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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 24, 2008

Growing: The battle for Bender farmland

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND – The developers who want to build a big-box mall in commercially-zoned now-vacant fields are bringing their plans to the public. At the same time, county planners have recommended the town extend its moratorium proposal from six months to 12.

Greg Widrick, the managing founder, and the other members of the Sphere Group have said that the moratorium is not necessary; they say the town could adopt a moratorium in the future and allow them to present their plan to the town and conduct studies. (His letter to the editor is on page 2.)

The development proposed for the intersection of the town’s two major thoroughfares, routes 85 and 85A, could be a “win-win” for the town, said Widrick, but a moratorium at this stage would force Sphere to “re-evaluate” the development.

The Sphere Group will give a public presentation of a possible design plan to the New Scotland Town Board and the community on April 30.  The presentation will be in the performing arts center of Voorheesville’s high school at 7 p.m.  The presentation is to include a concept plan by Saratoga and Associates.

Two sessions held by the town board have drawn hundreds of residents who are largely opposed to big-box development. A citizens’ group, New Scotlanders for Sound Economic Development, has also been formed, which is lobbying for the moratorium and against the development. It is holding a forum on April 27 at 7 p.m. at the Osterhout Community Center in New Salem.

The town’s reaction to the proposed development “doesn’t make sense,” said Widrick, in light of the Vista project. Developers are planning to build 250,000 square feet of retail and 1.2 million square feet of office space on a site straddling New Scotland and the neighboring town of Bethlehem; nearly a quarter of the proposed development will be in the northeast section of New Scotland, only a few miles from the Bender farm.  Saratoga Associates are engineering both sites.

New Scotland officials have seen proposals on the Vista Tech Park but no applications have been received, said Paul Cantlin, long-time New Scotland zoning administrator.

The portion of New Scotland that will be affected by the Vistas project is currently zoned residential, requiring each lot to be a minimum of two acres; New Scotland does not currently have a zoning option that would permit such a development as the Vista project and has taken no action as yet in creating a new zoning code for that area, according to Cantlin, who also said that no applications have been submitted for the Vista project.

Planners say extend moratorium

Last Thursday, the Albany County Planning Board recommended New Scotland’s town board adopt a moratorium on commercial development over 30,000 square feet, and advised the board to extend the proposed six-month moratorium to one full year.

The county board was entitled to comment on the proposed moratorium, “Local Law D,” before a public hearing is held.  New Scotland’s planning board is also entitled to comment; the next town planning board meeting will be on Tuesday, May 6.

Leslie Lombardo, senior planner for Albany County, said the recommendation for the year-long moratorium was because the county planning board didn’t think six months would be enough time to conduct the studies and schedule the hearings necessary to ascertain whether the current zoning laws accurately reflect the town’s desires for development.  She said the board approved the moratorium because large-scale development in that area would require modifications to the county roads and the town needed time to make the proper changes to zoning for such a development.

The county board determined that county roads would be insufficient for such a large-scale development and the town board could terminate a one-year moratorium early, but should a shorter moratorium be insufficient, the town board would have to go through the entire public hearing process in order to secure an extension, Lombardo said.

“Six months may be an ambitious schedule, but it isn’t unattainable,” said Cantlin. He said that extending the moratorium could unintentionally cause the necessary studies to be drawn out.

“Sometimes, when you have too long a time frame, you take longer getting around to it,” said Cantlin.

Current zoning laws would allow for large-scale commercial development of the type being considered for the Bender melon farm, which is being purchased by the Sphere Group for mixed-use development.

Property still in limbo

The Sphere Group was to close on the sale of the Bender farm over two weeks ago, but the sale, brokered by Platform Realty, has not been finalized.  Widrick said the closing has been postponed indefinitely due to title issues concerning the railroad tracks that run through the northeast portion of the farm, but couldn’t be more specific; he said he didn’t know when the sale would be closed. 

According to assessment maps at New Scotland’s Town Hall, the tracks are owned by the bankrupt D&H railroad. Cantlin said the county was considering buying railroad property for a hiking and biking trail.

Negotiations with Canadian Pacific Railway, which owns the old Delaware & Hudson line, have been underway for more than a decade, but have been derailed several times. The current stumbling block is that, in Canada, environmental liability falls on the buyer of a railroad while in the United States it falls on the seller, Martin Daley, project director for Parks & Trails New York, told The Enterprise earlier.

According to Widrick, the Sphere Group is planning to close on the property; he said the proposed moratorium is not the cause for the delay in closing.

Widrick concurred with an e-mailed statement from Sphere Group attorney Kathleen Bennett that said, “If a zoning amendment precluded large scale development, Sphere Development would suffer severe economic hardship and damages.”  He said the damage would be in projected profits from the project, however, and not from capital lost on the property itself.  The property, listed at $4 million, is assessed by the town at around $750,000. 

The Sphere Group has submitted no formal applications or designs.  Widrick wouldn’t comment on the number or specific variety of retailers that would be involved in the project, but told The Enterprise that the projected profits from the project would cover his investment.  He said that, as retailers typically announced themselves after site plans had been approved, it would be quite some time before residents could know exactly which retailers would be involved in the project.

Asked if the Sphere Group would proceed with plans to develop the Bender property if a moratorium were passed, Widrick said, “The answer is not that cut and dried.”

“There are other factors involved,” he said in a phone interview yesterday.  “We would have to check with our other tenants, we would have see where we stand as a company, look at our resources and decide whether we want to ride it out.” 

Super departs
Langevin says she’ll stay in community

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND –Voorheesville’s school superintendent, Linda Langevin, announced her resignation last night, citing an illness in the family as the cause.  Her resignation will be effective as of Aug. 31. 

The board president, David Gibson, expressed his regret, as did other members of the board.

The announcement came at the close of an executive session, the second in as many days. 

“I hope the district and the community understand that this is not a decision I came to lightly,” said Langevin in a press release read aloud by Gibson after the closed session. “It has been a privilege to serve the district and I hope that the strides we have made in addressing opportunities for children will continue to serve the district well into the future.”

Langevin told The Enterprise that, among other accomplishments, she was proud of her work towards aligning the curriculum and developing a database for curriculum development.

“I think everyone in the district was happy with that,” Langevin said in a phone interview last night.

Gibson said that the board would likely use Board of Cooperative Educational Services to manage the search for a new superintendent.  He also said the board did not expect the search to be completed before Mrs. Langevin was to step down; he said the board was having discussions with potential interim superintendents.

Langevin, who was appointed to the position in April of 2005, had been the superintendent of AuSable Valley Central Schools in Clintonville, N.Y. in the Adirondack region for seven years.  She took the job in order to be closer to her family.

Langevin has regularly attended town meetings as well as school functions, and says she will continue to do so.  She helped guide the district through a difficult period, soon after she arrived, when her predecessor was accused by the state comptroller of misappropriating funds.   Auditing practices have been tightened during her tenure.

She told The Enterprise that she planned to stay in the area, and to continue to be active in the community. 

Curran Quits, parents question why

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND – Sixth-grade science teacher John Curran resigned.  Parents have attended the last several school board meetings to express their disappointment that his contract was not going to be renewed, and many also came to shake their fingers at the school board’s lack of transparency.

One concerned parent asked, “What are we, as taxpayers, entitled to know about this?” 

“You are entitled to know about the process, but you do not have the right to know about personnel issues,” replied David Gibson, the president of the school board.

The school board has had several closed-door executive sessions to discuss the “employment history of a particular individual,” but members have steadfastly refused to name the individual or to indicate whether all of the meetings have been about the same individual. Gibson has said that it would be illegal for the board members to discuss anything said at an executive session, but according to Robert Freeman, the executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, this is not true; board members are, however, permitted to decline comment on the proceedings of closed-door sessions.

Curran, employed by the Voorheesville Middle School for two years, has not yet received tenure; his employment is subject to termination at the district’s discretion. He earns around $50,000 annually.  Students at the middle school signed a petition asking that Curran be allowed to stay. The petition was submitted to the board; Langevin said that some students had signed it more than once.  Curran received multiple e-mails and phone calls from The Enterprise; he did not respond.

Superintendent Linda Langevin said that Curran was not fired, but resigned.  She also said, according to district policy, a teacher cannot be fired “on the spot”; a teacher guilty of misconduct can be placed on paid leave, but otherwise a teacher’s contract can be discontinued for the next year. 

Voorheesville’s professional resources program, as presented to the district by education attorney Wayne A. Van Der Byl, focuses on giving school administrators the resources to deal with the “problem teacher.”  According to Van Der Byl’s program, “observing contractual formalities is not sufficient to produce an effective assessment of a teacher’s performance.  And, “if a teacher has a significant problem, the minimum number of formal observations should not be regarded as sufficient.”

The Enterprise requested the documentation of the number of formal observations Curran received from administrators.  The school district refused to release this information, so the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Law request on April 9, asking for the number and dates of formal observations received by Curran, as well as a copy of his letter of resignation, any information regarding a settlement between Curran and the district, and the notice Curran was given that his contract would not be renewed.  The letter, received by the district on April 9, had not been replied to as of April 22.

 According to Freeman, an agency has five business days to respond and may agree or refuse to grant access to the records requested. 

“That constitutes a failure to comply with the law,” he said of Voorheesville’s response. “The law requires an acknowledgement of the receipt of the request, including an approximate date, generally not exceeding 20 additional business days, indicating when the agency will grant the request in whole or in part.  A response indicating that a response will be given at an indeterminate time is inconsistent with the law,” Freeman said of the district’s e-mail acknowledging receipt of the FOIL request.  He said that the 20 day period of time was for records that were difficult to gather or voluminous in nature.

“What you are describing, these evaluation forms, they are not only not voluminous, they are probably all in the same place, in the same folder.  This is a violation of the law,” said Freeman.

The school’s attorney, Robert Schofeld, told The Enterprise on Tuesday that there was no violation; he said the applicable records would be made available as soon as possible but he refused to specify a date nor which records would be made available.

Parents raise concerns over evaluation processes

 “We are the customers,” one parent told the school board at its April 7 meeting, “and, as someone who has worked in customer service, I can tell you that you need to listen to the customers.”

Another asked whether parental feedback had any impact on the board’s decisions; Gibson replied that it does.

The Enterprise asked whether that impact was quantifiable or subject to review.

“No, it’s not quantifiable, but it is information that the board uses to help determine what they do,” said Gibson in a phone interview the next day.

Although the school board is not willing to release to The Enterprise letters from parents regarding Curran, officials say they are getting quite a few of them.  As far as official documentation of feedback from parents at a board meeting, the minutes from last month’s March 24 session say, “A group of parents spoke out on behalf of a middle school teacher and asked the Board to continue his employment with the district.”

Gibson spoke to parents’ concerns about the evaluation process at the meeting

 “We want good teachers in our district, and we want sound evaluations, and we have arrived, I think.  I, as a board member, think we have a good system in place,” said Gibson.  He said that the procedure for determining tenure is in place for good reason and that parents, although well intentioned, were not always privy to all the factors that determined such a decision.

“We are trying it out on tenured teachers who volunteer so we aren’t just trying it out on the newbies,” he said of the evaluation procedure.  “But we as a board, and the administration, have an obligation to go through the process, making the best decisions we can, even when the decision isn’t popular.”

Gibson went on to say that the procedures were a work in process, and that the board hadn’t achieved everything it would like.

Voorheesville parent Michael Clark replied, “I was glad to hear you say, sir, that the evaluation process hasn’t gotten to the end.  There is no place in the district where we have achieved everything we would like.”

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