Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Cable Ascertainment Hearing: Repeat

Cable Advisory Committee members stand at beginning of meeting

The 2nd and final joint public meeting of the Amherst Select Board and Cable Advisory Committee to hear costumers concerns with Comcast service over the past ten years this morning was pretty much a rerun of the Ascertainment Hearing last week:  Amherst Media is amazing, but Comcast kind of stinks.

 Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry:  Would like to see all three libraries wired for broadcast

This time 19 people (vs a dozen last week) came to the microphone to present testimony, and not a one had anything good to say about Comcast.

Peggy Roberts, Town Meeting Coordinating Committee Chair:  "Amherst Media needs equipment replacement and extra staff support."

Amherst Cable Advisory member Demetria Shabazz led off the assault by pointing out Comcast is an $8 Billion company and rather than tie revenues only to the 7,000 cable TV customers it should include ALL profits including Internet and telephone.

Currently Comcast pays the town (who turns it over to Amherst Media) a little over $300,000 which represents 5% of the $6.5 million in revenues generated by 7,000 cable TV subscribers, but nothing from Internet or digital phone services.

Matthew Duranti, filmmaker:  "Amherst Media helped me get my voice out there as a young film producer"

Most of the speakers pointed out Amherst Media is critical to our democracy because of the governmental meetings they cover (Select Board, Town Meeting, Finance Committee, etc), but they are currently stuck using outdated copper wire analog technology.

Chris Riddle, member of the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee, said the lighting in the middle School auditorium is old analog theater lighting that leaves a lot to be desired for Town Meeting members trying to watch presentations and for the signal beamed to viewers at home.  He suggested Comcast upgrade the facility with new LED lighting and a digital sound system.

Louie Greenbaum:  "Town Meeting sound system at Middle School is a terrible, terrible system unworthy of Amherst"

Ten years ago at the start of the contract Comcast contributed a one-time "technology upgrade" grant of $450,000.  This time around, with the chorus of requests for fiber optic upgrade to the entire Amherst Media system, it sounds like the request will be a l-o-t higher.

Jim Lescault, Amherst Media Executive Director:  Last year we provided 504 hours of original content over our three channels 

At least one woman advocated for a switch in providers saying, "If I went to a doctor and they didn't have the equipment to make me better, why would I go back"?

But not a lot of other companies are going to wish to come to Amherst when they will have to wire the entire town to set up a new cable system.

So Comcast it is.  Only questions are will their customer service improve, and how much more money will they be willing to invest in Amherst Media?

Josh Stearns: Digital Journalism guru

Busy Beavers!

Gull Pond (off Old Farm Road) 9/29/15

The Amherst Conservation Commission gave "emergency certification" for a Gull Pond beaver breach last week to keep the pond from overflowing its boundaries. 

According to Town Manager (& Conservation Director) Dave Ziomek:

"My wetlands administrator worked closely with conservation and DPW staff to breach the dam. Late summer rains raised concerns about the road and water backup into basements etc. We’ve done this many times in my tenure with the Town to prevent impacts to residents, roads and property. All part of living with beavers. In these cases we seek what is called an emergency certification to breach a dam to lower water levels temporarily. Rain this week will bring level back up I’m sure."

 A "beaver deceiver" will be reinstalled to protect the drainage pipe

Considering the monsoons that are now upon us, that's a pretty safe bet.

Gull Pond 9/29/15 (from a tad higher up)

DUI Dishonor Roll

Gates Larson, age 52, arraigned before Judge John Payne

Only one APD arrest for impaired driving over the weekend but it was of a kind that illustrates the danger drunk drivers pose not only to the general public but also to police officers who job it is to be out and about during those prime drunk driving hours.

UMass police, who also serve and protect property located in the little college town of Amherst, also had one arrest:

 Keyarra Wood, age 22, arraigned before Judge John Payne

And Hadley, close enough to catch our overflow, had one as well.  All three defendants had their cases continued until next month and were released on their own recognizance.  Although Ms. Ritchie-Dunham turned over her license to an Assistant District Attorney before leaving Court.

Jacqueline Richie-Dunham, age 20, stands before the Judge

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Party House of the Weekend

Shane Walsh, Evan Stack, Ben Gallacher off to Clerk's office to pay $300 town bylaw noise fine (each)

For only the second weekend of the semester we have a party house winner where APD intervention of the arresting kind was required.  Although this one is of the more typical variety:  all college aged men.  UMass students to be precise.  All hockey players no less.

Henry Dill (left) also arrested next door to 419 Old Farm Road at same time for assaulting a police cruiser

A few years ago at this time of the season APD was making arrests at numerous party houses.  I asked APD Chief Scott Livingstone if things were, as I suspected, getting better:

I would agree, that thus far, the communication and interactions, cooperation,  with officers and young adults has greatly improved.

Although still very early, I know that both Officer Laramee, Eric Beal and all of the other sector officers having been doing a lot of outreach, whether it be door to door meetings, Fraternity and Sorority meetings and others.

I have been contacted by coaches of many of the sports teams, and we are in the process of scheduling meetings with them as well.

A very good sign!

The usual Saturday day drink parties at Townhouse Apartments in North Amherst also seem to end a little better than they did a few years ago

These past two weekends have also seen large gatherings at the western quad where police managed to herd the kids off the green (more like brown at the moment) without incident.

 Townhouse Apartments 9/19/15 5:00 PM
Townhouse Apartments 9/26/15 6:00 PM (Click photo to enlarge)

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Barn By Any Other Name ...

134 Montague Road, North Amherst aka The Mill District

Over the course of its 100+ year history almost everything made of wood -- which is to say the entire post & beam barn -- has been repaired and/or replaced on the big structure that's impossible to miss in North Amherst.

So is it still an original historic structure worth spending many times over new construction costs to preserve, protect and maintain the iconic view it provides to travelers passing by?

Over a year ago the Amherst Historical Commission thought so and ordered a one-year demolition delay, which expired back in mid-July.

But that is the extent of their power to preserve the barn at other people's expense -- in this case -- W.D. Cowls, Inc, the largest private landowner in the state.

Interestingly at the Historical Commission meeting last week discussing the last remaining carriage house contributing to the South Amherst Common Historic District, much was made out of the fact that over the years most if not all of the original structure had been replaced piecemeal.

The Commission decided not to even bother holding a Demolition Delay Hearing, thus the structure can be vaporized at any moment.

As could the historic old red barn at 134 Montague Road.  But that's not going to happen.  At least not before trying to come up with an economic reuse that justifies the high cost of maintaining the iconic image that so dominates the landscape.

Click photo to enlarge
 Barn (right)  is close but not attached to new Atkins North (note roof damage)

According to Cowls Vice President for Real Estate and Community Development Mollye Wolahan:

The demo delay has been over since mid July. We have no plans to remove the barn at this point. On the day of expiration we removed a dangerous window and a couple pieces of siding that we were prohibited from removing during the year-long demo delay. Barn is still being used as a commercial structure as it is warehousing company equipment and materials (though not on the leaky south third so much as before) as it has for many decades now. The barn is leaking profusely on the south third and an interior beam has fallen, a couple others are about to. The south third is structurally shakey. With the opening of Atkins, we have put a fence around the perimeter of the barn to keep the public at a safe distance from the structure.

Ms. Wolahan concludes optimistically:  "My hope is to start the public process this month — sharing information with the neighbors and starting the zoning process that can allow the barn to be reconstructed, retaining the same iconic image that is there today with an exciting new use to further support our neighborhood and the Mill District."

Barn currently hosts art project

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Killer Competition

PVCIC recently completed $10.6 expansion project behind original building

Not only does the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School have nicer digs than Amherst Regional Public Schools -- courtesy of a $10.6 million building project just completed -- but their student 10th grade academic performance is also superior (if you have faith in MCAS results that is).

 Boston Globe 9/24/15

In the current school year PVCIC has approximately 83 Amherst Regional students (up from 68 two years before) who have jumped ship, costing the Amherst Regional Public School District around $1.5 million in state money. 

And based on these test results, next year could be even worse. 

Click to enlarge/read

Amherst Regional Middle School.  Officials are considering abandoning building as student classrooms and moving grades 7 & 8 into the High School

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Simple Act Of Kindness

From my mailbag (late Friday night):

Hi Larry,

I am hoping to let the Happy Valley know about a very sweet act of kindness from the Amherst Police Department.

My 8 year old boy had his bike stolen from our home yesterday.

We looked for hours last night for it and again this evening. We covered every nook and cranny of our neighborhood and then drove around Amherst hoping to find it.

I filed a police report online just in case, and then called the police because I thought I might have spotted it but didn't want to go up to it in case it wasn't actually my son's bike.

I hesitated to call the police because I worried they had better things to do than deal with a kids lost bike, but Officer Corsetti showed up within moments and he took it seriously.

My two little boys were with me in the car and were so upset about the stolen bike and officer Corsetti let them know it mattered and was important.

He looked on foot for it for a long time, asking people he saw if they saw it, and then when we lost hope and went home, he still called me and update me on his search this evening. He asked me more questions about the bike, told me he hadn't given up.

My boy, Levi, was so touched that the officer cared that he wrote him a thank you note for caring and helping him look for it. (He also put some chocolate chip cookies in a bag for Officer Corsetti in case he got hungry while working).

We figured he would be out of a bike and I can't afford another bike for him. As a mother, I felt devastated and so sad that something my boy loved SO much and rode every day, was gone. It broke my heart.

Then, an hour or so later (at 8 tonight), there was a knock at our door and it was Officer Corsetti and Officer Ting. They had a brand new bike for Levi. And a lock!

 Sergeant Gabriel Ting, Levi on his new bike, Officer Dominick Corsetti.  Levi was getting ready for bed when officers arrived (hence no shirt) and they only put him on the bike sans helmet to adjust the seat

Levi was SO happy, he was glowing and over the moon excited. We had looked for so long for his bike and Levi thought he wouldn't be riding a bike for a long time. But now, because of the kindness of the police, Levi has a bike, a really nice one!

They told us that all of the police chipped in and got him this bike and lock. This is something my son will never forget.

It's an act of kindness that will live on long after he outgrows the bike because they gave him the gift of compassion, of kindness, of belief in doing good.

Levi promises to pass on the kindness and I believe he will.

Someday, when Levi is an old man, he will look back on this and remember it and still be passing on this act of kindness.

He says so himself.

Kettie L.

UPDATE Saturday morning:

UPDATE Thursday Oct 1st 4:00 PM:

Ascertain This!

Final speaker Jim Lescault, Director of Amherst Media, addresses Amherst Select Board

The Amherst Select Board and Cable Advisory Committee hosted their first of two "Cable Ascertainment Hearings" last night with the second one scheduled for Wednesday September 30 at the Bangs Community Center at 11:30 AM.

The Select Board voted to adjourn their meeting after hearing an hour-and-a-half of testimony but they kept the public hearing on all things cable open until their October 5th routine Monday night meeting so citizens have plenty of time to provide them with written comments.

The ten-year contract with Comcast expires in October, 2016 and Federal law requires two public hearings as part of the Request For Proposals targeted to Comcast.  Rates and programming are off the table as is anything related to Internet or phone service.

Cable Advisory Chair Kris Pacunas:  These public hearings are "The most important tool for our committee."  

A couple dozen citizens showed up, many of them associated with Amherst Media to champion our local cable assess entity that operates channels 12,15, and 17 -- aka, the local government beat.

Amherst School Committee member Vira Douangmay:  "Amherst Media is important for our Democracy.  People freak out when School Committee meeting are not televised."

Amherst Media is funded by a 5% cut of Comcast's overall Amherst revenues ($6.5 million) from its 7,000 subscribers, which came to $317,000 last year.

And once every 10 years a "technology upgrade" capital expense for new equipment, which came to $450,000 ten years ago.

But more than a majority of the audience came to complain about various service issues with Comcast -- either billing, quality of product or just overall customer service.

Wendy Jones Boisseau:  I own a house on Pulpit Hill Road that's hard to rent because Comcast wanted $8,000 to install cable/internet service.

Staff liaison and town I.T. Director Sean Hannon said the Comcast fiber optic access is "very valuable," but the equipment used by Amherst Media is "very old and should be replaced."

The Cable Advisory Committee will come up with a ten year contract proposal that must first be approved by the Town Manager and then final approval rests with the Amherst Select Board.

Of course if you the customer don't like the final contract, the alternatives are pretty slim.  All the more reason to make your voice heard NOW.

Another 1 Gone: Carriage House Demolition

Circa 1860 Carriage House, 1081 South East Street

After more than an hour of discussion punctuated by a few pregnant pauses and four votes taken, the Amherst Historical Commission, finally, decided unanimously NOT call a Demolition Delay Hearing which would have resulted in one-year protection for a historic circa 1860 South Amherst carriage house.

Architect John Kuhn was forthright with his presentation saying, "Let me be clear:  We don't want to have a hearing.  The building is not worth putting money into."

Kuhn presented the replacement building (already approved by the ZBA) which will serve as a garage and office to the current owners, but is designed to allow for a better view to the rear of the main house onto land recently purchased by the owners.

After filing a demolition permit the Historical Commission has 35 days to call a Demo Delay Hearing, which requires time to post legal notices.   So the 9/21 meeting was pretty much the last chance to call that Hearing.

The Commission's concerns were of the standard "vanishing landscape" variety.  This carriage house was a "contributing structure" to the South Amherst Common Historic District, and the only one left of its kind in that District.

Commission members were also unhappy with the new design not matching the original structure it would be replacing.

Kuhn responded somewhat indignantly: "I didn't think this was a design critique kind of meeting.  The building is set back from the house so it does not dwarf it.  My clients have already spent a lot of money on design so we are not here to look at alternative designs."

Kuhn also pointed out the Zoning Board of Appeals had already approved the new design.

The first vote on the motion NOT to call a Demolition Delay Hearing was met with total silence.  On the second attempt two voted yes to not calling a Hearing and two hesitated.  Again.

The Chair then offered to write a letter to the owners expressing their concerns and requesting their presence at a Commission meeting.  The motion to table a decision until next meeting passed 3-0 with one abstention.

But then Senior Planner Nate Malloy pointed out the next meeting would be too late to hold an official demolition hearing (as the deadline will have passed) so they took yet another vote on simply writing a letter of concern but NOT holding a demolition delay hearing.

That passed 3-0 with one abstention.  Kuhn promised to take the official letter "seriously."

Carriage House at 1081 South East Street is currently used as garage and office

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Skin Of The Earth

Sculptured artwork "Essential Voyage" Amherst North Common

Perhaps it's fitting that in one of his final acts as Town Manager John Musante approved the placement on our historic North Town Common the fragile artwork "Essential Voyage," a life sized sculpture made of raw clay, hemp fiber, chicken wire and wood.

Artist creator Valerie Gilman sees it as microcosm of life and, all too inevitably, death:

"As the clay dries it will shrink and crack and as the rainwater falls on it, it will wash away the clay.  This process of decay is part of the piece.  We are part of the skin of the earth and our lives are temporary here."

Ms. Gilman has dedicated this timely public art project to the memory of John Musante, gone from this life far too soon.  

There will be an open reception during the Chamber of Commerce Art Walk on Thursday, October 1st with the artist and her collaborator Margaret Bowrys, who was the model for the sculpture.  Bowrys will also perform an improvisational dance.

Over the course of the next few months the artwork will, by design, degrade.  And on December 1st, that which remains will be removed. 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Busy Fall Weekend

Saturday noon September 19

This weekend -- especially Saturday -- will be another busy one as our little college town has now fully shaken off the final remnants of a slow but all too brief summer.

The weather is expected to be borderline perfect for outdoor activities so the 28th annual Apple Harvest Crafts Fair on the town common will easily attract an overflow crowd to town center.

In addition, the always popular Amherst Farmers Market will be in the usual spot set up on the Spring Street lot between the North and South Town Common.  And Amherst Regional High School, located nearby, is having its homecoming.

 Grace Church, Boltwood Avenue, Amherst town center

And of course a somber, once in a lifetime event will also attract a standing room only crowd to Grace Episcopal Church next door to Town Hall: the funeral ceremony to remember/commemorate beloved Town Manager John Musante, who passed away suddenly on Sunday morning.

Public Safety departments will be in all-hands-on-deck mode after the sun goes down.  The Fire Department "impact shift" -- extra staffing for two ambulances funded by UMass, a deal brokered by Mr. Musante -- will bring total AFD strength up to 13.

I hope it's enough.

After all a (relatively) quiet weekend would be a fitting tribute to the memory of our Town Manager, who prioritized and helped implement the paradigm shift towards safe and healthy neighborhoods. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

DUI Dishonor Roll

Michal Wojewodzic, age 22 (photo courtesy APD)

Great weather over the weekend brought out droves of college aged youth to all the usual hot spots near UMass for foot traffic  -- Phillips, North Pleasant and Meadow Streets.  Which is what makes this drunk driving incident all that much scarier.

What if he had hit a tender body rather than a solid tree?

Click to enlarge/read

 Meadow Street/Townhouse Apartments late Saturday afternoon

In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday Mr. Wojewodzic had his case continued until next month.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Wild Women Weekend

51 Phillips Street

Three 21-year-old women, all UMass students, became the first "Party House" arrests of the Fall  semester.  And seven of nine (one of my favorite Star Trek characters) UMass ETOH drunk runs over the weekend were women, as were both Amherst College drunk runs.

Click to enlarge/read

Ain't equality great?

In Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday none of the three women jumped at the Commonwealth's usual plea deal offer (which has about a 98% acceptance rate):  Criminal case is "diverted" to civil with payment of $300 town bylaw noise fine, and if they stay out of trouble for four months the case is dismissed.

All the young women wished to consult with a private attorney so their cases were continued until next month.

And all the ETOH women recovered and will be paying (or their parents will) around $1,000 each for their ride to Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Digital Age Change

Mandi Jo Hanneke, Sean Hannon (left) Sandra Burgess, Jim Pistrang (right)

The Town Meeting Electronic Voting Study Committee voted unanimously 4-0 with 3 absent this morning to send to Amherst Town Meeting a $26,000 warrant article that will purchase 260 hand held digital voting devices to try to speed up the snail-like pace of Amherst's 257 year old political institution.

 Click to enlarge/read
Warrant Article will be vetted by Joint Capital Planning Committee and then requires only a simply majority vote at Fall Town Meeting

Meanwhile the Amherst Select Board voted unanimously last night to set the annual town election for March 29, 2016, which could actually be an interesting election for a change.

Charter enthusiasts now have until December 21st to collect the 3,215 signatures required to guarantee placement of the controversial question to change our form of government on that annual ballot for voters to decide.

The main motivation for Charter enthusiasts is to abolish antiquated Town Meeting by switching to a more professional Mayor/Council form of government.

Thus this $26,000 electronic voting purchase could end up being the equivalent of buying a new saddle for a dying horse.