Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fireground: 222 Belchertown Road

AFD Engine 2 (the Quint) on scene 222-224 Belchertown Road
APD blocked off busy Belchertown Road (Rt 9)

A fire -- quite possibly arson -- in the 2nd floor rear bedroom of a two family house used to shelter the homeless garnered a swift response from Amherst Public Safety personnel around 6:00 PM this busy Saturday night.

According to scanner traffic the man who fled the bedroom where the fire started was spotted in Cumberland Farms down the road in only his long johns underwear.  Another resident said he attempted to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher but it was too far along.

AFD Engine 1 taps hydrant almost directly in front of 222 Belchertown Road

APD found the possible perpetrator at a bus stop near Colonial Village Apartments and he was transported by AFD to Cooley Dickinson Hospital for a psych evaluation.  Otherwise there were no injuries to residents, firefighters or police.  The Amherst Building Inspector declared the building uninhabitable.

All off duty firefighters who responded to the box alarm were released around 8:00 PM.  An investigator from the State Fire Marshall's office arrived at the scene around 8:25 PM. State and local officials were on scene until 11:00 PM.

Smoke from rear of the building

Ladder 1 on the scene

The Amherst Planning Board is currently deliberating a request from Amherst Community Connections to increase the capacity of the building at 222-224 Belchertown Road from 8 to 24.

AFD Chief Nelson (rt) huddles with Assistant Chief Stromgren

The morning after

MassLive reports

Noise & Traffic & Safety! Oh My!

 Atkins North, anchoring The Mill District to the east

Spouting the usual complaints the usual suspects showed up to the 11/19 Amherst Planning Board meeting to take on their usual target: developer Cinda Jones, President of the W.D. Cowls Company, the largest private landowner in the state of Massachusetts.

Fresh from their victory of helping torpedo The Retreat student housing project to the east of North Amherst center, costing the Cowls company over $6 million in lost revenues, this time they are waging guerrilla warfare against the other development on Cowls Road, The Mill District. 

After years of concerted lobbying Ms. Jones managed, finally, to convince iconic 100 year old business Atkins Country Market in deep South Amherst to open a bookend operation, Atkins North.  In a former 4,200 square foot cow barn no less, so you would think she gets extra PC points for recycling. 

The barn sits at the outskirts of a sprawling 13 acre tract of commercial space that was once served a 14,400 square foot sawmill.  Like everything else associated with W.D. Cowls, the sawmill was historic -- having been in operation for over 250 years.

 134 Montague Road with paved driveway.  Cow barn in red

The Planning Board is discussing Site Plan Review for the conversion of the cow barn to a new retail operation and the applicant is requesting allowances for live & pre-recorded music, seasonal outdoor dining, placement of a few signs identifying businesses in The Mill District and continued use of a paved driveway at 134 Montague Road for commercial deliveries.

 Cow barn renovation will maintain many of the original overhead trusses
Cow barn renovation will maintain pointy overhang

Virtually all the speakers at the Planning Board public meeting (continued until December 17) spoke against continued use of the driveway for commercial deliveries to Atkins North, even though it has been used for commercial operation for the Cowls forest related empire for hundreds of years.

Since Atkins North will be more of a satellite operation the only delivery trucks coming and going will be service vans and small box trucks making "just in time deliveries" from the main operation in South Amherst.  In other words, no big ol' 18-wheelers.

 134 Montague Road (which is Rt 63) farmhouse near Summer St and Cowls Rd

Neighbors, worried about safety, noise, unsightliness and blah-blah-blah, want the delivery drivers to go 75 feet further down the road and access the site via Cowls Road.  But anyone who knows truckers, knows they love shortcuts.

Cowls and Montague Road intersection 75 feet down from 134 Montague Rd farmhouse

And anyone who knows business -- especially small business -- knows how important signage is to getting customers conveniently to your front door.

Ms. Jones describes the small signs requested for Montague Road (one saying "Deliveries only"at her driveway entrance and the others -- on both end of Cowls Road -- for identifying businesses in the Mill District) as being "Critical for the success of the businesses in the Trolley Barn", a mixed use building just down the road from Atkins North.

The Trolley Barn, 68 Cowls Road, an apple throw away from Atkins North

Having such an iconic high-profile business like Atkins being one of the first to come into a new development is a double edged saw:   Should it fail, the message sent would be nothing short of catastrophic for the entire Mill District.

Amherst already has a well earned anti-business reputation.

Rather then rolling in stumbling boulders to appease squeaky wheel neighbors, town officials should be doing everything in their power to help ensure success.

These minor concessions requested for the Mill District, a commercial area that predates the founding of the town, are the very least they can do.

Well, besides shopping at Atkins after it opens.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Miss Emily Renewed

 Miss Emily and Lavinia

Although I'm sure it will not stop NIMBYs from attending the December 3 Planning Board meeting for one final pot shot at 1 East Pleasant Street, a five story mixed use (but mainly residential) development that will rejuvenate the north end of downtown, the last potential stumbling block seems to have been surmounted.

At last week's Historical Commission meeting the guardians of Amherst's historic past did not vote to oppose the (temporary) destruction of the Amherst Community History Mural attached to the Carriage Shops rear wall overlooking sacred West Cemetery.

Mike Hanke, Chair Amherst Historical Commission

Of course the mural will be reborn via the original artist, David Fichter and a crew of professionals  to assist, unlike the original that used citizen volunteers.  And this time he will not have work around ugly air conditioners jutting out from his "canvas".

The destined for demolition Carriage Shops abut West Cemetery to the south

Since Miss Emily was a bit of an introvert in her later life she would probably be amused at the turnout the Planning Board hearings have generated over the past four sessions on this age old controversy concerning growth and renewal.

 Amherst Community History Mural (The sun also rises)

Thursday, November 27, 2014


South Pleasant Street overlook

If you had to travel anywhere this morning give thanks to Amherst Police, Fire, Dispatch and DPW highway and tree crews as they joined forces to deal with the aftermath of our first major storm of the season.

 Amherst town center 7:05 AM

And for many of them, it was an "all nighter" of above and beyond the call of  duty grunt work

Main Street looking east 7:10 AM

The heavy snow brought down trees and large limbs all over town, in many cases taking utility lines with them, although the power outages never came to close to the total devastation of the Halloween 2011 Snowmageddon storm.

 Tree limb into house Farview Way, North Amherst
Tree limb Snell Street took out streetlight

A downed tree on Potwine Lane knocked out power to less than 200 homes in South Amherst and a huge limb crashed into a house on Farview Way, but did not cause any injuries or serious structural damage.

PVTA bus caused traffic tie up at The Notch yesterday during the storm
DPW clearing Town center during height of the storm

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Tide Is Turning

No single issue has dominated the public discussion in our little college town over the past too many years like the problem of unruly off campus student behavior.

Yes, let me quickly interject that it's only a small minority that indulge in downright dangerous antics, tie up emergency services for preventable alcohol related calls and disturb the tranquility of neighborhoods all over town.

But when the majority of your population consists of "college aged youth,"  that small percentage adds up to significant number -- especially problematic considering our woefully understaffed Public Safety Departments.

Plus they all seem to want to get out of control around the same time:  Thursday night through early Sunday morning.

In response to problems emanating from student rentals the town, 40 years after it was first proposed, enacted a Rental Registration and Permit Bylaw.  As of today 100% of the rental property in town is registered and have a permit that can be revoked.

Neighbors now have easy access to contact information for those adults who are owners/managers of Party Houses and a simple mechanism to file complaints with the town should they not get satisfaction from them.

UMass, the Goliath that provides the vast majority of housing consumers, has also started taking things seriously after student bad behavior started receiving the continuous attention it deserved (kind of like the bad behavior of Bill Cosby should have been exposed many, many years ago).

For over four years now I have focused attention on the weekend circus with my "Party House of the Weekend" reports, naming names of both the arrested perpetrators of the mayhem and the landlords who own the property.

These days I get requests almost weekly to take down a post because a Google search brings it up and prospective employers are probably not overly impressed (although we all were young once I suppose).

March 8, 2014

The Blarney Blowout was also a major turning point as my spotlight on rowdy student behavior was amplified a thousand times over by national and international media coverage.

In spite of the $160,000 Davis Report suggesting overwhelmed police overreacted, the average citizen -- both taxpayers and students -- knows full well the alcohol fueled mayhem was a significant black mark for the University and its student body.

 But you can still buy UMass branded shot glasses at the Textbook Annex

And it has served as an unmistakable wake up call,  or some would argue an attention getting slap in the face.

So why do I, a grumpy old get-off-my-lawn cynic, think things are improving?

Last year between August 15 and November 15 Amherst police responded to 322 noise complaints, while issuing 91 Noise Violations and 33 Nuisance House violations.

This year between August 15 and November 15 Amherst police responded to 214 noise complaints, while issuing only 17 Noise Violations and 25 Nuisance House violations.

In other words total number of $300 tickets levied have dropped from 124 to 42 in just one year.  A stunningly significant decrease. 

Now that's worth partying over!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

ARPS: The Drama Continues

Props from a recent Shakespeare play adorn the front lawn at ARHS

Perhaps someday the Amherst Regional Public Schools can can synthesize the past year long racial "event" -- for lack of a better term -- into a teachable moment school play.  Or better yet, a Hollywood movie.

Maybe we can get Meryl Streep to play Superintendent Maria Geryk and Oprah Winfrey as math teacher Carolyn Gardner.

Clearly we are in a full blown Us vs Them situation divided along racial lines.  And now we can throw Ferguson into the volatile mix.  

The Amherst-Pelham Education Association and heavyweight Massachusetts Teachers Association just issued a statement supporting Carolyn Gardner while trumpeting their "commitment to confronting racism."

But do we really have any proof that these unsettling acts perpetrated against Ms. Gardner were genuinely racist, as opposed to kids being kids, or an adult trying to stir up racial turmoil?

Or what on the all powerful Internet is simply known as a Troll. 

Either way, the case is now before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, who will spend the next 18 months deciding if indeed there is merit to the charge.

Until then candle light vigils, long winded comments at public meetings (with a side order of hissing) and press releases designed to win the hearts and minds of citizens are a waste of time and energy.  

Not to mention a monumental distraction to the sacred mission of educating all our children.

 Jean Sherlock reads NAACP letter of complaint to Regional School Committee

The NAACP issued a press release, err, I mean statement at the tense Regional School Committee meeting last week charging the schools with "illegal application of disciplinary measures" against the non-white student population.

Maybe they have not been paying attention but last year Maria Geryk presented to the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee statistics from the 2011-2012 school year showing 65% of the out-of-school suspensions were given to non-white students at the high school (who make up 35% of the student body) and in 2012-2013, 58%.

Back in July the Schools announced major changes to address these racial disparities, replacing two secondary school deans with "climate control coordinators".  Geryk also told the RSC last December that the plan was to pretty much eliminate suspensions as a form of discipline altogether (except in extreme cases of assault or weapons possession).  

So why now after the schools have been addressing this racial disparity for the past year is the NAACP suddenly bringing it up?  And where were they for the previous 20 years or so, if indeed the Schools have been out of compliance since 1993?

Mini Hobart Hoedown

Matthew Langford stands before Judge O'Grady

Hobart Lane is kind of like Phillips Street in that it will probably never live down its (well deserved) party reputation, even though there has not been a "Hobart Hoedown" in many years.

For you nubies the Hoedown preceded the Blarney Blowout, but of the same basic idea:  day drinking until you get completely out of control, and when police arrive throw dangerous objects at them.

Amherst police encountered two rowdy party goers very early Sunday morning trying to force their way into #29 Hobart Lane.  When they refused to comply with instructions to leave -- and physically resisted police -- officers had no choice but to arrest Kyle Bisceglia and Matthew Langford, both age 20. 

 Click to enlarge/read

Matthew Langford (6 feet 2 inches tall, weighing 200 pounds) was charged with Disorderly Conduct, Resisting Arrest and Assault and Battery on a police officer.

 Kyle Bisceglia arraigned before Judge O'Grady

Kyle Bisceglia was charged with Resisting Arrest and Disorderly Conduct.

Both are hiring their own attorney and they will return to Eastern Hampshire District Court in mid-December.

Party House Of The Weekend

297 West Street, directly across from Crocker Farm Elementary School

These party house problems are getting fewer and farther between -- which is of course a good thing. 
Alexander Elkins stands before Judge O'Grady

In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday Connor Bertram, 19, and Alexander Elkins, 20, both took the typical plea deal offered by the Commonwealth:  Criminal charges are "converted" to civil with one of the two $300 tickets thrown out plus four months probation. 

Conor Bertram standing before Judge O'Grady

Monday, November 24, 2014

Restorative Justice

Kyle Kielbasa and Attorny Kokonowski stand before Judge William O'Grady this morning

Kyle Kielbasa, 28, came to terms with the Commonwealth this morning in Eastern Hampshire District Court for two separate arrests made by Amherst Police. The first on the day of the infamous Blarney Blowout, where Mr. Kielbasa was waiving a handgun around near Rafter's and The Hanger Pub & Grill while under the influence of alcohol.  A l-o-t of alcohol!

And the equally serious incident seven months later, a roll over drunk driving accident on Bay Road that took out a utility pole and closed the busy road for the night. 

His lawyer told Judge O'Grady that he was prepared to vigorously fight the first charge and had already prepared a "motion to suppress" evidence: the gun and extra ammo clips recovered in the car on March 8th.  But Mr. Kielbasa told him "No, I need help" (with alcohol problem).

Assistant District Attorney Bob Opsitnik recommended the "Restorative Justice Program" and two years probation with a requirement for continuing with therapy for the gun charge; and a standard 24D disposition, with $600 in fines, loss of license for 45 days, one-year probation ($65/month cost) and alcohol screenings plus two weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the Driving Under the Influence charge.

The Judge agreed.  

Kyle Kielbasa's right to carry a weapon was also revoked after the first incident.

Going, Going ...

DPW gingerly lifts Amherst Chamber Welcome building 

The iconic, so-ugly-it's-cute building that has squatted on the town common for as long as anybody can remember was quickly and efficiently moved this afternoon by the DPW to a location on Sunset Avenue.  


The rumor that Walter Jones sneaked it onto a concrete pad poured overnight can be somewhat disproved as there was not a concrete pad under the building.

 Note dirt floor

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pot Priority

 Residents waiting for all clear from AFD to return to their apartments

So a fire in one of Amherst's tallest building not on the UMass campus, with a higher than average ratio of elderly and disabled residents, gets zero response from my Twitter friends, but then three hours later a throw away tweet about a 65-year-old woman in North Amherst needing an ambulance due to pot consumption lights up the Twittersphere (or at least my tiny portion of it).

Go figure.  (But I still love you Twitter).