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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, December 27, 2007


2007 in reviews: Berne
Buddhists build retreat, bust goes awry, deaths rock community

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — In Berne, Democrats retained their position of dominance in 2007 and residents continued their support of a senior housing complex to be built in the hamlet by developer Jeff Thomas.

In July, the town continued its traditional events with Family Day — formerly Berne Heritage Days — and its ninth annual Fox Creek Run, a 5-kilometer road race.

The close-knit town suffered the loss this year of a young man, Peter Kennedy, of suspected steroid-use, and of a community stalwart, farmer Harold Lendrum.

Retreat house opens

In January, the Tenzin Gyatso Institute for Wisdom and Compassion, a Buddhist center on Game Farm Road, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of its retreat house. Many residents and officials attended the open-house event.

The one-story shingled house holds seven bedrooms, two-and-a-half bathrooms, a living room, a meditation room with a skylight, a basement, and a kitchen accessible to those with handicaps; and has new flooring, carpet, cedar shake siding, fixtures, and appliances.

The retreat house serves as a home for Tibetan Buddhists wishing to escape the busyness of life and is just one phase of a much larger project. Additional buildings — retreat houses and a children’s center among them — are planned for completion in 2020.

The Tenzin Gyatso Institute was formerly called the Rigpa Center for Wisdom and Compassion. Rigpa closed on the purchase of the 350-acre parcel in July of 2004.

At the open house, Judith Brown, the institute’s executive director, presented Berne resident Helen Lounsbury with a $2,500 donation to the town’s library.

Brown called the library "a wonderful resource" that "deserves to be supported" and she said the donation was "a token to the community."

Library possibilities

In 2007, town officials, library staff, and library supporters continued to discuss relocating the town’s free library. The library, which has been housed in the town hall since 1969, is cramped for space. Officials and library supporters have discussed two locations — the town park on the outskirts of the Berne hamlet and the Berne Masonic Lodge located next to Town Hall.

Many committees — grant, finance, interior, and building — have worked on the relocation project.

The town, which supports the library, has set aside $165,000 in its capital projects fund for the library move. Part of the money — $50,000 — was raised from the sale of a fire station across the street from the town hall.

Raid leads to shooting

In September, Jeffrey Connery, an Albany City police officer was shot in the thumb while he and two deputies removed an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 of marijuana from vacant land.

According to John Burke, head of the sheriff’s department’s drug interdiction unit, investigators from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department and an Albany City Police officer went to a property in Berne to clear a crop of 108 marijuana plants.

Police had been to the property at least twice before, said Burke. The officers weren’t expecting to meet anybody, Burke said. Since police got a tip from the property owner about a year ago, nobody had been seen at the location, he said.

The property lies at the end of a long, muddy driveway in a labyrinth of gravel roads located in a state wildlife management area.

When police arrived there at about 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 6, Kevin O’Reilly, of Oak Hill (Greene County) was inside the only building on the Beaver Road land — a cabin with no water or electricity.

"When he realized he was under arrest, he bolted about 10 or 15 feet," Burke said. "He was tackled by two of the officers. Then his dog came out."

A roughly 100-pound mixed-breed dog latched onto Connery’s arm, said Albany City Police Chief James Tuffey. The animal wasn’t ordered to attack, Tuffey said, but "reacted."

Carman Frangella, a 17-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, was doing most of the grunt work, removing plants from the ground, said Burke. Within seconds of the dog’s latching onto Connery’s arm, Frangella took another officer’s 40-caliber handgun and shot twice at the dog, he said. According to officials, one of the bullets passed through the dog and into Connery’s right hand.

"If you’re chopping and you’re going through with two machetes, you really don’t want a gun on your hip side," Burke said of why Frangella wasn’t carrying his own gun.

Connery was flown to Westchester Medical Center to see a hand specialist following the incident, said Tuffey. The dog died from the wounds.

O’Reilly was charged with three felonies — assault with intent to cause physical injury to an officer, third-degree burglary, and first-degree criminal possession of marijuana. He was also charged with two misdemeanors — resisting arrest and unlawfully growing cannibis.

O’Reilly is on parole until 2008, said Burke, and he’s had eight to 10 previous arrests, three to four of which were drug-related.

"It was a justifiable shooting and a tragic ending," said Burke. "But it could have been worse."

Elections

In a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 3 to 1, Democrats swept the assessor and town board races.

In a four-way race for two seats on the town board, Democratic incumbent James Hamilton was the top vote-getter with 576 votes in his re-election bid. Peter Vance, making his first run, received 487 votes. Republican candidates Rudy Stempel and Randy Rapp received 371 and 324 votes respectively.

The four town council members are all Democrats and the supervisor, Kevin Crosier, is an enrolled Democrat who was elected on the Republican ticket.

Crosier ran for a seat in the Albany County Legislature, forcing a September Democratic primary against incumbent Alexander "Sandy" Gordon, who has represented the Hilltowns of Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville since 1996. Gordon won in a landslide as he received 613 votes and Crosier garnered 263 votes. Gordon kept his seat, defeating his Republican rival in the general election, in which Crosier received 260 votes.

Peter Kennedy dies at 27

In March, Peter Kennedy of East Berne died at the age of 27 of suspected steroid-use complications.

Kennedy’s mother, Barbara Kennedy, would not allow an autopsy and said she knew what happened. "It was the steroids because he was perfectly healthy," she said.

Peter Kennedy was hospitalized on March 2 after complaining about cold symptoms. He had difficulty breathing and was coughing, Barbara Kennedy said. Shortly after, X-rays were taken, which revealed he had fluid in his lungs. His heart was enlarged, she said, and his kidneys and lungs were failing. He was admitted to the hospital’s intensive-care unit, and went into an induced coma the morning of March 4.

After he went into the coma, she said, one of her son’s friends told her that, eight months ago, Peter had asked questions about steroids — "‘Where do you get them" Who can you get them from" And: How much do they cost"’"

Peter Kennedy’s sister, Jamie, then found eight bottles of steroids hidden in his room.

"I think my son abused them. He didn’t know...The bottles didn’t have directions...They were just bottles. Not getting them from a doctor, he didn’t know how to take them," Barbara Kennedy said. "Four of the bottles had labels that looked like they had been printed off of a computer."

Barbara Kennedy detailed the months leading up to her son’s death.

One year before he died, Peter Kennedy was arrested for driving while intoxicated and, shortly after, bought weight-training equipment and built a gym in the basement of their garage.

He kept a strict schedule, kept track of his training and progress, and "hardly ever missed a day," she said.

"He stuck right to that room three to four hours a day, and, because his friends were all out drinking and having fun, he had to find something to do," she said. "He used to be as thin as me," Barbara Kennedy said; Peter and his mother used to fit into the same pants. His friends, she said, often joked with him that his arms were the same size as hers.

"He got bigger and bigger," she said, "and eventually his clothes sizes changed."

After working out, he went to the refrigerator immediately upon entering the house.

"I just figured: He’s weight-lifting. He’s body-building. He’s working up an appetite. He’s not just sitting around being a couch potato," Barbara Kennedy said. "He started to look really good."

Both she and her daughter, Jamie, asked him whether he was taking steroids.

"He said he would never do steroids," Barbara Kennedy said. "He would say, ‘I hate needles.’"

In December, she said, her son was "always tired." When asked why he was tired, he would say, "I had a bad day," she said.

"There were signs all the way, but I didn’t see them," she said.

While Peter Kennedy was hospitalized and after he died, the community reached out to the family.

Barbara Kennedy said she had no money, and someone paid her gas bill at a local gas station; Dan Marshall, who owns Jersey’s, a local restaurant, brought food to her home; after her son’s funeral, everyone drank his favorite beer, Miller Lite, at the Maple Inn, an East Berne bar and restaurant; a spaghetti fund-raiser was held to pay his bills; and Peter Kennedy’s favorite band, Mid-Life Crisis, played in memoriam.

David Soares, the Albany County District Attorney, led a national investigation and narcotics raid, which involves the improper use of medical authority by licensed doctors and the sale of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs on the Internet.

"The DA has been helping me out phenomenally, saying they will catch whoever sold them," Barbara Kennedy said of the steroids. "They cannot guarantee it, but they’re doing their best."

"I’m looking to find out who sold [the steroids] to my son and put a stop to it so that no mother ever has to go through what I went through," she said.

Harold Lendrum dies at 78

Harold Lendrum, a farmer and environmentalist whose ancestors settled in Berne centuries ago, died in November. He was 78.

The Lendrum Farm was one of 11 honored as a 2006 Bicentennial Farm for over 200 of continuous family ownership at the New York State Agricultural Society’s 175th Annual Agricultural Forum, held in January.

Mr. Lendrum, the seventh generation to farm the land purchased by his ancestor, Jacob Weidman, had, until he died, continued to farm over 900 acres with his youngest son, Alan. He died after being kicked by a cow he had brought to auction.

Later in his life, Mr. Lendrum’s mission was to preserve farmland, said his son, Kenneth Lendrum.

Mr. Lendrum was a member of the Berne Conservation Board.

He cared about wetlands, trees, and green space, and he understood and liked people, said his son. He called his father "a solid pillar-of-the-earth person that you could build a community around."



At last, a plan to expand Town Hall, laws for towers passed, police answer suicide call

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — In Knox, 2007 began and ended with Town Hall.

At its first meeting of the year, the town board revisited renovation plans and, at its last meeting, adopted a conceptual plan.

In the town’s elections, Michael Hammond, Knox’s supervisor since 1974, was re-elected to another two-year term. In a four-way race for two town board seats, Patricia Gage, the town’s Republican Party chairperson, kept her seat, retaining a Republican presence on the Knox Town Board which, until four years ago, had been dominated by Democrats for decades.

As Knox officials are concerned about the safety of the town’s residents, Robert Price and Daniel Driscoll, long-time planning-board members, drafted a law regulating cellular towers in the town. In December, officials discussed possible sites.

The year also brought the deaths of two Knox farmers who were also community leaders — Robert Whipple and Mary Ellen Gordon.

Town Hall renovations

Knox now has a plan to renovate Town Hall.

In January, the town board revisited plans that had been drawn up by architect Charles Sacco in April of 2005. The town has long considered renovations. Residents and officials have said the federal Americans With Disabilities Act is the driving force of the project and that elderly and disabled citizens currently have difficulty accessing the hall. At the January meeting, the town board created the Knox Town Hall Renovation Committee, and Councilman Nicholas Viscio, with resident Helene O’Clair, outlined the committee’s role.

The committee worked with Sacco, and later recommended a $1.2 million concept plan in November. In December, the four town board members in attendance voted for the plan.

Renovation plans would add a multi-use public space, which would serve as a meeting place for the town’s boards and for the town court; a fireproof storage area for town records; judges chambers; a new roof; and an elevator. Offices would be added to the lower level for the assessor and the receiver of taxes.

Hammond said the plan also includes a conference room and a much larger office for the building department with storage space for plans. Renovation plans also include a room divider for the multi-purpose room, which could be used if two events are occurring simultaneously, and an entrance to the lower level.

Windmills and cell towers

The town’s planning board has created laws regulating residential and commercial wind turbines and the placement of cellular towers. In 2006, Russell and Amy Pokorny, who live on Beebe Road, erected a 5-kilowatt Bergey windmill on their property to power their home.

The Pokornys also own land on Middle Road, where a meteorological tower was erected in October of 2006 to take wind and temperature readings for the Helderberg Wind Project, led by Kathleen Moore of Integrated Environmental Data, Daniel Capuano of Hudson Valley Community College, and Loren Pruskowski of Sustainable Energy Developments.

The goal of the project is to produce a prospectus to determine a community-owned windmill’s feasibility and to create an ownership model.

Moore called wind power "so dynamic" and cited larger players, such as General Electric, giving the industry more credibility.

In 2007, James Devine applied for a residential windmill to be erected at his home in Helderberg Estates. The windmill was approved by the planning board.

Regarding cellular towers, officials have discussed two sites, both located on town property. One is along Street Road, near the town’s transfer station. The other is near the town park in the hamlet.

Robert Price, Knox’s long-time planning board chairman, called the town "kind of a hotbed of activity" at the town’s December meeting. Three companies, he said, have shown interest in placing a tower in the town.

Historic barn burns

In May, a historic barn along the Berne-Altamont Road went up in flames during a lightning storm.

Firefighters battled the blaze from 3 to 6 p.m. When they arrived at 3 p.m., all that remained were the beams, said Bill Vinson, chief of the Knox Volunteer Fire Department. Before leaving the scene around 6 p.m., firefighters covered the remnants of the barn with foam. There wasn’t a puff of smoke showing, Vinson said. But they had to return because the fire had rekindled. Rain, Vinson said, had washed away the foam.

The Knox firefighters arrived back at the firehouse and were cleaning their hoses and equipment, but were called to the barn about 8 p.m. They were at the scene for about one-and-a-half hours "hitting the hot spots" and were back in service around 10 p.m., Vinson said.

Though the barn and the house are approximately 150 feet apart, the intense heat of the fire melted the vinyl siding of the house. Firefighters inspected the interior of the house, and determined the damage was entirely exterior, he said.

It would be difficult to say whether a tall pine tree next to the barn or the barn itself was first struck by lightning, said Vinson. The cause of the fire, he said, was either the debris from the tree that had been struck or the lightning traveling through roots underneath the barn, Vinson said.

Whipple Road

Since August, controversy has surrounded a local roadway in a residential neighborhood.

In August, residents petitioned the town board to take ownership of an unpaved portion of Whipple Road, which they say allows them to access state land and is an escape route for many homes.

A large portion of Whipple Road has been maintained by the town for years and is therefore defined as a highway by use; the maintained portion was chip-sealed this year. Where the paving ends, a rock wall was erected by resident Charles B. Tanner Jr., who owns property nearby.

Tanner said he didn’t erect the wall to impede his neighbors’ use of the property and cited a number of incidents near and on his property — Jeeps and four-wheelers speeding by at 2 a.m., and people partying, dumping garbage, and shooting rifles. Tanner called the road "a racetrack."

The land on which the road lies belongs to a dissolved corporation, John Dorfman, the attorney to the town, said in September. The following month, Dorfman said the owner of the property will donate the land to the town. He recommended the town take ownership of the land on which the road sits, not the road itself.

Since then, the rock wall was taken down and, afterward, the town placed a barrier of rock and four posts at the end of Whipple Road. Petitioner Grace Cunningham attended the town’s December meeting and questioned the town’s erecting another wall, which she called "illegal."

Elections

Democrats returned to a position of dominance in November.

Mary Ellen Nagengast, a Democrat who made her first run for the town board, was the top vote-getter in a four-way race for two seats. Nagengast garnered 543 votes.

Gage retained her seat with 487 votes. Gage will be the only Republican council member on the board through 2010.

The town’s highway superintendent, Gary Salisbury, ran unopposed and was endorsed by all parties.

Police respond to Francis’s call

On May 12, four dozen police officers responded to the Lewis Road home of Jonathan P. Francis after he had called a suicide hotline around 11 a.m., threatening to kill himself and police, according to Albany County Sheriff James Campbell.

Francis, 38, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for town judge in 2003, has since been arrested several times and had been drinking and taking drugs the night before, Campbell said.

When police made contact with Francis, he requested to speak with the sheriff’s son, J.T. Campbell Jr., an investigator with the sheriff’s department, who had dealt with Francis before.

Francis’s father, Jay T. Francis, is the longtime pastor of the Rock Road Chapel in Knox.

"I can’t justify his actions," Pastor Francis said. "Yet, I can say that Saturday doesn’t define who he is."

Francis had a history of run-ins with the law.

In 1991, when he was 23, he was, according to papers from the Knox Town Court, arrested for falsely reporting an incident after he called a secretary at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo school to report that he shot himself in the head.

Campbell said this May, "J.T. was able to get him to come out with his hands above his head," said Campbell. He added that negotiators were at the scene.

Francis was taken to a psychiatric center and there were no charges.

The previous month, Francis’s license to practice law was suspended indefinitely for failure to complete a drug-treatment program and comply with a subpoena regarding "several complaints of professional misconduct," according to an Appellate Court decision.

State Troopers were also at the scene in May and officers from the sheriff’s department, the Guilderland Police Department, the Altamont Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Francis had entered into a treatment program in February or March, but he didn’t finish, said Francis’s lawyer, James E. Long. Long wasn’t sure what triggered Francis to call the hotline, he said. "As I understood it, he came home and found boxes, which indicated that she had moved out and that precipitated his depression," he said of Francis’s wife.

At the beginning of May, Francis was arrested on a felony charge for harassing his wife, which violated an order of protection she had against him. He served about 10 days for the assault, Campbell said.

In January of 2006, Francis was arrested on charges of assaulting his wife, after he allegedly choked her, threatened her with a kitchen knife, and broke a telephone to prevent her from calling the police, according to a sheriff’s arrest report.

The couple had been living together with their three young boys before the weekend and their relationship was on-and-off, said Long.

Francis’s father said his son needed help and that he hoped his son would get help.

He was a good kid, he said, and people can redeem themselves.

"Forgiveness can be instant," said Pastor Francis. "It takes a little while to build up trust."



Planning for open space, Perkins clinic to close

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — In 2007, Westerlo created a new planning board, moved forward with a plan for land use, and supported a low-income senior housing project in the town.

With three times as many Democrats as Republicans in Westerlo, the Democrats ran unopposed for every post in town.

The town’s long-time supervisor, Richard Rapp, ran again in November. Rapp had said two years ago that he would not seek another term.

"They talked me into it," said Rapp. "I’m not going to run after this term," he said. "There’s no talking me into it again."

Senior housing

In February, the town board supported a low-income housing complex proposed by Albany County Rural Housing Alliance by writing a letter of support.

The estimated $4.5 million project would be located on an approximately 10-acre parcel along Route 1. The project would have 24 low-cost rental units and would be available to people 55 or older who live anywhere in the state.

A one-person rental unit would cost between $420 and $550, and a two-person unit would cost $550 to $600 per month, said Susan Bacon Kimmel, president of Two Plus Four Construction Companies, based in East Syracuse, which would build the complex. Residents, Kimmel said, would be required to make no more than half of the area’s median income — $23,150 for a single room and $26,500 for a double room.

ACRHA has senior-housing facilities in Ravena and Feura Bush.

Judith Eisgruber, the executive director of ACRHA, and Two Plus Four Construction Companies first presented the project to the town board in early February. Eisgruber and Kimmel submitted their application to the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal for grant money to aid the project. A letter saying the town is in support of their project, they said, would help the project score higher in the grant application. Each year, Kimmel said, the state gets about 150 applications and awards grants to 30 to 40 projects.

The town’s building inspector, Edwin Lawson, and R. Mark Dempf, of Vollmer Associates, the firm that engineered the town’s water district, evaluated the project regarding the town’s zoning and water system.

"It looks as though we’ll be able to supply this," said Dempf.

This type of housing is not identified in the town’s zoning laws, said Lawson. If the conceptual plan is approved, he said, there are a lot of challenges to be met to make the building satisfy the state’s and town’s codes.

All four members attending voted to approve a pilot for the project, and Zeh agreed to write a letter for Eisgruber and Kimmel to submit with their application.

Perkins Center to close

The Anna W. Perkins Helderberg Health Center, named after a revered local doctor who served the Hilltowns for decades, will close in mid-February.

St. Peter’s Hospital has run the facility since shortly after Dr. Perkins died in 1993.

The Perkins Center — one of three charity clinics run by St. Peter’s — had fewer poor and elderly patients and was losing money, said a hospital spokesman.

After a questionnaire was sent from St. Peter’s to area residents to gauge their use of the facility, a group of 20 to 30 residents formed the Friends of the Perkins Clinic.

Six percent of those who responded to the questionnaire said they use the facility, and 80 percent of those surveyed in Berne, East Berne, and Westerlo did not feel the clinic was necessary, according to St. Peter’s.

The citizens’ group questioned the survey results, saying questionnaires were sent to residents outside the area who didn’t care about the future of the center.

According to Elmer Streeter, spokesman for St. Peter’s, less than 2 percent were returned due to incorrect addresses, and, of 2,000 surveys sent, 429 responded, which Streeter termed "a very good, high response."

Robert Dietz, president of the Helderberg Medical Building Association, a not-for-profit corporation which Perkins signed her clinic over to, said this month, "We have no intentions of selling it at this time."

Following the announcement that the Perkins Center will close, the Friends group sought an open discussion with St. Peter’s. They want St. Peter’s to stay at the facility longer — six months to one year — so that a physician can be found with the patient pool intact. The group has also discussed finding another building, such as one on Route 408, which had been used by Dr. Karle as his medical office.

Members of the Friends group met last week in Albany with St. Peter’s representatives.

Water bills increase

In August, residents in the town’s new municipal water system saw their bills increase threefold. The water system, which combined two outdated private systems, serves about 85 properties in and around the hamlet.

Residents had paid $125 twice each year, plus water usage. Those connected to the water system will now pay $375 twice each year plus usage — just over three cents for each thousand gallons of water.

In February, residents’ water usage will increase to 4.6 cents per thousand gallons. In August, residents speculated about ways in which they could lower their bills and discussed a volunteer attending classes to monitor the water and perform maintenance.

One resident in the water district said, "If this is going to keep increasing each year, it’s going to be absurd to live in Westerlo after awhile."

Supervisor Rapp has said the water-usage increase this February will be the last increase.

New planning board and land-use planning

After a 15-year hiatus, the town board created a planning board in April and appointed its new members. The town board had abolished the planning board in the early 1990s after developers had complained about the time needed for their applications.

Since, town board members had served as both the town and planning board.

Leonard Laub was appointed as the chairman of the board.

In June, a special meeting was held as the town and planning boards were at odds over who should create the town’s comprehensive land-use plan.

Laub said he and the new planning board members accepted their roles with the understanding that the planning board would write the master plan.

Weeks earlier, at the June town board meeting, Councilman R. Gregory Zeh recommended the new planning board members "get their feet wet" and see more applicants before taking on the task of creating a master plan.

The planning board was given the task.

Drowning

After heavy storms throughout the Capital Region during a weekend in April, Caitlin J. Henry, a 15-year-old girl who attended Grapeville Christian School in Greene County, drowned when her canoe capsized in the storm-swollen Basic Creek.

Henry was canoeing with her brother, Patrick T. Henry, 14, who was able to swim to shore. Their canoe capsized within seconds after they set foot in it, said Chief Deputy Craig Apple of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. Apple called the drowning "a tragedy."

The Henrys’ home, about 100 yards from the creek, had not flooded, said Apple. "They were experimenting in the rapid waters," he said, adding that the creek "is normally 75-percent smaller than" it was the day she drowned.

Route 404 over Basic Creek in Westerlo was among a dozen roads closed in Albany County due to flooding caused by the storm.

Caitlin Henry was swept away by a strong current while her brother was able to swim to shore, according to the sheriff’s department; neither was wearing a life vest.

Following a call to the sheriff’s department, a multi-jurisdiction team — volunteers from Hilltown emergency squads, fire departments, and search-and-rescue teams as well as deputies from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department — responded to the area and searched the creek.

A relative and a volunteer firefighter from Westerlo found Caitlin Henry a quarter of a mile downstream within 20 minutes of the canoe capsizing, said Apple. It then took 20 minutes to bring her to shore; the time was needed to ensure the safety of the rescuers, said Apple. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was unsuccessful, he said.

No competition in November

In November, Democrats ran unopposed for the town board, supervisor, town clerk, highway superintendent, and judge races.

Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 3 to 1, and there is no Republican Party chairperson in Westerlo.

Two years ago, Republican Councilman Clifton Richardson died in office. Richardson was Westerlo’s first Republican town board member in 70 years.



Controversy as board disagrees on issues, land-use planning
...Cass closed, former supers arrested

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — In this rural Hilltown, 2007 was marked with controversy as the politically-divided town board disagreed on nearly every issue. Controversy also surrounded town planning as new laws were drafted for land use.

Theft on a large scale was uncovered after an investigator with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department came upon a suspicious check while the department was conducting another investigation. Further investigation by the sheriff’s department showed David R. Bryan, a former Rensselaerville supervisor, stole over $300,000 from four local organizations.
At monthly meetings, Town Hall was often packed. The largest crowd gathered for a special meeting in September — the day Bryan was indicted. Investigators with the sheriff’s department and the Albany County District Attorney’s Office came to the hall to update citizens on their investigation.

The hall was always packed — several times — as residents called for the closure of the Cass Residential Center, an all-male juvenile center run by the state.

Following an escape in November of 2006 of a youth from Cass, residents speculated about the boys remanded to the center — their prior convictions, daily routines, and nature. Citizens also questioned the state’s policies and the facility’s security. Cass is now closed.

In the town’s elections, Democratic town council candidates bested GOP candidates and will obtain a 3 to 2 majority on the town board starting Jan. 1.

Power shift

Rensselaerville has been the only town in the Democrat-dominated Helderberg Hilltowns with a Republican majority on its town board.

In November, in a race for two town board seats, GOP candidates were defeated by Democrats — incumbent Gary Chase and newcomer Marie Dermody.

Since Jost Nickelsberg, the town’s Republican supervisor, was voted into office two years ago, the GOP majority has voted together on every issue, often against the two Democrats.

On Election Day, as Chase and Dermody lead Republican newcomer Allyn Wright and incumbent Myra Dorman, the Democrats were planning changes.

Chase said the superintendent of highways, his father, G. Jon Chase, will sit with the board at town board meetings to answer residents’ questions and a new procurement policy will be put in place. The highway superintendent and the town supervisor were frequently at odds throughout 2007.

Democratic Councilwoman Sherri Pine said the shift to a Democratic majority will result in more unity and better communication among board members.

Both Chase and Pine said in November that they don’t know what is to be discussed at board meetings until they arrive.

Prior to the election, Nickelsberg and Dermody had been at odds since Nickelsberg eliminated the funds for the town’s board of assessment review, on which Dermody serves. Dermody has also questioned Nickelsberg’s use of the town’s newsletter and its representation of her comments during a board meeting. Dermody was a part of a committee in 2007 that detailed fees for advertisers, how space will be allocated, and editing and content standards for the newsletter.

Former supervisors charged

This year, two former supervisors were accused of stealing from the government.

John Geurtze, a former town supervisor who was employed as a property manager by Albany County, was charged by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department following an audit by Ed Lynch, the county’s commissioner of general services.

Lynch compared the mileage of Geurtze’s vehicle with his gas card statements, which showed Geurtze’s county-issued vehicle was only getting three miles per gallon, said county spokeswoman Kerri Battle.

The charge came after Geurtze was arrested in March for driving while intoxicated.

Just weeks later, David R. Bryan, another former supervisor who had served as the town’s Democratic chair and was in positions of trust in many town organizations, was charged with stealing funds from two historical societies, a church, and the Rensselaerville library.

When he was indicted on Sept. 5, Bryan had stolen over $303,000 from four Rensselaerville civic groups. The theft had occurred between April of 2003 and April of 2007. A house principal at Albany Vo-Tech, Bryan also stole $33,659.79 from the Albany High School Student Association, according to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office.

The day Bryan was indicted, investigators from the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office visited Town Hall and updated residents on their investigation. Bryan was Rensselaerville’s supervisor in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Because too much time had gone by since he was in office, investigators could not look into town records from his terms, they said.

In October, Bryan pleaded guilty to one count of larceny, a felony.

"He’s been extremely cooperative," said Bryan’s attorney, Terence Kindlon, following the plea. Bryan "fully accepted responsibility" and "acknowledged what he did was wrong and criminal," Kindlon said.

On Dec. 10, Bryan was sentenced in Albany County Court by Judge Stephen W. Herrick to two-and-one third to seven years in prison and he must pay full restitution to his victims.

Cass to close

Last year, a 15-year-old boy escaped from the Cass Residential Center, broke into a nearby home, police said, and stole money and a vehicle from Robert and Joan Johnston.

Following the escape, Cass was under close watch. For months afterward, television crews, reporters, government officials, and citizens filled Town Hall. Many of the town’s residents sought measures to close the facility; some contacted their senators, assemblyman, county legislator, and the press.

Youths had escaped from Cass before and, in December of 2004, a woman who had been a kitchen worker at the facility, was raped at knifepoint and abducted from the center. The rape survivor became an activist this year and circulated a petition, which called for the center to close; her petition was signed by nearly 500 area residents.

Following the November escape, an emergency notification, or "Reverse 911 call," went out to area residents. Some complained they hadn’t received the notification and those who did receive a call said the information they received was misleading.

In January, J.T. Campbell and Craig Apple with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department updated residents at a packed Town Hall about the department’s emergency notification system and its knowledge of the youths at Cass.

At the end of the month, Assemblyman John McEneny, state Senator Neil Breslin, and county legislator Alexander "Sandy" Gordon toured Cass.

Following the escape, some area residents asserted that youths at the center had grown increasingly violent. McEneny said the residents at Cass were not more violent, that Cass pumps $2 million annually into the local economy, and that he didn’t know if the facility will be closed temporarily, for the long-term, or permanently.

After declining an invitation to the town’s January meeting, Tim Kelso, Cass’s director, and Ed Ausborn, the deputy commissioner of the Office of Children and Family Services, the state agency that ran Cass, attended the town’s meeting in February. Ausborn detailed security measurements that had recently been added to the facility and gave details about the most recent escape. Ausborn also outlined a measure for a perimeter fence to be erected at the facility. Residents and board members were skeptical about a fence, saying it would result in more violent offenders being placed at Cass.

At the town board’s March meeting, as the town board voted unanimously for the facility to close, Gordon implored the town board to consider what would be lost if Cass were to shut down. Gordon cited the number of employees at the center and had said earlier that residents from the center have made positive contributions.

Some residents continued their campaign against the facility, placing "Keep Camp Cass Closed" stickers on vehicles’ bumpers and erecting signs in their yards.

Workers from the center responded and campaigned against the closure, saying they wanted to continue working with youth at the facility. Ron Pullmain, a longtime Cass employee, questioned the media’s representation of Cass.

"We’re a good place. We’re good people," said Pullmain. "We’re getting bad publicity."

The juvenile center is slated to close in May of 2008, the state announced this spring.

Complex law-making

Planning for the town’s future was controversial throughout the year, as new zoning laws were drafted.

After 20 months, the town board unanimously adopted new subdivision regulations and zoning laws after a public hearing last week.

In the spring of 2006, a land-use committee of 13 residents was appointed to create a new comprehensive land-use plan, which would be used as a template to draft new zoning laws and subdivision regulations. A moratorium halting major subdivisions — those of over three lots — was narrowly passed in the spring of 2006, with the Republican majority voting in favor of the moratorium and the Democrats against it.

Throughout the planning process, lot size in the agricultural district was the most controversial issue. Since 1991 — when the town last adopted a master plan — one dwelling per five acres was permitted in the agricultural districts. During planning, the districts, which had been separate, were combined to form one large, contiguous district to protect the town’s prime soils.

The chairman of the land-use committee, Vernon Husek, resigned shortly after the town board unanimously adopted the plan in March of this year. Husek said later that it was clear that the committee, which also drafted new zoning laws, was going to vote for smaller lot sizes in the agricultural district.

Husek objected to smaller lot sizes and, after resigning, said the committee had changed from being data driven to being driven by politics. Husek continually cited lot-size recommendations of the town’s planner, Nan Stolzenburg, and the American Farmland Trust. Both had recommended less dense zoning of one dwelling per 20 or 25 acres. Husek formed a group — Rensselaerville Farmland Protection. Members of the group argued that smaller lot sizes would bring more development, higher taxes, and would not protect the town’s farmland and prime soils.

Thomas Mikulka was named the new chair of the land-use committee. He argued that the committee’s work was rushed and that larger lot sizes in the agricultural district would be unfair to owners of large properties.

At a public hearing on new zoning laws and subdivision regulations in April, some members of the land-use committee said their work was rushed and they needed more time. Some residents said their land is all they have to pass on to their children. David Lewis and his daughters, Susan and Becky — members of the land-use committee — argued that larger lot sizes create too much of a tax burden. At the April hearing, Lewis said he had no retirement plan but that his land is his retirement.

Mikulka argued that large-acre zoning is unfair and owners of large lots would see decreases in the value of their land while owners of smaller lots would see increases in their land’s value. Mikulka said he didn’t want to "screw over" long-time farming families, such as the Lewises and Kropps, whom he called "the backbone of the community."

Mikulka and members of the committee argued that other mechanisms, such as transfer of development rights and purchase of development rights could be used to protect farmland.

After the April hearing, the town board extended the moratorium on building for six months, and a new committee, with most of the same members who designed the master plan, was designated to revisit the draft zoning laws and subdivision regulations.

In September, citizens were surveyed by the town on how they want farmland developed; they were to choose between one dwelling per 5 acres and one dwelling per 20 acres in the agricultural district. After the survey was sent out, Husek’s group sent out a bulletin to area residents, urging them to vote for 20 acre-zoning.

Of about 2,400 surveys sent out, the town received 950 responses. About 650 residents voted for five-acre zoning.

As the six-month extension of the moratorium on major subdivisions was due to expire at the beginning of November, the town board extended it for another 60 days. In October, the attorney to the town, William Ryan, said one of his concerns was that, at the public hearing in April, a lot of people hadn’t yet had time to read the proposed laws.

On Dec. 19, the town board held a public hearing before adopting new zoning regulations — including 5-acre lots in the agricultural district.


Police say
Cigarette thieves collared, broke into Westerlo store

WESTERLO — Two Greene County residents were arrested this week for stealing over $1,000 worth of cigarettes from M & B’s Stop ’n’ Shop in Westerlo.

Justin F. Stanley, 22, of 9983 Route 9W, Athens, and Corrina A. Whiteford, 24, of 104 Devan Road, Greenville, were each charged with three felonies — third-degree burglary, fourth-degree grand larceny, and third-degree criminal mischief — and with a misdemeanor — fifth-degree conspiracy.

Cigarettes, said Senior Investigator Ronald Bates, with the Albany County Sheriff’s Department "are a target at many convenience stores."

"A single pack is over five dollars," said Bates. "They can sell them on the street for half that."

Bates worked on the case with lead Investigator James Goss. "An outside source," whose name Bates would not disclose, bought cigarettes from Stanley and Whiteford, he said. A third suspect was to be arrested Wednesday night, said Bates. "Those three will close it," the senior investigator said.

The theft occurred at 5 a.m. on Sept. 15, the sheriff’s department said; deputies responded to an intrusion alarm at the Stop ’n’ Shop on Route 85, where they discovered a broken window and a heavily damaged door. The burglars fled the scene shortly after tripping the alarms, according to a release from the sheriff’s department.

Stanley and Whiteford were arraigned in Westerlo Town Court by Judge Alan Bauder. Stanley was remanded to Albany County’s jail in lieu of $20,000 bail and Whiteford was released to the supervision of Albany County Probation, under pre-trial probation, the release said.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer




By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — As information is transferred slowly by the Internet to some residents in the Hilltowns, leaders and committees are discussing a grant that could bring faster access to residents.

At Berne’s town board meeting this month, Councilman-elect Peter Vance cited two $2.5 million grants offered through the Universal Broadband Access Grant Program by the state’s Chief Information Officer/Office For Technology.

Vance, now retired, had worked as a computer systems manager and as a consultant for the state government and not-for-profit agencies.

One of the two grants is to provide equal and universal broadband Internet access and is designated for "underserved rural and urban communities, including schools and libraries." A wider bandwidth carries more information. The grants require an applicant to match funds awarded by the state.

Vance said there is potential for the Hilltowns.

"We’re keenly interested in it," said Frederick Urrutia, a member of the Rensselaerville Telecommunications Committee.

Urrutia operates Broadband Technologies, Inc. out of his home in Rensselaerville. He said the most pressing issue for the Rensselaerville committee is to improve the town’s public-safety communications. While the committee is interested in the grant, Urrutia said, he is uncertain whether the deadline for the state grant will coincide with the committee’s planning.

He lauded the state for providing funding. Rural areas cannot support the costs for infrastructure and are disadvantaged by not having the service, he said.

Earlier this year, the Rensselaerville committee sent a six-question survey to town residents, asking to what degree they feel disadvantaged by not having access to high-speed Internet, whether they would subscribe to Internet access if it were available, how much they would be willing to pay for the service, and how important they feel it is to improve communication between public safety agencies. Vance and Berne Councilman James Hamilton have worked with committee.

The deadline for applications for the state grants is Jan. 31, and awards will be made starting on Feb. 29.

The grant requires a private vendor. Vance and the Berne Town Board briefly discussed the program this month. The board gave the go-ahead for Vance to contact Midtel, based in Middleburgh, and Time Warner Cable to see if they are interested.

In the neighboring town of Knox, many of the town’s residents receive cable services from Time Warner Cable and can access the Internet through Time Warner’s Road Runner — a high-speed Internet connection, according to Robert Price, the chairman of Knox’s planning board.

Other business
In other business, the Berne Town Board:

— Heard from Gerald O’Malley, the town’s receiver of taxes, that residents will be able to pay their taxes by credit card next year. O’Malley and the board discussed including information about paying by credit card when O’Malley sends residents their tax information.

He said that, formerly, only towns with a budget of $7 million or greater were eligible, but now towns with smaller budgets will be able to pay by credit card. O’Malley said residents with large tax bills in the town of Niskayuna can pay by credit card and earn points to use for vacations;

— Heard a suggestion from Councilman Joseph Golden, Berne’s deputy supervisor. Golden, who ran the meeting as Supervisor Kevin Crosier was absent, recommended board members make a list of objectives and suggestions for the upcoming year, to which they will be able to refer;

— Thanked and applauded Councilwoman Carol Crounse for her four years of service on the board. Crounse did seek another term on the town board this fall. She ran successfully for assessor; and

— Scheduled a session for Dec. 31 at 5 p.m. so officials can take the oath of office. The board also scheduled the town’s re-organizational meeting for Jan. 8 at 8 p.m., the night of its regular meeting.


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