AYER -- Building Commissioner Gabe Vellante provided selectmen with an update Tuesday night on so-called "nuisance" properties that are on the town's radar for cleanup.
Regarding the two Ayer tenements owned by landlord Hugh Ernisse, Vellante said the cleanups of 14 Williams St. and 128 Washington St. are "in limbo" since "the owner's in jail." Ernisse has been incarcerated at MCI-Concord since his June 13 arrest by Ayer Police at Ayer District Court on charges of 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. There's no dumpster on site at either residence, as Ernisse agreed to do by the end of June, according to Vellante's June 6 memo to the board.
Neighbors have complained that the Ernisse yards are strewn with trash and other unsightly debris. Vellante's inspections reported likewise.
"If he doesn't meet commitments, we'll turn it over to counsel for prosecution," said Vellante.
Selectman Frank Maxant, a tenant at 14 Williams St., had earlier put Vellante and other town officials on notice that Vellante's inspection may not include the inspection of his rented room.
Progress was reported, however, at the home at 71 Sandy Pond Road, owned by Mark Velardi. Vellante said he's talked to Velardi and noted efforts to convert massive logs stored on the front lawn into cord wood. But
When Vellante reported on the state of affairs at 65 West Main St., a matter not contemplated in selectmen's prepared meeting packet, Maxant became upset. Maxant said the selectmen were breaching their own policy to ensure property owners are given notice their properties would be discussed in open session.
Maxant asked Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand if anyone had "dropped a dime" to inform the owner of 65 Main St. According to assessor's online records, the owner is William Shields. Maxant said the meeting agenda was released on Friday, July 13, and included no reference to 65 Main St.
Pontbriand answered that efforts had been made by the Board of Health to contact the owner but that he had failed to appear for a Monday board meeting to discuss his property. 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." Of grave concern is the amount of brush stacked on the property, which Vellante said, "with the dry weather, just a cigarette" could create a potential for a fire.
A cease-and-desist order was sent to the owner of a Harley Davidson sign posted on Route 2A. Vellante said the owner has informed him that he'll appeal the notice to the 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 advertisements on the grassy center at the Route 2A/110/111 rotary in Ayer. Vellante said historically the town has permitted nonprofit and noncommercial groups to place signs on the rotary island.
As far as the state of the burnt-out building at 63 Main St., Vellante said a demolition permit is "sitting on my desk." Vellante said the owners of the building need only to provide remediation reports on how they'll contain lead paint and asbestos during the tear-down of the building. "That was supposed to be in hand yesterday, but I haven't seen or heard from them."
The building sustained heavy damage during a five-alarm fire on June 18, displacing 10 tenants and two businesses. The tentative demolition date is Monday, July 23.
Regarding 65 Main St., 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," said Spinner. "It's a filthy mess. If that doesn't bother you, it bothers me and other residents in town."
Maxant challenged Spinner to state where in the sanitation code "do you find your authority."
Spinner advised Maxant to "read them."
"I have," answered Maxant.
Selectman Chairman Jim Fay stepped in. "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 chided Vellante for providing the selectmen copies of violation notices but not a "report," though the selectmen's meeting packet contained memos from Vellante dated June 6 and June 12 on his progress to date on the Ernisse and Velardi properties. "I'd like a full report," said Fay.
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 report monthly to the Town Administrator. "I think that's sufficient for our purposes."
"That's all I need," concurred Fay.
Pontbriand said the selectmen's office notifies property owners where possible as a rule. But Pontbriand also polled the board as to whether it wanted to take action on something Vellante flagged for the board months earlier, re-writing the current nuisance bylaw.
Pontbriand said "many different folks" have charged the current bylaw, which is some 30 years old, is "poorly written. We need to strengthen it and add some enforcement teeth to it." But the selectmen are the policy makers, Pontbriand noted. It's tight, but a retooled bylaw could have a hearing and go before Town Meeting this October if the board desired.
Conley suggested Vellante, who also serves as 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, which has been construed by several people to apply to public and private ways but not private property, is "old" and does not have any "teeth."
Maxant disagreed, stating the nuisance bylaw "very completely takes care of public-safety concerns" like snow on sidewalks. But Maxant opposed creating a mechanism for trying to regulate aesthetics. "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, "I don't think we've ever collected a fine" for noncompliance with the bylaw, though he's sent upwards of 20 violation notices.
Often he's called when a person is trying to sell their property after allowing their neighbor's property to fester for years. But the solution is slow to nonexistent. For example, a Jan. 1 violation notice gives an owner two months to comply. A second notice on March 1 provides another 60 days. "Then I'm into June."
A complaint filed on June 1 will have a September or October hearing before a court magistrate, who may give the property owner another 60 to 90 days to comply. In the winter, an owner then complains of snow cover at which point they may be 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, but 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 over aesthetics. "God forbid, this is still a democracy called the United States of America."
Later in the meeting when the board considered annual appointments, selectman Gary Luca suggested that Ayer has grown to need a full-time building inspector. Vellante currently works part time. "That can be a discussion we have down the road."
Luca said Town Meeting approved creating a full-time building inspector before. Spinner said it was approved in 2003 and "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" or Vellante needs clerical assistance. 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."
Vellante was part of a slate of annual appointments 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."