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Amherst Town Manager John Musante says code clampdown having mixed results

The stepped-up enforcement and tracking of residences with quality of life and safety problems, ranging from illegal bedrooms and leaky roofs to hoarding problems and unsanitary conditions, is part of the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods initiative launched by Town Manager John Musante.

Musante told the Select Board Monday that the enforcement and tracking is an initial step that will continue to advance in the coming months.

“It’s clear that, so far at least, the results have been mixed. There is much work left to be done,” Musante said.

To push this forward, Musante announced that he has invited neighbors, town officials and University of Massachusetts representatives to come together to form what will be called a Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods working group.

“It’s really to finish the work begun in earnest over the last year or so,” Musante said.

The idea is to develop action-oriented proposals for next spring’s annual Town Meeting.

The first focus for these proposals will be based on research and review of what exists in other college towns, such as residential rental programs, special permit requirements, bona fide pre-inspection programs, penalties for violations, parking requirements and property management plans.

The second focus will be to look at the town’s bylaw limiting rental properties to four unrelated persons and to develop either a recommendation to retain this bylaw as is or develop amendments to improve it.

This working group, with about 15 members, will be chaired by David Ziomek, director of conservation and development. Other participants will include Phil Jackson, who lives on Lincoln Avenue, Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, Sandra Anderson as the Planning Board representative, three senior UMass officials, an off-campus student representative, a rental property owner and rental property manager and additional municipal staff.

O’Keeffe said the working group represents a commitment by the town. “I commend the town manager for his prioritization of this,” O’Keeffe said.

Musante said issues confronting the town with rentals are very real and don’t have easy solutions, even with outreach to students and rental property managers and possible strategies to create positive change.

The on-the-ground action, Musante said, is making slow improvements.

Building Commissioner Robert Morra said inspection services began recording complaints and implementing a response policy and a proactive inspection program June 1. There have been 64 complaints filed by phone, email or in person, with a goal to complete each in one to three days. So far, 33 complaints have been brought to resolution and compliance with the building, health and zoning codes.

Morra said it takes time to speak to property owners and landlords. “We are working on that daily,” Morra said.

The homes include some student rentals, such as on Sunset Avenue and Phillips Street, but others are in owner-occupied locations, including Leverett Road and Hillcrest Place.

Morra said inspectors are now viewing properties from the street for visible deficiencies, such as falling fire escapes, openings in roofs and walls or parking problems.

“That’s going to be what really builds our periodic inspection program,” Morra said.

Inspections has already issued two citations for vehicles parked illegally on lawns and is investigating a third. “We’re really instituting the first program to follow through on complaints,” Morra said

Health Director Julie Federman said her department has responded to 68 complaints since July 1 and is issuing orders to correct maintenance issues and unsanitary conditions. Some have to be corrected within five days and most within 30 days.

These responses come with an opportunity to look at the homes more closely. “It’s now become our policy that everyone is offered a comprehensive inspection,” Federman said.

The health department in January 2010 began proactive efforts to limit trash, such as discarded mattresses. “We feel we’ve seen a real decrease in how much appears on the streets in these neighborhoods,” Federman said.

There are also requirements to remove upholstered furniture and uncontained trash from properties, issuing $50 to $1,000 fines for violations that follow warnings.

For the Fire Department, eight homes have been inspected in recent weeks, including a South East Street home inspected twice for a hoarding issue and working with the owner of Hobart Lane apartments, where missing smoke detectors and illegal bedrooms were found in the basement.

Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said a full-time fire inspector has resources to focus on quality of life issues and general safety. “It has allowed us to make a team approach with our partners here,” Nelson said.

But the department is not hitting property owners with fines. “The goal is to gain compliance,” Nelson said.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said quality of life issues, including nuisance house violations, are on the rise.

Police, he said, meet frequently with landlords who live in Amherst and nearby towns.

“Those are continuing dialogues, and most are good landlords,” Livingstone said. “We don’t have a lot of issues with their properties.”

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