Saturday, January 30, 2016

Plenty Pot For You

Building will be constructed next to 101 University Drive just north of CVS and Post Office

For the second meeting in a row the Amherst Select Board has pot on their plate.

Last week it was blowing off Extravaganja on the Town Common and this week it's being more receptive to a medical marijuana facility that hopes to locate at 85 University Drive.

The Select Board is being asked to provide a letter of support or non opposition which curiously enough the state weighs exactly the same.  Giving politicians a little bit of cover since they can allow the project to move forward but at the same time are not portrayed as supporters.

And since the Select Board took great pains last week to say they have no problem with the (First Amendment protected) "message" of Extravaganja pot rally -- only its large size -- to now turn down a medical marijuana facility might look a tad hypocritical.

The town wisely approved a Planning Board zoning tweak (Article 13), which requires a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting, back in November of 2013 which of course was a response to the medical marijuana referendum passing on a state level the year before.

Interestingly if the town had not passed Article 13  the rules would default to a state statute which requires 500 feet distance from a pharmacy or anyplace children congregate.  And the CVS, with a licensed pharmacy,  would easily fall with that 500 foot range.   Article 13 only requires a 300 foot buffer.

Once the Select Board approves their letter of non opposition MassMedicum still needs to acquire a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals, and that requires a unanimous vote off all three members.

Of course you have to wonder what will become of these highly regulated medical marijuana facilities should the recreational use of pot pass muster this coming November.

Will the state set up a different category of license for recreational providers?   They would then have a greater market which could bring down prices so consumers with  medical needs will start shopping there as well.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Cost Of Capital

Town has $3,147,629 available with $3,337,267 in requests from Department heads for FY17

The Joint Capital Planning Committee -- made up of key players from Schools, Library, Town and Finance Committee -- had their first meeting of the year yesterday morning and overall the (short term) news was not so bad.

As usual there are more requests for new equipment or building repairs than there is money, but last year the deficit was twice as much.

The JCPC will continue to meet most Thursdays over the next two months until every department request has been scrutinized.  Of course Town Meeting has the final say, but they always pretty much abide by JCPC recommendations.

The Committee also spent time discussing the major impact four new buildings -- Wildwood School, Jones Library, DPW and South Fire Station -- will soon have on upcoming budgets. 

Before abandoning ship Finance Director Sandy Pooler came up with an excel spreadsheet that shows the tax impact of the four projects depending on whether a debt exclusion Override is used, or just tying to finance it within the budget via borrowing or combinations thereof.

Interestingly back in 1994 Town Meeting twice approved $4+ million Overrides to renovate Town Hall, both of which were turned down by the voters.  Town Meeting then borrowed the money and did the project anyway, staying within the regular budget.


Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Blessed Building

St Brigid's Church, built 1924

For the second year in a row the Amherst Select Board has declared February 1st "Amherst Irish Day aka St. Brigid's Day" a celebration of all things Irish -- the hard working folks who helped build this town back when Miss Emily was hibernating in her upstairs room.

Yes, it specifically started only last year (even though the Irish have been here since 1840s) to counteract the idiotic "Blarney Blowout", a Frat Boy slander of the Irish with particular emphasis on highly profitable alcohol sales.

Fortunately, with the assist of 225 police officers, the Blarney Blowout last March was a blow over, and will be again this year.  While the Amherst Irish Association event was a resounding success.

When St. Brigid's was first built it dominated the downtown and was one of the largest buildings in Amherst.   Then in the mid-1960s UMass started to grow exponentially with those Southwest Towers reaching for the sky.

But St Brigid's is still -- and hopefully always will be -- a stirring symbol. 

Conservation Kerfuffle

Wentworth Farm is 80+ acres of open space with Owen's pond in the middle

Last night's Conservation Commission meeting was one part awkward and another part heated as local farmer Matt Kotfila was denied a request to farm one acre of Wentworth Farm and he did not take kindly to that.  In the least.

He was particularly incensed the Commission did not contact all three of his references before a subcommittee of ConCom and Agricultural Commission decided to not recommend to the full board his Request For Proposal response saying it was "not quite ready" and just wasn't a "good fit".

 Matt Kotfila appears (briefly) before Conservation Commission last night

He gave a brief speech that was tinged with anger and closed with, "It can either be a field for dog poop or a field to grow food to help feed poor people."  The Conservation Commission then quickly voted unanimously "Not to issue the license" and will put the property back out to bid.

Mr. Kotfila stormed out of the meeting saying sternly, "You should be ashamed of yourselves!"

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Housing: A Human Right

Hwei-Ling Greeney, director of Amherst Community Connections, went before the Amherst Community Preservation Act Committee last night to defend her proposal to house five "chronic homeless individuals" in apartments for three years at $83,819 per year, or a total request of $251,457.

A recent headcount concluded Amherst has 19 chronically homeless individuals within our town borders.  And on most days you can see them in the downtown panhandling, or simply hanging around with nothing to do.

 Hwei-Ling Greeney appears before Community Preservation Act Committee

Yes that $251,457 works out to $16,763 annually per person, but these days the average welfare recipient in Massachusetts cost taxpayers almost three times that.

And Ms. Greeney pointed out that in 2012 Amherst police had 775 calls related to the homeless for a budget cost of $58,000.

And AFD often has to transport overly intoxicated (or drug related) homeless individuals from the downtown to Cooley Dickinson Hospital, with a high likelihood those $1,000 trips go unpaid.

Community Connections asking price includes not just the high cost of a one bedroom apartment in Amherst, but an additional case worker who will provide individuals with metal health support services which will hopefully cut down on their involvement with APD and AFD.

The CPA Committee was not overly receptive to the request due to its high cost, untried paradigm and the concern it may not be restricted to down on their luck individuals with some solid connection to the town.

CPA Chair Mary Streeter acknowledged the great need but suggested Ms. Greeney go back to the proposed landlords and see if she can negotiate a lower rent. 

The Committee currently has $1,778,747 available but they have 14 proposals before them that add up to more than that.

In March the Committee will make their final decision over which projects to recommend to Town Meeting.  And Town Meeting almost always takes their advice.

Charter Two for One?

As of 10:05 this morning 8 candidates have returned their Charter Commission nomination papers with the requisite 50 voter signatures required.  Another 15 have taken out papers but not yet returned them.

Yes former Select Board Chair Gerry Weiss and his wife Jenifer McKenna are among those names that are now guaranteed to appear on the March 29 ballot.

Obviously married couples don't necessarily think alike, but if they have lasted that long under one roof they probably are not opposites like Oscar and Felix.

The new Charter for Amherst is going to the the most important document of our generation.

 Three newest wannabes

Let's hope voters choose 9 Charter Commissioners with a varied background, who can bring strong independent thinking to the process.

DUI Dishonor Roll

Anthony-Denson Rivera, age 25, took the Ch24D deal offered by ADA Bob Opsitnik (rt)

Yes the number of drunk driving arrests on weekends so far in 2016 has been exceedingly low, this being the first.   Which is of course a very good thing.  But the year is still young.

 Click to enlarge/read
 ADA Opsitnik confirms he has never lost a trial where a legally admissible Breath Test was used

Cost of a Ch24D disposition

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Party House of the Weekend

21 Goldenrod Circle
No offense to my New England Patriots loving friends, but I'm pretty sure if our heroes had pulled out a last minute victory the Party House pickings would have been far more ubiquitous.

Thus the first weekend of the spring semester goes down as a relatively quiet one.  Let's hope that continues.  Especially in March.

For the you-know-what weekend.

The Bad Boys appeared before Judge Connolly and they were each assessed a $300 fine with four months probation.

No Charter Cheerleading

Amherst Select Board, the executive branch of town government

The Amherst Select Board heard from two Kopalman & Paige ("The leaders in pubic sector law") attorneys last night on the do's and dont's of all things Charter change.  Most of it common sense, which this current Board has in abundant supply.  

Prior to the March 29 election the Select Board can do nothing out of the ordinary to influence voters one way or the other on how to vote especially if expends taxpayer funds.  No use of snail mail, email list serves, extra notices on the town website, etc.

Joel Bard and Lauren Goldberg update Select Board on Charter matters

After the election the 9 member Charter Commission becomes like any other town body but with the added bonus of $5,000 in town funds, guaranteed office space and direct use of the town attorney. 

And again the same hands off rules apply with the Select Board for dealing with the more epic vote of passing the new Charter.

The Select Board can assign one of its members as liaison to the Charter Commission to attend every meeting and report back to his/her Board, and Open Meeting Law even allows for a quorum of Select Board members to attend any Charter Commission meeting as long as they do not participate in a "deliberative" manner.

The Select Board can, however, take a formal vote as to whether they support the new Charter and issue a press release.  

Interestingly the Interim Town Manager sneaked a pay raise into the upcoming FY17 budget for the Select Board going from a $300 annual haul all the way up to $1,500 (plus an extra $500 for the Chair).  

Yes, a long ways from the $9,000 Northampton City Councilors make -- but still a solid move towards a more professional government. 

Something needed now more than ever.

Monday, January 25, 2016

No Pot For You!

Extravaganja last April 18th, 2015

While the Amherst Select Board did not take an actual vote, their comments seemed to indicate they were in unanimous agreement with Interim Town Manager (for another week anyway) Dave Ziomek refusing to issue a permit this year for the 25th annual Extravaganja pot rally on the historic Town Common.

AFD Chief Nelson (left), APD Chief Livingstone (right)

APD Chief Scott Livingstone and AFD Chief Tim Nelson agreed the rally had outgrown the capacity of the Town Common and represented a potential threat to public safety.  The Select Board took pains to say they were not concerned with the message/content of the event, simply its size.

Connie Kruger pointed out they were a victim of their own success.  But now that she has two grandchildren she has become "more conservative," and public safety is paramount.

Terry Franklin, citing First Amendment, threatens to bring in ACLU

Longtime event organizer Terry Franklin threatened a lawsuit based on First Amendment grounds.

Stop! In the Name Of Common Sense

Valley View Drive intersects directly with South East Street

Acting as "keepers of the public way" the Amherst Select Board will vote tonight to install a stop sign at the intersection of Valley View Drive and South East Street, a 4.4 mile "scenic byway" that connects Main Street to Bay road.

That was just one recommendation that came out of a recent traffic study done by CDM Smith, costing $7,800, that found speeding was a concern, so an additional three speed limit signs, costing $1,700 total, will also be installed.

Interestingly a corresponding increase in accident rates was not uncovered as the problem area of South East Street had a 2.45 MVM (Million Vehicle Miles traveled) accident rate vs state average of 3.74 for this type of roadway.

DPW will hold off on adding a Yield sign near Stop sign in front of South Congregational Church in favor of an intersection redesign somewhere down the road

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Penny Wise Investment

Big changes coming to our little college town

Fortunately after the voters approve the Charter Question at this coming March 29 election the Town Treasurer -- according to state statute -- has 20 days to credit the Charter Commission account with $5,000.  No questions asked.

Since Town Meeting could very well be exterminated by the new government the Commission proposes, they may not be overly friendly about appropriating seed money, which is kind of like a federal penitentiary charging death row inmates an electricity surcharge to power the electric chair.

The nine member Commission that will also be elected on March 29 has 18 months maximum to come up with a new government proposal, but there is no minimum limit.  Then all it requires is a majority vote of the electorate at an annual election.

The Commission can issue a mid-term status report, hold at least two public hearings (1st one within 45 days of election) and must snail mail their final report to all the registered voters in town, so the $5,000 allowance is probably too low.

 Click to enlarge/read

Interestingly after the first Mayor/Council/Town Manager idea failed at the ballot box in 2003 by only 14 votes the boundlessly determined Stan Durnakowski went out and got enough signatures to bring it back two years later.

A legal firefight ensued when the Select Board, at the time led by Anne Awad and Gerry Weiss, refused to mail along with the Charter the letter of introduction by 7-of-9 Charter Commission members outlining why they came up with the new proposal.   Which of course was done the 1st time around.

 Select Board annual town report 2005

Yes this is the same Gerry Weiss who became Select Board Chair a few years later and co-conspired with Town Manager Larry Shaffer to tax the Boy Scouts Christmas tree sales on Kendrick Park.

And then trampled the First Amendment rights of the July 4th Parade Committee by denying them a parade permit because they refused to let unregistered protesters march in their private parade.  Something the town's municipal 250th Parade Committee would also do a few years later.

And yes, Mr. Weiss and his wife Jenifer McKenna -- as loyal followers of the status quo -- have taken out nomination papers for Charter Commission.

Those who adamantly resist any change (that must be voter approved) in our inefficient overly guided by self-interest current government, need to answer the simple question:  what are you afraid of? 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Lesson Learned?

Thursday around noon, Sellen Street, town center
Friday around noon, Sellen Street, town center

In the past year I've spotted and photographed three vehicles in town center with a "denver boot" attached.  Being bright orange they are pretty hard to miss.  And all three times, within hours, the driver had paid their parking tickets so the boot would be removed.

According to Treasurer/Collector Parking Director Claire McGinnis the town has two boots although she can only remember maybe one occasion over the past ten years when both were in use at the same time.

The boot is used when a driver has accumulated five unpaid tickets, and since a simple parking meter violation is only $10 that five ticket threshold is not all that much in actual dollars.  Of course there's additional late fees on each ticket, and an additional $25 charge to remove the boot, $50 the second time and $75 the third time.

Which is why I'm a little surprised this driver has not gotten the message, and still let the parking meter expire.

 Town takes in almost as much in fines/violations as it does for routine meter fees

Friday, January 22, 2016

An Expensive Consideration (With A View)

Ron Bohonowicz extolled the southwest view to consider for library location

The Wildwood School Building Committee met yesterday in the Middle School for the first time since the Amherst School Committee pretty much boxed them in for building designs with their controversial 4-1 vote in favor of grade reconfiguration that requires two separate schools under one roof.

Amherst School (aka Wildwood) Building Committee yesterday

After almost two hours of painstaking presentation of four options that meet the ASC requirement, Building Committee Chair Mike Morris pretty much dismissed two of the options because they require "swing space" -- a temporary location to hold classes for all the students displaced by construction.

 Four options (pretty much whittled down to two)

Mr. Morris pointed out there are no spaces in Amherst large enough to handle all the Wildwood students and so the Schools would have to rent space at six or eight different locations strewn about the entire town.

Therefor due to "safety, learning and transportation considerations" he would prefer to avoid using swing space.  Superintendent Maria Geryk was nodding her head in agreement as he spoke.

Since the presentations took up most of the scheduled time for the two hour meeting the group will discuss and decide at their next meeting February 2, but it's pretty safe to assume the choice will be between W10 ($60,893,000) and W12 ($67,176,167).

 Maria Kopicki warns during Public Comment that public sentiment needs to be more carefully considered

Coincidentally the Amherst Finance Committee met in Town Hall just after the School Building Committee adjourned and during the "member report" Marylou Theilman brought up the school building project.

She presented a spreadsheet to the FinCom showing cost options for the Amherst short list as well as the most recent costs of school projects across the state financed by MSBA.


One member wondered what the role of the Finance Committee would be in this process?  Chair Kay Moran pointed out they are advisers to Town Meeting, and it would be Town Meeting and then the voters who approve a debt exclusion Override to fund the new school construction project.

And even after it passes Town Meeting, although Ms. Moran thought it would be a "high hurdle" because it requires two-thirds support, it could still fall under their purview to educate the voters as to the financial implications of a yes vote: A $200 year tax increase for 30 years on an average home.

And maybe where Amherst currently sits for property tax rates statewide (in the top ten).

Ms. Theilman did say she was somewhat surprised when talking to one of the architects to learn that the moisture problems at Wildwood or Fort River would be solved by a simple renovation.  The old foundation is dug up, removed, and a moisture barrier installed before a new foundation is poured. 

School & Construction officials appear before Amherst Select Board 1/11/16 with Vince stalking in background

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Zoning Battle Looms

University Drive parcel is located near UMass

The Planning Board voted unanimously (6-0) last night to sponsor two pro-development zoning articles for the annual Town Meeting that in all likelihood would have made the warrant as citizens petitions and Planning Board Chair David Webber pointed out they would have to do the same amount of work anyway, whether they are sponsoring them or not.

The hoped for outcome is by having the Planning Board sponsor the articles they will have more weight and be better received on the floor of Town Meeting.

Although anti-development NIMBY Town Meeting members have often portrayed the Planning Board as being cheerleaders for developers, so it could also be the kiss of death.

And a change in zoning requires a two-thirds vote, thus a stubborn minority can hold up vitally needed developments until the cows come home (which in Amherst is seldom to never).

Changing the zoning from Office Park to Business Limited for the 5.79 acre parcel that sits between a busy office park to the south and a shopping center to the north would allow a developer to build 32 units of student rental townhouses.

 Currently the property generates less than $100 per year in taxes

In 2010 Town Meeting voted down the identical zoning request mainly due to concerns about wetlands and drainage.  Attorney Tom Reidy told the Planning Board last night the developer has already completed a wetlands delineation study and consulted with the DPW about the drainage problem which may be solved by installing a larger pipe.

The Business Improvement District requested the other zoning tweak which would allow for residential construction in Business Limited Districts along three B-L locations around the downtown.

The article would exempt mixed use projects (commercial/residential) from the 20,000 square foot basic minimum lot area requirement known "Footnote B."

 Three B-L districts in downtown (circled in red).  Click to enlarge

This article, however, would have no impact on the University Drive property should it be successfully rezoned to B-L because the number of housing units already proposed are limited by wetlands.

The Planning Board will hold public hearings on February 17 and March 2nd for the proposals.  Town Meeting starts May 2nd.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Building Mega Shuffle

Fort River Elementary School does have extensive outdoor recreation facilities to lose

One of the more interesting things to come out of the public firefight at the Amherst School Committee meeting last night was the leaking of information regarding other building projects that do not seem to get any attention at all:  DPW and South Fire Station new buildings.

Vince O'Connor hatched a conspiracy plot about town officials wishing to abandon Fort River Elementary School in favor of a Wildwood mega-school, which is really twin schools under one roof, so it would then free up Fort River  for the new DPW building.

 DPW has outgrown its 100 year old building

And moving the DPW from it's current home in one of the classier neighborhoods in Amherst would then free up that location for the new South Fire Station, which has to be located within one mile of Amherst town center in order to abandon tired, old, cramped Central Station.

Which could then be sold to the highest bidder to create a trendy mixed use business/residential building in the heart of downtown.

Central Station could be razed for a new five story mixed use building (especially if a Parking Garage is built out back)

Thus we get three new municipal buildings -- School, Fire and DPW -- with no land acquisition costs.   

Mega School Or Bust

Unsurprisingly the Amherst School Committee after two hours of public hearing -- more than half of it criticism from the general public -- voted 4-1 in favor of the administration's  preferred "Grade Reconfiguration 2-6" model that will create a 750 student two-wing school and turn Crocker Farm Elementary School into a pre K-1st Grade early childhood education superstore.

Interestingly this 'separate but equal' concept of twin schools under one roof is the result of concerns over equity for students of color, low-income and single-parent families (and combinations thereof) that make up a sizable percentage of the Amherst public school population.

Crowd of 40 attended, many of them critical of mega-school

The only School Committee member who had not telegraphed her vote last week was Kathleen Traphaghan.  In her presentation she extensively cited her 14-year-old son as a main source for information for this epic decision, which is sort of like a smoking enthusiast justifying their bad habit by citing their grandfather who smoked two-packs a day since teen years and lived to be 93.

Traphagen also criticized the local hometown newspaper for pre-coverage of this "agonizing" decision as being "flippant," making it seem that cost was not a factor.  "We live in this town like everybody else", she said with a sigh. 

Costs will come in between $61.2 and $66.3 million depending on Wildwood School Building Committee pick

Black sheep member of the 5-member School Committee Vira Douangmany Cage played her usual watchdog role, questioning the process as a violation of Open Meeting Law, since the agenda posted on the town website did not clearly show a vote would be taken.

 Agenda posted on town website does not clearly indicate a vote would be taken

ASC Chair Katherine Appy responded that the agenda was clear on the school website and this was pretty much the way they always did things.

Last year, after a number of posting snafus that cancelled meetings at the last minute, the Regional School Committee voted to allow posting of meetings and agendas on the ARPS Regional website rather than relying on hard copy postings in all four towns. The state does allow this, but only for regional entities, which the Amherst School Committee is not.

 Former Amherst School Committee member Andy Churchill spoke in favor of reconfiguration
Crocker Farm Principal Derek Shea spoke in favor of making his school preK-1st Grade

The Wildwood School Building Committee will discuss the School Committee decision tomorrow night as they have the final authority with the Massachusetts School Building Authority for a single project that will receive between 50 and 55% reimbursement from the state.

According to Assistant Superintendent Mike Morris (also chair of the Wildwood School Building Committee):

"There will be discussion of the options at the SBC meeting tomorrow and a vote at the 2/2 SBC meeting on the Preferred Schematic Report (a submission to the MSBA that includes this choice).  As mentioned at last Wednesday's meeting and community forum, another design option (W11) that is very similar to W5 but made for the 750 student building will be presented, so there are four potential building designs to consider (W11, W10, W7, FR5)."

 Forever activist Vince O'Connor predicts disaster for the Reconfiguration scenario
O'Connor's preferred choise is twice as expensive

Vince O'Connor, who championed the most expensive concept of using the MSBA to deal with Wildwood only and have the town go it alone renewing Fort River,  exposed a conspiracy theory that town officials wish to close down Fort River so it could be used as the new Department of Public Works building, another mega-building-project on the immediate horizon.

O'Connor also predicted the MSBA will not even approve the Reconfiguration model since it does not have overwhelming public support.  And even if it does make it to the floor of Town Meeting for a debt exclusion Override vote, it will fail like the elementary school Override did back in 1992.

With Amherst property tax rates already in the top ten statewide, the $200+ added to the average tax bill by a debt exclusion Override for another 30 years to finance this mega-school is going to be a very tough sell.  School officials are putting all their eggs in this one expensive basket.

Indeed the die is now cast, the Rubicon has been crossed.  Let's hope School Superintendent Maria Geryk fares a tad better than Julius Caesar.

Mike Morris and Maria Geryk listening to critical public comments

Kathleen Traphagen not happy with most recent Gazette story as well