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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, August 30, 2007

Community concerned about future of farming in Hilltowns

By Tyler Schuling

HILLTOWNS — Candidates made their pitches, and a farmer spoke from his heart Saturday at a forum on the future of agriculture in the Hilltowns.

The Conkling Hall event was held in response to results from a survey sent out last spring to Rensselaerville residents to help the town develop a new comprehensive land-use plan; 83-percent were concerned with losing farmland, said Timothy Lippert.

"It was the number-one issue," Nan Stolzenburg, the town’s planner, told The Enterprise.

Lippert, who serves on the Berne Planning Board and was a member of the Rensselaerville Planning Board at the time the survey was sent out, is one of 17 members of Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, an ad hoc committee of interested residents.

Saturday, Katherine Daniels, a senior planner with the New York Planning Federation, outlined tools used by communities to protect agriculture — transfer of development rights, purchase of development rights, right-to-farm laws, agricultural zoning, and tax breaks for farmers.

The goals of farmland protection programs are to maintain a large number of farms, to keep land prices affordable for farmers, and to sustain public and political support.

Farming is key to the nation’s food supply, protects environment quality, manages growth, and sustains rural economies, Daniels said. Because of rising oil costs, consumers are going on a 100-mile diet, she said.

"A lot of people are more interested in getting their food products a little closer to home," she said.

Daniels said agri-business is important in sustaining farming, and farms have become important to farmers because of poor profitability in recent years.

She cited Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland; an active apple farm, it attracts tourists to its shop, restaurant, and special attractions.

Referring to maps from the American Farmland Trust, Daniels said the Hilltown area has "good quality soils" and "not yet a lot of development pressure, but that could change."

"Zoning and agriculture are two completely different things," Daniels said.

In areas that are experiencing growth pressure, agricultural protection zoning is essential to the long-term protection of farmland, she said.

One dwelling per 10 acres is protective and 20- or 25-acre zoning is more protective, Daniels said.

Daniels pointed to zoning in other communities.

A study on land sales was conducted in Baltimore County, Md., which has five-acre zoning and 50-acre zoning. Results of the study showed "virtually the same per-acre value," Daniels said.

Another community, located in central New York State, designated 50-acre zoning in agricultural districts with no opposition from area farmers, she said.

Things are changing slowly in New York, she said. "Communities are starting to lean toward more protective standards."

Challenges that farmers face include profitability, passing their farms on to the next generation, and resisting the temptation to sell land for development.

Daniels called Rensselaerville’s comprehensive land-use plan, adopted this spring, "state of the art," and said it doesn’t have any "farm-unfriendly" language. Daniels defined a comprehensive plan as a tool to guide a community into the future that identifies what needs to be preserved and what can be developed.

Daniels summed up her speech by noting: While many tools can be used to protect farmland, no one tool can do the job.

County candidates

Republican Travis Stevens and Democrat Kevin Crosier, candidates for the Albany County Legislature to represent the Hilltowns of Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville, were invited to the discussion and gave short speeches on Saturday. The candidates were also asked questions by members of an audience of between 25 and 35 people. The discussion was moderated by Diana Hinchcliff.

Incumbent Alexander "Sandy" Gordon was also invited, but did not attend. Gordon, who has represented the 39th District since 1996, is a Knox farmer. He co-sponsored the county’s right-to-farm law, which recently passed unanimously in the county legislature.

Crosier, who was elected Berne Supervisor on the Republican ticket, is an enrolled Democrat; he is forcing a primary against Gordon.

Crosier’s father, John Crosier, was a Berne planning-board member for 35 years and chaired the board for 20 years. "As a little guy," Crosier said, he listened to his father "at the dinner table" talk about planning issues.

A maple-syrup producer who grew up in Berne and whose parents owned an East Berne grocery store, Crosier is a proponent of small businesses and agri-tourism. He has been Berne’s supervisor for nearly six years and is a firefighter for the city of Albany.

Crosier said the Hilltowns are "missing the boat."

"We’re not promoting ourselves," Crosier said. Other counties, he said, such as Washington and Schoharie, are promoting themselves. Following the discussion, he was going to attend the Washington County Fair, which has a building dedicated to agri-business, he said.

People are willing to come to the Hilltowns and pay "good money" to visit, said Crosier.

The owner of Cripple Creek Farm, located in Middleburgh, Crosier said, rents a log cabin on her property, which is filled year-round.

Crosier cited two examples — the Partridge Run State Wildlife Management Area, a state park in Berne, and a wedding he held at his home, where guests were impressed with the area.

While Crosier wants people to use Hilltown parks and businesses, "At the end of the day, I want you to go the hell home."

Crosier was critical of the county.

"They have failed to give us the money to protect these rich, natural resources," he said. "They get an F is what they get.

"They’ll spend 30 or 50 million [dollars] on a convention center, and they won’t spend one dime up here"I’ve already told the county executive, ‘What I want, and I’m going to get, when I’m county legislator, is a $300,000 pot of money that we can use here in the Hilltowns to start preserving our open spaces and helping our landowners offset these taxes"so they’re not forced to sell something they’ve worked for all their lives,’" Crosier said.

Stevens, a Republican making his first run for elected office, is a senior engineer for the state’s Office of General Services. His family owned a business started by his grandfather, Marshall Stevens. In the summers as he grew up, he worked as a farmhand. A regular attendee at Knox Town Board meetings, Stevens volunteers for the Knox Volunteer Fire Department.

On Saturday, Stevens was skeptical about the future of farming. He asked: Where are the farmers, labor, and money going to come from"

"I want to save everything, but I don’t know how that’s going to work," said Stevens. He said he enjoys having open space, agriculture, and his privacy.

"I don’t ever plan on being a farmer. I did work on a farm as a kid so I understand the work that goes into it," he said, adding that he thinks there are other issues other than preservation.

"I think sometimes we look at open space as opposed to agriculture. I was under the impression that this was about saving agriculture, not open space," he said, adding that they are "two distinct things."

"I want to save everything, but there’s definitely money involved," he said. "Where that money’s going to come from, I’m not sure."

Planning, zoning, and open space-preservation dominated Saturday’s discussion about farmland protection.

"I was under the impression we were here to talk about agriculture," Stevens said.

In an earlier interview, Stevens said: "You have to hope that the planning and zoning (boards) of the different"towns take everything into consideration and manage growth."

"I felt it did get off the topic," Stevens told The Enterprise following the discussion. He said he found out about the discussion "second-hand" and didn’t know topics, such as open space and zoning would be discussed. Stevens said he doesn’t think the issue can be solved in one meeting, but that it will be solved by individual communities, not the county. More round-table discussions need to be held, he said.

"That’s how we’re going to get things accomplished, he said.

Crosier re-emphasized promoting and advertising the Hilltowns following discussion. The Hilltowns, he said, were once a place where people came for recreation, and the success of any business, he said, depends on promoting yourself.

Farmers have the last word

Before Saturday’s seminar ended, several residents wanted to hear from Westerlo farmer Gerald Boone and Rensselaerville farmer David Lewis.

"She’s the fifth generation," said Lewis, as he pointed to his daughter, Becky Lewis, a member of the land-use committee. The Lewises have been outspoken about the value of their land depreciating in the agricultural districts.

A survey will be sent out this month to Rensselaerville taxpayers and registered voters, who will decide on either five- or 20-acre zoning in the agricultural districts. (See related story.)

David Lewis said he thinks he is the only one receiving a school tax exemption as a farmer.

"We don’t have high-density agriculture here," he said. "Don’t ruin me."

Boone said it isn’t uncommon to work 14- or 15-hour days. Farming, Boone said as he tapped his heart, "is in here."

Lot size decision waits for citizens’ vote in Rensselaerville

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Two who helped draft the town’s new land-use plan voiced concerns after a Saturday forum on the future of farming in the Hilltowns.

Citizens are being asked to vote on the divisive issue of lot size in the agricultural district as the committee that drafted the plan turns its vision into law.

"We’re really at an important juncture," said Jeannette Rice, who has been one of 13 members of the committee, which is now drafting zoning laws and subdivision regulations.

During planning, Nan Stolzenberg and the American Farmland Trust recommended larger lot sizes — 20- and 25-acre zoning in the agricultural districts. Stolzenberg is the town’s planner.

Vernon Husek, the committee’s chairman, resigned shortly after the committee’s document was adopted by the town board in March.

He was upset about the large-acre zoning being undermined.

Prior to a public hearing on zoning laws and subdivision regulations in April, a majority of the 13-member board voted for 10-acre zoning.

Since the town’s laws were last updated in 1991, zoning has permitted one dwelling per five acres in the agricultural districts.

Thomas Mikulka was appointed as the committee’s new chairman. Mikulka has been outspoken about larger lot sizes decreasing a property’s value. At its meeting this month, the Rensselaerville Town Board approved $1,250 to apply for a $25,000 grant from the American Farmland Trust to study the issue. If the town does not receive the grant, the money will be returned.

Following Saturday’s meeting at Conkling Hall, Husek was critical of the land-use committee’s competence and the town board’s decision to have the committee revise zoning laws.

"[Stolzenberg] said, ‘Don’t give the zoning to the land-use committee,’" Husek said.

"The land-use committee was always the group asked to do the original drafting," Stolzenburg responded through The Enterprise.

Stolzenburg said that, shortly after the public hearing in April, when the draft was a document going through the legal adoption process, she felt the town board should make revisions itself since the land-use committee had already approved and endorsed the draft submitted to the board.

The town board felt revisions were needed and then gave the task to the land-use committee as a result of the public hearing, she said.

"That was my only recommendation related to the revisions," said Stolzenburg.

Stolzenburg, who works with many municipalities, said it is not uncommon for a committee working on a town’s comprehensive plan to also draft zoning laws and subdivision regulations because the committee working on the master plan is most familiar with the document.

Husek, who said shortly after resigning that the committee wasn’t following experts’ advice and had changed from "data-driven" to "politically-driven," was critical about the committee now working on subdivision regulations and zoning laws.

"They’re not looking out for the town," Husek said of members drafting laws. "They’re looking out for their own pocketbooks."

Rice, too, favors larger lot sizes in the agricultural districts, and, at a public hearing in April on new zoning laws and subdivision regulations, supported the land-use committee’s document.

The land-use committee, she said this week, went through it "page by page," and it was approved by the town board.

"It was a top-quality project," Rice told The Enterprise. Rice echoed Kevin Crosier, saying, once farmland is gone, it’s gone forever. Crosier, Berne’s supervisor, is forcing a primary for the Hilltowns seat in the Albany County Legislature. He spoke at Saturday’s forum. (See related story.)

Rice is concerned about soil and farmland protection now and for future generations.

A survey will be sent out this month to residents, who will decide between one dwelling per five acres in the agricultural districts or one dwelling per 20 acres.

At the public hearing in April on new zoning laws and subdivision regulations, some members of the land-use committee said more time was needed and their work was rushed. On May 1, a moratorium on major subdivisions enacted last year was extended for six months. The town board is slated to vote on new subdivision regulations and zoning laws in November.

No swimming at Thacher
Plans scrapped for new pool

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — The half-century-old bathhouse for Thacher Park’s Olympic-sized pool was demolished last week with no immediate plans for replacement.

The pool is empty, awaiting demolition, too. It has been closed for two summers.

A year-and-a-half ago, with much fanfare, the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation announced that Thacher Park would be the first state park in New York to get a waterslide.

In March of 2006, the state announced a $3 million project to completely renovate the pool complex at John Boyd Thacher Park in the Helderbergs. The old pool was to be replaced with a smaller 7,050-square-foot "leisure pool," featuring an "interactive water play structure," a free swim area, and a large looping water slide, the parks office said.

A 2,860-square-foot spray pad, with shallow water and spray for children to play in, was to be installed in the shell of the old pool. The project was also to have included a new bathhouse and landscaping. Half of the price was to have been covered by a grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"It’s just to compete with some of the newer facilities in the area," said Cathy Jiminez 18 months ago; she was a state parks spokeswoman at the time.

This week, Eileen Larrabee, currently a spokeswoman for the parks office, said there is "no exact plan" beyond demolition for the Thacher Park pool and no timetable for building another one.

Alluding to the exit of Governor George Pataki and the election of Eliot Spitzer, Larrabee said, "Once the previous administration made its announcement"not much else happened. When the new administration took over and looked at the needs of various parks," she said, the initial plan didn’t look feasible.

"There were issues with the existing structure," said Larrabee, so the decision was made to "move ahead with demolition." She said, "The existing pool could not function."

Chris Fallon, who has been the manager at Thacher Park for eight years, said that the pool and the Indian Ladder Trail had been the two big attractions at the park.

"It certainly was beautiful. It had its heyday," he said of the Olympic-sized pool. But, he went on, the pool had become unsafe.

"It was the general consensus of the engineers"that it could not be repaired and was not safe to operate," said Fallon.

Asked why the pool complex was closed for two seasons if it was not ripped out until now, Fallon said, "There was a whole series of different contract issues."

Throughout the summer, he said, people have called to ask when the pool will open. Some were surprised to hear it was closed for the season and others expressed disappointment, he said.

"It’s not going to stay demolished and a hole in the ground," Fallon concluded. "The park needs an attraction of some sort. I’m just not sure what it will be."

The Olympic-sized pool had been the big summer draw and was used by children in nearby towns for swimming lessons. Generations of Hilltown residents worked there — as ticket-takers, in the concession stand, in the locker rooms, or as lifeguards.

Michael Vincent, who lives just six miles down Route 443 from the pool, said, "I’ve been going there since I was 10 years old."

He learned to swim in the old pool and spent a good part of his adult life as a maintenance supervisor at the park, retiring four years ago; he now works at Thacher part-time.

Vincent has been watching the demolition over the last week. The bathhouse is now completely down, he said, and the large sand filters have been removed from the drained pool.

He reminisced this week over the old Olympic-sized pool, which had a "real deep end," not the "zero-entrance," like a ramp, that most modern pools have. The old pool had a high dive flanked by two low diving boards at its deep end.

"That was always a favorite," Vincent said of the high dive; jumping off of it became a rite of passage for area youth.

The pool held 675,000 gallons of water, said Vincent, which came from nearby Thompson’s Lake.

The water wasn’t heated. "The joke used to be, if you put an ice cube in it, it would last all day," said Vincent.

The biggest problem with the concrete pool in its later years, Vincent said, was, because of the concrete rotting, the pool lost several thousand gallons a day.

He referred to various locals who had worked at the pool or, like himself, learned to swim there, and of a scrapbook documenting its half-century of history.

"A lot of people miss it," said Vincent. "It was part of the attraction of Thacher. Large groups would come to have their picnics and then go swimming."

"It’s discouraging," said Larrabee, the state parks spokeswoman, of the failed plans for rebuilding. "I know people must be disappointed."

Spinelli answers the question about her clarinet skills

By Tyler Schuling

"What are you doing""

This is what clarinetist Michele Spinelli, a Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate, was asked when auditioning to attend Ithaca College, a place she knew in her heart she belonged.

Six months later, after mastering her auditioning skills, she went back, and the same man who had laughed at her was begging her to stay.

Now, Spinelli is a freelance performer and the principal clarinet and soloist with the Air National Guard Band of the Northeast.

Spinelli (née Von Haugg) will be returning to the Capital Region in September to perform at her former school, the Schenectady County Community College, in the college’s Rising Star concert series.

In its second year, the series showcases former SCCC students making their mark in the music world.

Spinelli will perform a free concert with pianist Mark Evans and clarinetist Brett Wery, co-directors of the concert series, on the campus at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 12 at the Carl B. Taylor Community Auditorium.

Spinelli, who grew up in East Berne, now lives in Arlington, Mass., about eight miles outside of Boston.

A freelance performer, she plays with many musical groups, including the Miami-based New World Symphony, the Glens Falls Symphony, and three Boston groups: Symphony By the Sea, Hingham Symphony, and the Civic Symphony Orchestra.

Roots and the road

While growing up, Spinelli was inspired by Jane Goodall, best known for her studies of chimpanzees in Africa; Spinelli thought she would become a naturalist.

She had grown up without classical music and didn’t know what it was.

Beginning her music path as most students do — by trying out different kinds of instruments in elementary school — Spinelli started clarinet lessons early on. However, she wasn’t as passionate then about performance and mastering her instrument.

"It was something I did because it was something to do," she said.

While in her senior year at BKW, Spinelli saw a performance by violinist Michael Emery that changed her thinking. Emery’s performance, she said, broke her heart.

She then auditioned in 1995 "at the last minute" at Schenectady County Community College. During her three years in Schenectady, she was instructed by winds professor Brett Wery, whom she called "very intense" and "a wonderful educator."

After SCCC, Spinelli went to Nazareth College, a four-year liberal arts school in Rochester. Spinelli said she didn’t fit in and the experience "wasn’t a good thing."

While looking for another school, she fell in love with Ithaca College.

After being turned away on the first try, Spinelli finely-tuned her auditioning skills with the help of Robert DiLutis with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. After DiLutis’s instruction, she then auditioned and changed the thinking of the man who had turned her away just months before.

"Playing is one thing. Auditioning is truly another," Spinelli said.

She went on and earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from Ithaca. While in the program, she learned other instruments and was tested on them. But this wasn’t what she wanted to do.

"What I wanted to do was practice," Spinelli said. She was pushed into the education program, she said, and was told that she wasn’t good enough.

"People develop at their own rate," said Spinelli.

Though she was accepted at Boston University, Spinelli opted to join the Air Force and served three-and-a-half years of active duty with the United States Air Force Band of Liberty. She completed her master’s degree and earned her performance diploma from the New England Conservatory.

Now that her schooling is finished, Spinelli does a bit of everything.

Each year, she tours New England with citizen soldiers in the Air National Guard Band. She performs with a chamber group. She teaches 25 clarinetists. And she plays with orchestras whenever she can.

Mastering the art of performance of the clarinet continues to be her goal, and she waits for a phone call from the New World Symphony Orchestra, established by Michael Tilson Thomas.

"When they call me, I drop everything and run," Spinelli said.

New pre-K program starts at BKW

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — A pre-kindergarten program at Berne-Knox-Westerlo will be kicking off this school year.

The program will teach students to listen, follow directions, and interact socially. They’ll also learn language skills, and phonetics. Students will report to BKW on Sept. 17.

The program, with 24 students, will run Monday through Friday, and have two 12-student classes — one in the morning and another in the afternoon.

Originally set to begin Sept. 10, BKW officials chose to delay the program’s start to coordinate transportation and to be sure students had required immunizations.

To fund the program, BKW received a $59,400 grant from the New York State Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program. This is the first year BKW has received the grant, said Kimberly LaBelle, BKW’s assistant superintendent for elementary and special education.

BKW applied for the grant with Head Start, a national program promoting school readiness. Currently, the New York State Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program grant is an annual grant, and schools are required to apply each year.

This year’s state budget has $146 million for universal pre-kindergarten — money that any school district in the state can apply for. Funds are awarded on a per-child basis, according to a formula that takes into account a district’s wealth.

"It’s quite a bit of work, trying to find someone to collaborate with, which is a big stipulation of the grant," LaBelle said of the grant.

While many residents in the BKW school district may not know about the new program, parents of 4-year-olds do, she said. To gauge community interest, BKW sent letters to parents of 4-year-olds in April, asking if they would be interested, and 22 families responded favorably, LaBelle said.

With Head Start’s help, BKW hired Lisa Momberger as the teacher and Marge Capuano as teaching assistant. Head Start’s program had been taught in the Thompson’s Lake Reformed Church in East Berne.

Prior to BKW offering the program, parents had always shown an interest, said Brian Corey, BKW’s elementary-school principal.

At an open house earlier this month, parents were excited the program would be housed at BKW and thought it a nice introduction to the school system, he said.

The pre-kindergarten program, Corey said, will be the same as the program taught by Head Start at Thompson’s Lake, but it will be in conjunction with BKW.

Supplies and materials for the class will come from three different sources — BKW, the Head Start program at the Thompson’s Lake Reformed Church, and some will be purchased with the grant money, said Corey.

Some of the grant money will be used to hire a social worker, who will help the students transition from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten, said LaBelle.

BKW will provide transportation for the students on a limited basis. Students in the morning class, which begins at 8 a.m., may ride the bus to school but must be picked up by a parent or guardian when class ends at 10:30 a.m. Students in the afternoon class may be bussed home after class ends at 2:15 p.m. but must be dropped off by a parent or guardian in the morning. Class for the afternoon session begins at 11:45 a.m.

Orientation will be held Friday, Sept. 14.

Currently, two students are on a waiting list, said Corey. He speculated that interest in the program will grow as the school year goes along. Some pre-school-age students were enrolled elsewhere before BKW offered the program.

To enroll students in the program, some students are chosen by random selection and others are selected if they are eligible for the Head Start program, which is for low-income families.

While other pre-kindergarten programs are offered in the area, Corey said, BKW is not trying to take anything away from those programs but is trying to add to its own.

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