Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bright Nights In Downtown Amherst

Amherst Community Fair (shot from town center looking south)

For all too brief a time Amherst downtown came alive with the sights, sounds and smells of family fun that dates back, well, forever.  Especially after dark, when the rotating colored lights produced something magical. 

 Amherst Community Fair shot from Amherst College looking north

The Amherst Community Fair beat the odds this time around by not bringing on the monsoons.  A standard joke around town is if you need it to rain (which we certainly do) then bring on the Community Fair.

 Like psychedelic flowers

Although Wednesday opening day did see a fair amount of rain and Thursday a brief encounter with a menacing giant black cloud that issued a bolt or two of lightening.

 Late Thursday afternoon:  ominous cloud came calling

But Friday and Saturday were picture perfect and drew better crowds.

Friday at sundown
 Friendly carny worker helps Jada after ride finishes

My fondest -- by far most vivid -- memory of the Community Fair dates back over 50 years to 1964, when I was the same age as my daughter Jada is now.

My mother suddenly on a Saturday night packed us all in a beat up station wagon and drove the mile up Main Street not telling us where we were going until we came within view of the those magical lights brightening the downtown.

Perhaps made even brighter due to a dark pall that had descended on our town & nation only 6 months earlier when the stunning report instantly echoed from sea to shining sea:   "Shots fired on the Presidential motorcade."

And for my Irish Catholic mother a double shock because she had just two months earlier lost the only other man she ever loved, my father.

As she handed each of her four children a (very) limited amount a ride tickets, in the light cast from the Ferris wheel, I could see on her face something I had not seen in eight months:  a smile.

Overbearing Bear

For the second day in a row Environmental Police were called to Amherst to deal with a large wild animal roaming about our town -- this time a 300-400 pound female bear.

A little after 9:30 last night Dispatch received a call from a Belchertown mother saying she was transporting her 17-year-old daughter to the hospital after she had been scratched by a small bear as she was house sitting and walking a dog on Tracy Circle in South Amherst. 

The young woman climbed aboard a parked car to escape the critter.

When Amherst police arrived shorty after, the bear could be seen in a backyard.  And there was nothing "small" about it.

The officer reported it was not a juvenile, weighing in at between 300-400 pounds and was wearing an electronic tracking collar so it was known to Environmental Police.

About 30 minutes later, just after an Amherst Police officer told Dispatch the bear was getting "restless", Environmental Police arrived and safely dealt with it.

"The bear will live to climb another tree", said the Amherst police officer.

Posted June 1st

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Pay The Piper

UMass Mullins Center straddles Amherst & Hadley

So what are we, chopped liver?

Hadley just recently renewed a deal with UMass to cover municipal police costs associated with the Mullins Center, which is only partially on Hadley property and the other part in Amherst.

Hadley gets a 10% raise, from $50,000 to $55,000 annually.

But the annoying this is whether the Mullins Center is in Hadley or Amherst, either way, any medical call is handled by Amherst Fire Department, because Hadley does not have an ambulance service.

And on nights the Mullins Center hosts Electronic Dance Music events AFD is often stretched to the breaking point.

The town signed a "Five Year Strategic Partnership" with UMass to cover AFD ambulance runs to campus (but not the more expensive fire related runs) back in 2007.  It expired June 30, 2012 -- almost three years ago!

Sure the pact was continued on an interim basis the past three years and resulted in the regular $370,000 in ambulance reimbursements plus the extra $80,000 UMass kicked in a few years back to cover extra high ambulance demand on weekends when schools are in session.

So even a lousy 10% increase in that formal signed multi-year agreement would generate an extra $45,000 annually, or enough to pay a little over half the salary of the new Economic Development Director.

But after School Superintendent Maria Geryk told the Amherst Finance Committee and Town Meeting that children living in tax exempt UMass housing  cost the Amherst Public Schools well over $1 million annually, the town may be looking for a better offer than a paltry 10% increase.

Representative Stephen Kulik recently filed a bill (with Mass Municipal Association support) that would allow cities and towns to collect from tax exempt entities 25% of what they should be paying if they were assessed like everybody else.

Unfortunately, since UMass is "government" owed, they may still be exempt should the bill miraculously become law.

But at least Amherst could then extract money from Hampshire College the #3 landowner in town who pays nothing for Payment In Lieu Of Taxes, unlike Amherst College who pays $90,000 annually for AFD services.  

Ah, the burdens that come with being a "college town."

Friday, May 29, 2015

Moose (No Longer) On The Loose

Here's lookin' at you kid

A young female moose that had a penchant for the Amherst Public Schools was safely knocked out via tranquillizer dart late this morning along the access road that runs between the Amherst Regional High School and Middle School.

 I'm so pretty, I'm so pretty ...

The Environmental Police used a single well place shot from a tranquilizer gun to knock her out peacefully.  As in, she was not killed. 

Amherst Welfare officer Carol Hepburn was on the scene the entire time, and while she has a tranquilizer gun she is only authorized to use it on domestic pets (mostly dogs) rather than wild critters such as a moose.

 Wildlife District Manager loading up
Bus blockade

School officials immediately closed off the access road using a bus on the Middle School side and wooden barricades on the High School side.

Don't fence me in!

Fortunately the moose was in a fenced in wooded area most of the time.  She was first spotted yesterday in the vicinity of Wildwood Elementary School.

School leaders on scene: Mark Jackson, Marisa Mendonsa, Mike Malone, Maria Geryk

Moose takes the fall 

Bagged and tagged

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The (High) Cost Of Preservation

Cost to repair old barn at 35 Tyler Place:  $48,614

Earlier this month the Amherst Historical Commission hit Amherst College with a one-year demolition delay -- the maximum extent of their powers -- to (temporarily) protect the Little Red Schoolhouse.

On June 15 Amherst College will go before the Dickinson Local Historic District Commission to request demolishing an ancient, dilapidated barn at 35 Tyler Place, tucked away in a location invisible to the general public.

The Historical Commission, at their May 19th meeting, voted not to even bother holding a hearing on the matter.  In other words, tear down this barn!  (with apologies to President Reagan).

Interestingly the Dickinson Local Historic Commission is required to hold a hearing and if they vote not to allow the demolition, then that is the end of the story.  Do not tear down this barn! 

In other words they have unlimited power when it comes to preserving a building within the Dickinson Historic District. 

No wonder NIMBYs are chomping at the bit to form Local Historic Districts. 

Community Gardens Go Wanting

Mill Lane Community Gardens

It would appear -- at least from 400 feet up -- that the Amherst Community Garden program is having a bad year for participation.

Which I find surprising since the town is proud to have a book and plow for a town seal.

 Amherst Town seal

Although maybe someday my suggestion will take hold:  changing it to a BANANA.

Certainly it isn't the cost of participation at between only $15 and $35 per year per plot.  And the space at Mill Lane (owned by Amherst College) is not even restricted to Amherst residents only.

 Amethyst Brook Community Gardens

Maybe someday when pot is legalized ...

Elisa Campbell's lupines at Mill Lane Gardens

Solar Sabotage?

Solar array on E. Hadley Road, Hadley (just over Amherst border)

Perhaps emboldened by their Amherst NIMBY counterparts who successfully torpedoed a 4-Megawatt solar project at the most perfection location on God's green earth -- an old landfill -- Shutesbury residents are now taking up pitchforks and torches over a proposed 6-Megawatt installation out in the middle of nowhere.

 30 acres out of a total of 830

While the 30 acres the array will require may sound like a lot, it is located on a 830 acre site known as the "Wheelock lot" owned by the state's largest private landowner W.D. Cowls Inc.  The property will be leased for 20 years by a big time Chicago firm, Lake Street Development Partners LLC. 

Since Shutesbury, like Amherst, is a "green community" the permitting of a commercial solar array shows the quaint hilltown can walk the walk rather than just lip-servicing sustainable energy.

In addition the economic benefits from a facility that requires no town services is alone more than enough reason to support the project.

The current offer on the table for Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) is $8,000 per megawatt or $48,000 total, which over the 20 year lease comes to pretty much $1 million dollars.

The entire parcel is currently in the forest conservation program (Ch 61) so total payments to the town in 2015 come to only $891.

The opposition seems to be led by Michael DeChiara which comes as no surprise.  He orchestrated the ill fated M.N. Spear Library expansion Override yes campaign that bitterly divided the town.  And lost. 

And Mr. DeChiara has spent the past three years as the Shutesbury representative to the 4-town Regional Agreement Working Group, which overwhelmingly voted to support the expansion of the current 7-12 Regional School District all the way down to Kindergarten & grades 1 thru 6.  DeChiara voted No. 

The obligatory new website dedicated to opposing the solar project Alliance for Appropriate Development, seems to be drawing plenty of time and attention from Mr. DeChiara:

 Click to enlarge/read
(UPDATE: Friday morning: Since this was first published the website removed the Recent site activity" button at the bottom of the page.  Hmm ...)

Which is fine I suppose.  After all Mr. DeChiara does live there.  But he's also a recently elected member of the Shutesbury Select Board, so you have to wonder when Conflict of Interest law applies.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

License Plate Stall

Unless the UMass Alumni Association gets lucky enough to have a meme or YouTube video go viral, the total circulation of 3,000 specialty license plates by October 1st is looking about as likely as a winning football season.

Currently, after 20 months of sales efforts, only 1554 plates are on the road -- only 54 over the minimum number required by the Registry in order to have convicts crank out the plates. 

Ah, if only somebody can get a picture of Aaron Hernandez working on one.

But the Registry also requires 3,000 be on the road by year two, a deadline fast approaching.
The Alumni Association had to put up a $100,000 bond guaranteeing the 3,000 sales within two years, or the Registry can discontinue the plate and keep the bond money.   

These days the Alumni Association has trouble even giving them away.  A recent offer to pay the $40 plate fee plus $20 swap fee resulted in less than 50 takers.  The University makes $28/plate, but certainly not when they give them away.

So even if all 1,554 plates were legitimately paid for by exuberant alumni, that's only $43,512 into UMass coffers -- less than half the amount of the $100,000 bond they stand to lose.

With a target base of 120,000 graduates living in-state (almost all of them drivers) you would think selling 3,000 plate to 2.5% of them would be easier than selling all-you-can-drink Solo beer cups at a frat party.

Heck, I would have purchased one if "Amherst" appeared somewhere in the logo.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

DUI Dishonor Roll

Boat crashes can be as deadly as automobile crashes

The DUIs now come in by land and sea, especially as we head into the inviting outdoor recreation weather.

Either way, operating a heavy machine that goes really fast while under the influence of alcohol in a space where it can interact with innocent citizens is a bad idea.  Really bad.

Because if town police don't get you, the Environmental Police will.

In Eastern Hampshire District Court this morning Steven Paradis had a plea of "not guilty" entered in his behalf.  Since he was hiring his own private attorney Judge John Payne continued his case until June 23rd.

Steven Paradis from East Longmeadow, age 44, arraigned before Judge John Payne

Meanwhile Amherst police arrested Ronald Wutka, age 52, after he crashed his car into a ditch. Mr. Wutka took a standard 24D disposition plea deal offered to 1st time offenders by the Prosecution.

Ronald Wutka from Monson, age 52, arraigned before Judge Payne

Click to enlarge/read

He will lose his license for 45 days, pay $650 in fines/fees and be on probation for the next year.

New DPW Building Starting To Roll

DPW, aka "The  Barn," has a plethora of equipment

The $75,000 Department of Public Works building consultant is expected to be finalized in the next two weeks. They will give recommendations about departmental operations and how that would impact the new building and where it should be located.

Should for instance the Parks Department, now located at the War Memorial Pool be brought into the fold, or should other internal departments now housed at "The Barn" be spun off into smaller satellite locations?

The report is expected to take only two or three months. 

 Absorbing DPW Parks Department (top center) into new building would free up space for recreation at War Memorial Park

Best news coinciding with this $20 million project is the proposed reuse of the current DPW property (after demolishing the building): A new South Fire Station, also preliminary pegged at $20 million.

Both of these town projects are trying to keep up with the other two building projects now on the fast track:  The Wildwood Elementary School project and the Jones Library expansion/renovation.  

 Giant row of 50' arborvitae would be clear cut to make entrance for new Fire Station

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Those Who Gave Their All

Click to enlarge

Almost 200 everyday citizens of all ages gathered at the 60+ year old War Memorial Pool to honor and remember those who gave their "last measure of devotion," so we can enjoy all our days ahead.  

Less than 1% of our fellow Americans now serve in the military, and only a minuscule percentage of them will die in the line of duty.

Not overly comforting for the spouse, parents, sons and daughters, extended family, friends and neighbors of those unlucky few.

So once a year, for all too brief of time, we come together as one to show our appreciation; lament the loss; and renew the vow to never forget.

Never, never, never.

The Parade started in town center under threatening skies, led by VFW Post 754 and American Legion Post 148 joint Color Guard, and wound its way the .6 miles to the War Memorial Pool.

 Color Guard (escorted by APD)
AFD rolls through town center
APD marches through town center
Girl Scout Troops

Hopkins Academy Marching Band

A bevy of blue
Representative Ellen Story addresses crowd.  Select Board and Town Manager seated

The always haunting "taps"
Sacred West Cemetery:  flags dot the graves of those who served throughout Amherst history

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tour de Jones (Library That Is)

Jones Library: Amherst's living room.  Strong House back left

Library Director Sharon Sharry gave the local media a guided tour of the flagship Jones Library last week in the hopes of dispelling rumors that have been circulating lately about the much anticipated renovation/expansion of the 57,000 square foot icon that anchors the downtown.  

The building was last renovated/expanded back in 1992 so it is now eligible for grant funding by the state that will cover roughly 50% of the entire project, preliminarily guesstimated at $10 million.

Library Director Sharon Sharry laments no staffed receiving area for incoming customers after first entering main door

Unlike the renovation of 23 years ago this time around the entire contents of the Jones Library -- 172,000 books, videos and CDs, the entire 28,000 items in Special Collections, and 20+ banker's boxes of financial records -- will be moved into an interim operating space.

The project could take up to two years but since an architect has not yet been chosen it's unknown how large the building expansion will be.

 Employee parking is cramped and results in "dings" from other vehicles looking for parking
Only 2 handicapped spaces are provided

Either way, parking is a major issue that needs addressing.  The formula the state uses is one parking space per 400 square feet of building.  Thus, just the current foot print of the building would require 143 spaces for patrons.  And at the moment the Jones Library has but 2 handicapped and 7 "employee only" parking spaces.

 CVS & town parking lot next door

The other major issue that could scuttle public support for the project (Town Meeting) is the fate of the greenery behind the Jones and the side garden currently owned by the Strong House, which could soon be sold to facilitate the expansion. 

Kinsey Memorial Gardens behind the Jones

Since neither the Library or Strong House are contemplating any construction in their front yards the only place left for an increase in footprint for the Jones is either directly behind or to the side of the Strong House, both of which are now occupied by greenery.

 Strong House garden to the rear of the Library

But Library Director Sharon Sharry was adamant that whichever garden requires eviction it will be replicated elsewhere on the property, something that is commonly approved by Conservation Commissions when a construction project endangers wetlands.

 Adult and Children's computers are in separate rooms
Children have 4 computers and 2 game stations

In this digital age it's tempting to think of libraries as antiquated as, say, newspapers.

But the Jones Library has kept pace with changing technology, offering audio and books on tape for a generation now, DVDs and of course in-house computers for the general public.

The current crop of 20 computers for adults and 4 for children is too few, and the space too limiting.

 Children's Room

The Children's Room is also too tiny, the shelving too tall and materials are spread out over three floors.   And like the rest of the Library, bad sight lines keep employees from being able to monitor the big picture. 

Cameras are more reactive than proactive

The Library added security cameras two years ago as a safety feature trying to keep down inappropriate sexual activity by teens and the occasional criminal act (drug use or stealing of library materials) but by and large have not been overly successful. 

The Jones offers a bevy of "non traditional" services found only in Amherst:  An English as a Second Language program that will someday seamlessly connect to The Literacy Project (assisting patrons to acquire a GED).

Hwei-Ling Greeey acts as a 'Social Worker in Residence' helping to deal with Amherst's homeless population.  While the 'Artists in Residence' program allows the general public to interact with artists to better understand the creative process.

 Special Collections and Burnett Gallery needs more space
Burnett Gallery

The Special Collections Department is world renowned for their priceless collection of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost materials. And the Burnett Gallery offers space for local artists to display the fruits of their labor.

Archive materials stored under a sprinkler head

On average the Jones hosts 1,000 unique visitors per day and circulates as much material as the BIG city library in Springfield. Yet the only check out location is cramped and can be staffed by -- at most -- two employees.

Whether the expansion project is approved by the Mass Board of Library Commissioners and then Amherst Town Meeting or not, the aging infrastructure will still require extensive improvements -- especially the 30 year old Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning system.

The pretty glass atrium installed in the 1992 renovation never worked properly and continues to leak during a rainstorm or in the winter when snow accumulates.  Just these two items alone cost close to $1 million and would be entirely town money.

 Atrium is leaky and allows in too much sunlight

In addition to the Jones Library expansion three other major building projects are now in the pipeline: The Wildwood Elementary School project, the forever talked about new South Fire Station and a new Department of Public Works building.

Both the Library and School projects have the distinct advantage of state reimbursements. All the more reason town officials need to promote all four of these vital upcoming building projects as an all-or-nothing package.