Monday, June 30, 2014

I Am What I Am

 ARPS Superintendent Maria Geryk, the town's highest paid employee

As part of the state mandated comprehensive evaluation of Amherst Regional Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk that played out last week at the circus-like Regional School Committee meeting the Superintendent had to present the committee with a "self evaluation".

Out of the five overall goals she considered two of them "met" and the other three showed "significant progress."  All in all, not too bad as self evaluations go. 

The Regional School Committee seemed to agree and 7 of the 11 gave her a sterling review with 2 abstaining (being only recently elected) and 2 seemed to disagree.

Pelham SC members: Tara Luce abstained, Trevor Baptiste voted "no" and will issue his own evaluation

No mention or discussion of the racial incidents that fractured decorum over this past school year or the unjust treatment of a white student bullied by three black students, or even the inept implementation of a ban on nuts.

There was some mention of the many "lockdowns" during the year and follow up meetings with police to "adjust procedures".  So let's hope that solves the problem.

And next year the High School and Middle School will have cameras installed in the hallways, although the problem with racist graffiti occurred in the bathrooms, where you can't very well install cameras.

DUI Double Trouble

 Blake Spencer, age 24, stands before Judge John Payne

This morning in Eastern Hampshire District Court Judge John Payne sentenced Blake A. Spencer, age 24, to ninety (90) days in the House of Correction, otherwise known as the "big house" ... but suspended the sentence for two years.

The Judge then admonished Mr. Spencer to stay for away from trouble in the meantime as any altercation with the law over the next two years will instantly trip the 90 day sentence.

Spencer was originally arrested by APD in mid-February, 2013 after he was seen stumbling to his car at Village Park Apartments while screaming obscenities. He was pulled over and arrested for DUI.

Since it was only his first offense the case was continued without a finding for a year. In April he was arrested in Belchertown after crashing into a guard rail and leaving the scene.

The officer noted the strong smell of alcohol, glassy eyes, and he seemed to have trouble understanding the simple verbal request for a license and registration.

Most telling of all, he took the Breathalyzer back at the station and blew a .12 (50% over the .08 threshold).

In addition to the two years probation with a 90 day jail sentence hanging over his head, Spencer will complete a 14 day in-house treatment program for his alcohol problem, pay $600 in standard fines, and lose his license for two years.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What Our Flag Represents

9/11/2012 New York City financial district

My only concern with painting a crosswalk to resemble an American flag is that flag protocol forbids letting the flag touch the ground, and especially frowns on  treading all over it .   

But obviously those are (unenforced) rules and regulations for an actual American flag, the kind made of cloth or polyester and designed to be flown.

Besides, if it's good enough for New York City on the most sacred of anniversaries than it's good enough for me.  

Apparently not, however, for our sister city to the west, that other bastion of enlightened liberalism, Northampton.  "NoHo" to hipsters, or just plain "Hamp" to longtime residents.  

I would expect flag phobic Amherst to summarily dodge the idea of a patriotic crosswalk in the downtown, but I'm a little surprised by the Northampton Board of Public Works suddenly saying it's not in their jurisdiction to allow a patriotic crosswalk when they already allowed the rainbow one.

In my ill fated speech to Amherst Town Meeting seven years ago I invoked that same comparison, to no avail.

Let's hope Northampton comes to their senses before they start being compared to Amherst.  On a national stage. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Proficient to Exemplary Rating"

Maria Geryk, Amherst Town Meeting 5/7/14

Anytime a high ranking appointed public official is evaluated by elected amateurs -- especially a particularly docile board like the Regional School Committee -- I always factor in the tumultuous 1968 election where LBJ "won" New Hampshire, but only by 7 percentage points over upstart Eugene McCarthy (49% to 42%), and later dropped out of the race.

Is this year-end evaluation of Amherst Regional Public Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk really more "Exemplary" than "Proficient"?   Should she have scored a LOT higher?  

Or considering the tumultuous year at Amherst Regional High School, a LOT lower?

(Safe bet she will not be dropping out.)

The Dirty Dozen

 407 North Pleasant Street, owned by Gamma Inc Alpha Tau 

The Amherst Rental Registration & Permit Bylaw that went into effect January 1st affecting 1,300 properties in this rental dominated "college town" now has an astounding 99% compliance rate. 

Only 12 properties -- some with the same owners -- have failed to heed the warnings of Amherst Building Commissioner Rob Morra, and will be brought to Eastern Hampshire District Court in the very near future.

The Rental Registration Bylaw is an attempt to bring law and order to a Wild Wild West mining town where the attraction for boatloads of people is education rather than gold or silver.

With restrictive zoning and well organized NIMBYs, housing production -- especially student housing in a town with the lowest median age in the state -- has been almost non existent over the past generation.

Thus supply and demand is out of whack, resulting in higher prices forcing out families and low-to-middle income workers, residential one family-house conversions to student rooming houses and all too many noise and nuisance complaints in residential neighborhoods.

The new Rental Registration and Permit bylaw is working.  Now we need to tweak zoning.

Code enforcement is a key ingredient

Friday, June 27, 2014

It's A Bird, It's A Plane ...

Parrot AR.Drone over Groff Park, Amherst

Quick, someone call 911!  A drone has violated Amherst air space despite an overwhelming Amherst Town Meeting vote to ban them.

Actually a police cruiser did drive slowly by while we were flying this AR Perrot drone, and he did not seem all that concerned.  And since the venerable Amherst Town Meeting vote was merely "advisory," there's really not much authorities can do to stop the aerial fun. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Mid Course Presentation

 George Smith (U3), Nancy Buffone and David Ziomek Co-Chairs Steering Committee

The Town Gown Steering Committee heard a brief presentation from their $60,000 consultants this afternoon, appropriately enough at the UMass police station, and  heard an earful about student housing and student behavior, which have brought this college town to a tipping point.

Lead consultant George Smith of U3 Advisers said they are still in the "due diligence and research phase" meeting with all the stakeholders from the Chancellor on down, and he is targeting August for  release of preliminary findings.

But Ken Rosenthal, the first member of the Steering Committee to speak after the presentation chastised the consultants for not meeting with neighbors living in the battle zones. 

UMPD Chief John Horvath, Ken Rosenthal, Tony Maroulis

Amherst Planning Director Jonathan Tucker defended his department saying they are not pursuing any one particular housing plan, but a range of options -- inclusionary zoning, greater density expansion at already existing apartment complexes, student housing (in the right place) -- and that when it comes to housing, the solution is simple: the town just needs MORE.

Of course out of the two dozen or so members of the general public who attended the presentation a good number were activists neighbors who react to students the way vampires react to daylight.

Nancy Buffone did say UMass, which currently houses 62% of its students, is looking at public private partnerships to build taxable student housing on school property but it's "very complex" with a wide variety of political, legal, and financial implications.

Local developers Dave Williams and Kyle Wilson, who are currently constructing Olympia Place, a complex near UMass housing 236 students and Kendrick Place at the edge of town center which will house 102 tenants, were in attendance.   They probably would not welcome the competition of a huge new student housing development on or off campus (unless of course they were the chosen developer).

As they say on Facebook under relationships, "It's complicated."

Either/Or. Which is it?

 Rookie Regional Chair Lawrence O'Brien

Yes last night's Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee meeting was a tad discombobulated due to the firefight at public comment period, but that's still no excuse for using deception when invoking something as sacred as Executive Session.

According to the published agenda the Executive Session was "To discuss strategy with respect to collective bargaining."  But when the committee actually went into Executive Session, Chair Lawrence O'Brien gave the reasons(s) as "Collective bargaining OR litigation."

Kind of a BIG difference.

Sort of like a spouse going out for a gallon of milk and returning home with a 65" High Definition TV.  Both are household purchases, but ...


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Heartbeat Away

 Mike Morris at last night's Regional School Committee meeting

Last night just before adjourning from a l-o-n-g contentious meeting the Regional School Committee -- while being serenaded by protesters -- approved the ascension of Mike Morris (by a 9 yes, 1 abstain, 1 absent vote) from his current position in Central Office as Director of Evaluation and Assessment to that of Assistant Superintendent.

Morris served as principal at Crocker Farm Elementary School from 2008 until 2012.  Superintendent Maria Geryk described it as "more of a change in title/role" so a new replacement will not be hired to fill his old position.

He currently makes $100,000 annually and presumably will receive an increase in pay to go along with the new title, but HR chief Kathy Mazur stated his new salary, "has not yet been determined."

Amilcar Shabazz was absent for the vote because he was feeling ill and left immediately after the vote on Superintendent Geryk's evaluation.  So no, he did not join the protesters singing "We Shall Overcome" in the back of the room.

Damage Assessment

 Heavy machinery and wet logging roads do not mix

The Amherst Conservation Commission and wetlands administrator Beth Willson took a guided tour -- otherwise known as a "site visit" -- this morning, led by environmental consultant Tony Wonseski to assess the damage caused by a subcontractor's heavy duty drilling machine in and around wetlands on the proposed site of the controversial "The Retreat" student housing development.

Tony pointed out seven impact areas in total but only five seem to require remediation, although that will be up for discussion at tonight's Conservation Commission meeting.

 One of the less damaged sites

And some of the damage could also have been caused by ATVs or other equipment not associated with Landmark Properties.  Anytime site work is performed anywhere near a wetlands the Conservation Commission should be notified in advance to allow their input.

 One of the more damaged sites

The damage was only recently discovered.   Landmark immediately reported it and they have already done stabilization work around the intermittent streams.

Tonight they will present plans to avoid a future recurrence, one of which is to have an environmental expert on site whenever work is being performed next to wetlands.

Biodegradable stabilization bales

Tony pointing out another less damaged area

One of the test drill sites

Damaged area along power line access road

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Occupy School Committee

40-50 people attended tonight's Regional School Committee meeting 

So just to give you a brief idea of how tonight Regional School Committee meeting went I give you the start of the "public comment" period where newly elected RSC Chair Lawrence O'Brien went back to a policy of only 15 minutes total with 3 minutes assigned to each of five speakers.

 Two very large doomsday clocks counted down the three minutes

That did not go over very well.  At all. 

The Public  Comment period started at 7:20 PM and the "15 minutes" ended at 8:00 PM, when the Committee retreated into Executive Session but will come out in the next hour or so.  Maybe.

Vera Douangmany with 20 supporters addresses committee for 3 minutes

Sonji Johnson-Anderson:  "One of our own suffered great harm this year ..."

9:30 PM Activists got tired of waiting for the School Committee to come out of Executive Session so they arranged chairs in a circle and started their own "Democratic Community Gathering" in the back of the room.

Important Planning Hire

 147 acres of woodland under purchase and sale agreement for $6.5 million

Last week the Amherst Planning Board voted unanimously (5-0 with 2 absent) to hire Fuss & O'Neill as their go to person for helping sort out all the planning issues associated with the largest and most expensive rental housing construction project in well over a decade, The Retreat in northeast Amherst.

A hiring committee consisting of two Planning Board members and four full-time professional town planning staff made the recommendation for Fuss & O'Neill over two other applicants.

The "scope of work" clause gives an ambitious time table, with a preliminary report within 30 days of starting and a final report 30 days after that.

As soon as Landmark Properties cuts a check for $20,700, the clock starts ticking ...

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Singular Achievement

ARHS graduate Dylan Akalis receives diploma via Holyoke School Committee member Erin Brunelle yesterday in the backyard of this grandfather's house

As graduation parties go it was all wonderfully typical:  Proud parents, lots of extended family, friends, classmates;  well wishers both young and old, with enough variety of race and ethnicity to make the United Nations proud. 

But the b-i-g difference is this party started before the diploma was issued, with the party's guest of honor the only person present in a cap and gown.   And the person who handed him his hard earned diploma was indeed a public school official, but from another city.

Yes for Dylan Akalis it's been an up and down senior year, but the final outcome -- graduating from Amherst Regional High School in spite of being banned from the June 6 graduation ceremony at the Mullins Center -- was still sweet.

Dylan you may remember was bullied by three black youths (physically assaulted by one of them) for use of the supposedly hip version of the N-word to congratulate a black friend for a stellar basketball performance.

School officials did nothing to stop the harassment, so in self-defense Dylan anonymously posted to a Facebook confessions site a threat about bringing a weapon to school.

As a result the High School was closed for a day (even though authorities identified Dylan many hours before the start of the school day) on Monday, January 27th.  Dylan was handed a 12 day suspension for use of the N-word and invoking a weapons threat.

Most hurtful, however, was the erroneous allegation that Dylan was a racist. 

Feeling betrayed by the Amherst schools the family kept Dylan out for the rest of the year, assuming since he had enough credits Dylan would be allowed to graduate and march with his friends at the graduation ceremony.  Wrong.

Amherst school officials did say they would send a high ranking administrator to the planned June 22 party to officially hand him his diploma.  So that was something.  Sort of.

But when Superintendent Maria Geryk fired Dylan's dad a few weeks back for using the common electrician term "master and slave units" in front of a black school employee, Dylan decided he wanted nothing more to do with Amherst school officials.  Ever.  

Thus no official representative from Amherst Regional Public Schools attended the Sunday graduation celebration.

Too bad, because they could have learned a thing or two about family values. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Little Inadvertent Damage

Intermittent stream stabilization work performed on Friday at the proposed site of The Retreat

Landmark Properties will appear before the Amherst Conservation Commission on Wednesday to explain the minor damage that occurred near sensitive wetlands on the expansive property they are currently prepping for a major student housing development, The Retreat.

At the contentious May 29 Conservation Commission meeting, a room full of unfriendly neighbors took pot shots at the proposed development by way of environmental concerns.  They even questioned the work ethic of some of the environmental consultants hired by Landmark.

 ConCom hearing 5/29/14

So after the meeting, two of the experts who did the environmental investigation went back out to the site packing a GPS system to double check their previous field work.  They discovered recent damage that was not present on their original walk about last Fall.

Apparently a sub-contractor performing a geotechnical investigation got a little to close to a couple of streams with heavy duty drilling machinery.

 Logging roads wind their way through the extensive woodlands crossing streams

To their credit, Landmark Properties immediately "self reported" the unfortunate incident to wetlands administrator Beth Wilson.  She passed it along to the Conservation Commission, who then issued an "Enforcement Order" to come before them to explain how the incident occurred and plans for restoration of the damaged area, which Landmark Properties is anxious to share.

And yes, they have already enacted safeguards to ensure the problem does not reoccur.

Not exactly a "babbling brook," but an intermittent stream nevertheless

Last Chance For Foodies

Taste of Amherst Saturday 6:00 PM

Today (noon until 4:00 PM) closes out perhaps the best four-day run ever for the Taste of Amherst -- at least as measured by oftentimes finicky New England weather.

And with outdoor events like the Taste, weather alone is a make or break proposition.

In addition to the free trolley maybe the Chamber of Commerce hired a witch doctor to do a marathon sun dance. 

Farmers Market also packed them in on Saturday

Organizers were not overly pleased with the location chosen by a food cart early Saturday afternoon directly across the street.

But when APD tried to move them, turns out their town issued ($100) permit did not contain a "do not compete" with the Taste clause. 

Food Carts have never been overly popular with bricks and mortar restaurants in town

Friday, June 20, 2014

Coulda' Been a College

Cowls Tree Farm northeast Amherst

W-A-Y before signing a $6.5 million purchase and sale agreement with Landmark Properties for 147 acres of woodland now destined to become The Retreat, a high-end student housing development, the W.D. Cowls company offered to donate the land for a proposed new unnamed college that seven years later materialized in South Amherst as Hampshire College.

Yes even back in 1958 the property was ripe for development.  Today Hampshire College hosts 1,400 students -- or twice the number of the proposed Retreat, with 641 total tenants.

When You Build It

Excavation work for Kendrick Place @ 57 E Pleasant Street has commenced

It may not look like much at the moment but after Kendrick Place is completed it will be an unmistakable anchor for the north end of downtown Amherst.

The LEED certified mixed-use building will tower five stories (in Amherst, that's a tower) and contain 36 units of high-end apartments over four floors with the ground floor set aside for retail.
Archipelago Investments, LLC has already built a similar successful project dead in the center of town, Boltwood Place.

Last month Amherst Town Meeting voted down a simple easement request for the abutting intersection at Triangle and East Pleasant Street, which is required if the town chooses to install a state financed roundabout at that busy intersection.

The NO vote was a thinly disguised NIMBY payback for the Planning Board allowing Kendrick Place and Boltwood Place to be approved without requiring on site parking for tenants, and allowing the projects to go forward with no "affordable" units in the mix.

The town is currently teetering on the brink of falling below state mandated 10% threshold of Subsidized Housing Inventory thus opening up the possibility of a Ch40B mega-development coming to town. 

A survey contractor measuring the intersection earlier this month

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Can You Hear Me Now?

Jones Library this morning

After an outage of four hours and forty three minutes due to server issues the extensive downtown public wifi system is back up and running. 

This total outage was only the second time in six years the system went down, with the first time being the notorious 2011 Halloween snowstorm that knocked out power to the entire town.

Fortunately Amherst Town Hall now has a generator.   So if another major power outage should occur, the Internet around Town Hall, Police headquarters and Central Fire Station will stay up. 

No Rest For The Weary

Bangs Community Center this afternoon

So unlike the stones left atop Miss Emily's gravestone in historic West Cemetery the recent jagged rock stone installation atop a stone wall at the Bangs Community Center is not a sign of love and respect.

More like a "Keep out" sign.

Yes loitering teen-agers with time on their hands or the homeless can be a bit of a pain -- especially since the Bangs Center houses our Senior Center.

But seriously, what's next: electrified barbed wire?

When I contacted Ron Bohonowitcz, Director of Facilities for both town and schools, to inquire about the recent installation it was the first he had heard about it.  A few minutes later he emailed me back to say it would be gone soon.
Sure enough  6:00 PM Bangs Community Center

Trinkets adorn the top of Miss Emily's gravestone

Here Comes The Taste (du du du du)

Taste of Amherst setting up Thursday morning

Probably the only event on the Amherst town common that generates more traffic than the Extravaganja pot festival, the Taste of Amherst is a fun, family oriented festival that brings many thousands of visitors to our fair town over the next four days.

Organized by the Amherst Chamber of Commerce and Business Improvement District with iconic century old Atkins Farms Country Market as main sponsor, the taste becomes a showcase for the 21 participating restaurants who hope a taste here and there leads to a longtime customer over the rest of the year.

The food extravaganza opens tonight at 5:00 PM until 9:00 PM, Friday 5:00 PM until 10:00 PM, Saturday noon until 10:00 PM and Sunday noon until 4:00 PM.

 6:00 PM

Business Improvement District free trolley doing its thing