Sunday, March 31, 2013

News About Nothing (Seinfeld)

While not up there with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the lack of an $ Override question on the April 9 town election ballot is only a borderline miracle, especially in light of the recent outcry over school budget cuts.

Town officials are 1-2 over the past six years with one $1.68 Override passing in 2010; but a larger more hard fought $2.5 million Override campaign failing in 2007 (mainly because of campaign director, Rick Hood).

Any marketing guru will confirm trying to get people to voluntarily raise their own taxes -- especially in a trying economy -- is a tough sell.  Even more so, the prospect of trying to raise money to buy media to sell consumers on the idea of paying more for something most people take for granted:  public services. 

Especially when the town has $6 million stashed away in reserves and the Regional Schools another  $1 million.  The old "why should I take money out of my savings account so that you can keep money stashed in yours" routine.

Of course the major downside now is the April 9 local election, with no town-wide contests and half the town meeting precincts with not enough candidates to fill the open seats, will get an abysmal turnout ... under 10%.

And no, 14 UMass students running for Amherst Town Meeting will not stimulate the vote in the least (other than the 14 who come out to vote for themselves -- if indeed they bother to vote that day).

Last November, however,  the Amherst turnout for a non competitive (in this state anyway) Presidential election was 69%.

But for matters that more directly impact them -- The People -- it's the local election that really counts. And yet there, we always come up lacking.

Amherst:  where even the H is silent. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Presidential E-X-P-A-N-S-I-O-N

Presidential Apartments, one of the first big complexes to arise fifty years ago in a mutual symbiotic relationship with UMass, our largest employer, has been granted a special permit by the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals to expand significantly (54 units) from the current 85 units to 139, or an increase of 96 tenants.

The 54 new units will spread out over nine new buildings and consist of a dozen one bedroom units and 42 two bedroom units.  Six of these units will be "affordable" and will count towards Amherst's Subsidized Housing Inventory.

The town is currently at 10.8% and if it falls below 10% a developer can use a state CH40B wild card to build a rental housing mega-complex.

According to the Amherst Housing Production Plan between 1980 and 2010 housing production decreased by 12.8% in a town where 59.4% of the population are college students.

Presidential Apartments is also one of the complexes that is professionally managed by Kamins Real Estate and seldom shows up in Amherst police logs.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Closing The Barn Door

After a marathon 3.5 hour meeting last night the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals decided the bulldozing of a barn in the backyard of 290 Lincoln Avenue was not "arbitrary or capricious," and was indeed within the scope of the Zoning Bylaw.

On September 4 The Amherst Historical Commission declined to issue a one-year demolition delay for the barn because commissioners did not deem it historically significant, even though it was rumored by a real estate agent to have once been used as a writer's loft by Robert Frost, Amherst's second most famous poet.

Building Commissioner Rob Morra issued a demolition permit and the owner quickly carried out the deed.  Neighbors then filed an appeal with the Town Clerk and the ZBA heard the appeal over two meetings.  Even though the barn was history.

Frisky Friday

500 Sunderland Road, Amherst (just barely)

Late Friday night around 11:45 PM,  Police were called to 500 Sunderland Road, almost at the Sunderland border, to break up a huge party, sending a stream of kids -- like a zombie herd -- staggering back to UMass via busy Rt 116.

One college aged youth was arrested for "failure to disperse" and a $300 "Nuisance House" ticket issued to the responsible tenant. Obviously neither of these kids read the memo from UMass Nanny -- I mean Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs -- Jean Kim.


And it's still early yet!

800 North Pleasant Street (Minutes before APD stopped to chat)

Strangling Supply

 Rock Farm, South East Street Amherst (note 50 gallon drum with liquid)

The number one reason for the high cost of housing and even higher cost of property taxes in Amherst, with a resulting crop of slum houses that spring up in response, is a bad byproduct of the simplest equation in the sacred book of capitalism: supply and demand.

Amherst is now more than half owned by tax exempt institutions that contribute far less than their fair share of Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, thus homeowners (since Amherst has an out of whack 90% residential and only 10% commercial tax base) have to contribute almost twice as much.

Witness Hadley's tax rate of $10.22/$1,000 vs Amherst's $20.39/$1,000.

Yet anytime anyone tries to build housing in town to stimulate supply, the NIMBYs go on the attack ... trying to get the town to buy the property to maintain their scenic views.

The most expensive taking in town history -- the Cherry Hill Golf Course in 1987 -- is an expensive case in point ($2.2 million). A plot hatched by North Amherst neighbors opposed to a Planned Unit Residential Development that would have added 134 high end housing units to the town.

 Rock Farm (A) South East Street, Amherst

Now after NIMBYs drove developer Scott Nielson into bankruptcy after he tried to build 23 high end condos and one single family house as a PURD, they want the town to buy this 7.4 acre open space off South East Street for $500,000 using $125,000 in Community Preservation Act money.

And it's the typical formula of using a variety of funding sources (much of it public money), including selling off two building lots for a ton of money. So rather than getting 24 units of desperately needed housing the town only gets two. And rather than generating $200,000 in annual property taxes it will only generate one tenth that. A lose/lose scenario, unless of course you live in the neighborhood.

Safe bet Amherst Town Meeting will approve the $125,000 in CPAC spending. The only place you will find more open space in Amherst is between their collective ears.

A Cold Reality

Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg Co-Chairing Budget Coordinating Group Thursday morning

Amherst finance guru Andy Steinberg addressed the two town meeting warrant articles calling for many millions of dollars in spending for the eminent domain taking of two properties in town and his brief comment Thursday morning could fit on their tombstone:  "It's hard to imagine how these things are feasible."


But where was he 25 years ago when the town spent the most money in history for an eminent domain taking:  Cherry Hill Golf Course @ $2.2 million, simply to satisfy 100 NIMBYs in North Amherst.

But yes, two wrongs do not make a right, and at least maybe town officials learned something from the Cherry Hill debacle ... maybe.  The taking of W.D. Cowls property in the bucolic Cushman section of North Amherst would cost many times more than the $1.2 million that appears in the warrant article.

Since Cinda Jones has an offer of $6.6 million on the table from a serious developer who wishes to construct high end student housing,  that is how much it would cost the town to take it.  6.6 million.  Dollars.   A UFO piloted by Elvis landing in town center on the 4th of July is f-a-r more likely to happen. 

The taking of Echo Village, which would cost close to $3 million, has a far better shot with Amherst Town Meeting, as the impacted residents who are being evicted will generate far more sympathy than the well off white people from North Amherst.

And the new Echo Village owner, Jamie Cherewatti, is not overly popular with neighborhood groups all over Amherst.  At the Housing & Sheltering Committee meeting yesterday, where about-to-be-evicted tenants presented their case to the committee, Town Meeting member Paige Wilder chimed in, "Jamie Cherewatti owns four houses in my neighborhood that are all party houses."

Social activists Vince O'Connor and Kevin Noonan also spoke in behalf of the tenants urging the committee to support their article for an eminent domain article.  O'Connor pointed out if the town used Community Preservation Act money to fund some of the taking it would place an affordable housing restriction on the deed.

 Peter Jessop, Chair Amherst Community Preservation Act Committee

The CPAC did vote on Thursday night to support an emergency appropriation of $15,000 to help the tenants with relocation.  Apparently the former owner, Jerry Gates, was a tad more benevolent than the new owner and did not require first and last month's rent for new tenants so now there's no savings to rely on for getting a new apartment where that is required.  

But if Town Meeting should override CPAC committee recommendations and use money towards the outright purchase then the 24 units of housing would count towards the town's affordable housing stock, currently at 10.8%. Now in danger of falling below 10% and opening the town up to a Ch40B development.

 Echo Village Tenant Tracylee Boutilier addresses Housing & Sheltering Committee

Either way, with the Residential Rental Property Bylaw bringing a game changing permit system to town also on the warrant, Amherst Town Meeting should be more interesting than a night of network reality TV.

I can't wait.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

One Up, One Down

 No, not a bank robbery.  Cruiser caught fire near Florence Savings Bank 

A short while after Amherst Fire Department's new ambulance first hit the road today Amherst Police Department lost a front line patrol cruiser to an engine fire.  Fortunatly the new ambulance was not required at the scene, and in the short amount time it took AFD Engine 1 to get to there the fire was already put down with a fire extinguisher.

The patrol car was towed to a garage and will be more fully examined tomorrow.

APD appeared before the Joint Capital Planning Committee last month to present their capital equipment needs for the next fiscal year, and that included a routine request for three new cruisers.  Hopefully the Dodge Charger is not beyond repair. 

Town/Gown Peace Proposal

 Umass Amherst:  The Entity That Be

In addition to the $50,000+ in spending for extra AFD and UMPD personnel over the next six weeks to deal with off campus rowdy weekend behavior, UMass is also proposing a long-term major study costing between $50,000 and $60,000 to analyze public safety and housing issues created by the presence of our #1 employer, and how potential remedies fit into their "Master Plan".

Town Manager John Musante will be requesting  $25,000 to $30,000 from Amherst Town Meeting in matching funds for the joint town/gown study.  The money could come from the town's "overlay account," a stash of cash set aside in case property owners appeal their assessment and win an abatement.  Apparently the town has put aside more than needed.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy will make an appearance before Amherst Town Meeting this spring to champion the proposal.  Since Swamy is intrepid enough to endure a night of Town Meeting perhaps -- to get a real introduction to the problems of off campus rowdyism -- he should do a ride along with APD any weekend over the next six weeks.

After all, Select Board Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe has done it as has Town Manager Musante and former UMass second in command Todd Diacon. 

A3: In Service


Amherst Fire Department's newest ambulance has just passed state licensing and goes into service later today, just in time for a trial by fire -- or I should say alcohol -- over the weekend.

Amherst has a fleet of five ambulances and on some weekend nights when UMass is in session and the weather is warm (or the Mullins Center presents a techno concert) all five are not enough.

Plans are to keep the oldest ambulance around and in service for the next six weeks as back up.

Now you know why AFD does not like to transport two patients at a time

AFD will also be getting a new pumper one year earlier than expected at Finance Director Sandy Pooler's urging due to low borrowing rates.  The new $400,000 pumper will replace a 1996 model that Assistant Chief Lindsay Stromgren referred to as a "low bid vehicle" that was not especially popular with staff.

New streamlined state bidding process allows for ordering exactly the vehicle you want with custom add ons.  If ordered in July the town should take possession by the winter.

AFD last purchased a pumper in 2003 and the Quint -- a combination pumper/ladder truck -- in 2009.  The new pumper will become Engine 1 stationed at Central Station in town center and the "go to" truck for initial calls.

AFD Engine 2 Quint

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The 10%

The Amherst Housing & Sheltering Committee heard an ominous anecdote this morning from one of their own members, Andrea Battle, who resides at Rolling Green at Amherst apartments:  The most recent lease she signed was for only seven months instead of the usual twelve, and ends this August rather than January.

Housing & Sheltering Committee from right:  Andrea Battle, Nancy Gregg, Aaron Blodgett, Greg Stutsman

A September start for leasing is more reminiscent of an apartment complex geared towards students, or what neighbors refer to as  THEM.

In addition, August just happens to coincide with a time frame where Rolling Green owners, a huge Chicago based real estate investment firm, finish paying off a 15 year low-interest state loan,  and can then bring all 204 units up to market rate.

Thus taking them out of affordable housing stock, which instantly drops Amherst to only 8.5% affordable, well below the 10% threshold.

Our little college town is then at the mercy of BIG time developers doing pretty much whatever they want as long as 25% of the units are set aside as affordable.  It's called CH40B and it's use is about as welcome as giant mutant carnivorous ants.

The town has been aware of this August, 2013 deadline for at least five years with little progress towards an equitable solution since then.  And time is running out.

Former Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss appears before Amherst Select Board during unscripted 6:30 PM Public Question period last week to air concerns about Rolling Green going off line

Rescue Me

Jake will sleep better at night

Thanks to the generosity of three of Amherst Firefighter Bill Dunn's  Facebook buddies -- Doug Frederick, "K9 Diezel" of the University of Massachusetts Police Department and a caring Anon animal lover from Northampton -- the Amherst Fire Department now has on order three oxygen mask kits designed to fit man's best friend (as well as felines, birds, and rabbits).

Amherst is home to about 1,400 dogs and most --if not all -- are treated like family.  The only thing worse than losing all your possessions in a major structure fire is losing a member of your family.

This purchase gives our first responders one more tool to help preserve that which is sacred:  life.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sins Of The Few

The Gazette uses a dramatic pull quote in today's one-sided, front page article about the evil BIG BAD town government making life sooooooo hard for "property managers and renters alike."

Of course they fail to mention the two property managers are also occasional advertisers. 

"But why are you punishing the many for the sins of the few?" asks Pat Kamins of Kamins Real Estate.

Perhaps Commander Spock with his dying declaration had the best answer:   "The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few."  Especially when the few profit greatly at the expense of the many.

The Gazette quotes a couple of renters criticizing the proposed residential rental property bylaw; but neither of them are college students, a demographic that makes up 59.4% of the town's population, and the ones most preyed upon by slumlords.

The sad saga of the attempted cover up at Hobart Lane by a major player in the Amherst rental industry   should stand as a testament to why the free market sometimes needs government regulation.

Yes, it's a very small percentage of landlords who cause problems for the entire industry.  Just as it's a small percentage of party hardy immature college kids who ruin the image for the vast majority of students who are hard working, law abiding, future titans of America. 

Pat Kamins, center. Amherst Town Manager John Musante, right

Incremental Improvements

 New LED light Amherst Rt 9/South Pleasant intersection

This spring in an ambitious energy efficiency crusade, Amherst will relamp all streetlights to these more  efficient, longer lasting LED bulbs using a $300,000 state Green Energy grant.

This streetlight at the gateway to town center is already done.  It was decapitated in the Snowmageddon storm last year and replaced with the new and improved LED model, which I'm told are a tad trickier to install properly, but then are pretty much maintenance free.

Speaking of Snowmageddon, work continues on the $85,000 generator at Town Hall which will allow the building to become another Emergency Operations Command.  During the Halloween storm of the century power went out in almost all of Amherst and since the emitters run off the streetlights the WiFi also went down (as did 911 communication).

 New generator behind Town Hall

The generator, which cost $39,000, arrived a couple weeks ago and now needs to be installed -- which will also cost close to an additional $39,000.  Last year Amherst Town Meeting approved $85,000 in capital expenditures for the project.

 Fiber Arts Building, downtown Amherst

Amherst College, our #1 property owner, is in a full court press for construction.  Here working on the old Fiber Arts Building in the downtown, which will be used for office space.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Calm Before The Storm

AFD logo

The enormous impact UMass/Amherst usually has on our emergency response system shows up rather dramatically when the students are away for spring break.  A decrease by 90% in runs to our #1 customer.

But this coming weekend, with UMass back in session and possible springlike weather, all bets for a quiet weekend like the last one are off.  Way off.

However, town officials have a plan:  Up to six AFD ambulances could be operational during peak party weekends throughout the month of April, the highest number in history.

AFD is putting a new ambulance into service this week as part of a normal rotation in the current fleet of five.

Plans are to keep in service the ambulance about to be decommissioned (as long as they can find all the equipment to stock it).

According to Assistant Chief Lindsay Stromgren: "The town has committed to funding overtime to staff from the current seven up to nine minimum on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from now through April 27th (five weekends). On top of that, Umass will be funding one additional ambulance (two firefighters) this coming weekend (three nights) and two additional ambulances (four firefighters) on the four weekends in April."

So with thirteen firefighters on-duty, AFD can staff six ambulances.

Let's hope these best laid schemes do not go astray:  Like having a major structure fire when all six ambulances are engaged.

DUI Dishonor Roll

Whether UMass/Amherst is in session or not doesn't seem to make a h-u-g-e difference with Driving Under the Influence arrests in our little college town, as APD bagged three drivers over the weekend -- about the average number -- with none of them students, although two-out-of-three appear to be UMass employees.

But that's not too surprising, considering UMass is Amherst's largest employer.  Safe bet they were not out celebrating the students return from spring break.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What They Make

Amherst Town Hall shrouded in fog

Unlike the website of our little All American Sister City to the west, Amherst's award winning municipal website -- you know, the one that trumpets "Open Government To The Max" -- does not provide a data base of all town employes and their current salaries.

Neither of course does Amherst Regional Public Schools website.

I guess when you're the town's chief administrator, making $62,100 more than the Mayor of Northampton, maybe you don't want to remind people of that $142,100 salary or, like the Mayor of Hamp, that you are not the highest paid municipal employee.

Only in Northampton, however,  a bevy of people make more than the Mayor.  In Amherst only the Superintendent of Schools, Maria Geryk @ $147,000, costs taxpayers more than the Town Manager.

Although if you compare the other higher paying department head positions in Amherst town government they are further apart as a percentage from the Town Manager's top dog salary.

That is also the case, even more so, in the Amherst school budget.  Far more glaring is the total number of school employees in the $85K and up club.

And yes, basic ARPS teachers make a tad more than average:  $66,484 vs state average $63,000.  And our one teacher to ten student ratio is lower than state average of 13-1.  But these two factors alone do not add up to our exceedingly high $17,116 average cost per child to educate vs state average of $13,361, or Northampton's $12,596. 

According to the Mass Department Of Education website, Amherst "administration" costs are at $735 vs state average of $447, or 60% higher than state average.  And pesky critics have been pointing that out for years.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stone Cold Ovens

Alpha Pizza Pi, 356 College St, Amherst RIP

We don't call Amherst a "college town" for nothing.  Obviously our #1 industry is education and along with that all the accessory commercial activity:  rental housing, food and alcohol being at the top of the short list.

And of course "food" usually means pizza or Chinese.

While proven pizza veterans Antonio's, Sibies, and Bruno's continue to thrive, and downtown newbie Arise Farm to Table Pub & Pizzeria seems to be packing them in, this location at 356 College Street has now had the second failure in four years as a pizza storefront. 

But that will not stop a young entrepreneur with more passion than sense from opening up a business here in the near future.  Pizza anyone?

Joys Of Ownership

The owner of this house on McClellan Street, just outside the heart of downtown Amherst, will be receiving a $10 ticket in the mail today courtesy of Amherst Parking Enforcement (pulling double duty) for not shoveling the sidewalk.

Fortunately the new Safe & Health Neighborhoods initiative will pack a little more sting when it comes to enforcement as Building Commissioner Rob Morra or his agents will have the authority to issue $100 per day fines  for non compliance. 

Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra (left)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reminder of Tragedy

Dumpster fire Rolling Green 10:30 AM 

Unlike two months ago, AFD made short work of the contained fire this morning at Rolling Green Apartments, scene of a tragic death the last time AFD responded here for an actual fire.

And before they even had time to roll up the hose they were called to a (false) fire alarm at Morrill Science Bulding, UMass.

 Engine 1 packing up

Less than 100 yards away ...

Goin' In Style For The Kids

 Rafter's Sports Bar, University Drive, Amherst

Unlike the "Blarney Blowout" one Amherst bar promotion we all can proud of is Rafter's Sports Bar "St. Baldrick's Foundation" shave-a-thon scheduled for April 7.  The event has already raised $26,146 with 181 signed up to participate.

I can't think of anything worse than a child afflicted with cancer.  Well ... maybe I can, but at least this is one horror we can do something about.  Lend a hand folks; or lend your head.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

UMass Comes Around


All that bitching, errr, complaining about the abusive "Blarney Blowout" paid off as our giant neighbor to the north has agreed to most of the demands of Amherst Town Manager John Musante to help our quaint little college town deal with rowdy students from now through graduation.

Which sure beats handing out oatmeal cookies.  

Unfortunately it looks as though the expanded hours on weekends for UMass Health Services to deal with all the drunks probably is not going to happen.

And yes, it's great UMass has agreed to fund two AFD ambulances.  But the problem is not who pays for the ambulances, it's that we can only put five on the road at one time.  And there have been times when five was not enough.

Can we maybe get UMass to fund two more additional permanent professional firefighters?

 AFD call volumes since 1975

Vegetables to Offices

 0 University Drive abuts Newmarket Center

Amherst could get more office space, not that it seems there's pressing demand, if this large 5.8 acre tract of land near UMass on University Drive should sell.  Since it is zoned "office park" that kind of narrows down the options for development.

The Planning Board tried to change the zoning a few years back to a more diversified commercial designation but naturally the NIMBYs shot it down at Town Meeting, where a two-thirds vote is hard to muster.

The land is owned by Mohammad Idrees who purchased it for the bargain price of $22,000 back in 2003 at the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company auction, with the original idea of building a Mosque.  Since Amherst is not overly flush with Muslims that plan went by the wayside and he briefly tried selling fresh vegetables.

 Mohammad Idrees and his vegetable stand  in 2008 (photo by Mary Carey)

The property has been in Ch61A for the past ten years, and much of it is wetlands, so it doesn't pay much of anything in taxes to Amherst ($94.00).   But the assessor estimates a $40,000 windfall to the town if it should sell for the $890,000 asking price and put to commercial use. 

But these days it seems anytime "open space" goes on the market neighbors simply petition the town to buy it using Other People's Money.

Added Flavor to the Downtown

Oriental Flavor, 25 South Pleasant Street.  Opening soon (hopefully)