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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, December 28, 2006


Berne in 2006
Hot spot for growth: New transfer station, plans for library, senior complex

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The shape of Berne is changing.

At the beginning of the year, the western side of the Berne hamlet was a hot spot for growth; it will soon be home to the Hilltown senior center, and the Berne Library is in the process of relocating to Berne Town Park.

The new transfer station, designed by Joel Willsey, was officially opened in January, and the Hilltown Family Center was also opened in January.

Berne lost a community legend, when Morris Willsey, a long-time farmer and mechanic, died last month.

Supervisor Kevin Crosier, called "an optimistic person" by Councilman Joseph Golden, continued to push for change this year. Some of his ideas were met with community support and enthusiasm, others were not.

The merger

The town’s most controversial issue — merging the town’s highway department with Albany County — surfaced in June and was revisited throughout the remainder of the year.

Crosier, committed to reducing taxes, along with Highway Superintendent Ray Storm, pushed for the merger. The town has a small population and not many residents to support miles of roads; services are being duplicated by the two departments, Crosier said repeatedly.

Crosier promised no one would lose their jobs.

The plan, developed after the first Inter-municipal Cooperation Forum, was met with widespread resistance from highway workers and residents, many concerned the merger would result in a loss of community control and poorer service.

The merger with the county would be the first in the state, according to Jeffrey Haber, executive director of the Association of Towns.

A report put together by the town and county outlined over $600,000 in expected savings and service improvements for Berne.

The seven current highway workers opposed consolidation and said the merger would result in town roads becoming a lower priority, should a merger go through.

In August, highway workers, county officials, and the town board met at the East Berne firehouse, where highway workers questioned officials. Prior to the meeting, highway workers gave a list of 49 questions to Crosier, but, after they received answers, the workers still had questions. Joe Welsh, a highway worker, read from the list of questions and other highway workers were skeptical about estimates, savings, and guarantees. Officials repeatedly said no one would lose their jobs and that the merger would result in better services.

Golden said he thought a draft agreement would have to be made before any conclusions could be drawn about the merger’s effects.

"We’re working on it," said Michael Franchini, the county commissioner of public works.

To date, no documentation has been presented to the employees or the town board.

In October, town residents spoke against the merger, many echoing resident Dave Smith’s sentiment: "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

Crosier made a motion for the town to apply for grant money totaling $575,500 that could have been used with the county. Crosier said the town could turn down the grant if it decided against consolidation.

No board member seconded his motion.

"What’s the worst-case scenario" You get it and you turn it down," Crosier said.

Both Golden and Councilman James Hamilton have called the merger "a takeover" by Albany County. Both have written letters to the Enterprise editor; Golden said changes in government take time, and Hamilton said inter-municipal sharing of roadwork already takes place.

Hamilton favors sharing services with neighboring towns rather than merging the two departments.

In November, the town board, in a budget workshop, contended with a 28-percent tax increase, cutting it to 20 percent, and approved the budget, with Crosier opposing it.

At the town board’s December meeting, the majority of those in the gallery asked the board to reconsider the merger, citing the tax increase. Residents will pay $4.71 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2007.

Crosier told The Enterprise this week, "We do have a draft agreement we’re working on."

The library

Since it was founded in 1962, the library has had to squeeze into tight spaces in Berne: first the Grange Hall, then in a tiny building perched precariously at the edge of the Fox Creek, and, most recently, in the crowded Berne Town Hall.

In late February, the library board and the town board agreed to a tentative plan to move the library to a yet-to-be-built home at the Berne Town Park.

"We think it’s great," said library board President Jim O’Shea of the plan. "It’s been a long time coming."

The library, with 800 square feet in the town hall, doesn’t have enough space to house the ever-increasing collection and the patrons’ desire for more computers and more study space, library supporters said. The library staff looked for about two years, but, O’Shea said, their search was unsuccessful.

"We actually found absolutely nothing," he said.

The library board’s criteria for property was strict; it had to be along one of the town’s cable lines for high-speed Internet access, and it had to be on a main road in a population center.

The location at town park, located on Route 443, at the west end of the hamlet, fulfills the criteria.

The biggest advantage of the park, said Crosier, is that the town already owns the property. Since the Berne Library, as a free library, has no taxing power, it relies heavily on the town to meet its budget.

Also, Crosier said, the town began digging a well at the park for new bathrooms.

"A lot of the infrastructure is already there," he said.

Town hall offices are as crunched as the library. The town needs more room to conduct its business, especially the court, Crosier said. With the library leaving, the town could expand into vacated space.

"We really want to get the townspeople behind this," O’Shea said.

The library board had raised $7,000 for the project by the end of March, and the town set aside $50,000 for the library from the sale of the old fire station across the street from the town hall.

In October, the town board voted unanimously to commit an additional $50,000 to the library project in a capital fund and to officially designate the 300-by-300 foot parcel in the town park.

Joel Willsey, a Berne resident who redesigned the town’s transfer station to match the historic buildings in the hamlet, worked on some sketches for the new library.

"We’re going to give it the same rural style," Crosier said in February. "I’m sure it will look like an old historic house."

"A library is an important part of a community just like a firehouse is," he said. "I think it’s important for the kids to have that."

The senior center

In March and October, developer Jeff Thomas presented his plans for the Berne senior center.

Long wanted by aging residents, the center will be located on 14 acres near the hamlet. Finding the site, on Canaday Hill Road, ended a two-year search. It is next to the town park and across the street from the fire station.

"It’s an ideal site," Thomas said. "It’s a natural extension of the hamlet."

A group of Hilltowners, led by Linda Carman and Michael Vincent, pushed for senior housing in the area for over five years, saying there’s no place for seniors to live if they want to stay on the Hill and give up the hassle and expense of owning a house.

Carman contacted Thomas after reading about his proposed senior housing project just outside of Altamont in The Enterprise. Thomas then agreed to build a complex in the Hilltowns.

The Canaday Road site was the only one he found that was near a hamlet and available, Thomas said.

"It’s probably as good as we’re going to get, because we’ve got access to the sewer district," Vincent said.

Thomas formed a focus group of seniors to advise him on the project.

"We went around town looking for places. This was probably number-two on our list," Carman said. "Number-one wasn’t available."

Monthly rental fees for the 96 units in the Helderberg Retirement Community are expected to range from $500 to $600 for a one-bedroom apartment up to $890 for a two-bedroom. The "no frills" complex, said Thomas, will be handicapped-accessible but designed for independent living; it will not offer services such as nurses and meal preparation. Thomas is hoping to draw residents from all four Helderberg Hilltowns.

Both Carman and Vincent said in March that they’re glad the project is finally moving forward after so many years of effort.

"I just hope that this works out and my seniors can get where they want to be, and this is where they want to be," Carman said.

Morris Willsey

Morris Willsey, a farmer and mechanic, died in November at the age of 79.

"He was a legend on the Hill," Priscilla Schaap, his daughter, said.

Mr. Willsey farmed the Helderberg land where he grew up and watched it progress from the days of horse-drawn plows.

"As a man born in the summer of 1927, I have many happy memories of farming a 140-acre farm in Albany County in the Town of Berne, New York," he wrote in a memoir.

Willsey, Schaap said, was an engine enthusiast and a family man.

"His greatest hobby was engines — anything to do with engines," she said. "As he got older, it was making his family happy."

Willsey’s memoir, "The Past Not Forgotten," recalls his farming experience — his round dairy barn constructed by his father and grandfather, his cow stable, his dairy herd of Brown Swiss cows, changes he saw throughout the years in milking methods, his creek nearby, as well as the impact new technology and electricity had on his farm.

"Our dairy barn was a round barn, 60 feet across and 60 feet high, built in 1912 by my father and grandfather. The barn was five years in the planning. The sill and plates were sawed round on a tablesaw, the studding and rafters were precut"The new was built of concrete for foundation and the floor which was mixed by hand using creek gravel. The same year the barn was filled with hay," he wrote.

Willsey’s round barn was included in Barns in the U.S.A. by Wilson Wells, published in 1976. That same year, the barn burned.

"As the life of the barn ended August, 1976, when an arsonist set fire to the barn, totaled, destroyed, lost three Model A Fords, a 1930 Chevrolet pickup, 14 antique one-cylinder engines, and a $10,000 shop," he wrote.

"Farming on a 140-acre was rather simple — hard work and long hours," Willsey wrote conclusively.

Willsey’s round barn is featured on the Berne Historical Society’s Christmas ornament this year.


Knox in 2006
Testing the limits in harnessing wind energy, regulating dirt-bike noise

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — In a hold-the-line budget year, Knox continually pushed the limits.

Discussions centering around the Helderberg community-owned wind project garnered both resident enthusiasm and resistance.

Neighbors of dirt-bike enthusiasts were pushed too far when noise at their properties exceeded their patience.

And a woman, pushing the age limits, continued to provide food for the needy by farming her family’s land.

Wind project

"If we’re going to be serious about wind power, we need to start looking at this thing and decide what we’re going to start doing about it," said planning board chairman Robert Price in March.

Price told the board that the Hilltown Community Wind Project selected a site in Knox to erect a meteorological station to measure the wind. The tower’s height of 50 meters, Price said, is taller than the town’s zoning allows, and will probably require a variance.

With funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the community wind project, also known as the Helderberg Wind Forum, is developing a model for a small, community-owned wind farm in the Hilltowns, which would be the first of its kind in the state. Though the model will only be theoretical, the project’s leaders hope a local community will follow through on the plan.

In October, a meteorological tower was completed on the Middle Road property of Russ and Amy Pokorny in Knox. The site was chosen from a pool of nine possible sites for its accessibility to power lines, altitude, and the willingness of the owners, among other reasons, said Kathleen Moore, a consulting meteorologist.

For a minimum of a year, the tower is to measure wind speed and direction at two heights, allowing the forum to gauge the feasibility of generating electricity there.

"You need that in order to do an energy-yield analysis," Moore said.

The tower was erected by Sustainable Energy Developments, Inc., the company of Loren Pruskowski, another project leader.

The other project leaders are Albany County Legislator Alexander "Sandy" Gordon and Hudson Valley Community College Professor Daniel Capuano.

Price was optimistic about wind energy. Power companies are clamoring to buy it, he said, at high prices. And, a municipality selling electricity isn’t unheard of; Green Island has been successfully marketing its hydraulic power for years, he said.

However, the initial costs are huge. A single wind turbine costs about $2 million, Price said.

Because of the costs involved, Knox Supervisor Michael Hammond was skeptical about the town’s entering the energy business.

"It will be very controversial. There’s no doubt about it," Hammond said. "I don’t know how much stomach the people of a town would have for a project like this."

Hammond pointed out that the town board takes two or three meetings just to decide on a $100,000 highway truck.

Price said the Helderberg Wind Forum has yet to determine how a community-owned wind farm would buy turbines. It’s a seller’s market for turbines now, Price said, and manufacturers aren’t interested in selling small quantities.

From the ground to the tip of an upright blade, a wind turbine is about 400 feet tall, Price said. The town should prepare, he said, because, even if the community project fails, commercial developers may soon come.

This month, Price reported to the town board that the average wind speed for October was 17 miles-per-hour. Price was encouraged by the initial data.

The lost covenant

The bucolic landscape stretching along the Berne-Altamont Road was the center of a development debate again in July.

"This story started exactly 20 years ago this year," Elizabeth Walk told The Enterprise. The land, known as the Walk property, once a 200-acre farm that flanked Route 156, has been parceled off over the last 20 years.

Frank Muia, of 1451 Berne-Altamont Road, lives on a 9.81-acre plot of land that had been part of that farm. He applied for a minor subdivision in the spring and got approval from the Knox Planning Board on June 8 to divide the land into three plots of roughly three acres each.

But on July 13, the planning board rescinded its approval in a unanimous vote, citing new facts.

"It’s not new evidence," Muia told The Enterprise. "It’s 15-year-old evidence."

The land that Muia lives on is under a restrictive covenant that reads, in part, "There shall be no further subdivision of any lot or parcel of land." This covenant was placed on the map of the subdivision filed in 1992 by Elizabeth Walk and was kept in the Knox Town Hall; planning board members said that they didn’t have the documents before giving approval.

"Is that something we should have had beforehand"" asked planning board member Brett Pulliam at the July 13 meeting.

"Yes," answered Price.

"Why didn’t we have it"" asked Pullian.

"It wasn’t in the file," replied Price.

The Enterprise found the map with the covenant written on it in a file housed in the building inspector’s office in the Knox Town Hall.

Price and Daniel Driscoll, both long-time planning board members, said that overlooking covenants isn’t a common problem.

"It certainly hasn’t happened while I’ve been on the board," said Price.

The board became aware of its oversight when Joseph and Sharon Zewert, who live on a neighboring plot to Muia’s, brought up the covenant. The couple filed an Article 78, a suit that allows citizens to challenge government actions, on July 5.

The Zewerts said that the reason they bought the property was because of the covenant. "I moved out here so I could be one with the land," said Mr. Zewert, who left Clifton Park for the Helderbergs two years ago.

Muia said that he didn’t know about the covenant. "I bought this property to subdivide," he said.

Muia, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker Prime Properties, said that he had planned to subdivide his property so that there would be three plots of about three acres each; he would build two houses, one each for his parents and in-laws.

"I have an approved subdivision," said Muia. "I’m going to go ahead with it."

Although the planning board initially approved the plan, Walk told The Enterprise that there isn’t enough room on the site to accommodate it. Between protecting already-existing wells from contamination from the two new septic tanks, keeping out of the 100-foot buffer zone along a creek that feeds into the Watervliet Reservoir, and steering clear of a portion of the Tennessee Gas pipeline that runs through the property, she said that she doesn’t think there’s sufficient space for two more houses.

"Nobody wants to drill into the gas pipeline," she said. "We’d all be gone."

"I’m glad that the neighbor brought it to our attention," said Driscoll, who apologized for the mistake.

"The people who are sitting on the board that gave me the subdivision," said Muia, "are the ones who were sitting on the board when they made Betty Walk put the covenant on."

Noise

Following complaints from some residents last fall about the noise from dirt bikes, the town board had the planning board look into changing the zoning ordinance to address the problem. In April, the town attorney, John Dorfman, presented a draft that would include regulation of motorcycles as part of the town’s zoning ordinances.

The law passed by a vote of 4 to 1 with Councilman Joseph Best dissenting. "That’s how we’re going to vote, individually, not as a group," said Best during discussion before the vote about party politics entering into the equation. Best is one of two Republicans on the board; the other three are Democrats.

The law now requires that all motorcycles have a muffler attached when used on both public and private lands. It defines a motorcycle as "every motor vehicle, including a motocross bike, having a seat or saddle for the use of the rider and designated to travel on not more than three wheels in contact with the ground, but excluding a tractor."

The law also makes it illegal to build a motorcycle racetrack on private property in any zoning district other than business, which would require a special-use permit.

Penalties for a first offense include a fine up to $250 and up to 15 days in jail. The motorcycle can be confiscated as a penalty for a second offense.

"This will not affect 99 percent of ATV and motorcycle use," said Councilman Nicholas Viscio. "We’re a residential area and we have to be considerate."

"If this went on," Hammond said of unregulated motorcycle noise, "we would be known as the weakest link in the Capital District."

Dedicated woman

Pauline Williman was born on her family’s Ketchum Road farm 80 years ago, and has worked and maintained the farmland for the past 65 years. In 1997, she put the land into a trust and named it the Patroon Land Foundation. The farmland was once part of the original Van Rensselaer patroonship under Dutch Colonial rule.

In 1988, Williman’s mother died, and the estate was settled in 1991. Following her mother’s death, Williman, through observing what others had done to protect their land and use their resources, discovered what she wanted to do.

"I went to Ireland, and was there 10 days," she said. "In the paper, the Irish Times, there was a job description of an educational farm trust"A short time after that, I cut clippings from the paper, sent them to my attorney, and said, ‘Go to work.’"

In the mid-1990’s, Williman, while perusing her church’s bulletin, also discovered that a church in Michigan leased its land and raised $10,000 each year for its congregation.

It took 13 years of procedures to form her not-for-profit organization, but Williman prevailed.

When she approached the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York with the idea of using her farmland as a source for their mission, Executive Director Mark Quandt, was responsive.

"What do you do when someone who’s brash enough walks into the food bank, and says, ‘I want to grow corn and squash for you"’" Williman said. "Most people would have thrown me out on my ear, but Mark didn’t, and it’s a good thing."

After the Patroon Land Foundation was formed in 2001, Williman, with the help of volunteers — students, at-risk groups, parents, and residents of the surrounding area — planted and harvested the fields to supply the regional food bank.

The bank, which serves over 1,000 charitable agencies in 23 counties, distributed over 19.2 million pounds of food in 2005.

This spring, Williman and the food bank re-evaluated its commitment to the project and made some changes in order to carry out their mission.

"This is the first year we concentrated on having a larger variety," Quandt said of the produce. "We wanted it managed so that [the foundation] will have a future and will continue to be a growing source for the people we serve." He added, "We could have continued as we were, but we had to look at what we really wanted to accomplish."

In 2005, Williman’s efforts yielded 10,000 pounds of produce; corn, squash, and pumpkins were the main crops.

This spring, Williman, who had provided the funding for the plants in past years, was provided with 5,000 plants from the food bank.

"We planted broccoli, peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, eggplant, melons, beans, carrots, and beets," Williman said. She added, "Everything was planted at different times"There is a steady harvest to be picked up three times a week."

"When we started out, we only did corn and squash," Williman said.

In addition to planting additional crops, an expert was hired by the food bank to oversee the harvesting, packing, and loading of crops, and for general upkeep of the farmland.

"What we wanted to do, was hire a farmer to oversee the project on a daily basis," said Tracey Martin, the associate director of the food bank.

In May, the food bank hired Mark Weinheimer to oversee the project.

Weinheimer, who began farming as a young man, has farmed throughout his life. He lives in Brahmans Corners (Schenectady County), spends a considerable amount of time in the field, 50 to 55 hours each week, and makes the commute nearly every day.

"He took the weekend off," Williman said. "That shocked me."

As well as providing the project with a large assortment of crops and the services of a professional to oversee the farmland, the Regional Food Bank also purchased an electric car to transport harvested crops from the field to the food bank’s vans, which carry the produce to its headquarters in Latham.

"It’s been a great help," Williman said of the electric car.

Martin and Quandt both see the Patroon Land Foundation as an outstanding source of food for the agencies they supply. The quality of the crops harvested from Williman’s farm, they said, is superior to many other contributions they receive.

"A lot of other farms donate what they deem not acceptable," Martin said. She added, "A lot of the produce we get is flawed in some way. It’s not inedible. It’s perfectly good. It just doesn’t look beautiful on the shelf in a store. Some might have been damaged by hail or have a blemish or two, but it’s perfectly good for eating."

"It’s nutritious, very high-quality, and there’s a good variety of it. We don’t often get a good variety."

The crops which were planted this spring, Martin said, will provide the food bank with a continuous flow of food.

On June 6, National Hunger Awareness Day, students from Berne-Knox-Westerlo came to the farm, and, Williman said, did an exemplary job. BKW students helped out at the farm again in November.

"No one ever left my parents’ home hungry," Williman said.


Rensselaerville in 2006
Packed halls, split votes, and a Field of Dreams

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Residents packed the town hall almost every month as a town board, split along party lines, was divided on nearly every issue. But townspeople came together at times — once to build a baseball field in Preston Hollow, and again, when one of its residents needed help.

The baseball field, called "The Field of Dreams" by locals, was spearheaded by volunteers. Bob Bolte, Steve Wood, Ken Cooke and many other citizens put in new dirt, backstops, bleachers, and a sound system – all paid for with private funds.

"A lot of people have said it’s the best little league field in Albany County," said Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg; baseball is the "love of his life," he told The Enterprise this week.

After her home was flooded by torrential June rains, Sheila Whiteford contacted many government agencies, which failed to act, so Whiteford sought the town’s help. Supervisor Nickelsberg, Wood, Bolte, and Ralph Berwegan, came to her aid — Nickelsberg contacting the Department of Environmental Conservation and Wood, Bolte, and Berwegen using their own equipment to redirect the stream that had escaped it banks.

A resident in need

Volunteers came to Sheila Whiteford’s rescue in August. Whiteford’s home, located near Potter Hollow Creek, had been flooded four times since 1997; she made multiple phone calls and had sent letters and e-mails to several government agencies and organizations, asking for help.

Bolte, Wood, and Ralph Borwegen, Rensselaerville area residents, came to Whiteford’s aid with a permit issued by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and two bulldozers. Moving a considerable amount of dirt, the volunteers redirected the stream’s path, which had shifted in recent years and flooded after heavy June rains.

"This whole thing had to start and be blessed by the DEC," Nicklesberg told The Enterprise. He had stated his concerns earlier about the flooding creek washing out Route 81, the evacuation route recently posted by the state.

The permit, issued by the DEC on Aug. 21, was to "restore the stream to its pre-flood conditions."

"Nicklesberg," Bolte said, "was certainly instrumental" throughout the process of obtaining the permit — including getting in touch with the proper people, obtaining signatures from Whiteford’s neighbors, and having DEC inspectors evaluate the work site.

"The work took about a day and a half," Bolte said. "The stream, which had moved over 75 to 80 feet in June, made a bend, and was cutting a chunk out of Route 81."

The work was done at no public cost. Nicklesberg had estimated earlier that it would cost $50,000 to $100,000 to return Potter Creek to its original cost.

While trying to find relief, Whiteford’s frustration mounted.

"Over a month ago, I sent a letter, an application, and pictures to the Department of Labor. I haven’t heard back from them. Rural Housing wouldn’t help, because my home is in a flood zone"Because we’re in Albany County, we’re ignored," Whiteford said in September.

She was referring to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) not designating Albany County for aid after the June flooding; neighboring Schoharie County was designated.

She told The Enterprise there was mud throughout her house and said, "Everything is ruined."

Whiteford rebuilt her house in 1974 after it was destroyed by fire. Flooding didn’t occur, she said, until 20 years later. The house was flooded four times since 1997.

She had just finished paying out-of-pocket for tens of thousands of dollars in repairs from the last flood when June rains caused more flooding. The estimate for mud-removal alone was $4,000, she said.

"These guys did it for nothing," Whiteford said of Bolte, Wood, and Borwegen.

Bolte, as well as providing one of the bulldozers, was also instrumental in obtaining the necessary signatures from Whiteford’s neighbors. Before any work began, and before the DEC could grant the permit, Bolte had to have permission from surrounding residents.

Bolte said he saw a great deal of understanding and generosity from Whiteford’s neighbors throughout the process to obtain the permit and during the day-and-a-half project.

"When we were working, people from Potter Hollow and Preston Hollow came up to us and gave us money. I didn’t want the money," he said. "If people would help people, this would be a better place," he said.

The money, Bolte said, was given to Whiteford.

Nicklesberg said he hadn’t before seen a case of a homeowner having such extensive flood damage and said the process of helping out a member of the community was "gratifying."

In September, at the town board meeting, Whiteford commended Bolte and Wood and presented them with plaques for their efforts.

"I don’t have the words to describe how I feel about you guys"You’re the best," Whiteford said. "I salute you."

First year as supervisor

After running on a tax-reducing campaign, Nickelsberg was sworn into office on Jan. 1.

In his first town board meeting as supervisor, Nickelsberg made changes right away.

For years, the town used Kevin Catalano, a Rensselaerville resident. Nickelsberg wanted to use a firm from outside the town — Tabner, Ryan, and Keniry of Albany — and partner William Ryan attended nearly every town board meeting.

The change, which Nickelsberg said saved the town nearly $1,000, was not approved by the board’s two Democrats — Gary Chase and Sherri Pine. The vote was carried by the Republican majority — Nickelsberg, Myra Dorman, and Robert Lansing.

Nickelsberg said the change would prevent any conflicts of interest. Assessor Jeff Pine, husband of Councilwoman Pine, didn’t agree with the change, saying the change resulted in the town’s losing a good man in Catalano.

Nickelsberg also changed the time for town board meetings from 8 to 7 p.m., saying the change would help with residents’ schedules, and prevent older residents from having to brave the later time of night.

"We really had a great year. We’re running the town like a business for the first time. We reduced our taxes in a very tough environment," Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week. Nickelsberg formerly worked on Wall Street; the supervisor’s post was his first elected job.

"It’s been very difficult at times, and there’s been some resistance along the way," he said of his first year in office.

Nickelsberg listed the town’s accomplishments — eliminating conflict of interest, full accountability of town workers and officials, and doubling the town’s surplus.

"We have had total transparency, for better or for worse," he said. Nickelsberg cited the town’s website, which has town-board minutes, updates from the land-use committee, and the town’s office hours and contact information.

In 2007, he said, the town will look to create a bicycle lane path, connecting the town’s five hamlets; work on consolidation and collaboration; and look to send its young people to the Young Men’s Christian Association in Bethlehem.

"We’re looking at everything," Nickelsberg said.

"What do we have to do to get people to stay here"" he asked, adding that the town’s goal is for "greater efficiency and greater services."

Moratorium

In late April, the town board narrowly passed a one-year moratorium on new major subdivisions in the town.

Split along party lines, Republicans Nickelsberg, Dorman and Lansing voted for the moratorium, while Democrats Pine and Chase voted against it.

The moratorium, lasting one year, halts subdivisions of over three lots in the town. A previous draft called for a stop to developments along ridge lines and non-residential developments over 2,000 square feet, but the town board changed those requirements after it met with harsh criticism from residents.

"We haven’t revisited the comprehensive plan since 1992, which is a long way ago," Nickelsberg said.

Though some residents, particularly large landowners, vocally opposed the moratorium, Nickelsberg said he believed the majority favored it.

"At the end of the day, the majority has to rule," he said.

Chase told The Enterprise he voted against the moratorium because petitions and comments at meetings indicated to him that more people in the town were against the moratorium than for it.

Moratoriums, Chase said, should be enacted only when there is intense pressure for development in a town, and he did not believe that pressure existed.

To aid the planning board in its work, the town formed a comprehensive-plan committee of residents from each part of town, large and small landowners, and local business people.

In August, a townwide survey was sent out to residents, which nearly 35 percent returned. The surveys revealed the community’s desire to stay rural and protect its open spaces. Visioning workshops were held at the three firehouses, and 104 residents attended.

Last month, Tom Mikulka, a volunteer on the land-use committee, updated residents and the board of its progress.

"We’ve taken your ideas and formulated a vision," he said. Mikulka said that the meetings, held on Tuesday evenings, are open to the public.

"No one ever comes," Mikulka said of the weekly meetings. Mikulka invited anyone to come, and added that the committee is concerned that "all their work will be for naught."

Mikulka said that no board members attend the meetings. Becky Lewis, also on the land-use committee, corrected him, and said that Nickelsberg has been to a few.

At its December meeting, the land-use committee reported that it was on schedule, and was expected to complete its work by Dec. 21.

Cass escapee

A November escape from the Cass Residential Center re-awakened fear in Rensselaerville residents, and led to officials re-examining policies and procedures.

A 15-year-old Cass resident broke into the nearby home of Robert Johnston, destroyed property, and stole money and a vehicle.

The Albany County Sheriff’s Department and State Troopers pursued him. The fleeing youth made it to his home in Poughkeepsie (Dutchess County) before being turned in to authorities by his father the next day.

The incident was the seventh reported to authorities from the correctional facility in a two-year span. The facility is run by the state’s Office of Children and Family Services.

"I was pissed. There’s no question about it," Robert Johnston told The Enterprise.

The escape led to re-examination of procedures due to a "reverse 911 call" — a computerized county notification system that calls neighboring residents in emergencies. Many residents near Cass didn’t receive the call, telling them a youth had escaped. Others reported the inaccuracy of the message, which said that "a 15-year-old boy was last seen on Cheese Hill."

Albany County Sheriff James Campbell told The Enterprise that the system prints out a report of who is called, who received the reverse 911 call, and who did not.

According to the report, approximately 2,000 locations were in the database and supposed to be called the evening of the escape; the system reported 420 successful notifications.

Campbell added that some people were not home and some hung up. The system, he said, is capable of leaving messages on answering machines.

If a phone is busy, the emergency notification system calls the number once more.

"I will be the first to say it’s not a perfect system," Campbell said.

Campbell also said that the sheriff’s department hadn’t seen problems to this extent before, and that the system for issuing an emergency notice to neighbors has been in place for about three years.

"The message was an error on the part of my personnel," Campbell said.

The escape in November also prompted a woman who had been a kitchen worker at Camp Cass to action. The Enterprise is withholding her name because she is the victim of a sex crime.

The woman was raped in 2004 by resident Michael Elston. Elston then forced her at knife-point into her car; she escaped when he stopped to make a phone call, police have said.

This summer, she said, she circulated a petition that, she said, asks for more accountability at the facility, added locks, and a fence. On Nov. 15, she told The Enterprise, 30 people signed the petition that morning.

"Public safety is the first thing we need to worry about," Nickelsberg said at the December town board meeting. He said security at Camp Cass is "a joke."

Tim Kelso, director of Camp Cass, Nickelsberg said, will be at the January town board meeting to "tell us what he’s done."

Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week, "How do I allow neighbors to be at risk""Three of our citizens work there, but we can’t put our citizens at risk."

"We dodged a bullet this time," Nickelsberg said.


Westerlo in 2006
Debate on development, Flood Road permit, town attorney

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — In a year marked by development debate, the Westerlo Town Board began by debating a master plan. Councilman Ed Rash, citing fast development, proposed a quick fix.

Rash pushed for zoning changes in January, presenting a proposal, which he said he’d worked on for over 10 months. Learning from zoning in nearby towns, he called for changes in minimum lot size, from three to five acres for a single-family home, and from five to seven acres for a two-family home. Rash also proposed subdivisions not exceed 10 units.

In September, residents Helene Goldberger and Paul Baitsholts filed a suit, charging that the town’s preliminary prior approval for a 12-lot subdivision adjacent to their property.

Near the end of the year, a group of residents — Citizens Against the Re-Appointment of the Town Attorney — sent a letter to the Enterprise editor and presented a statement to the town board, saying the town attorney, Aline Galgay, runs meetings rather than board members, and, they said, her practice in Westerlo results in a conflict of interest. The town board acts as the planning board since the planning board was disbanded in the early 1990’s.

Galgay said the group’s criticism was in response to a special-use permit granted to DeGennaro Fuel Service on Flood Road.

The town board backed Galgay, with each board member and long-time town clerk, Gertrude Smith, praising Galgay for her expertise on legal matters and on Westerlo’s municipal water district, officially completed this year.

DeGennaro debate

Despite protests from residents who packed town hall in September, the planning board granted a permit that allowed the DeGennaro family to put its fuel service business on Flood Road.

Before unanimously granting the special-use permit, residents and the town board members discussed the conditions and limitations of the town’s road system, the possible hazards which could result from issuing the permit, and the importance of retaining the town’s rural character.

DeGennaro Fuel Service, which is based in Earlton, is a heating oil company and roll-off trash container business, DeGennaro told The Enterprise.

The board restricted the permit to Guy DeGennaro, his wife, Patty, and their children; the permit allows 2 percent, which is 4.04 acres of the 202-acre parcel, to be used for commercial purposes. The board also restricted the DeGennaros to keep the commercial land contiguous.

"You can’t split it up, and put a quarter acre here and a quarter acre there," said Galgay.

The board also granted the permit on the condition that the company’s fuel containers and equipment remain hidden behind buildings or fences, and allowed the DeGennaros one bulk tank capable of storing 1,000 gallons for vehicle refueling purposes.

"The applicant is approved by the DOT," said Rash of the state’s Department of Transportation. "To deny him, we have to have a reason"I don’t think we have a good enough reason."

Sheila McGrath, who lives on Flood Road near the intersection of Route 11, requested the board not grant the permit until Flood Road is widened. McGrath also posed concerns about damages that could occur to the road if it is traveled by more vehicles.

McGrath had said at earlier board meetings that visibility is poor along Flood Road.

"The corners there are blind," she said.

Residents also stated their concerns about the nine-foot width of school buses, and the eight-foot width of heavy-duty commercial vehicles the DeGennaros have in their fleet. They were concerned there wouldn’t be enough room for such vehicles to pass each other on the road.

Highway workers, when asked by the board, said they hadn’t had problems with their trucks sharing the road with buses.

Planning challenged

Also in September, a couple sued the town over a proposed development and challenged the town board’s right to act as a planning board.

The town board dissolved the planning board in the early 1990’s after developers complained about the length of time and requirements to get approval for projects. Town board members have since assumed planning-board duties.

Baitsholts and his wife, Goldberger, are contesting the planning board’s decision in August to grant approval for a 12-lot residential development located adjacent to their properties.

The project, known as Emerald Meadows, is located along Stewart Road, adjacent to the towns of Berne and Rensselaerville. Properties of New York (PONY), owned by Salvatore Santonastaso (known as Sal Santo), Debra Levatino, and Elliott Fischman, wants to develop the 167-acre agricultural property. The planning board gave preliminary prior approval to the project in August.

Baitsholts and Goldberger filed an Article 78 petition, which allows citizens to challenge their government, in September. They claim the board neglected to address significant adverse environmental impacts to storm-water runoff, endangered plant species, and the condition of Stewart Road before awarding PONY preliminary prior approval for the project.

Roland Tozer, who chaired the planning board when it was dissolved, told The Enterprise in December that he thought the planning board, which was serving at the town board’s pleasure, was doing a good, "thorough" job. "We never did get a clear reason to why," Tozer said of the town board dissolving the planning board.

"I’m surprised they haven’t been sued more often," Tozer said. He said the board members don’t know about planning and they rush things along, relying on the town’s attorney to guide them.

Town attorney supported

In December, the town board backed Galgay despite some residents calling for her dismissal.

A handful of residents and the five board members discussed Galgay’s role within town government, and each board member supported Galgay, who has been the town attorney since 1997. The town board makes the appointment annually at its January re-organizational meeting. Galgay also serves as the zoning and planning attorney.

Galgay told The Enterprise that she will seek re-appointment. She also feels she has strong support from residents.

A small minority opposed her at the December meeting, she said, but the remaining residents at Town Hall were in support of her.

"I would stay with the town attorney," said Councilman R. Gregory Zeh.

"She does an adequate job. She does a good job," said Zeh. "So I would keep the town attorney." Zeh later called for a show of people in the gallery opposed to Galgay. Out of 40 to 50 residents, nine raised their hands.

The Citizens Against the Re-Appointment of the town attorney petitioned the board, asking that it elect an attorney for the town, an attorney from outside Westerlo, to eliminate any possible conflicts of interest.

Galgay and some residents said she recuses herself if any possible conflicts of interest arise.

Two women honored

Two Westerlo residents — a nurse and a deputy — received recognition this year.

Connie Myers, a psychiatric nurse, was recognized in May by the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York with the Excelsior College Nursing Award at the Salute to Hometown Heroes ceremony at the Crown Plaza in downtown Albany.

Myers was nominated for the award by former co-worker Steve Trim.

"I do care about my patients," said Myers. "They have burned so many bridges with their families and their communities."

Myers explained that a large percentage of her clients do not even receive visitors. Once patients are on their medication and stable, many of them begin to realize how much they have lost due to their illnesses but, by then, she said, "They don’t have anyone.

"As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a nurse," Myers said.

She has worked at the Capital District Psychiatric Center for 16 years and was saluted for saying all the right things.

The town of Westerlo declared June 1 to be Debra Gilham Day.

Gilham, the first woman to retire as a deputy sheriff from the Albany County Sheriff's Department, was the first in her family to get involved in law enforcement. She grew up in a small town where the community looked up to police officers, making law enforcement a viable career choice, she said.

"I wanted to help people and this was one way I could do that," she said

Gilham was a 28-year-old single parent when she decided to take the exam and passed. She began her 25-year career as a deputy sheriff on May 22, 1981.

Gilham also served the community as a certified emergency medical technician (EMT) and as a certified child passenger safety technician. She was also actively involved in the New York State Sheriffs’ Association Summer Camp and Hilltowns Community Resource Center Christmas Toy and Food Drive.

Gilham worked with local organizations and businesses to provide needy children in the Hilltowns a merry Christmas. Every year, toys, food, gift certificates, and other resources are collected from the community then dispersed to local families. While children spend time with Santa Claus, parents pick out toys in the back room of the resource center.

"It was a lot of fun," she said. "The people in the community were really great. I always felt like I was just doing my job and they were giving so much more back to me."


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