so residents will see no deterioration in services and little extra money coming out of their household budget.

Unless of course the Schools request an Override to cover their projected $737,000 deficit at the elementary level.  In last year's budget the schools were given an extra $218,200 from Free Cash cash for instance.

If the Town Manger should find extra money coming into the municipal side of the budget (besides the $6,200,894 held in reserves) he would use $61,000 to fund an additional police officer for a department that is down five sworn officers over the past six years, while UMass has continued to grow over those same years.

$100,000 to add an Economic Development office to help stimulate the business/commercial side of the property tax equation, which is seriously out of balance, with residential property shouldering 90% of the property tax burden.

And the Safe & Healthy Neighborhood initiative would benefit by the addition of a building inspector ($63,608).  Town Meeting will vote this spring on requiring rental registration, and inspections will be a vital component for enforcement.

On an even more optimistic note Town Manager Musante reports: "In FY14 the town hopes to see the installation by a private company of one of the largest solar arrays in Massachusetts at the old landfill on Belchertown Road and to promote other solar development in town."

Either way, the immediate future seems bright.

Bales of hay on the old landfill that will be used this spring for regrading

A Long Shot?

 Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess

Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess pitched his $600 million Western Mass casino proposal to a crowd of about 100 business leaders and town officials this afternoon at the Amherst Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting held at the Lord Jeffery Inn.

Touting his four years of work on the project, having opened an office in Palmer in 2009 and pouring $15 million to date into the project, Mr Etess also highlighted his company's recent strategic partnership with Brigade Capital Management, a $12 billion dollar investment fund.

His biggest selling point?  Regional development.  Not just for Palmer, the host community, but places as far away as Amherst, home to our favorite institute of higher education. 

Etess pointed out Umass hosts the well known Isenberg School of Management Hospitality & Tourism Management program.  

Amherst Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe cited the predominance of students in Amherst and asked if the casino will tempt them to make "bad decisions"?  Etess responded that they are "very careful" about underage drinking and underage gambling. 

And he also pointed out it "it's easier to make a bet today in your college dorm room than it is in a casino."

With three other major players -- Penn National Gaming, MGM and Hard Rock International -- vigorously pursuing a casino licenses for Western Massachusetts, it's a safe bet that Amherst cannot avoid being impacted by "casino mania". 

Only question is, will it be a winner ... or craps?

Wanna Bet

Lord Jeffery Inn, Wednesday morning

So I'm half thinking Amherst Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tony Maroulis ordered up this picturesque weather as a backdrop for today's luncheon presentation at Amherst 's iconic Lord Jeffery Inn for a hot topic more centered on Springfield, but certainly casting ripples that will be felt in our little town:  Casino gambling.

Mohegan Sun CEO Mitchell Etess, representing one of the four major players who ponied up $400,000 to vie for a lone gambling license reserved for Western Mass will be giving the keynote address. 

The public is invited and Mr. Etess is expected to approach the podium around 12:30 PM.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Those Who Fail To Learn ...

Chief Nelson, Chief Livingstone, Nancy Buffone, Jonathan Tucker, Stephanie O'Keeffe

"It's only a matter of time before somebody dies because of things we have let get out of hand," said Phil Jackson, member of the Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group and a resident of Lincoln Avenue,  a street described as being at the "tipping point" for proud old single family (four unrelated tenants) homes being converted by real estate speculators into two family (eight unrelated tenants) Party Houses.

Phil Jackson (3rd from left) makes a point 

Things have been "out of hand" for a very long time.

Take this entry from the front page of the 11/21/1990 Amherst Bulletin describing Amherst Town Meeting's reaction to the Planning Board asking if they should draft a rental registration bylaw:

 "Town Meeting instead asked the Planning Board to find ways to enforce existing zoning regulations more effectively. The substitute motion was made by Nancy Gordon. Both the Planning Board's approach and Gordon's were intended to cut down the problems of noise, unkempt property and general neighborhood disruption that sometimes occur when a number of students rent an apartment or a house that is too small for them."

Now here we are, twenty two years later, still dealing with noise, nuisance, and all the dangerous byproducts of drunken behavior by too many young adults packed into too small surroundings owned by speculators who simply don't give a damn.

Like the current controversy with gun ownership, it only takes the actions of a microscopically small minority to ruin it for the very large majority of responsible gun owners.  Just as one or two slumlords ruin it for all the legitimate, professional, honest, caring owners who make up the vast majority of rental property providers.

Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe described Safe & Healthy Neighborhood's charge:  "Trying to establish what all reasonable people would agree is a minimum baseline of safety ... including reasonable parking, compliant with occupancy limit, local property upkeep laws, as well as alcohol and nuisance laws."

And she closes with a key point:  "Inspectors need to be able to access property."

The committee will host an open public forum next week, January 22, in the Town Room, Town Hall (7:00 PM - 9:00 PM) to hear from all concerned stakeholders:  neighbors, property owners, town officials and civilized citizens who care about their town.

Safe bet the rowdy tenants causing the problems (or the slumlords who rent to them) will not show up.

Phil Jackson's Powerpoint slide

Monday, January 14, 2013

Better safe ...

District Attorney Dave Sullivan 

We all remember the good old days when you didn't have to take off your shoes while going through security to board an airplane and you could bring along your bottle of water or tube of sun tan lotion and yes, even a nail clipper with that swing out little file attached.

Or when you could walk right through the main door of your daughters' elementary school without having to await being buzzed in, and then sign in at the office, and wear a visitor ID sticker while doing a one minute chore with your child.

But times have changed.  Nineteen zealots turned civilian airliners into guided missiles, and one deranged young man with a lot of firepower and the single-minded determination to use it against innocent children, changed everything

So I"m not bothered in the least by the actions of Northampton police, endorsed by Northwestern District Attorney Dave Sullivan, to acquire handwriting samples of Northampton High School students for possibly identification of the perp who left a threatening (hand written) note in the school.

Less than a week after the unthinkable happened at an elementary school not all that far away.

When I first heard that a written "pledge" was used as a response to the incident I was reminded (cue rolling of eyes) of town and UMass officials and DA Dave Sullivan handing out oatmeal cookies to UMass students in the southern section of campus while the northern end exploded in a riot.

But then it became clear the pledge was simply a cover to get handwriting samples.  Kind of like something you might see in a Hollywood movie.  Only this movie did not have a Hollywood ending, as the perp is apparently still at large.

When lives are stake -- as in this case they most certainly could have been -- extraordinary measures need to be taken.  Terrorism, drunk driving, domestic abuse or child abuse: The offenders certainly don't play by any set of rules.

And they must be stopped.

A Lot Off The Top

 Asplundh Tree Service on the top of The Notch

The l-o-n-g promised realignment of the The Notch (Route 116/West Street) seems to be finally underway as contractors have clear cut sections near the top in preparation for the $3.1 million road straightening project, thanks to earmarks secured by outgoing Congressman John Olver, D-Mass.

The project is contiguous with the $6 million Atkins Corner double roundabout project completed this past summer.

South Hadley side of The Notch 

West side of Route 116 going up The Notch

 1333 West Street, bottom of The Notch.  Congressman John Olver's 15 acre estate
West side bottom of The Notch
Mt Holyoke State Park (cream color)