Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ronnies is great

One of the institutions around town and a great place for friend seafood and ice cream is Ronnies. And for those who fear trans fat, cholesterol and such things, they use a healthy version of oil called Trifry, made from grapeseed, canola and safflower oils which contains neither of those two evils.

My cousin, the late Dave Bylund worked there for years and passed on this past May. He's missed for sure by everyone and especially those at the stand. Besides missing him they miss his tremendous work ethic and the way he took care of things.

Tonight I had a haddock and onion rings with vanilla shake and they were both tasty and ungreasy as usual. It's a great place and one of those things I love about living here in summertime!

They close next Monday and it's a long time til Good Friday - take advantage while you can!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blackstone bikeway

T&G story today talking about the new bikeway from Worcester to Providence.

Interesting stuff ... something the "crossroads" town should do some time (meaning Auburn).

Cheap heating oil

Federal fuel assistance was announced today. $12M will help those in need. Here are a couple of links if you want to look into it:

Also I wanted to put in a plug about Mass Energy. It's essentially something like a fuel co-op. You join by paying $50 and then get to buy heating oil at discount rates. Generally fuel is around 20% less at Mass Energy than retail suppliers. The oil is delivered by local operators and they have budget plans. CK Smith does delivery for me.

They also have bio-fuel available for about 10% premium. In addition to less carbon (for being "green") and sulfur emissions the fuel burns cleaner in your system. Today's price was around $2.45 per gallon through them which is comparable to other's regular fuel price.

Also they promote green electricity, conservation, solar etc.

If you're interested tell them you heard it through the blog for me!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

McMansion bylaw

Interesting story about what Wellesley residents are doing to combat the obnoxious McMansions popping up all around our great Commonwealth.
Critics of McMansions are pushing to change town zoning laws by tying allowable house sizes not just to the size of individual properties, but to the scale of the neighborhood. The proposed ordinance would also involve a review board of residents to make judgments about a proposed house: Would it block a neighbor's sunlight? Would its droning air conditioning sit too close to the property lines? Would the driveway cause glaring headlights to shine in nearby windows? "It means that the builders who are just after giant, graceless boxes will have to find somewhere else to build,"
It goes to show what can be done to preserve neighborhood character when residents get together on this stuff. The key is to think proactively about the next project coming down the pike and work to set some standards, otherwise developers exploit the rules to maximize profits without regard for such issues.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

3Ps - one down for Berlin St

Well, it took a while (30 years by some counts) but the town actually repaved Berlin St recently. Dave D's company (Lynch) did it while he was working on clear cutting 88 Wallace for his side project.

Now if only they would have put in drainage (that would be Pipes, another of the Ps) ... because it will get degraded in short order (a year or three) without it.

But that's getting ahead of myself ... Wallace and Berlin are completely paved now. Nice job too.

I also noticed Harrison and Burnap on the slate for this week. Burnap sure needed it bad too. I don't know what prompted this sudden spurt of superior service from highway department (maybe all that talk of DPW? ;), but it's welcome!

Basic services for town residents - hooray!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dr Harrington meeting

In case you missed it, there was a presentation at the AHS by a Northeastern professor last week on labor trends, who in the economy makes the good money etc.

Generalizing, he presented wide ranging data on education and wage trends in the economy. It was an interesting presentation and very well received. One key point:

* Basic skills competency is a predictor (meaning has a high correlation) to performance in college as well as earning level. This is referring to basic reading, writing and math skills. The obvious conclusion was that there is a high return on investing in these skills in our kids.

What's funny is that this presentation was very similar to those given to me around 25 years ago when I was deciding where to attend school. At the time Auburn had a confusing collection of electives and a myriad of choices for course of study for the HS. You could see that as a good thing but it was my parent's conclusion that they lacked focus and what was needed was an emphasis on core skills. For this reason we chose a private school. Unfortunately money was tight but after the first year the school was very generous in aid (since I put up the grades).

There was a bundle of other data which showed the shift to a service economy away from manufacturing and the relatively high value of technical skills and higher education.

One somewhat surprising trend was the value of work and vocational education. It turns out when kids in the middle teen years work for a year or two they end up making more money and have a higher chance of graduating with a 4 year degree. You can look at the performance of 10th grade students at Bay path in math for evidence of that. The actual MCAS test is not emphasized in the school's curriculum yet they outperform neighboring Oxford for example in math. The theory is that by learning the applied skills the MCAS scores improve as a result without having to resort to special coursework designed for the test alone.

In all I think it was a good presentation, one I heard many times and one of the reasons I decided on a technical career so long ago. I'm glad educators in town were impressed by the data and it's my hope this will affect the curriculum going forward. It's certainly something for the SC to use as a basic resource.

I do think it was somewhat of a sales pitch and self-serving, but this is America after all, everyone's selling something ;).

I would have liked a discussion of how to make tuition more affordable so we can compete with international workers and students elsewhere. There was no mention of imported students and the hand in glove relationship of universities with the H1B program as well as keeping tuition high to line their pockets. Norm Matloff has a lot of interesting stats about foreign grad students and H1B/L1 program.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Preserving land in Auburn

The MPIC had an excellent speaker on Wednesday night from Greater Worcester Land Trust ( Colin M.J. Novick, the project Coordinator for GWLT spoke energetically for about an hour. The purpose of the meeting was to have an informational discussion of conservation, how they went about it in Worcester, successes and failures and such. The idea was to partially test the waters for what the town could do in this regard.

It's a shame it wasn't televised, because there was a lot of information, but in essence he went through their results in maps and on a slide presentation (will try and get a link to the information) as well as some of how they did it. They started in 1987 and continue to this day, preserving around 1500 acres of open space in the city. It doesn't sound like a lot but given it's mostly in an urban area it's certainly something to be proud of.

Conservation takes a lot of time and commitment. For the first 3 years, no land at all was saved from development. This was partially because of a real estate boom at the time. I quipped at one point that on the bright side we're in a downturn which would make things easier. But over time, given their persistent efforts and presence, opportunities arose. One action they took that made a lot of sense was in the beginning they identified the 15 top parcels or opportunities and tracked them over time. They went out and knocked on doors to discuss what the owners wanted, were patient and found funds both in the trust and at all levels of government.

There are many ways to accomplish conservation besides owning the land. Conservation restrictions for instance, allow someone else to own the property while providing some agreed upon conservation level and management. The owner gets special tax consideration for this which saves them money while preserving the land from development. Trail easements across private land are a way to link conservation tracts and in MGL liability is very limited.

Most if not all conservation done by GWLT allows some degree of public access. This is mostly passive recreation but not always (for instance Green Hill Park which has a golf course and armory on it). But the goal is usually to preserve the land from development while allowing things like walking or hiking, not motorized vehicles and such. So folks can enjoy it but at the same time keep the character of the habitat or landscape and not destroy it.

There are at least 3 things that can be done in a given town - formation of a 501c3 corp like GWLT, use the assistance of a group like that on a limited basis or have a town-based organization. The reason a completely government-based org isn't good is that to a lot of people that seems intrusive or negative. If you're a non-profit, people are much more likely to work with you and trust you (since you have no money for one).

Ann Weston mentioned many 61a (farming) properties as well as other town owned land which are opportunities for conservation. Also the Auburn Hills project was again mentioned for possible land gift to the town should they decide to go with the open space plan. In this case, it might make sense to get outside help of GWLT or another organization because things could happen very quickly.

The bottom line is that people have to care about parcels to succeed in preserving them. The director really has a positive attitude, keeps up to date on which grants are available and is willing to wait and work with various parties to get things done. Obviously, his energy helps tremendously, but he also made a point to explicitly credit his platoon of volunteers for all the efforts they make. Land will be preserved by those who use it now or remember it from when they were kids and enjoyed it and those who value keeping some natural features about the place safe from development. There are incentives to landowners for this also but it's really the commitment of volunteers that make this work over time.

Contact me if you're interested in this topic, I will be trying to garner support for it and testing the waters for interest. I think a place to start will be the Concom also groups like the Sportsmen's club and other organizations in town.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The case for growth limits

Ahh, September, kids going back to school, cooler temperatures, leaves starting to change and the sound of ... bulldozers, tree pullers and brush shredders?!?

My side of town (Prec 2) has erupted the past several mornings to these sounds as more open space is lost, trees cleared, earth removed and construction developments under way. There's Wallace Ave and Anderson Way (clearing for a gentleman's farm ;), both under development from Planning Board chairman Dave Dellolis as well as the massive Leicester and Rochdale St "Auburn Hills" development.

It's all a bit disconcerting, partly due to the sheer size of the efforts and numbers of units potentially involved. The other part is that as I've pointed out, planned open space has once again been put on the back burner. Some of the concerns are for the waterways. Drainage of groundwater via runoff is a major contributor to contamination. There are no waterways in town at this point that satisfy the health requirements for eColi to make the water safe for swimming according to the water district. US Res, Dark Brook, Lower Stoneville as well as Camp Gleason are all too high. To blame it all on those pesky ducks while avoiding any look at increased development or runoff from increased population density is naive at best, self-serving to developers at least and deliberately negligent at worst. The other concern is that loss of habitat and town character which happens when land is cleared.

Many on my side of town are in an uproar over the 300 home development plans off Leicester St, and with the recent T&G article about Oxfords 300+ unit condo developments it's enough to drive you to alarming extremes! But before you do something drastic like posting messages to vote for Mike Robidoux (kidding just seeing if you're listening ;) there may be a rational solution at least in part to all this. I'm talking about growth limits.

The idea is that with all the growth, additional costs come for town services like sewer, water, police, fire and above all schools. The question with additional homes is not whether or not taxes will rise it's how much and how soon. With a growth limit on the number of new housing units developed in a year, the town could predict and manage the numbers so that rational plans could be put into place BEFORE things got out of hand and drastic measures were needed like overrides and such. This is in the backdrop of recent doubling of residential tax rates of course as laid out in a recent article in the Globe as well as blogged about here and on CLTG website.

Growth limits are in effect in neighboring Oxford, and there, a number of houses or condos are specified that can be developed in a given period of time. Ironically the developments in N Oxford off Rt 20 are in an area exempt from the limits (called the Merriam district, yes I believe the dictionary Merriam but historians can correct me there). It could be 30 or 50 or whatever the town decides it can "afford". That way we can predict the tax rate will go up by $.10/1000 this year, $.25 the next and so on. Maybe even (gasp) drop or stop the rate increases!

I predict, thanks to the predominance of influence by developers in town government on planning and elsewhere that this would be a tough sell. I'm pretty sure businesses AND developers will continue to see land in town as a scarce resource that needs to be exploited for maximum dollars.

But I also predict that without it, large projects like Auburn Hills, potentially Anderson Way and elsewhere will have serious negative impacts to cost of services for taxpayers. People need to realize the effects of unrestrained housing growth on town services and costs, not to mention open space and town character. Growth limits are one realistic way to address the issue and keep our town livable for residents.

This is a topic I will raise this week at the Master Plan Implementation Committee meeting; I think it's an appropriate place to consider such action in the Master Plan as well as possible by-law changes to affect them.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ski Wachusett group?

An idea came up in the Rec committee meeting about possibly buying in on group tickets to Wachusett mountain for lift tickets.

With a group of 4 or more discounts start to kick in.

Leave me a message at if interested. I think it's a good opportunity to get some deals on winter recreation.

Healthcare up another 10%

Lovely news today from the Globe - health insurance premiums are expected to rise on average 10% again this year.

This, along with education costs are the two areas that I believe cannot sustain themselves long term. Ask yourself this - do you get 10% better service and benefits than you did last year from your health care provider? I don't know many that do. (You could say the same about the school budget by the way). More likely is that the uninsured costs are rising and we the taxpayers and policy holders make up the difference. How legislators expect we can support illegal aliens under this system I have no idea.

According to this story, premiums are rising way faster than wages and the gap between the increase in wages and premiums is at its widest point in 6 years.

The other thing this affects as far as town government is so-called "fixed cost" agreements where the health care is included to a large degree in contracts and those employed by government. Generally public sector workers in Massachusetts pay a lower percentage of the premium costs than dreaded private sector workers do. So this means that increasingly, the taxpayers pick up the extra bennies government workers demand and legislators give into.

Something else to think about - according to this article, up to 60% of health care spending is tax-financed. So essentially we the tax payers are paying a huge percentage of health care insurance costs already. And here I thought we had a free market insurance system.

What's driving the increased costs you'd have to ask an expert and they disagree. But it's something to consider for the budget minded, including our town officials.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dark Brook Res - the one next to the trash hauler

Well a bit of good news - Casella has decided that they will "scrap" plans for an expanded recycling facility on Hardscrabble Road.

You know the one - next to Dark Brook Res?

Just thinking aloud here, how does this happen that we get trash facilities next to Dark Brook Reservoir, one of the largest (if not the largest) bodies of open water in town? It doesn't make a lot of sense but it might explain why the town considers many of the areas in town unsafe for public swimming.

It's good news, but ... only because the company decided that way. They could just as easily decide tomorrow they'll be expanding trash operations there. Shouldn't the town, in the form of Planning and Conservation be the slightest bit concerned or better yet be doing everything they can to curb further development along our waterways, especially trash facilities? We've already got eColi problems according to AWD in US Res and I can only presume DB Res too.

Sorry guys but I don't think you can blame it all on the ducks.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sept 11th again

There was a somewhat eerie similarity to my commute this morning. It was Tuesday, I was off to work to drive umpteen miles on 290 and 495 with the other commuter lemmings. It was early September, typical midweek grind to follow. If it had been a bright blue sky it would have been too familiar.

The morning of Sept 11, 2001 (a Tuesday) I was listening to some talk radio as I usually do and downing my travel mug of coffee to get the brain cells firing. I think I was flipping between WEEI (sports/politics) and WAAF (adolescent humor). Callaghan usually gets me going a bit with his right-wing bomb tossing and the Hillman with his lowbrow self-promoting humor. Around 845 word came a plane had hit the Trade Center. A flash of "uh oh" crossed my mind for an instant but was replaced with a more reasoned response such as "probably a Cessna, private aircraft, the kind most likely to crash". I was almost at work and stuck in a bit of traffic off the 290 exit when word of a fire on the middle/upper floors had started.

As I arrived at work, news of the second plane hitting had come in and by now, folks were gathering around one of the CNN video feeds on the web. The website would soon become unresponsive as the server buckled under a barrage of requests, being an early adopter of live video on the web. Many of the folks I was working with were from the tri-state area (NY/NJ/Connecticut), former employees of Tellabs. A few became very concerned and lived on the phone that morning, and later left from distraction, as at least 3 had family members working in the towers. None were lost from that group as far as I know.

The next days or weeks kind of blend in now, mostly a barrage of images of the fiery collapsing structure and nervous politicians. It kind of sent me into a work cocoon to some degree which is one way to cope. I do remember the beautiful blue of a September sky without jets. We must have been in the flight path at work because I always looked up and noticed trails in the morning on blue-sky days.

Years and two companies later I learned that at my current employer, a coworker acquaintance lost his fiance that day on the first plane. He's a really nice guy but at 40-something has never married, although not for lack of interest in fact he's somewhat of a ladies man. As I understand it's the closest he's come to it, he was finally ready. He's still single. Some of the damage done that day continues to this one ....

On the other side of it I was to become a father within the year, which was a truly miraculous experience. I often wonder how I'll communicate life before 9-11 to my son. He is a generation that will never know the same sense of naivety and innocence we did before that day. There's a pall of anxiety and concern that was created that we still live under to this day. It's certainly our generation's Kennedy assassination and it might take that long to recover our national sense of safety and confidence in some ways.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Citizens policy academy - a good take

Just a note to reiterate the citizens police academy is coming up again according to the Auburn News this week.

I took this course last year and wanted to share a few impressions. I think when I did it, it was 8 weeks, usually lasting around 3 hours a night one night a week. Each night there was a different topic, ranging from informational issues like Identity theft, to CPR cert, even a LTC firearms course which can be used for credit in obtaining a Mass LTC. We also got a tour of the Worcester county house of corrections (believe me you don't want to go there again if you can help it).

One of the highlights is a "ride-along" for a shift with an officer. Mine was on the weekend from 4 to 10. For most of the night it was uneventful with a few traffic stops. Towards the end things really happened quite quickly, we got involved in several calls including a B&E in progress (was a definite adrenalin rush for me) as well as right afterwards we raced across town for a domestic dispute.

I liked the fact we got to know just what was going on in town (at times maybe I didn't realize it), as well as the officers themselves. You realize just how normal and like us they are, the everyday issues they deal with as well as the life and death ones. I appreciate more now the level of service they provide for the town, the professional knowledge they possess, how they work as a team and the mostly thankless work they do daily. I think I also learned a bit more about issues of safety and awareness for children, neighbors and myself.

The link to the police website is here, and the police academy page here. It starts this month so sign up soon!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Water issues - we need it

Several folks I know on our side of town are having issues with their wells. Precip is down more than 6 inches under normal in the past few months and we really need the rain.

One thing I noticed is that Dark Brook Res seems to be kept fairly high although the brook that drains it into Lower Stoneville has gone dry. I'm curious what the policy is there. People should let the AWD know they are affecting wells in the drainage of that body of water. Since the Eddy Pond dam fiasco, water has been in the news lately a lot. Here's to hoping for a good rain storm soon!

One potential good aspect is that Upper Stoneville (US Res) is down enough to allow doing work on walls and such near the water for several folks I know. Also it might even help the weed control efforts if it stays down for the winter months. Across town at Dark Brook Res by the boat ramp it is pretty low and the smell is getting bad from it. I've seen them drain that water this summer already though, again it's interesting why these things occur when they do - I have no idea. Also no word as far as a water ban or whatever from the AWD but I'd think it's becoming an issue for the town as well.

Generally better communication between the Water District and residents is in order, either via the CATV, interweb, mail or some combination.

It's been mentioned before in this blog but having an association covering the three reservoirs in that drainage would enable discussion of these issues and a common voice. It might end up costing $50 or $100 a year but I think it would be worth it to address cleanup and improvement of the whole area.

Contact me via the blog if you are interested in formation of an association.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Taxes up, services down

Well at least I don't feel alone now in this.

Since 2000, property taxes have shot up nearly 50 percent, from $2,679, far outpacing gains in wages, which climbed 30 percent statewide over the same period, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past seven years, the average annual property tax hikes for homeowners have ranged from about $150 to nearly $215.

Taxpayers are being asked to pay more at a time when they are seeing local services decline, as cities and towns struggle to cover rising healthcare, utility, and pension costs.

Since I've owned my property (about 12 years ago) my taxes are up way over double. Of course I've upgraded many things in the house since then. But most of that is market appreciation according to the assessor.

My basic needs from the town are simple - the 3 Ps: paving, pipes and plowing. On plowing they're not bad. On paving we haven't had any for about 20 years on Berlin and it shows. One reason things are so bad is that there is no drainage on the road (pipes) nor are there plans for it.

So if they can't get basic services like this while doubling the tax burden, it's a real source of frustration with town government. Recently it was reported that the new paving plan includes Berlin. But again, we will likely have drainage issues leading to worsening conditions in short order. The drainage needs to be addressed!

What my eyes see is that major roads are paved and kept but this shortchanges most residential side streets (where people live). So the residents again get the short straw, yet their share of increases have gone way up thanks to revaluation.