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Hilltowns Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 16, 2005

R’ville moves towards town-wide reval

By Matt Cook

RENSSELAERVILLE — The town of Rensselaerville has taken the first step towards reassessing property values town-wide.

At the request of the town’s board of assessors, the town board voted last Thursday to hire a temporary full-time data collector to help the assessors gather the necessary information.

The board also voted to increase the pay of the assessor’s clerk to compensate her for data-entry duties.

"It’s kind of an aggressive plan we’re doing here, but I think we can," said Peter Hotaling, chair of the board of assessors. "We’re ready to start crunching numbers."

The last time there was a townwide revaluation was in 1998. Since then, assessments in Rensselaerville have dropped to 68 percent of real-property values, Hotaling said.

Town attorney Joseph Catalano said that New York requires towns to keep assessments at 100 percent, and recommends revaluation every five years.

The plan, Hotaling said, is to have the data collector visit each property in the town, confirm that each exists, note changes from the town’s existing records, and take digital pictures of each. This would take the months of July and August, Hotaling said.

After that, Hotaling said, the information recorded by the data collector would be entered into a database by the assessor’s clerk, Rachel Chase.

Chase would be paid $12.92 per hour for her work, and the data collector would be paid up to $13 per hour depending on experience, Hotaling said. The assessing department has been budgeted $28,000 this year to start the revaluation process.

After the data is entered, it can be processed by the Saber company, and the board of assessors can start holding hearings. The whole thing should be completed by May, 2006, in time for Grievance Day, Hotaling said.

The town board voted for the new position and the pay raise unanimously, though two of the five board members, Gary Chase and Myra Dorman, were absent.

"It puts us at a disadvantage with other towns on school taxes," said Councilman Edward Ryder on the town’s 68-percent assessments.

In response to a resident’s question later in the meeting, Ryder and Catalano said that reassessment will not cause anyone to pay higher town taxes, because the value of every property in town will be brought up by an equal percentage.

Pizzigati’s complaint

In other business at the June 9 meeting, the Rensselaerville Town Board heard a complaint from resident Arthur Pizzigati.

Pizzigati said he has owned property in Rensselaerville since 1969 and lived in the town since 1971. Each year, he said, he has asked to be on the planning board or zoning board, and each time he was denied.

"Unless something is done soon, I’m going to blow it wide open," Pizzigati said.

The town filled a vacancy in the zoning board last month, appointing James Watkins to take the place of Valerie Greenberg who resigned for personal reasons.

Pizzigati asked the town board for a list of every planning and zoning board member since he has lived in the town, how long each has been on the board, and their qualifications.

Town Supervisor J. Robert Lansing said the town would provide such a list.

Ryder suggested Pizzigati speak to the zoning and planning boards because the town board makes appointments based on recommendations.

The town board appointed Watkins on the recommendation of planning board chairman William Whitbeck.

Bunzey speaks out against Stewart’s shop next door in Berne

By Matt Cook

BERNE—If a Stewart’s gas station and convenience store is built in Berne, few people will be as directly affected as Kenneth Bunzey. Bunzey and his family live at 1713 Helderberg Trail in Berne, right next to the proposed Stewart’s site.

On a hot afternoon this week, Mr. Bunzey proudly showed off his home. The old Victorian building has been in his family for generations, he said. He bought it from his grandfather in 1975.

If the Stewart’s were built according to the Saratoga County-based company’s application to the planning board, Bunzey said, the tranquillity of his house’s location would be destroyed by the noises of cars in the parking lot, loud compressors, and Dumpsters being filled and carted away.

"If I wanted to be next to a Stewart’s, I would move to Albany," Bunzey said.

Bunzey blames some town officials for enticing Stewart’s into the hamlet.

"I’ve got my life invested in this town," Bunzey said. "I feel like my town leaders have let me down."

At a town board meeting last Wednesday, Bunzey spread out a map of the proposed site provided for him by Tom Lewis, who is in charge of the project for Stewart’s. He asked the board members to put themselves in his shoes.

On the map, he pointed out, the Stewart’s loading zone is about a foot away from his property. A 1,000-gallon gas tank is 100 feet away, Bunzey said.

From his yard this week, Bunzey showed The Enterprise that the land next to his house rises in a hill. Water running off that hill often ends up in his basement, he said. With the Stewart’s, Bunzey said, garbage and gasoline could be swept up in the run-off.

"My basement gets flooded as it is," Bunzey said.

Bunzey is a life-long Berne resident. He works as a special-education teacher and coach at Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School and has been the town justice for more than a decade.

"I don’t really go too far out of my realm," he said.

Still, Bunzey doesn’t think a convenience store would be a convenience at all in the hamlet.

"I’m not against business," Bunzey said. "But, I’ve lived here for 50 years and I’ve never been inconvenienced. I’ve never run out of gas."

Stewart’s plan to build

Stewart’s has been interested in erecting a store and gas station in the hamlet of Berne for the past few years. Initially, the company hoped to build at a site on Helderberg Trail across from the school, but, after a major change to the town’s zoning law earlier this year, Stewart’s was forced to look elsewhere, Lewis said.

Lewis told The Enterprise this spring that Stewart’s holds contracts to purchase two properties in Berne. One is a house at 1707 Helderberg Trail owned by Tom and Barbara Smith, and the other is a vacant lot next door owned by Richard and Naome Collier.

Because the new zoning regulations require gas pumps to be placed at the side of buildings, Stewart’s would have had to buy three properties at the location across from the school, Lewis said.

Currently, Stewart’s has applied to the planning board for permission to build.

Although planning board Chairman John Crosier did not return calls from The Enterprise this week, planning board member Michael Vincent said the board has yet to approve or disapprove the Stewart’s application. The planning board will discuss the application with Stewart’s and the public in Town Hall on Thursday, June 23, at 7:30, Vincent said.

Vincent would not comment on whether the plan Stewart’s has submitted fits the new zoning regulations. However, at the town board meeting last week, after Bunzey made his presentation, Councilman Mark Huth said the plan Bunzey was holding did not meet the regulations.

"They can’t build that," said Huth, who lives in the hamlet himself.

If the project is approved by the planning board, Vincent said, it would be passed onto the zoning board. According to the town’s zoning ordinance, a gas station and a convenience store must be approved by both boards.

Controversial store

Since it was first proposed, the possibility of a Stewart’s in the hamlet of Berne has angered some hamlet residents. There has been a steady vocal opposition to having a gas station in the hamlet at town board meetings for the past year as the board has pursued new zoning requirements.

A group was formed which hired a lawyer to oppose the new zoning. However, the group was unable to muster the needed 20 percent of signatures of zone residents to derail the plan.

Sometimes, the exchanges between residents and those on the board who voted for the rezoning have become so heated, that Supervisor Kevin Crosier has closed public comment at meetings. This happened last week, angering residents further.

"What’s the sense of attending a meeting and wasting your time if you can’t ask questions anyway" I don’t believe they listen anyway," said Joe Welsh in a letter to The Enterprise editor. Welsh is a resident and town employee who stormed out of last week’s meeting after Crosier said no more comments were allowed.

The state’s Open Meetings Law requires that meetings of elected boards be open to the public, but does not specify that the public must be allowed to speak.

The zoning changes passed 3 to 2, with Crosier, Huth, and Councilman Joseph Golden voting in favor.

The changes rezoned the hamlet from largely residential to two zones of traditional neighborhood mixed-use. The plan allows certain businesses in the hamlet, but with detailed restrictions intended to make buildings match the traditional nature of the hamlet.

According to the zoning ordinance, gas stations are only allowed in the traditional neighborhood mixed-use 2 zone, in the more sparsely-populated western half of the hamlet.

The previous zoning ordinance, passed in 1974 and revised in 1993, also allowed gas stations and convenience stores in the hamlet, in a small neighborhood commercial zone in the eastern half, at the intersection of routes 443 and 156.

"The problem that started this whole thing was that [the neighborhood commercial zone] was not in a great place for business," said Nan Stolzenburg, Berne’s planner and the chief architect of the rezoning.

The neighborhood commercial zone was located on a winding portion of road very close to the Fox Creek in the most densely-populated portion of the hamlet.

If Stewart’s, or any other business, had known about the neighborhood commercial zone, it could have built a gas station and convenience store there, Stolzenburg said. Though the new zoning still allows gas stations, but in a different part of the hamlet, the restrictions are much tighter than before, Stolzenburg said.

"There would have been fewer requirements. It would have been much less reviewed," she said.

But Stewart’s, apparently, didn’t know about the neighborhood commercial zone. Lewis told The Enterprise this week that the company waited to pursue property in Berne until after the rezoning, because it did not think the previous zoning would have allowed it anywhere in the hamlet. Stewart’s was not interested in building a store elsewhere in the town, away from the population center, Lewis said.

Controversial supervisor

Much of the criticism of hamlet residents has focused on Supervisor Crosier, who is completing his first four-year term in office.

Crosier has been accused of colluding with Stewart’s, pushing for rezoning specifically for the company.

Bunzey told the town board that Lewis told him Crosier and planning board chair John Crosier, the supervisor’s father, solicited Stewart’s to buy the Smith and Collier properties.

Crosier denied the accusations at last week’s meeting. He was not available for comment Wednesday.

Lewis has also denied that he was courted by the town.

"Not in my backyard"

The one thing people on both sides of this issue agree on is that the rezoning and the incoming Stewart’s are causing never-before-experienced tension in the hamlet.

"This is not good for the town," Bunzey said. "Neighbors are becoming enemies."

However, neither side will back down.

Whatever the final plans for Stewart’s looks like, Bunzey said, he does not want it next to his home.

Lewis said the company is willing to build a fence or put in landscaping, or both, to create a barrier between the store and Bunzey’s property.

"Anything short of not being there," Lewis said.

No compromise is acceptable to Bunzey. If the Stewart’s is built, he may even consider selling his family’s home and moving somewhere else, he said.

Bunzey wishes Stewart’s had considered a location on the edge of the hamlet.

"I realize the old cliché, ‘Not in my backyard. Not in my backyard,’ but right in the center of the town"" Bunzey said.

BKW budget passes by 63

By Matt Cook

BERNE—For the second year in a row, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District’s budget was approved on a second vote. This time, the margin was larger: 63 votes.

After a $17.6 million budget was defeated in May, a slightly scaled down version passed this Tuesday, 549 to 486. Although only one more person voted for the budget than in June, 79 fewer people voted against it.

"It certainly puts a positive light on the district, and we’ll be able to go into the next school year on a much lighter note," said Superintendent Steven Schrade.

BKW was one of only a few districts in the Capital Region and the only in Albany County with a budget defeat in May. If the budget had been rejected a second time, the district would have gone to a state-set capped budget. The budget that was approved was only $110,769 above the cap.

After the first defeat, the district cut the budget proposal by $50,000. Although he says the $50,000 was a factor, Schrade believes another reason for Tuesday’s victory came from Westerlo.

In February, the school board voted unanimously to close the Westerlo Elementary School for the 2005-06 school year. The district will save $100,894 with the school closed, and declining enrollment district-wide will allow for the students to be absorbed into the larger elementary school in Berne.

In May, some Westerlo residents, disappointed with the school closing, advocated voting down the budget.

"Some of the folks in Westerlo came to the polls this time to vote ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’" Schrade said.

Voters wanting to express their unhappiness over the closing of the Westerlo Elementary school may have felt their message was sent with the first vote and that now it’s time to put the issue in the past, Schrade said.

The budget is an increase of 5.9 percent over this year’s. It carries a 4.9-percent tax-levy increase. The sate-capped budget would have had a 4.3-percent tax-levy increase.

Though tax rates depend on town-set assessments and state-set equalization rates, Schrade has said the tax rate increase will average between 4 and 4.5 percent, depending on the town.

Last year, a $16.6 million budget failed in the first vote by 32. A month later, it passed by 11. After two years of winning in the revote, Schrade said the district will try to continue to keep tax hikes down.

"Fortunately, there are no more school buildings that will be closed," Schrade said.

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