AYER - Ayer Building Commissioner Gabe Vellante provided the Ayer Board of Selectmen an update Tuesday night on so-called 'nuisance' properties that are on the town's radar for clean up.
Regarding two Ayer tenements owned by controversial landlord Hugh Ernisse, Vellante said the clean ups of 14 Williams Street and 128 Washington Street are "in limbo" since "the owner's in jail." Ernisse has been incarcerated at MCI-Concord since June 13 following his arrest by Ayer Police at Ayer District Court. Ernisse was charged with witness intimidation and violating a restraining order leveled by a female tenant at Ernisse's Washington Street home.
"We're just waiting for him to get out of jail to see what he does," said Vellante. Neighbors have complained that the Ernisse yards are strewn with trash and other unsightly debris. Vellante's inspections reported likewise.
Ernisse agreed to clear the debris by the end of June which didn't occur. Also no dumpsters have been delivered to either home as Ernisse to do, according to Vellante's June 6 memo to the selectmen. "If he doesn't meet commitments, we'll turn it over to counsel for prosecution," said Vellante.
Progress was reported, however, at the 71 Sandy Pond Road home owned by Mark Velardi. Vellante said Velardi has begun to cut massive logs stacked on the front lawn into cord wood. But commercial vehicles remain in the front yard. Vellante said Velardi has "expressed an interest in trying to comply" with
When Vellante reported on the condition of 65 West Main Street, selectman Frank Maxant became agitated. Maxant has been a vocal opponent of the selectmen's crack down on property conditions. A tenant at Ernisse's 14 Williams Street property, Maxant warned Vellante last month not to attempt entry in his rented room.
Maxant said the selectmen were breaching their own policy of giving property owners notice that their properties would be discussed in open session. Maxant said the meeting agenda, published on July 13 made no mention of 65 West Main Street. Had anyone "dropped a dime" to inform the home owner, asked Maxant.
Assessor's records show the owner to be William Shields. Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said Vellante "expanded on his report" which "respectfully, is his right. I didn't know he'd discuss 65 until he mentioned it right now."
Vellante said he'd sent a cease and desist order to the owner earlier in the day regarding "junk and debris in the front yard." But of grave concern is brush stacked on the property which Vellante flagged as a fire hazard.
A cease-and-desist order was sent to the owner of a Harley Davidson sign posted on Route 2A. Vellante said the owner promised to appeal the order to the Ayer Zoning Board of Appeals.
Two restaurants - McDonald's on Carlton Circle and the American Grille within the new Hilton Garden Inn at Devens Commons - were served with cease-and-desist orders to stop placing advertisement signage on the grassy center of the Route 2A/110/111 rotary in Ayer.
Regarding the leveling of 63 Main Street which sustained devastating damage during a 5-alarm fire on June 18, Vellante said the demolition permit is "sitting on my desk." The building owners need only provide reports on how they'll contain lead paint and asbestos during the tear-down.
Ten tenants and two businesses were displaced in the blaze. The tentative demolition date is Monday, July 23.
Regarding 65 Main Street, Board of Health member Mary Spinner said Shields has been repeatedly notified of sanitation violations on the property. "He will not take a certified letter. You can knock on the door and he won't answer. He was told to be at our meeting and he did not show up."
"I've received numerous, numerous complaints," said Spinner. "I think it's a disgusting sight as they come out of church on Sunday."
Maxant went on the attack. If the Board of Health is charged with "health, public safety and the environment," then "can you explain how appearance is within your purview?"
"Look at all the trash bags all over the yard. It's a filthy mess," said Spinner. "If that doesn't bother you, it bothers me and other residents in town."
Selectman Chairman Jim Fay intervened, "I want to refocus on what I thought was going to be a report from the building commissioner. I didn't ask for anyone to be notified. I don't want to go any further afield than we've gone."
Fay tasked Vellante with providing the selectmen "a full report." Maxant challenged whether Fay represented "the will of the board. None of our employees have to respond to any one of us That's one person of five."
Selectman Pauline Conley said department heads are already expected to provide monthly reports to Pontbriand. "I think that's sufficient for our purposes." Fay agreed, "That's all I need."
Pontbriand asked whether the board wanted to act on Vellante's ongoing request that the 30-year old nuisance bylaw be strengthened to allow clean-up orders on private property.
Pontbriand said "many different folks" have charged the bylaw is "poorly written. We need to strengthen it and add some enforcement teeth to it." If the board so desired, a retooled bylaw could be presented to Fall Town Meeting this October.
Conley suggested Vellante, who also is the building inspector for Harvard and Devens, may have "access to other similar bylaws let's see what surrounding towns have." Conley suggested Maxant could work with Vellante on a draft "as this is Mr. Maxant's issue."
"I second what Pauline said," said selectman Christopher Hillman. The nuisance bylaw is "old" and lacks "teeth."
Maxant disagreed, stating the bylaw "very completely takes care of public safety concerns" like requiring the removal of snow on sidewalks. But Maxant opposed a mechanism to regulate the condition of private property.
"It's not a legitimate government function," said Maxant. "Some towns have that (but) I don't believe it's the right thing to do."
Vellante's been Ayer's building commissioner since 1993. Over the past 20 years Vellante said, "I don't think we've ever collected a fine" for non-compliance with the nuisance bylaw despite sending some 20 violation notices.
Neighbors often complain when trying to sell their property. But Vellante said a solution can take a year or more, or never get resolved. For example, a Jan.1 violation notice gives an owner 2 months to comply. A second notice on Mar. 1 provides another 60 days. "Then I'm into June."
A complaint filed in district court on June 1 will have a Sept. or Oct. hearing date before a court magistrate, who may give the property owner another 60-90 days to comply. In the winter, if an owner then complains of snow covering the debris, the court may granted another 90 day extension. "Meanwhile the junk car is still in yard."
Fay and Hillman offered to work with Vellante on a revised nuisance bylaw. Meanwhile, Conley said Maxant may be right in so far as stating "this may not be the proper vehicle."
"Just because you don't like that the neighbor hasn't mowed the lawn or taken trash to the dump" doesn't mean there should be police power on aesthetics, said Conley. "God forbid this is still a democracy called the United States of America."
Later in the meeting, selectman Gary Luca suggested that Ayer needs a full time building inspector. The Ayer building commissioner post is currently a part time position. "That can be a discussion we have down the road."
Spinner said Town Meeting approved a full time inspector in 2003, adding "the funding is there."
"I agree with Gary and this has nothing to do with Gabe," said Hillman. "The way the town's growing, we need someone on a full time basis." Hillman said it's "frustrating" to find that Vellante's office hours are only on Tuesday and Thursday morning. Hillman added, however, it's "not Gabe's fault" and suggested clerical assistance could remedy the situation.
Vellante's annual appointment, among others, was unanimously approved by the board.
At meeting's end, Hillman said he was pleased the board had a "productive meeting" despite disagreement "which I think is healthy."
"Frank and I disagreed last week and when we walked away from the table, Frank said 'don't take it personally," recalled Hillman. "And I appreciate that."
Maxant said he told Hillman as he's told others, "I say never apologize for being passionate."
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