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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 8, 2008
By David S. Lewis
NEW SCOTLAND The crowd was triumphant after the town board voted last night, 5 to 0, in favor of a six-month-long moratorium on commercial building.
They rose to their feet and cheered.
Over 800 people had crowded into the high-school auditorium three hours earlier to voice their views and listen to their neighbors. They brought with them a petition with 2,400 signatures that stretched to 60 feet long, all in favor of the moratorium to give the town a chance to revamp its zoning regulations.
The night before, the town’s planning board had recommended against the moratorium. (See related story.) Earlier, the Albany County Planning Board had recommended a year-long moratorium.
The Sphere Group, a two-year-old firm based in Cazenovie, N.Y., has said it will buy the 179-acre Bender melon farm in the heart of the town to build a 750,000-square-foot mall.
The developer told The Enterprise that a moratorium would make their work difficult, putting them in “suspended animation.”
Much of the petitioning was carried out by a grassroots group, New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, which formed in reaction to news of the Sphere proposal.
Scores of residents spoke in favor of the moratorium, their comments punctuated by applause from the crowd. Only one man, an old farmer, spoke against it. He said he had been in town a long time and a moratorium wasn’t needed.
Edie Abrams, a citizen watchdog, read town board members excerpts from Enterprise interviews, highlighting statements each had made on the importance of planning and considering the townspeople’s wishes.
Sphere has repeatedly attempted to assuage the doubting residents that their aim is to provide a development at a scale and aesthetic not only acceptable, but pleasing to the populace.
The property was set to close several weeks ago, but the Sphere Group says that the closing has been postponed due to a title issue involving the former D & H railroad track running through the property. Now owned by the Canadian-Pacific railroad, the defunct track cuts off around a quarter of the property. Representatives from Sphere say they intend to close on the sale, but if the title issues can’t be resolved, the sale won’t close.
The property, assessed by the town to be worth around $750,000, was placed on the market for $4 million. Town assessor, Julie Nooney, said the discrepancy was due to limits on the assessing process. She said that there hadn’t been any sales in New Scotland’s commercial zone to justify a $4 million price tag.
“If you are marketing a piece of property, you don’t have to have any substantiation,” Nooney told The Enterprise. “Believe me, if I had put a $4 million assessment on that piece of property … you can bet I would have had the owners knocking on my door, asking where I got those numbers.”
“I would never put an assessment on a piece of property that I don’t have justification for,” said Nooney.
Does that indicate shortsightedness in the assessment guidelines? Not necessarily, according to Nooney.
“Not for four-and-a-half million dollars…No one could have foreseen that,” said Nooney. “When assessing vacant land, you are assessing ‘as is,’ not to highest potential. If you have the investment, if you have the land, you are going to sit on it and wait for that ship to come in,” said Nooney. She told The Enterprise that a 60-acre parcel of commercially-zoned land across the street had sold for $540,000; unlike the Bender property, the site had water and sewer, making it worth much more per acre than its 179-acre neighbor, which has no such infrastructure.
“We can’t estimate and say, Vista is coming in this year,” she said, referring to Bethlehem’s Vista development project, one-quarter of which will extend into New Scotland’s northeastern quadrant, currently zoned residential for two-acre lots. Nooney said she thought the Vista project opened the door for developers to consider the entire area as potentially viable land for development.
“The Vista Technology Park was still in proposal when we assessed the piece,” said Nooney.
According to Joseph Hesch, spokesperson for the state’s Office of Real Property Services, the value at which land is assessed is up to the assessor.
“They can use any method,” he said. “The evaluation is strictly the assessor’s call.” He said that the method of using recent market sales is mainly used for residential real estate.
Sphere Group wag fingers
at Vista Tech Park
Saratoga Associates, is handling the Vista project, which will include office spaces and 250,000 square feet of retail space, but during a recent conference with the Enterprise editorial board, Sphere representatives said that they felt the Vista developer had been “dishonest.”
“In my mind, it’s dishonest,” said Sphere Group representative Kurt Wendler. “You start with office and then flip over to retail.”
Saratoga Associates were contracted by the Sphere Group to draw up the concept plan presented to the town board and residents on April 7.
Although Wendler said that there were no other anchor stores committed, Wendler said of propositions from other anchor retailers, “I would be a fool not to consider it.”
He later said, “We can guarantee you, what you see on that plan: we’re not doing more than that.”
The developers also expressed that they felt they had been characterized as “dishonest” and that the town had not given them a fair chance.
“I could have stood up there and said five-hundred-thousand square feet, just to keep my numbers,” said Gregory Widrick, managing founder of the Sphere group, remarking on the disparity of his first estimate. At an earlier meeting, Widrick said the development would probably be around 500,000 square feet; now developers say the project size has increased by 50 percent to around 750,000 square feet. Widrick said that people had pressed him for a number; he said he gave them the best number he could.
The Sphere Group has failed to disclose many other numbers, however; although they say a moratorium would be unfair and prevent negotiations, representatives refuse to say how much they have already spent on the project. The developer has also failed to disclose how much they are paying for the property, which they have not yet purchased. On whether there exists a sufficient customer base for the mall, which according to residents would be the fourth largest in the area, Sphere partners say yes; they think that the two tenants already signed on have conducted sufficient studies.
Drumming up support
After last night’s planning board meeting, Sphere Group public relations consultant John D’Alessandro criticized NS4SED’s citizen advocacy as “negative,” and said that his group would never try to “cultivate support among the residents.”
However, the Sphere Group took around 20 residents to Bella Sera, formerly J. J. Madden’s, on Tuesday afternoon. While some residents said that representatives of the Sphere Group contacted them at their offices and workplaces, Widrick suggested that many of the residences in attendance had contacted them through their public relations consultant, Zone 5, based in Albany, the firm Sphere hired for public-relations consulting.
Sphere associates John D’Alessandro and Eric Wohlleber are both from the public affairs firm; D’Alessandro has had more than 30 years of experience in public relations and has worked for Reliant Energy and British American Development and Wohlleber has worked as a broadcast reporter and producer. Widrick acknowledged spending “no more than $500” on “appetizers” for the residents who attended the meeting, during which Widrick said he presented information about the development and how it would benefit the local economy.
“When I saw what they were going to put up there, it was adorable,” said Kristy York, one resident who attended the meeting at Bella Sera. “I just don’t see what the problem is.”
York, who co-owns a local business in New Scotland, said that she wasn’t afraid that corporate shops and restaurants would undermine her business.
“My fear that someone else won’t be as cooperative as this developer is now,” she said.
“If you don’t need it, why do it?” said York of the moratorium. “Both sides give a little, and then you don’t get this big box-size store in the middle of our town, or their town, or whatever.”
“I believe they can make roadways and parking lots fit into the community without taking away the rural characteristics…They can add the trees so they don’t look like the parking lots at Wal-Mart and Crossgates,” said York. I think boosting our economy would be good for everyone.”
Planning board advises against moratorium
By David S. Lewis
NEW SCOTLAND In a packed hall Tuesday night, the planning board was divided, 2 to 5, voting against a moratorium on commercial building.
In accordance with state law, the New Scotland Planning Board was given a chance to make a statement on the moratorium. The moratorium was proposed after the Sphere Group expressed interest in buying 179 acres of the old Bender melon farm to build a 750,000-square-foot open-air mall.
Board members Beth Stewart and Chuck Voss voted in favor of the moratorium. While Stewart did not make a statement on her position, Voss said that he thought the moratorium was necessary to step back and determine whether the zoning law was in line with the town’s comprehensive plan. He pointed out that zoning laws were meant to follow the guidelines set in the comprehensive land-use plan, not the other way around.
Voss, a senior planner for CT Male, said that, while he was generally opposed to moratoriums, he encouraged the town board to enact a “very brief moratorium.”
Every other member of the board Chairman Robert Stapf, and board members Kevin T. Kroencke, Robert Smith, Lorraine Tuzzolo, and Cynthia Elliot all voted against the moratorium.
Smith noted that the owners had been paying taxes on the property since they purchased it in 1976 and he blamed the townspeople for the degradation of the town’s character.
“As far as the character of this town, it was ruined by you people, as far as I’m concerned,” said Smith.
Smith said he had been in the town longer than most of the people in the room, adding that he had been a farmer and had spent much of his life in construction.
“The rural character has already been somewhat tainted,” he said, noting that his experience in construction had taught him that moratoriums were “generally ineffective.”
Kroencke was also outspoken on the issue, and said that he was frustrated with the way the issue had been handled on “both sides of the fence.” He said he would not support a moratorium of more than three months.
“I’m going hold your feet to the fire,” said Kroencke. He also spoke out on the danger of allowing residential development on commercially-zoned land.
“You can plant all the melons you want, you can plant all the corn your want; those are gone in six months. If you build a house, that’s going to sit there,” he said. He advocated for a moratorium that would encompass all development.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Kroencke.
The next night, at Wednesday’s packing public hearing on the moratorium, Kroencke announced he was reversing his decision and said he was sorry for his vote.
Tuesday’s session, like two held earlier by the town board, was packed. As petitions circulate against the plan, lawn signs urging a “yes” vote on the moratorium have appeared in yards across town.
After the meeting, The Enterprise asked Stapf to whom he believed the yard signs were addressed, the elected town board officials or the appointed members of the planning board.
“I think they are addressed to all public officials,” he responded. He went on to say that he believed the planning board was adhering to the law, and that the moratorium was premature, repeating the conviction he expressed earlier, during the meeting. He said that several long-time residents had thanked him for opposing the moratorium.
The Enterprise posed the same question to Councilman Doug LaGrange, who said that he thought the signs were to raise awareness for the citizens as well as appeal to the town’s boards.
LaGrange said that the planning board’s advice had not affected his stance on the proposed moratorium.
“Chuck Voss articulated it well,” he said. “There’s a murkiness in the law….”
A new kind of yard sign
At recent meetings, no one has spoken against a moratorium, which proponents say is needed to give the town time to align its zoning with its comprehensive land-use plan. No one has written letters to the Enterprise editor against the moratorium. And, until Tuesday night, no signs had opposed a moratorium.
Signs encouraging the town board to oppose the moratorium literally sprang up overnight; as no group advocating for the opposition had announced themselves, the source of the signs were a mystery until Kristy York confirmed that they had been given out by representatives of the developer at a meeting at Bella Sera, a restaurant on New Scotland Road.
The Enterprise called Greg Widrick, managing founder of the Sphere Group, to confirm the statement, but Widrick denied distributing the yard signs to the residents at the restaurant. He declared that the Sphere Group had nothing to do with the printing of the signs, although Kristy York, who attended the meeting, said that members of the group were distributing them there.
Widrick recalled seeing signs at the meeting, but said he couldn’t remember exactly what they said.
“I definitely did not have them printed, or hand them to anyone,” he said. He said the signs “may” have been printed and distributed by John D’Alessandro, his public affairs consultant from Zone 5, but he would not confirm it and deferred comment to D’Alessandro.
Widrick acknowledged hiring Zone 5’s D’Alessandro but would not acknowledge that D’Alessandro was accountable to Widrick.
D’Alessandro told the Enterprise while last night’s public hearing was underway that Voorheesville resident John Jeffers had paid for the signs. “Mr. John Jeffers rounded up a bunch of like-minded residents and asked Sphere to present to them,” said D’Alessandro. He said that Zone 5 had printed the signs.
When asked if he thought the crowd of over 850 at the hearing represented the community’s wishes, D’Alessandro said he did not think it did.
Developers can’t lope past county history
By David S. Lewis
NEW SCOTLAND Developers have announced their plan to build a large outdoor mall on the 179-acre stead known as the Bender melon farm, causing many residents to not only protest the nuisances of large-scale development, but also the loss of a significant piece of Albany County history.
Voorheesville village historian Dennis Sullivan, a poet and a researcher, published Charles Bender And The Bender Melon Farm: A Local History in 1990. Likely the authoritative text on the Bender farm, the book was first published as a two-part series in The Enterprise in the fall of 1986.
According to Sullivan’s history, Charles Bender began experimenting with muskmelons in 1884 on the family farm. After 17 years of development, he was finally satisfied, having developed a variety of which he was proud enough to give his name.
Bender’s Golden Queens, developed from an earlier strain called “Surprise,” were first sold to the famous New York restaurant Rector’s in 1905. The cantaloupe, a member of the cucurbits family of fruit, became one of the most important melons ever grown in New York State.
At the turn of the last century, most melons grown in the area were green-fleshed muskmelons; Bender’s variety of the popular “Surprise” had sweet orange flesh that could be eaten down to the outer rind, which was only a quarter of an inch thick. The melons, at the heyday of the farm, were shipped to 33 states and several European countries.
The Joseph Harris Seed Company’s 1917 catalogue declared, “We never raised finer muskmelons than Bender’s Surprise.” Bender, well-known for guarding the farm’s most important secrets, was always careful to keep the seeds. In the years before genetically-modified vegetables, crops were open-pollinated, and a strain could be easily stolen simply by growing superior seeds and naming them your own.
“When I talked to Mr. Harris of Harris seeds, which was one of the great seed companies, he said when Harris bought Bender’s Surprise, they regarded it as one of the great coups in their company’s history,” Sullivan told The Enterprise.
Charles Bender, who in addition to exporting melons, sold them right off the farm to long lines of hungry locals in the hot days of summer, especially after weekend races, when cars would form long lines up the Schoharie Turnpike (Route 85). He would famously slice the melons in half with a knife and scoop out the seeds, carefully saving them to protect him from fraudulent farmers.
His caution likely did little to protect him, as many farmers would grow and sell “Bender” melons, but certainly added to the mystique of the Bender melons, which could fetch 50 cents per fruit at a time when other melons were selling for around a nickel apiece.
The original strain of Surprise probably arrived in the country from Japan in the mid-19th Century. Grower G.H. Price, who introduced the melon in 1876, never told where it had come from, but it is possible that both Bender and Price received seed from the same source-- Colonel James Hendrick, who lived on the Hendrick farm adjacent to the Bender spread.
The colonel likely received the first seeds for orange-fleshed muskmelons from the United States’ Minister to Japan, Robert Hewson Pruyn. Japan, after several hundred years of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world, had opened its ports to Admiral Matthew Perry less than two decades before Price announced his “Surprise.” Charles Bender was one of the first generation to grow the new, wildly popular cantaloupe melon.
Charles Bender was a force on the farm until his death in 1945, at the age of 80. While he carefully guarded the “secrets” of his famed melons, the dairy farmer who purchased the farm from him in 1939, told Sullivan, “There was only one secret: Baby them in every way possible.”
The melons were hand-tended and even covered with small, individual greenhouses called “lights.” Bender used hog manure for fertilizer, believing it the only manure that wouldn’t “burn the vines.” The seeds were carefully sorted and locked in safe-deposit boxes for the next year’s planting; this thorough approach and his marketing savvy together made Charles Bender the regional success he is remembered as today.
William Taylor had less luck; when he took over the farm, it hadn’t been worked for several years and the buildings and soil were in poor shape. After conditioning the soil with enormous amounts of lime to correct the pH level, Taylor grew the melons, under close supervision of Bender himself, for only three years before surrendering.
Labor had become scarce as the war in Europe caused many workers to enlist, and the wartime scarcity of the pesticide, Rototene, resulted in entire fields of melons turning black with the wilt. Taylor continue to herd cows on the property until he sold it in 1976 to a group of Albany County doctors using the name of MLF Enterprises.
“Who owns that view of the Helderberg Mountains? Who owns the history of that piece of property?” asked Sullivan. “I don’t want to say it is a sacred space, but it is a space that reflects that collective memory. To me, that is very important,” he said, discussing the town’s proposed moratorium on large-scale commercial development. The proposal was voted on at Wednesday’s town board meeting.
He wouldn’t speculate on the outcome, but said that the town’s officials needed to remember to represent the residents.
“You know, you take a look at the ideology of the town board, and you take a look at people’s collective philosophy on these things, and the people we elected become treasonous in terms of this collective consciousness.”
Tulip Queen Candidates have goals beyond beauty
By David S. Lewis
NEW SCOTLAND Two New Scotland Sunday-school teachers are in the running to be Albany’s Tulip Queen. Jessica Engel, of Voorheesville, and Amy LaGrange, of Feura Bush, are among the five finalists, one of whom will be crowned at a ceremony on May 10.
The queen serves as the ambassador of the city of Albany; she and her court will also be involved with Mayor Jerry Jennings’s literacy campaign, bringing local authors and the queen and her court to schools to read.
“The Tulip Queen doesn’t focus on beauty”
LaGrange, 21, was nominated by her older sister, Kristy, after expressing interest in the tulip pageant. She studies English and special education at The College of Saint Rose.
“I had mentioned it to her that it was a cool thing, and she wrote a really nice letter,” said LaGrange, daughter of town councilman Doug LaGrange. “Mayor Jennings’s literacy campaign is just great,” said LaGrange. “To be able to have that opportunity to improve literacy, that is what I want out of this, pretty much; it is one more way I can give back to my community.”
LaGrange, a deacon at the Unionville Reformed Church, has taught Sunday school there since her first year of high school. She started a youth program at the church, “Kidz with Bibles.” She said the church, hadn’t had a youth program since she herself was a youth. LaGrange said she has grown close to many of her students and is now teaching some of their younger siblings.
LaGrange is no stranger to civic duty, either; she volunteered her time at Child’s Nursing Home, where her mother worked, from middle school until she graduated; at 16 she coordinated every volunteer at the nursing home.
“Every Saturday, that was where I was,” said LaGrange.
She went to school for recreational therapy but switched her field of study to special education, and began working part-time as a health-care provider for people with Down’s syndrome.
“I have never thought of this as a pageant; I have never considered it to be that,” she said when queried on the merits of pageantry. “The Tulip Queen doesn’t focus on beauty whatsoever; I definitely would not win if it did,” she said. “The contest is about showing the community that there are strong women out there that give back to the community; that’s what’s really important.”
Athlete wants to fight childhood obesity
Engel, 21, is a senior at the State University of New York’s College at Plattsburgh, where she is studying broadcast journalism with minors in business and broadcast. Her father, Raymond, nominated Engel, who will graduate on May 17. Engel has taught Sunday school for four years at St. Matthew’s in Voorheesville.
Engel, an athlete who has played volleyball, basketball, and softball, says that one of her goals is to begin a program that combats childhood obesity, which has become a serious problem.
“It is becoming a national epidemic, if it hasn’t already,” said Engel, who hopes to begin a program that will encourage children to stay fit by playing sports.
Engel has also been involved with the Ronald McDonald House, the City Mission, and the Relay for Life, in which she first participated eight years ago. As a resident assistant at her dormitory at SUNY Plattsburgh, she has led food drives and fund-raisers to help those in need.
“The biggest one we did was the Adopt-a-Friend program, which was around Christmastime,” she said. “We raised money for children not fortunate enough to get gifts, and we even raised enough to buy some extra.”
Engel and her dorm-mates raised $150, which was about $100 more than their $50 goal.
Engel spoke highly of last year’s court; she said that the newcomers would have huge shoes to fill.
“I think bringing in local authors also gave children a chance to put a face with the book,” she said of the literacy program.
She hopes to conduct local book drives and other literacy-promoting activities.
“Anything we can do, as a state, to promote literacy,” she said passionately. “There are certain parts of Albany that aren’t Voorheesville; I just want everyone to get the same chance that I did.”