Sunday, August 2, 2015

Charity Begins At Home?

Craig's Doors seasonal Homeless Shelter @ First Baptist Church recently added new trailer in back to serve dinners

Over the past four decades, up until 2009, Amherst has probably donated over 2 million in tax dollars to privately run charitable organizations performing valuable social work with the less fortunate citizens in town -- low income residents, the homeless, hungry, cold,  etc.

The town redirected Social Service spending to come out of Community Development Block Grant Funding back in 2009.  Since that grant is Federal money, the state anti-aid agreement would not apply.

But Amherst did briefly lose its CDBG eligibility last year (for FY15) and Vince O'Connor convinced Town Meeting to once again use regular General Fund tax money ($125,000) to fund the agencies.

Amherst is, to the best of my knowledge, the only municipality in Massachusetts to spend public money on private non-profit charitable agencies.  Which of course makes Amherst a "good guy" (or gal).

But is it legal?

Apparently a few people in town think not, and as a result Finance Director Sandy Pooler asked Town Council to look into it.

I asked Sandy if it turns out the naysayers are correct and we should not have been donating the money all these years would the town be forced to ask those agencies to return the funds?

Said Sandy:  "That is a good question. I don't know the answer to that.  If the lawyers come back with an opinion that we have violated the anti-aid amendment, we will get to that."

Although he does close on a reassuring note:  "I do not think there is a violation, but we will see."

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Don't Bank On It

Former First National Bank building Amity Street, now former TD Bank location

TD Bank has given up their long-time prime location in the heart of downtown Amherst, consolidating with their much smaller branch bank on Triangle Street less than a mile away.

 Sign on front door (Bank of America across the street in reflection)

Of course Bank of American is directly across the street in their hard to miss building, and Peoples Bank is a roll of quarters throw away down Amity Street so town center is not going to necessarily suffer from a lack of banks.

But it's still not a great sign.

The building is owned by downtown developer and all around icon Barry Roberts, aka EV Realty Trust, so chances are it will not stay vacant for long.  Barry helped stimulate the revitalization of downtown by buying and renovating the former First National Bank back in 1996.

A few years (1993) earlier Roberts purchased the former College Drug store across the street after it was heavily damaged by fire.  The building was an eyesore for years because nobody wanted to deal with installing an elevator as required by building code as part of any renovation.

One of the first businesses to open in the renovated First National Bank building was Amherst Brewing Company who had great success for 15 years.   They then relocated to University Drive in a building that was originally the new home for Louis Foods Supermarket, who also abandoned their prime downtown location (now a CVS).

Amherst Brewing Company was recently taken over by Harold Tramazzo who 15 years ago founded Hanger Pub and Grill on University Drive across the street from ABC.

Before ABC had even opened in that new University Drive location Barry Roberts rerented the downtown location to the current successful High Horse Brewery & Bistro.

 TD Bank Triangle Street location, right next to Northampton Cooperative Bank

So downtown is the place to be.  Although Triangle Street, where the other TD Branch Bank is located, is still considered that place where you can always go ... downtown.

Meanwhile, another downtown small business is vacating their prime location at 35 South Pleasant Street.  Art Alive opened just two years ago, after another short lived business, 35 South Cycle (an aerobic spin class operation) failed to attract enough customers.

Art Alive (Dead as of September 1st)

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)