Sunday, August 30, 2015

The North Will Rise Again

Atkins North, open for business in North Amherst

As promised over a year ago, Atkins North -- a smaller version of the iconic South Amherst flagship  -- will officially open its brand new doors today after total transformation of a 4,000+ square foot cow barn into a shiny new, long needed, food business.

Inside is even brighter and shinier than you would expect

The operation will complement the 12,000 square foot Trolley Barn just down the street and provide further incentive for North Amherst residents to shop closer to home.  Cowls Road will be repaved this fall and a sidewalk installed from Montague Road directly to Atkins North.

 A nod to the past
The town is also planning to tweak two intersections that make up of the North Amherst Village Center where five roads all converge almost on top of each other.  Meanwhile, Pine Street (one of those 5 roads) is now, finally, nearing completion of a $4 million major renovation.

North Amherst is fast returning to its former glory days when it was known as the "dirty hands district" because of a plethora of mills, factories, farms and loggers.

W.D. Cowls, Inc, the largest private landowner in the state, has now successfully recycled their l-o-n-g history in that area into a shiny new "clean hands district,"  aka The Mill District.

North Amherst Village Center: Sunderland and Montague Road branch off after intersection of Pine/Meadow/North Pleasant

Friday, August 28, 2015

A Final Request

Monday night marks my 14th annual visit (the 1st being in October, 2001) to the Amherst Select Board to request 9/11 be added to the permanent short list of events the 29 commemorative flags fly in the downtown to commemorate, both celebratory -- like July 4th -- or Memorial Day, which is somber.  

And over the course of my lifetime days just don't get any sadder than the morning of 9/11, which dawned as bright and beautiful as any day in the history of our country. 

But this will be my last such visit.

The board will either agree to allow the flags to fly every year rather than once every five years, thus ending the need for such annual visits; or they will say "No," to finally -- irrevocably -- suck the vital essence from my soul.

Because if this particular Select Board (where 4 of 5 individual members have previously supported annual flying) can't now come together to do the right thing, then all hope is lost.

Click to enlarge/read

Amherst Town Meeting, 2007 (another good reason to nix Town Meeting)

A Lot Off The Top

DPW Tree crew strategizing how to safely take down large tree off Triangle Street

This massive 100' poplar tree is coming down piece by piece in what can only be described as a challenging removal.  Mainly because it's so BIG, and its location next to a commercial building.   

 Height of tree pushes the limits of the bucket truck

The tree was recently hit by lightning and could not be saved. 

Shot from 150' up

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Viva La Revolucion!

Amherst Town Government comes up for voter scrutiny ... again
1st of 3,500 signatures 4:35 PM today

The most epic local political battle in the entire history of our town will see a return engagement in 2016 as Amherst For All, has initiated the movement to place before voters formation of a Charter Commission to study and present a new improved form of local governance.

In other words, a death sentence for 257 year old Amherst representative Town Meeting, which many people now think is no longer "representative."

Amherst, a "college town", has the lowest median age in the state (22) where the majority of residents are renters; but Town Meeting is mostly populated by a gray-haired crowd of homeowners.

Who yell at the 22-year-olds to "get off their lawn!"

While self absorbed NIMBY/BANANA zealots have never reached a majority level in Town Meeting, the problem is they only require one-third-plus-one minority to stop any reasonable pro-development zoning article. And that low benchmark was reached a long time ago.

 Amherst Town Meeting last May

Amherst's tax base is 90% residential and only 10% commercial, with over half the property in town owned by tax-exempts, mainly our higher education entities:  Amherst College, UMass and Hampshire College respectively.

On April 3rd, 2001 Amherst voters -- with a voter turnout of 17% -- endorsed the formation of a Charter Commission which came up with a mayor/council form of government, but one that also retained a town manager.

Question 1 (binding): Charter formation?  Question 3 (non binding): Should we dump Town Meeting?

In April, 2003  -- with a voter turnout of 31% -- that ballot question to change our form of government failed by only 14 votes, 2414  to 2400 (with 21 blank ballots cast).  Two years later -- with a voter turnout of 35% -- the same question lost by 252 votes, 2,953 to 2,701.

Fast forward to this afternoon.  According to Town Clerk Sandra Burgess:

The petition must contain the signature of 15% of the number of registered voters in that city or town at the time of the last state election.

Because this is state law, the number of registered voters includes inactives.

The total number of registered voters at the last state election (2014) was 21,430.  So if you were planning on filing a petition to place a charter question on the 2016 Annual Town Election Ballot you would have to collect 3,215 signatures to force the question on the ballot.  

Town Clerk Sandra Burgess accepts Ballot Committee papers from Adam Lussier

To make the deadline for the 2016 annual election ballot all the signatures must be confirmed 100 days before the election (the exact date has not yet been set) so roughly by mid-December.  Considering the Charter Commission created at the annual 2001 election required almost two years to collect the (2,600) signatures, an ambitious time line.

Back then, however, the signatures were collected pretty much single handedly by one very determined man, Stan Durnakowski, using the tagline Amherst needs a (strong) Mayor.

Mr. Durnakowski was also elected to the Charter Commission but he couldn't convince a quorum of fellow commissioners to support a strong mayor.

The Charter Commission instead opted for a weak mayor, maintained a "professional" town manager but did at least ditch town meeting in favor of a city council.

The 9-member Charter Commission is elected on the same ballot that voters approve forming said Commission, so it's important Amherst For All put up a slate of candidates who will represent their views for reforming town government.

Under Massachusetts Home Rule Amendment to the state's constitution the newly elected Charter Commission then has 18 months to produce its "Final Report," aka a blueprint for a new & improved government.  During that time period the Commission must hold at least two public forums.

The BIG difference today vs 2003 when the Charter change failed by only 14 votes is Social Media (why you're reading this here first).  Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin were not even born, and blogs were in their infancy.

Thus the power of the web will be a key factor this time around.

And when the cyber-smoke clears I foresee Stan Durnakowski looking down from above, giving us a thumbs up ... with his bespectacled face glowing with a broad grin.

Select Board member Jim Wald (who would be out of a job) and concerned looking Town Meeting aficionado Vince O'Connor (who would also be out of a job) look on as the Town Clerk briefs Amherst For All Steering Committee

Official Kick Off Signature Drive Launch Party is September 2nd @ The Pub from 5-7PM 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

$ From Heaven

Little Red Schoolhouse:  Worth $500,000 to move?

Just as a concrete example of how some activists think Community Preservation Act money raised each year by a tax surcharge on all residential property (except tax-exempts of course) free money to be plundered on a personal whim, I give you last night's CPA pubic meeting:

Carol Gray now admits the moving of Amherst College owned Little Red Schoolhouse would cost in the $325,000 to $375,000 range and at the moment she has not raised a single penny towards that (relying instead on CPA historical preservation funds) and currently has no site secured for the relocated building to call home.

Amherst College Facilities Director Jim Brassord was in attendance and pegged the actual amount -- based on quotes from a contractor who already moved two College owned buildings -- as being "North of $500,000."  Ouch!

 Carol Gray left, Jim Brassord back row in white shirt

I left the meeting near 9:00 PM after Ms. Gray gave her presentation, as she was the 3rd and last item on the agenda.

But Vince O'Connor, who chimed in freely during the three presentations, then commandeered the meeting and gave close to a half-hour pitch to squander $300,000 in CPA funds to rebuild the (supposedly historic) Mill Street Bridge.

 Posted agenda for last night's CPA meeting (note Mr. O'Connor's crusade is not mentioned)

Mill Street Bridge closed 3 years ago due to safety concerns

Since this ridiculous item was not on the agenda (and had it been I would most certainly have stayed to cover it) the CPA Committee -- under Open Meeting Law -- should not even have allowed the discussion.  

Not to mention the state is planning to rebuild the Mill Street Bridge next year with STATE MONEY.

Mr. O'Connor brought a warrant article to Amherst Town Meeting last spring to reopen the bridge but it failed handily.  A vote to "refer back to committee" is Town Meeting's nice way of saying "go away."

 Vince O'Connor bridge scheme unanimously rejected by Public Works Committee in April

Back in 2007 the town spent $287,000 in CPA money to preserve the view of the historic Kimball House on North East Street, even though it is (still) owned by Roger Cherewatti, who then built the most expensive house in Amherst immediately behind it.

Which kind of takes away from the view.

If the CPA Committee approves funding either Ms. Gray or Mr. O'Connor tilting at windmills,  taxpayer should figure out how to recall appointed members of the committee.

Three's A Crowd

321 Lincoln Avenue, Amherst's Great White whale

After two years of cat and mouse attempts at enforcement of the zoning bylaw limiting 321 Lincoln Avenue to only two apartments ("two family") one of which must be "owner occupied" Building Commissioner Rob Morra declared victory with a signed legal document recorded 4/27/15.

The first thing You-Pan Tzeng did after buying 321 Lincoln Avenue three years ago was try to remove the "owner occupied" zoning requirement that legally came along with the building, which he of course knew about prior to purchasing it.

Tzeng lost that court battle but not before costing Amherst taxpayers over $15,000 in legal fees.

Neighbors along Fearing Street and Lincoln Avenue had been complaining almost since the day  he purchased the property, mainly about the extra tenants and the noise and cars that come with them.

But Inspection Services can't simply walk into a house unless invited to do so by a legal resident.  Last winter Morra received a call from a Boston attorney requesting he inspect the premises at 321 Lincoln where his daughter was a tenant.

They had been told when signing a lease that the house was only two apartments -- hers and the one below -- but the daughter clearly heard sounds associated with a 3rd unit above her.

At last the Building Commissioner had the legal grounds to do a complete inspection. Once Mr. Morra confirmed the presence of a stand alone unit on the 3rd floor -- complete with bedroom and kitchen -- he could assess fines of $100 per  day

Tzeng could not throw out the legal tenants from either of the two apartments (especially when one has a lawyer dad) because they had a signed lease and the third illegal unit was "owner occupied" by his daughter who attends UMass.

Hmm ... what to do?  Surrender!

This time, Moby Dick did not escape.

Click to enlarge
Cracked structural beam just discovered in June at 321 Lincoln Avenue

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Building On Rental Success

Mandi Jo Hanneke, Rob Morra (Building Commish), Pat Kamins, Maurianne Adams

Building Commissioner Rob Morra told the Rental Bylaw Implementation Group this afternoon that after 18 months the new Rental Permit Program is going better than expected but could still be improved -- most notably via a strengthening of the bylaw.

The second Fiscal Year of operation started July 1st and by the end of the month 1,260 properties had renewed their permits, almost exactly the same number who enrolled the previous year.

About 30-40 new properties joined the list but about that many dropped off because they were no longer renting, so it was pretty much  a wash.

With the $100 annual fee the program generated a $126,000 in revenues while break even for administrating is probably in the $165,000 range, a target figure that was given to Town Meeting two years ago when the program was first enacted.

The Town Manager could possibly consider a fee hike next year to increase revenues, bringing the program to a break even mark.

The main change Morra would like to see is the ability to (re)inspect properties that have been the subject of complaints and found by his department to be in violation of building/health codes.  In Fiscal Year 2014 his department found 214 violations.

Currently a landlord "self inspects" the property and town inspectors only become involved when a tenant lodges a complaint.  Morra pointed out that in some of the most egregious violations found the landlord/manager had checked off the self inspection form indicating that all was fine.

Kind of like what Iran nuclear self inspectors will be doing in the near future.

The Rental Bylaw Implementation Group was not overly enthusiastic about strengthening the bylaw just now (but maybe in the spring of 2017) to allow for mandatory inspections, siting mainly privacy concerns.  They also wish to see data to show how many of those 214 violations last year were repeat offenders.

Another idea presented by Morra was also met with wariness, also due to privacy concerns:  A joint task force made up of police, fire, health department and the new UMass neighborhood liaison (Eric Beal) with a mission to tour a usual suspect street or neighborhood.

The goal would not be to simply hand out enforcement tickets but to educate and inform residents of their rights to live in a safe rental property.  Morra thought if the pilot program does come to fruition it would kick off in late September or sometime before Halloween.

The Rental Registration Bylaw was overwhelmingly passed by Town Meeting two years ago as one means of bringing rowdy Party Houses under control, but mainly to prevent tragedies that can occur when slum lords have free reign.

So far this important public safety program is two for two.

Signs of Summer's End

Black Lives Matter group protest in front of APD at high noon today

Yes when you live in a "college town" there are some unmistakable signs that summer is quickly coming to a close and our population is about to double with students flocking to our three institutes of higher education.

From the ubiquitous  "Welcome Back Students" signs in shopkeepers windows to the downtown traffic jams created by a co-mingling of cars and college aged youth.

Political activism will pick up where it left off last spring with the current cause de jour being "Black Lives Matter."  Today at noon a group of about 30 marched around and through the Town Common and set up shop in front of the Amherst Police Station at 111 Main Street.

They were pretty much ignored by APD, although not by the local bricks and mortar media or pedestrians in the downtown.  Which, I suppose, is the general idea.

You Can't Get There From Here

You may have noticed all those bright yellow additions appearing on our regular street signs that almost resemble stickers, informing drivers not to come sightseeing unless they have a good reason.

Maybe it's part of being a "green community," reducing the extra gas consumed when a lost vehicle goes down the wrong street, or just an easy way to keep the peace in neighborhoods where some folks don't like lost vehicles using their driveway to turn around.

DPW Chief Guilford Mooring reports the signs come with no additional cost to taxpayers because the new "No Outlet" is simply added to the routine design and then used whenever a street sign is replaced.

A sign replacement costs the town $250.  So in case you ever wondered why the (infamous) Hobart Lane street sign is twice as high up as a regular sign ...

Hobart Lane (also a "no outlet" street)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Thuggery Continues

War Memorial Pool.  DPW Tree Division immediately north

In addition to break ins at downtown LimeRed Teahouse, the Monkey Bar and an apartment nearby on Thursday night, the town owned War Memorial Pool (now closed for the season) was also the victim of an overzealous agile perp who climbed the perimeter fence, broke through security glass in an inside door and then trashed the place in search of cash -- which he didn't find.

 All outside windows are gated security glass

Unfortunately the town does not have security cameras installed at the War Memorial building, although the DPW operation next door will soon have them, and one camera will point directly at the pool.

Our downtown has been plagued by this unsophisticated type of criminal activity for far too long now.

And while the students return next week does not necessarily increase this brutish type of behavior, the other alcohol fueled rowdy activities college aged youth routinely engage in -- albeit a small minority but of a large overall number -- will keep police distracted until first snow. 

 Eastern Hampshire District Court

Thursday night's break in spree seemed to be worse than the entire weekend as Monday morning in Eastern Hampshire District Court had a total of three APD arraignments, two for motor vehicle charges and one for a violation of abuse prevention order. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Moving On Up: Deluxe Apartment In The Sky

Kendrick Place, opening by September 1st

Gloom and doom aficionados will be watching closely over the next few weeks as one of the more controversial buildings du jour -- after all, what building in Amherst has not generated controversy -- will open for business.  Just in time for the students return.

In an update to the Planning Board earlier this week developers Kyle Wilson and Dave Williams presented "streetscape" plans for the finished product, although with the undergrounding of utility poles yet to be completed some of the work will have to put off until next year.

Streetlights for instance.  DPW Chief Guilford Mooring told the Planning Board the MassWorks $1.5 million grant for the utility work only included the installation of tradition streetlights.

So if the board was interested in using the ornate, more efficient LEDs, they should take a quick tour of the Atkins Corner project where the streetlights are working just fine.

Mooring said he would still install traditional streetlights around Kendrick Place for the winter but could then replace them with the fancier ones, and simply reuse the conventional ones as spare parts.  The price per unit for LED has come down to around the same $500 per unit as conventional ones.

 Atkins Corner LED streetlight

Parking is of course the main issue with Kendrick Place -- or I should say the lack of it.   Because it's located in the Municipal Parking District there are no minimum parking requirements.  Thus critics wonder where the 104 tenants from the 36 units will park.

Although Amherst has one of the most extensive free bus systems in the region. 

The Planning Board will present an article to Fall Town Meeting calling for the simplification of using private parking lots in the downtown as separate stand alone businesses to attempt to make more efficient use of parking.  Private lots currently provide the lions share of parking in the downtown.

 Property owner across the street not interested in sharing his parking lots

But Jeff Brown, the property owner directly across Triangle Street from Kendrick Place, said he has no interest in using his parking lots for anything but the convenience of his commercial tenants.

Town officials will also be closely monitoring the absorption of Kendrick Place into the downtown ecosystem, since the same developers are planning One East Pleasant Street, a much larger mixed use building within a shadow of Kendrick Place. 

 Construction crews working on a Saturday (8/22) to ensure September 1 opening

Sudden Stop (Sign)

North Amherst center Pine/Meadow intersection (circled)

Local long time activist and North Amherst resident Vince O'Connor told the Public Works Committee last night that a stop sign was needed at the Sunderland/Montague Road junction just north of the main intersection in the North Amherst Village Center.  Now!

O'Connor is worried that students coming to the University of Massachusetts driving through the intersection for the first time will be confused by the 5-way intersect taking place within a small distance leading to public safety issues.

Public Works Committee Chair Christine Gray-Mullen did not want to hear about that particular micro-management issue since it was not on the agenda for committee discussion.  So any extended discussion now would be a violation of Open Meeting Law.

 Public Works Committee last night.  DPW Chief Guilford Mooring top center

DPW Chief Guilford Mooring stated many people were confused by the issue at the June 24 Public Forum and wanted to solve the entire 5-way intersection problem, when in fact there are two distinct separate intersections that need to be addressed individually.

The agenda for the PWC meeting sought to do just that. 

After O'Connor stormed out of the meeting, saying he would press his concerns with the Amherst Select Board, the Public Works Committee voted unanimously to separate Pine/Meadow/North Pleasant from Montague/Sunderland Road for redesign purposes.

 Mr. O'Connor wants a stop sign on Montague Road (circled)

Mooring reaffirmed his belief that the only solution for Pine/Meadow/North Pleasant was a simple traffic light tweak allowing guaranteed left turns, like the traffic control at University Drive and Amity Street.

And new traffic control lights could be up and flashing by next year.

The town will host another public forum on the North Amherst intersection in October.  The Amherst Select Board has final say over the design improvements.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Electronic Age

 Town Meeting Electronic Voting Committee voted unanimously to support warrant article this morning

Amherst's antiquated 250+ legislative body will get a chance to enter the 21st century this fall courtesy of the Town Meeting Electronic Voting Committee, who will request a revision to the Rules of Order to allow for -- you guessed it -- electronic voting.

click to enlarge/read
 Amendment to Rules of Order

A separate article vetted by the Joint Capital Planning Committee will request $26,000 to pay for the new system.

The committee was formed less than a year ago and members appointed by Town Moderator Jim Pistrang.  The Fall Town Meeting starts November 2 with the article calling for amending the Rules of Order to come up almost immediately.

The Committee also decided to bring in the vendor to do a demonstration as part of the presentation of the article, although one member wondered if they really wanted to take that chance.

If Town Meeting approves both the Rules of Order change and the $26,000 in capital expenditures the system would see first official use at the Spring, 2016 Town Meeting.

Mr. Pistrang did ask the Committee if they thought some Town Meeting members might vote against the article due to rumors of a new Charter movement that could eventually lead to replacing Town Meeting with a far more efficient Mayor/Council.

The Committee assigned tech minded member Jonathan O'Keeffe to research the resale value of a used system if the town decided to sell it, but other members pointed out it could still be useful to the Public Schools or at public forums.

The vendor suggests a five year lifespan but the Committee decided to use 8 years in their Final Report that will be mailed to all Town Meeting members, which will also include a section for Frequently Asked Questions.

Leasing a system was explored but because Amherst tends to have many nights of Town Meeting, the cost was almost the same for a one year lease vs buying the system.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Do You Know The Way ...

Beautiful downtown Amherst, in the shadow of UMass

Pretty soon visitors to our bustling city-like community disguised as a quaint little college town will be able to find their way around in style.

Using a $10,000 "Downtown Initiative Program" grant from the Department of Communities and Housing Development the town hired Mark Favermann to design a new logo for the town to use on all signage, starting with the downtown.

 Branding & Way Finding Working Group found its way to Town Hall this afternoon

Favermann told the working group -- made up the town officials, business and academic representatives -- that signs perform four basic functions:  Identity, informational, directional, and restrictions.  But they all should tie in via color scheme, font or graphic.

Favermann presented 5 basic design concepts each with slight tweak using a different color scheme for a total of 15.  Planning Director Jonathan Tucker told the group to narrow it down to three and Favermann would work with them and come up with new variations.

The group quickly voted down option #4 calling it the "haunted house" design and option #5 which was supposed to be the twin trees on top of Mt Pollux, but don't really look all that great without benefit of the hill they overlook.

 Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer was concerned about using a tree image  for downtown signage

BID Director Sarah la Cour also presented a hand drawn design showing a skyline with the outline of three buildings and a tree, but did not want it photographed for public consumption just yet.

Another meeting will be held the first week of October that will include extensive public input.

Final draft designs will be presented to a joint meeting of the Select Board and Planning Board in late October or November.

 Town Mgr John Musante (yellow shirt) and Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek (pink) attended

The Select Board, as "keepers of the public way," have the final say.


Dickinson Museum just installed new signs only last month (that don't include iconic Dickinson Homestead graphic)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Troubles At The Top?

Town Manager Musante (right), SB Chair Alisa Brewer (left)

Tonight the long awaited evaluation of the Town Manager by the 5 member elected Select Board on his progress with 15 goals in various areas of responsibility showed interesting criticism from the two most experienced members of our executive branch -- Chair Alisa Brewer and Jim Wald.

Ms. Brewer gave Mr. Musante "unsatisfactory" a total of nine times (out of possible 44) while Mr. Wald checked it off five times.

Brewer and Wald were in unanimous agreement in response to goal #5, "Relationship With the Select Board"  by giving him "unsatisfactory" to the same five of eight statements. Ouch!

Brewer and Wald checked off "unsatisfactory" to 5 of 8 statements

In fact the other three SB members did not issue a single "unsatisfactory" out of all 44 response statements.

Last week 13 current and former Regional School officials evaluated Superintendent Maria Geryk, currently the highest paid town employee ($158,000), on a bevy of criteria but only a single "unsatisfactory" was issued.

The Select Board will meet again before the end of the month in Executive Session to make Mr. Musante a contract offer and presumably a raise from his current $150,000 salary.

So it will be interesting to see -- especially with this surprising number of "unsatisfactory" scores -- if he gets the 5.5% raise necessary to make him the highest paid employee in town.

Click to enlarge/read
Although statement G should probably include Blogs, Facebook and Twitter 

Click to enlarge/read

 Selectman Jim Wald reacts to media coverage (and my title) on his blog

Public Documents Redux

Amherst Regional Middle School

Sometimes you hit a treasure trove and sometimes it's just junk, but a public documents request -- which my friends in the bricks and mortar media make all too infrequently -- is never a waste of time.

At the very least it sends a message that anything public officials say relating to public matters can and will be used against them.  Or for them as the case may be, since sometimes the information gained sheds a positive light.

Click headline "Concern over Public Doc Release" to better read document

As the 4,500 of you who read the previous release of internal emails may remember, the $180,000 payoff of Carolyn Gardner was done without the standard "non disclosure agreement," after the schools did everything in their power to have it included.

Gardner's legal team insisted the settlement not be done under the cloaking device of a non disclosure agreement. 

Of course maybe that's why the Public Schools are more inclined to give away the store with  legal cases, since they assume the non disclosure agreement will protect them from prying eyes.  All the more reason to challenge it.

At every opportunity.