Friday, July 31, 2015

Look Up In The Sky!

Phantom 2 Vision Plus at 200 feet

So for those of you who say you would shoot down a drone (but not a Galaxy C5 or hot air balloon hopefully) flying over your house at an altitude of 200 feet, please take note. THAT's what a drone looks like at an altitude of 200 feet.

And yes, it's flying over MY property, but it took me a while to find it in the viewfinder to get that photo. And here's what a person looks like from that same 200 feet of altitude:

 Where's Waldo?  Circled in red

And yes that's me, but from 200 feet it could just as well be one of my daughters. Or the ghost of my deceased Mother.

According to Federal Law:

Whoever willfully…sets fire to, damages, destroys, disables, or wrecks any aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States or any civil aircraft used, operated, or employed in interstate, overseas, or foreign air commerce…shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years or both.
Note the term "ANY AIRCRAFT."  The FAA has "jurisdiction" in this matter, not the town of Amherst, a city or state. Just that simple.

Yes, if a drone is hovering 10 feet over your property and you have young daughters sunbathing in the back yard, by all means call the local police.

But do not shoot it down!

This is what a drone sounds like at 10 feet altitude.  Yeah, not overly stealthy 

Turnabout Fair Parking Play

Bank of America downtown Amherst

In all likelihood the Planning Board will bring to Town Meeting this fall a zoning article allowing downtown businesses to lease out their parking lots as a sort of stand alone business using only a simple Site Plan Review process.

Now, without such a change, that would require a Special Permit, which needs a unanimous vote of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Currently Amherst downtown has more private spaces (57% of total) than public so a more efficient use of those surface parking lots can be a benefit to both private businesses and consumers.

 BOA parking lot (right) Amity Street lot (top left)

But another concrete idea in the recently issued final draft of the Downtown Parking Report suggests either purchasing outright or entering a cooperative agreement with Bank of America.   Their 47 space lot is located behind Amherst Cinema adjacent to the town's most popular Amity Street Lot. 

 BOA building stands out just a tad from surrounding architecture

Since town officials have never really forgiven Bank of America for the design of their building (constructed by Amherst Savings Bank in 1984) dead in the center of town.  So universally panned, The Design Review Board was created in response to the building, to prevent a repeat occurrence.

So it would be kind of fitting for them to now come around and do the town -- and consumers -- a favor.

Click to enlarge/read
Downtown Parking Report (final draft) "Action Item."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

They Will Come

Atkins North Grand Opening 9/12

When you have an exceedingly tight housing market and a pitifully small commercial tax base (under 10%) the old saying,  "If you build it ..." easily applies.

 Presidential Apartments, North Amherst on schedule for September 1st move in

But when you're a "college town" the window of opportunity -- even is you are not directly targeting college aged youth -- is open wide until early August.  After that everyone is settled in for the year.

 Amherst Office Park mixed use addition on schedule for September 1st opening

Kendrick Place seemingly on schedule for September 1st opening

Amherst College Greenway Dorm project opening September, 2016

Olympia Place private dorms opening September, 2016

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Public Documents Snafu

There is no standard playbook for redacting documents

When it comes to Public Documents Law (Massachusetts version of the Freedom Of Information Act) I'm a "strict constructionist."

In other words -- like the Attorney General -- I consider almost anything put in writing by a town employee, elected official or appointed committee member to be a public document.

Trick is to know what to ask for and who to ask.

On July 15, based on inside information, I requested "Any emails over the past 10 days sent between Regional School Committee members or directed at ARPS administrators discussing the release of
settlement documents in the Carolyn Gardner affair."

On July 27 I received a single file that contained seven emails that fit the description.  One of the emails was Superintendent Geryk complaining about my already publishing one of her emails to a Regional School Committee member (who was NOT my source).

I of course instantly published the material, floating the document on Scribd, which makes it easier for readers and gives me a total number of views.

The next day I was informed that the documents sent to me had been redacted but did not show up as redacted on my upload.  Turns out it was a computer snafu between a windows file and my Mac.

By that time the document already had over 1,200 views and any one of those people could have downloaded it to their computer with a single click.  Since my friends in the bricks and mortar media seem to follow me pretty closely, I assumed that had already happened.

So NO, the schools never formally requested I take down the document and replace it with the corrected one (sent the second time as a PDF).  But it does bring up interesting questions.

What if I had used technology to undue their redactions and then willfully published it?

Interestingly if public officials ignore public documents requests you take it to the Public Records Division of the Secretary of State's office and they send a threatening letter to the public officials.

But since the Public Records Division has no enforcement powers said officials can continue to ignore you.

When viewing exactly what was redacted it becomes clear the main thing the Schools want kept secret is they like to keep things secret. As in using a "confidentiality statement," which time and time again has been proven NOT valid for settlements involving taxpayer money.

Like the tragic Phoebe Prince case for instance.

Redacted portions below

 Click to enlarge/read

Ms. Gardner and her attorneys specifically wanted this agreement to go public, but now I hear they're complaining about too much transparency via these public documents disclosures.

Could it be they expected a far different reaction from the general public when the terms of the agreement first became public?

You would think a prestigious legal firm would know taxpayers are never thrilled about financing large settlements like $180,000 -- especially when they take a one-third cut.

Of course it could have been far worse, as the original demand was for $500,000.  So at least the Schools got them down 64%.

And of course if that $500K figure attains mainstream circulation it kind of takes the legal dream team down a notch or two.

Simply put, the general public has a right to know how their money was spent.  And why.

Information is intimately connected to free speech:  The more of it the better.  If you don't like it, then redact me.

Recreational Alliance

Community Field (rt), War Memorial Pool (ctr) High School Field (left)

The Amherst Center Recreation Working Group looks like it is finally getting off the drawing board as members will be announced before the end of August with a kick off meeting to take place in September.

Since the group will be looking at both town and school owned property, it's fitting that the first meeting will occur in September when our education oriented town springs back into life after an all too brief summer hiatus.

Town Manager John Musante originally announced the study committee back in December, 2014 although the Leisure Services & Supplemental Education (Rec Dept) Commission originally complained back in 2010 about the embarrassing conditions at Community Field.

 Field named after "Mr. Baseball" Stan Ziomek, father of Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek

Then Town Manager Larry Shaffer first floated the idea of a spray park to replace the ailing War Memorial Wading Pool, since demolished by the DPW.   Currently the town is considering Groff Park (not part of the Working Group's study area) as a possible location for a spray park.

 Former site of the War Memorial Wading Pool

The adjacent "big pool", built 1960, was renovated in 2012 via a $200K state grant but the surrounding children's play area has not been updated since President Kennedy was in the White House.

At the Select Board meeting Monday night member Doug Slaughter, who is also a school employee, volunteered to be "liaison" to the new study group.   Director of Facilities (for both the town and schools) Ron Bohonowicz is also expected to be a member.

SB Chair Alisa Brewer strongly suggested Slaughter should be more than just a liaison, aka he should be a voting member of the group.  The Town Manager makes the appointments but they must be approved by the Select Board so it's a safe bet he will take that suggestion.

 Wildwood School (below), Middle School (left), Hawthorn property (top right) High School field (top left corner)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Never Mind

Lincoln Avenue and Amity Street intersection (120' no parking on either side of Lincoln Ave.)

The Amherst Select Board backed way way off the original plan presented to them at their last meeting (6/15) which made both sides of the entire length of Lincoln Avenue a "No Parking" or "Tow Zone."

Instead the SB voted unanimously last night to restrict parking 30 feet on both sides of Gaylord Street, 30 feet south of Elm Street on the west side of Lincoln, 30 feet south of McClellan on the east side of Lincoln and 120 feet on both sides of Lincoln from the two major intersections, Amity Street and Northampton Road aka Route 9.

Original Plan

Select Board member Connie Kruger was concerned about signage and striping to indicate where the new regulations apply.  At their 8/31 meeting town staff will show the Select Board the new signs if they are installed by then, otherwise a GIS map showing where they will go and an illustration of what they look like.

 Lincoln Avenue is currently the next street over from where the Town Center Parking District ends.

According to the new Downtown Parking Report (delivered to the Select Board last night): "Existing and expanded business activity in this area and its close proximity to downtown make expansion of permit parking into this area (Lincoln Avenue) worth considering."

Town Building Report

24,000 sq ft Wastewater Treatment Plant built 1923, value $13 million

Last night the Amherst Select Board, after many years of asking, finally received a 65 page draft inventory report of all the buildings owned by the town.

Put together by Director of Facilities and Maintenance Ron Bohonowicz, the inventory catalogs when the building was constructed, recent renovations, total square footage, estimated value and  a recommendation for future use.

One measurement that stimulated the most discussion was the "Mission Dependency Index," or how important/critical is a building to the town.  Obviously Police and Fire scored high with 100 and 99 respectively (out of 100).

So did anything to do with water.  And anyone who has ever watched Survivor knows water is your first priority.

22,480 sq ft Town Hall built 1889, value $6.5 million

But the Jones Library only measured a 50 and that left a bad taste in the mouths of our bookish Select Board.  So they voted to have Mr. Bohonowicz scratch that measurement.

And the Select Board did show some concern that perhaps Mr. Bohonowicz crossed over into "policy" with some of his comments.

For instance he mentions the worst kept secret in town that if the current DPW building is abandoned for a new facility it would make a great location for the (too) L-O-N-G talked about new Fire Station.

Or under Recreation he states the Walmart quality Cherry Hill Golf Course Clubhouse, "Should be eliminated if there was to be any type of major renovation."  At the Select Board meeting last night he called it "disposable."  (Kind of like the golf course itself).

 5,600 sq ft War Memorial Pool built 1960, value $243,000 (surrounding play area not so much)

The report is considered a "living document" and will be amended and upgraded over the years.

Monday, July 27, 2015

School Payouts: A Little Sunshine

Amherst Regional High School (Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, Shutesbury)

Emails between School officials and the Regional School Committee clearly show Carolyn Gardner wanted the $180,000 MCAD lawsuit settlement to become public.

In fact the settlement would not have been reached without the Schools issuing a press release fully disclosing all aspects of the agreement.

Ironically School Superintendent Maria Geryk takes the School Committee to task for a security breach where I published an email she had sent to Vira Douangmany (copied to the entire Regional School Committee) on this now rather PUBLIC matter.

Damn bloggers!

Downtown Parking Final Report

Plenty of parking on a summer Sunday early morning

The three Downtown Parking Forums held over the past year have been summarized in a comprehensive Downtown Parking Report by senior planner Jeff Bagg.   The Amherst Planning Board received a copy on Friday and it will be presented tonight at the Amherst Select Board meeting by John Musante during his packed "Town Manager's Report."

Simply put the 68 page document highly recommends two things:  start the process for ascertaining the need and feasibility of constructing a new downtown parking structure; and come up with strategies and regulations for more efficient use of current parking -- both public and private.

The downtown now has a total of 2,019 parking spaces but 1,159 of them, a whopping 57%, are private.  If the town could strike a deal with private landowners it would increase utilization rates of parking overall, and with the town taking over maintenance and enforcement duties on those parking spots private owners would have one less thing to worry about.

Yes, a 2008 study by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission decreed, "current parking supply in the downtown area sufficiently meets the current parking demand."  Since that study seven years ago the Amherst Cinema has become a downtown anchor, new restaurants have opened and the Jones Library (our other downtown anchor) may double in size.

And that study did find that some highly desirable downtown public parking locations "meet or exceed 100% utilization."

More important the number of residential units in the downtown will grow 36%, from the current 330 units to 550, when Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant Street five-story, mixed-use developments come on line.
Kendrick Place opening soon with 36 units housing 104 tenants

The Parking Report does suggest that perhaps the Planning Board and Select Board should consider tweaking the Municipal Parking District which currently exempts mixed-use buildings from a parking requirement.

While the town needs to do another updated parking study this Parking Final Report recommends laying the groundwork for a new parking facility and increasing overall efficiency of the current parking system should start immediately.

In fact, by virtue of this comprehensive report, it already has.

The 5 member Select Board as "keepers of the public way" have final say over simple parking tweaks, but Town Meeting controls the purse strings.

Any expenditures to enhance the downtown requires Town Meeting approval.  More ominously, any zoning change would require a two-thirds majority vote of Town Meeting.  And the current preferred location for a parking structure (behind CVS) does require a zoning change.

CVS & town parking lot next door

Death By Delay?

Carriage Shops:  future home of One East Pleasant Street

Basic rule of last resort in the NIMBY handbook:  When all else fails file a lawsuit.

Last week Hampshire Superior Court Judge Richard Carey heard a "Motion For Summary Judgement" in the case brought against Archipelago Investments and the Amherst Planning Board.

If the Judge supports the motion filed by the town and the developer, construction on One East Pleasant Street can commence.

Joel Greenbaum, a local property manager with 27 properties in town containing a total of 212 bedrooms filed the suit as an abutter claiming  One East Pleasant Street, with 80 units of housing providing 180 new beds, will cause him unique injury.

Greenbaum asserts that because One East Pleasant Street only provides 36 parking spaces for 180 tenants parking for his nearby units will be negatively impacted.  But the simple counter to that is parking is a general complaint that impacts the entire downtown, thus Mr. Greenbaum is not suffering any unique harm.

Town Attorney Joel Bard told the Judge parking is a policy issue, not a legal concern.

The more specific complaint that one of his properties would suffer harm via a shadow cast by the five story project was shown to be false as part of the "discovery process."

Archipelago's attorney Mark Bobrowski countered the complaint that One East Pleasant Street was a dormitory (not allowed in the downtown district) by pointing out all the units would be leased as apartments and not by the bed.  

Of course the genuine concern for Mr. Greenbaum is that One East Pleasant Street will provide brand new high-end rental units to compete with his tired older offerings.  But land use law does not consider economic injury brought on by all-American competition to be grounds for "special injury."

Even in the unlikely event the Judge turns down the Motion For Summary Judgement and then goes on to rule in favor of Mr. Greenbaum's lawsuit, all it does is neutralize the two Special Permits granted by the Planning Board allowing extra height and lot coverage.

Archipelago would still have "by right" the authority to build a five-story, mixed-use building on that site they already invested $4.6 million acquiring.  And I'm guessing they would.

Bring on the shadow.  

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Drunk Driving: 4th Time The Charm?

Richard Sherwood (left) stands before Judge John Payne

At a revocation of bail hearing on Thursday morning Assistant District Attorney Andy Covington told Judge John Payne that Richard Sherwood, age 30, had violated the terms of his release by consuming alcohol.

A Sobrietor test the night before (9:01 PM) indicated the presence of alcohol, with a .031 reading.  Four minutes later a follow up test confirmed it with a reading of .029.

As per protocol a fax automatically went out to the Easthampton Police Department and they came to Mr. Sherwood's apartment and arrested him.

Back at the police station he took the Breathalizer test and passed with flying colors, as in a 0.0 reading.

But ADA Covington pointed out to Judge Payne that the breath test at police headquarters occurred at 10:47 PM, one hour and 46 minutes after the Sobrietor test, and with the normal elimination of alcohol from the bloodstream a zero reading would be expected.

Covington also pointed out to Judge Payne that Mr. Sherwood was most recently arrested in Amherst back in May with a very high breath test (.20), but do to an oversight APD only charged him with 3rd offense DUI, and in fact it was later amended to 4th offense DUI.

And had the state been aware back in May of that fact the Commonwealth would have moved for a 58A dangerousness hearing requesting Mr. Sherwood be kept in confinement until his trial.

Covington also told the Judge the State would be moving next week for a Grand Jury Indictment against Mr. Sherwood, which would then bump this drunk driving case up to Hampshire Superior Court.

Mr. Sherwood's defense attorney pointed out a Sobrietor, like a Portable Breath Test used by police in the field, is not admissible in court as stand alone evidence.  And the test that is admissible (the machines used at police headquarters) showed his client to be at zero for alcohol.

Sherwood's fiance was in the courtroom and would testify that she was with him that night and he did not have a drink.  In addition, earlier in the day of the Sobrietor test Sherwood had used a flea/tick bomb purchased at Dave's Soda and Pet Food City in his apartment which had trace amounts of alcohol in it.

Therefor the Sobrietor results were simply a "false positive."

Judge Payne asked when was Mr. Sherwood's trial date?   "September 2nd your honor," replied Covington.

"Motion to rescind denied," said the Judge.  Richard Sherwood was released (with the original $5,000 bail still in effect), until his September 2nd court appearance.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Home Again

Engine 2 this morning at North Station (because she doesn't fit into Central Station)

Engine 2, "the quint", is back at North Station after a couple weeks hiatus for repairs.  The quint is one of two aerial trucks in the AFD arsenal.

Ladder 1 is a traditional heavy duty aerial truck with a 102' ladder while Engine 2 is a lighter version with a 75' motorized ladder.

The quint is essentially a hybrid of an engine and a pumper and gets its nickname because of the five basic functions it serves:  firepump, an on-board water tank, hose storage, an aerial/elevated platform with water gun at the top, and a bevy of ground ladders.

Engine 2 seats 6 (although probably has never hit that limit) and carries 500 gallons of water.  Thus the 2,000 gallons per minute pump could drain the on-board water supply in 15 seconds.

 Engine 2 has a 75' aerial ladder

AFD's other (circa 1988) aerial platform truck, Ladder 1, is currently out of action for yearly maintenance and repairs/upgrades. 

 The quint on scene this morning for 2 car MVC.  Lexus rear-ended APD supervisor's vehicle

Friday, July 24, 2015

Drunk Driving Déjà Vu

Kathleen Brennan appears before Judge John Payne.  Again.

In Eastern Hampshire District Court yesterday Amherst resident Kathleen Brennan, age 50, appeared before Judge John Payne for the second time in less than a year for the serious charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Although technically, both times, she was not actually caught driving, but simply passed out at the wheel of her red Lexus. This time, however, the incident occurred in the middle of the week (Wednesday) at 5:30 PM, in the heart of a fairly densely populated family neighborhood (Amherst Woods).

Back in December she approached me in the courtroom -- with her husband at her side -- requesting I not cover her plea deal.  Since becoming a self appointed court reporter two years ago that was the first time I had fielded such a request, although I get plenty after publication demanding removal.

Sometimes in not such a polite manner.

Brennan, with a well known Amherst DUI attorney at her side,  took a 24D disposition -- offered only to 1st time offenders.   Thus she lost her license for 45 days, paid $650 in fines/fees, attended a state run alcohol education program, and was placed on probation for one year (doesn't expire until this coming December).

She told Judge Payne she would be hiring the same attorney as before.   Judge Payne continued her case until August 20 but kept the $1,000 bail she posted in effect and made "random alcohol screening" another condition of release.

Yes in America everyone is innocent until proven guilty.  But the same could be said for Timothy McVeigh, up until he was proven guilty and executed by lethal injection; or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev who will rot in jail for the rest of his miserable life. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fountain Runs Dry

Cook Fountain, Sweetser Park this morning

Murphy's Law summer edition dictates your lawnmower or air conditioner will break down mid peak season.  Mr. Murphy's municipal version, now playing out in Amherst town center, translates to a pump failure -- for the second time in two years -- at the historic Sweetser Park Cook Fountain.

UPDATE Friday afternoon:  Acting Town Manager Dave Ziomek just called and said the fountain was a "top priority" for the DPW, as it is a "crown jewel" of the downtown, and it would be fixed "very soon."

Better days (last month)

Going To The Dogs

Dog Park brainstorming session attracted 25 to Town Hall on a nice summer night

In addition to the new Fire Station, DPW Building, Jones Library expansion/renovation and Wildwood elementary school reboot -- which Finance Director Sandy Pooler uses $57 million as a "placeholder" -- the town is also, sort of, considering a new parking garage on the CVS/town lot downtown and now a dog park.

 Unofficial proposed site for new parking garage

Twenty five citizens -- mostly dog lovers -- turned out for the "brainstorming" session on Monday night led by acting Town Manager Dave Ziomek.

 Assistant Town Manger Dave Ziomek addresses the friendly crowd

Of course of all the projects on the drawing board, or wish list as the case may be, the dog park is easily the cheapest.  And the town does own more open space than you can throw a stick at.

Currently about 1,400 licensed dogs call Amherst home but Animal Welfare Officer (not to be confused with Animal Control) Carol Hepburn estimates there are another 400 unlicensed dogs running around town under her radar.

 Carol Hepburn (left)

And at $15 per license (only $5 if neutered) it's not like the demographic is a big money maker -- even if you brought all the gypsy dogs into the fold. 

Canines in our little college town, like students, get a bad rap because of the irresponsible actions of a tiny minority.

The attack last year on two young students at Crocker Farm Elementary School by an unleashed pit bull led School Superintendent Maria Geryk to issue a ban on dogs during school hours on all school grounds (although not overly well followed).

Four years ago the Conservation Commission voted to ban dogs at Puffer's Pond even on the north side, formerly called "dog beach."  Although the Commission narrowly stopped short (3-3 tie vote) of repealing the off leash policy at Mill River and Amethyst Brook Conservation areas during the morning hours.

The Commission also voted  unanimously that night to "strongly encourage the town manager to seek to establish a dog park."

So here we are.  The brainstorming session on Monday produced a variety of ideas that town staff will put up on the town website, and the next meeting will take place in September.

 Click to enlarge/read

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

New Digs

DPW aka "The Barn"

The new DPW building, a possible $20 million project, is moving along faster than sludge in a sewer line.

Consultants Weston & Sampson were recently chosen out of 7 who applied for the $52,000 contract to help ascertain needs for the new building.   Their report is expected to be completed in two months, in time for Fall Town Meeting.

 Central Fire Station built 1929, when FD equipment was a lot smaller than today

The new Fire Station, also a possible $20 million project, is closely tied to the DPW project because that could become the location for the desperately needed new station.  Kind of like living in a family of many siblings and having to wait for the bathroom in the morning.

And since they don't call it "Central" for nothing, FD's current location -- within spitting distance of the Jones Library and CVS parking lot where a new garage is contemplated -- could be instantly put to good use either by the private or public sector.

The town is simultaneously pursuing two other major capital projects, the Wildwood School renovation and the Jones Library expansion/renovation.  Those two projects have the benefit of state funding, 50% for the Library and almost two-third reimbursement for the school project.

According to Finance Director Sandy Pooler the report from the consultants before summer's end will set the stage for the floodgates to open.

But then, how fast does sludge really move?

 Farm across the street from DPW, anticipating loss of 50' row of arborvitae, planted new trees

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Security Breach

How would you like to get a registered return receipt letter informing you of a "potential disclosure of information that contained your personal information?"

As vaguely worded as that dispatch is, I bet it would ruin your entire gorgeous summer day.

But I guess it could be a lot worse.  Just imagine the sleepless nights millions of cheating spouses will endure now that hackers who infiltrated users personal (and financial) information on a very personal website are threatening disclosure.

The breach involving the Amherst town website is not nearly as, umm, sexy but definitely scary for the citizens impacted.

Obviously it would only potentially impact those who have uploaded financial information to the town website.  And fortunately, it was not the result of outside hackers breaking into the system.

Finance Director Sandy Pooler was limited in what he could disclose (and specifically could not say how many registered letters were sent out) but he did say if you did not get a letter, you have nothing to worry about.  

For those of you who did get the letter and have concerns, you can call either Sandy (413-259-3002) or Claire McGinnis (413-259-3020) for further information (that they legally cannot give to a pesky reporter). 

School Committee Squabble

Amherst School Committee:  Katherine Appy far left, Vira Douangmany far right

Looks like the Amherst Regional School Committee -- made up of all five Amherst School Committee members, plus 2 from Pelham and one each from Shutesbury and Leverett -- is returning to the good old days of internal strife with a side order of bickering.

Regional  Chair Trevor Baptiste announced at the 6/23 meeting that he  is scheduled to meet with the Amherst NAACP on August 14 to "engage in mediation ... to hear their issues and to discuss their goals to see if we can reach consensus."

Obviously that did not sit well with Amherst School Committee Chair Katherine Appy, who lost to Mr. Baptiste by a vote of 7-2 when the RSC reorganized itself also at the 6/23 meeting.