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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 15, 2008


Top-cop search
Will suit derail Durivage’s chances?

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A cop being sued for $5 million is among the final three candidates for the police chief position here.

John Aretakis, a flamboyant attorney who was recently sanctioned by a federal judge for bringing a baseless suit before the court, is suing Robert Durivage, a North Greenbush police officer who has applied for the chief position.  The case that precipitated Aretakis’s suit, decided in Sand Lake Court in 2006, has been sealed since Aretakis brought his suit in federal court, alleging that Durivage violated his civil rights.

Durivage could not be reached for comment.

In a letter to the Guilderland Town Board, dated May 13, Aretakis details several issues with Durivage’s history at the North Greenbush department that he believes makes him unfit for the chief position in Guilderland.

“It’s a little political in nature,” Supervisor Kenneth Runion said of the letter, adding that police officers often face lawsuits. “It’s just the nature of the work.”

“It’s really going to be up to the board,” Runion said, “how they want to proceed.”

The town board interviewed eight candidates for the chief of police position, which has been empty for just about a year.  It narrowed the field to three people, who were asked for second-round interviews last week.  One is acting chief Carol Lawlor; the other is John Tedesco, a police officer from Troy.

Runion expects that the board will invite Durivage to answer questions raised in the letter in a closed session before its regular meeting next Tuesday.

“At a minimum, I would like to… give him the opportunity to respond to the allegations,” Runion said.

Overall, Runion said, Durivage had excellent references from a variety of places, which is one of things, in his mind, that got Durivage a second interview.  He also said that Durivage scored well on the Civil Service exam.  His grade, according to the initial list of three eligible candidates generated by civil service in June of last year, was 70 out of 100.

“The most important thing is the interview,” said Councilman Mark Grimm, of the weight he gives to each candidate’s application.  “I would never make a determination based on one person,” he said later, in reference to the letter from Aretakis. 

Grimm had remembered news accounts of the incident between Durivage and Aretakis from a couple of years ago, he said, and asked Durivage about it during an interview.  “As I recall, he handled it appropriately,” Grimm said of his answer, although he couldn’t remember the specifics of it.

“This guy took a shot at me because I’m a high-profile lawyer,” Aretakis said yesterday of Durivage’s handling of the arrest and following prosecution.

“No candidate gets universal support,” Grimm said.  “I’m giving fair weight to everything that comes in on every candidate.”


Reroute
$17M plans to revamp Fuller

By Saranac Hale Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Several options are on the table for the reconstruction plans on Fuller Road and the final decision won’t be made for months to come.

The two projects, with a combined estimated cost of nearly $17 million, consist of the “corridor project,” which covers improvements along the whole stretch of the 1.7 mile road from Western to Central avenues, and the “intersection project,” which will reconfigure at least two major intersections on Fuller.  Both projects are expected to be finished in 2010, said Albany County’s commissioner of public works, Michael Franchini, at a public meeting to gather feedback on the plans held last Thursday at the State University at Albany’s Nanotech College.

According to some of the proposals, the Nanotech campus would stand to gain a significant amount of developable land since Washington Avenue Extension might shift to follow the curve of I-90.  If the arch of that thoroughfare were to invert, there would be a land swap between the department of transportation, which owns the roadway, and the college, which owns the wooded area.  Since both are state agencies, it would be relatively uncomplicated, said Franchini.

A few options are available for approaching the Washington Avenue Extension portion of the intersection project — that road is maintained by the state, Fuller is a county road, and Washington Avenue is maintained by the City of Albany.  “So, it’s complicated,” Franchini said of that area. 

One option is to keep the traffic light largely as it is, with changes to accommodate more traffic; another changes the light in favor of a three-lane approach roundabout; yet another includes a bridge that would carry through traffic on Washington Avenue over the intersection altogether, leaving the roundabout for those making a turn; and a similar plan for what is called a single point urban interchange, which also has a bridge to carry Washington Avenue traffic over Fuller Road.

The other major intersection to be reconfigured is where Fuller meets the I-90 ramps — a somewhat less complicated affair that will be handled with a straightforward roundabout.

The introduction of roundabouts in an area where only traditional traffic devices have been used is a concern to some residents in the area who have trouble getting out of their small suburban streets onto Fuller as it is now, with the pockets created by red lights.  This was chief among the concerns raised at the meeting.  Patrick Kenneally, of Greenman-Pedersen, Inc., assured residents that the normal flow of traffic will allow for ample opportunity to enter Fuller Road.

Roundabouts naturally slow traffic, Creighton Manning engineer Jeff Pangburn, said, which means that the roads are safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.  Several people asked about amenities that might be offered for cyclists given the rising price of fuel, still others asked about expanded stops for CDTA travelers.  The entire stretch of Fuller is slated for new sidewalks, according to the plans, and there will be a four-foot shoulder for bikes.

In the two years planned for reconstruction, the worn old roadway will be rebuilt from the soil up, said Kenneally, and it will stay mostly in the existing right-of-way.  Fuller will be handled in two sections — work will be done on the strip from Western Avenue to Washington Avenue in 2009 and the second half, from Washington Avenue to Central Avenue, will be under construction in 2010.  During those two years, the road will always be open to traffic, Kenneally said, probably with one lane open.

When the project is finished, officials at the meeting said that the road wouldn’t need to be reworked for at least 25 years or so.  Right now, the county is trying to gather input from residents and commuters before it makes a decision on which configuration will be used — a choice Franchini expects to be made in late fall or early winter.


Mistrial prolongs family’s agony

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — After waiting nearly a year, Justin Fields had his day in court Friday, but a mistrial was abruptly declared in the midst of the first testimony.

Fields and his family have felt targeted by Altamont’s public safety commissioner and were eager to put the accusations behind them.

Fields, now 17, is charged with two counts of assault. He was arrested last May 15 after a fight in his home at 206 Main Street in the village. His sister, Amanda Fields, 18, signed a statement alleging the assault by her brother but now says it was a mutual fight.

“I feel I was coerced by the police chief into saying things that really didn’t happen,” Amanda fields told The Enterprise, referring to Public Safety Commissioner Anthony Salerno; he did not return calls seeking comment.

Some things written in the report, she said, were “completely false.” For example, she recalled, “It said he cracked a chessboard over my head. He cracked it over his leg,” she said of her brother.

The only injury she suffered were two small bumps on the head, which happened as she tussled with her brother and they fell off of a cot, said Amanda Fields. Her brother was far more seriously injured and bloodied since he and her ex-boyfriend had fought on the gravel driveway, she said.

“I would like to see my brother get off,” she said. “There’s no reason for him to get charged.”

Justin Fields went to jail after the incident. “He hasn’t touched me since,” said Amanda Fields.

Two views

Friday afternoon, after a jury of six had been selected from a pool of jurors that packed the small village courtroom at 9 a.m., Judge Rebecca Hout read the charges — both misdemeanors. Amanda Fields had suffered bruising and swelling to her head and neck, substantial pain and other injuries, and was treated at St. Peter’s Hospital, said Hout. Justin Fields, she said, was charged with hitting her in the head with a chessboard, punching her, and threatening that he would kill her.

Justin Fields was also charged, she said, with injuring James Bryan, Amanda Fields’s boyfriend at the time, hitting him with a closed fist and tackling him to the gravel driveway, causing lacerations and bruising.

In her opening statement, the assistant district attorney, Renée Merges, told the jury that this was “an important case.” She said it was a case about “family violence that is often shushed up,” blamed on the police making too much of it.

The prosecutor told those in the jury they would hear Amanda Fields testify “however reluctantly...with her brother sitting here and her parents there.” The eyes of the jury followed as Merges gestured to Justin Fields, a slight young man with short-cropped hair, wearing jeans and a striped knit shirt. His arrest report lists his height at 5 feet, 3 inches, and his weight at 130 pounds.

The jury also stole looks at Justin’s parents sitting in the back row of the near-empty courtroom — Michael Fields and Deborah Flansburg — a working-class couple dressed in their best. They’ve been together for 26 years and Michael Fields said, after the trial, that he was upset by the prosecutor’s reference to family violence, stating that it isn’t true.

Merges continued, telling the jury what Amanda Fields did last May 15: “She came to this police station and she told the Altamont Police what had just happened to her,” she said. James Bryan, she said, would testify he came on the scene after Amanda called him to help her. “She was afraid because her brother hurt her and was afraid he’d hurt her more,” said Merges.

Bryan arrived at 206 Main Street after Amanda Fields had left, Merges said. “This defendant confronted him...came at him...They wrestled to the ground...He took his shirt off...and now his back was scraping on the gravel driveway...You’ll see those pictures....”

Perhaps, Merges said, the jury would hear a “little bit of that young-man macho,” not wanting to admit that someone hurt him.

“I’ll ask you to return the only verdict based on the credible testimony as you listen carefully for it because there are certain obstacles in this particular case...This is not going to be easy for this witness to do,” said Merges as she called for a guilty verdict.

Michael Jurena, the public defender assigned to Fields, told the jury that the case was about “a lot of drama.”

The brother and sister, he said were in “a tussle.” She called her boyfriend at the time, and he arrived as a “knight in shining armor,” said Jurena.

“They scuffle; it happens,” said Jurena. Amanda Fields was mad and went to the police. “What you’ll hear is a lot of exaggeration,” Jurena told the jury.

Amanda’s testimony

Amanda Fields was called to testify first. Silence settled over the court room as she couldn’t, at first, be found. Her mother jumped up to get her.

“That’s not necessary, ma’am,” said Merges. “I’ll get her.”

A petit blonde with a delicate build, Amanda Fields finally walked to the witness stand. As Merges questioned her about the events of last May 15, she answered with a quiet but firm voice.

She was watching TV with her brother, she said, and no one else was home. She had moved a dresser from her mother’s room to her own room and some of the things from the dresser were on the floor.

“He wanted me to pick it up,” said Amanda Fields. “I said no. Me and him got into a verbal fight and called each other names.”

When she went into her room, her brother pushed the dresser in front of her closed door so she couldn’t leave, she said. “I called my ex-boyfriend,” she said. Then she moved the dresser by opening the door a little bit.

“We were both angry,” she said.

Merges asked if her brother was screaming threats.

Jurena objected, saying Merges was leading the witness.

 ”Sustained,” said Judge Hout.

Amanda Fields, responding to the prosecutor’s questions, said her brother was calling her names and saying he would kill her.

“I’m sure I was saying the same things to him,” she said. “He said it was my mess and I should pick it up...I threw something at him to start it off.”

“I’m going to ask that the witness be declared hostile,” said the prosecutor to the judge. “She’s saying now it’s a mutual disagreement.”

Jurena said that Amanda Fields simply wasn’t giving the answers that Merges wanted.

Mistrial

“Miss Fields, do you feel you need to be represented by your own counsel here?” asked Judge Hout.

“I don’t understand,” replied Amanda Fields.

The judge then asked the jury to leave the courtroom.

“We have a problem,” Hout said. If there is a potential for perjury, the judge said, she needed to allow the witness to have legal counsel.

“It doesn’t make it perjury,” insisted Jurena.

“This defendant says there are things she would have said or done a different way,” said Merges.

“She hasn’t provided any testimony that is perjurous,” reiterated Jurena. Amanda Fields needs counsel, he said, because Merges “is threatening her with prosecution.”

“I never said that,” responded Merges.

As the two lawyers argued over her head, Amanda Fields said to Merges, “You said to me, if I didn’t say exactly what was in there,” she said of her statement to police on May 15, “I’d need an attorney.”

To emphasize the truth of her statement, Amanda Fields said, “I’m under oath right now.”

“And I’m an officer of the court,” answered Merges to the witness.

As the prosecutor shouted a response, Jurena said, “Simply because it’s different doesn’t make it perjury.”

He went on, “I want a mistrial because I think the jury has been prejudiced.”

The jury did hear the witness say she may be changing her statement, said Judge Hout.

Merges asked that the mistrial be declared “without prejudice to the people.”

“I take full responsibility in asking that question in front of the jury and I declare a mistrial,” said Hout.

“If I was under oath, I wasn’t going to lie,” said Amanda Fields.

The judge concluded that, because she asked Fields in front of the jury if she may need legal counsel, it could “taint” the case. She dismissed the case “without prejudice to the prosecution.”

The trial was rescheduled for June 4.

Merges told The Enterprise that she plans to proceed with the case, even if the testimony of Amanda Fields doesn’t match her original statement to police.

Under surveillance

The Fields-Flansburg family contends that, since the police were initially called to their house for a fight between the children, Salerno has interfered with their lives.

 “This officer has continually harassed my son, going as far as to put his hands down my son’s pants while … searching him,” said Deborah Flansburg.

Justin Fields has been handcuffed and searched, the family and other witnesses say, although no contraband has been found and no arrests were made after the searches.

“I was shocked; I was scared,” said Justin Fields of being searched on an Altamont street.

“You don’t slap cuffs on a 15-year-old kid,” said his father.

“He patted me down,” said Justin Fields. “He went down my pants, over my boxers...We were sitting handcuffed for an hour. He said, ‘You got lucky this time.’”

Later, when Justin was a passenger in a friend’s car, they were pulled over, he said.  “I didn’t want him to do that to me again,” he said of being searched; he asked if it could be done in front of his parents. “I was screaming, ‘Can he do this?’” Justin recalled and said he felt “embarrassed” and “violated.”

The car was searched several times and a German shepherd was brought in from the Guilderland Police, said Justin Fields, but no illegal substances were found.

On May 15, Justin Fields said, “My sister and I both woke up a little grumpy.”

When he asked her to clean up the stuff that had been thrown on the floor, he said, “She started a hissy fit…My sister egged me on, throwing stuff at me. She wanted her boyfriend to see a big scene.”

“My daughter, she’s a thrower,” said Michael Fields. “My son gets upset if you mess up his stuff.

“Six Altamont cops came right up to my house,” said Michael Fields. “Salerno says, ‘I told you this was going to happen.’”

After the fight, Justin Fields spent the night in jail. His parents had no quarrel with this; they said they thought that would be an end to it and Justin would learn a lesson. While they said they thought it was normal for teenage siblings to fight verbally, they do not condone physical fighting.

Altamont judge Neil Taber at that time issued an order of protection. “He sat us down...and explained what this order meant,” said Flansburg. “It means no physical contact. He even said this does not mean they cannot act like brother and sister. When a brother and sister live together, they will have disagreements and call each other names.”

Second arrest

Three days after the May 15 fight and arrest, Justin Fields was arrested again, for second-degree criminal contempt, a misdemeanor, and second-degree harassment, a violation.

Justin Fields had returned home from jail. “All he was trying to do,” said Flansburg, “was make up with Amanda and she wouldn’t let him.”

“He called me the C-word,” said Amanda. “I told my mother and she said, ‘What are you — the queen?’”

When she got to Guilderland High School, Amanda said, “I told a teacher that me and him had an altercation.”

Justin Fields was arrested at school, arraigned in Guilderland Town Court, and sent to Albany County’s jail on $2,500 bail.

Justin Fields said he wasn’t allowed to call his parents. When he got to court, Salerno “hooks me up next to a little thing next to the phone and I asked if I could call my dad; he said no,” recalled Justin Fields. He also said he didn’t get to say one word to the judge who met privately with Salerno.

“He should have been entitled to a phone call, absolutely,” said Jurena.

No one called Justin’s parents to say he was in jail. At 8 p.m. that night, Michael Fields heard from a friend of Justin that he had been taken out of school in handcuffs that day, he said.

“I didn’t even know what court he got arraigned in,” said Michael Fields. He finally found out where his son was by calling a friend who is a guard at Albany County’s jail, he said. Justin Fields spent another night in jail.

Asked what it was like, he said, “I was just sleeping. I didn’t want to deal with it. I try not to think about it.”

Brian Forte, a member of the Guilderland Police Department stationed at the high school, said, “Normally, it’s me that’s making the arrest and I always call the parents.”

Occasionally, though, another police agency makes an arrest and follows its own rules, he said. “Tony came here to get Justin and took custody,” he said of Salerno. “It’s not our burden to call if another agency makes the arrest.”

He also said of Salerno, “I deal with Tony with kids from the school all the time. I don’t see him as a big, intimidating, harassing force.”

Living wit her grandmother

Amanda Fields said that Salerno “filled out the police report and told me I couldn’t read it but had to sign it.” She went on, “He came to my house and made me fill out the statement...He told me it wasn’t safe for me to live there.”

Amanda Fields moved in with her grandmother, Ginny Flansburg, of Guilderland.

“Brothers and sisters fight, so it’s better with her at my house,” said Flansburg last month. “Officer Salerno brought her to my house. He sat down and talked to me about it. I don’t know [what happened on May 15]. I wasn’t there. If Justin’s like that, I didn’t want him at my house.”

Asked if she felt unsafe around Justin, Flansburg said, “No, he doesn’t make me feel threatened...His mother said he would never hit Mandy again. I think maybe he’s learned his lesson. They put him in jail.“

She also said, “Mandy has always spent a lot of time at my house. When Debbie had Justin, I would take Amanda.”

At 68, Virginia Flansburg works two jobs — at a dress shop and at Albany Medical Center; she retired from full-time work there as a payroll representative.

Amanda dropped out of school in this, her senior, year, said her grandmother, largely because she suffers from painful fibromyalgia, like her mother and other relatives. “It makes her extremely tired,” said her grandmother. “It’s been all through the year.”

Amanda Fields moved back home to Altamont several weeks ago. Her parents say her grandmother catered to her and she enjoyed that.

“It was close to the mall and her boyfriend,” said her mother.

“And away from her father’s rules,” said her father.

Amanda said she decided to move back home because she rescued a Rottweiler puppy and her grandmother can’t keep a dog.

Asked about her relationship with her brother, she said, “We’re pretty close, but sometimes we don’t get along.”

Asked if she ever felt threatened by her brother, Amanda Fields said, “I felt more threatened when they asked me these questions when I was rattled.”

She went on, “I would like to see my brother get off. There’s no reason for him to get charged.”

After he spent the night in jail, she said, “He hasn’t touched me since. We’ve been living together. We haven’t gotten in a single fight....I’m getting along with my brother....I feel like me and my brother can’t walk down the street without looking over our shoulder at a cop.“

She also said, “When I told the truth, it should have been over a long time ago.”

Amanda Fields said that, two weeks after the May 15 fight with her brother, she and her family talked to the assistant district attorney, Renée Merges, and Judge Hout. “We told them it didn’t happen,” she said.

Legal battles

Justin’s parents estimate that, in the last year, they have been to Guilderland and Altamont courts dozens of times.

Initially, in Guilderland court, a plea-bargain offer was made where, if Justin Fields pleaded guilty, he’d be put on probation and do no more jail time, said Jurena. “He...said no way and ultimately the plea-bargaining process worked its way down to plead guilty to a violation and he wasn’t going to do that,” said Jurena. “Then ultimately...what was done was called an ACOD, an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

“Rather than force the judge to make a decision to dismiss the case or not dismiss the case, based on the paperwork, the former prosecutor and I entered into an agreement where the case would be dismissed in a day rather than waiting the usual six months or a year.”

Justin’s father said he thought a day was too much.

After last Friday’s mistrial was declared, Jurena told The Enterprise, “There’s apparently no real crime in Altamont, so they feel they have to pursue these things.” He said the case should have been adjourned in contemplation of dismissal and, since Justin had “stayed out of trouble for six months,” it would have been over by now.

“It’s the police that made her go to the hospital,” he said of why Amanda Fields sought treatment after the May 15 fight.

Continuing the comments he had made to the jury about the teenage fight, Jurena said, “Now it’s drama with the prosecutor,” referring to the court arguments. “They want to prosecute in a vacuum....I don’t know what’s driving this prosecution. It seems to be law-enforcement driven.”

 “She’s asking questions to make my family look bad,” said Amanda Fields of the prosecuter.

“My blood went up when she started painting the picture of us as a violent family,” said Michael Fields.

“A major weight,” said Jurena, “has been hanging over this family’s head for the last year.”


Commissioner Salerno believes in teaching kids lessons before serious consequences

ALTAMONT — Anthony Salerno, a long-time Albany police officer who still works for the city force, became Altamont’s public safety commissioner in 2005.

He was appointed after three members of a committee that advised restructuring the police department — Mayor James Gaughan, and trustees Kerry Dineen and Dean Whalen — were elected to office.

Salerno said at the time that teaching kids lessons before their mistakes have serious consequences is one of his missions. Salerno also said he knew parents would respond to this brand of community policing differently.

In September of 2005, a parent of a 15-year-old wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor, and complained that an incident with her son was blown out of proportion by Salerno.

At the time, Salerno said that he was told of two youths throwing a gas cap against a street sign and that one of the youth’s parents approved of how he handled the situation.

No charges were filed in the case but Salerno said the police would not be involved if nothing had happened. Salerno said his main concern is for the welfare and well-being of village residents, and this includes addressing even minor problems in the hope they don’t become reoccurring.

“Not everyone is going to like me,” Salerno said then. “You will see a concerned commissioner and police department that leads the village down the right path.” Part of his plan, he said, involves addressing minor infractions in the village.

“I don’t want officers driving around and not addressing things,” he said.

In 2006, another parent, Terri Gockley, complained to the village board about Salerno.

Gockley, a single mother of two and a teacher at Guilderland High School, told the board that Salerno was responsible for “excessive and bullying treatment” of her son.

Her son, Christopher, who was 18 at the time, had been arrested after, police said, he hosted a party in which 60 underage people were served alcohol. Gockley said she didn’t excuse her son for what he did. She was never more proud of him, she said, than when he stood in court and accepted his punishment.

The harassment had begun several months before, Gockley said, when Salerno followed her son as he pulled out of a friend’s driveway and into his own nearby.

Salerno asked the young man what he was doing, Gockley said, and Christopher Gockley responded that he was unloading band equipment.

Later, she said, Salerno followed Christopher Gockley and his friends into the Stewart’s parking lot and asked them, “Why didn’t you walk?”

At first, Gockley said, she thought the commissioner was just looking out for the village teenagers. However, by the third time he pulled Christopher over, she said, “It was my understanding that the police commissioner had an issue with my son and his friends.”

Gockley also said that Salerno’s behavior on the night of the arrest was “disturbing.” Salerno threatened her with felony charges and said, if she didn’t cooperate, her face would be on the front page of the newspaper, she said.

Salerno denied any misconduct the night of the arrest and said that, before that, he only remembered questioning Christopher Gockley once.

Gockley’s complaint was looked into by a committee, made up of

Mayor James Gaughan and Trustee Kerry Dineen, which cleared Salerno. Gaughan said at the time, “The conduct of the commissioner was proper.”

Melissa Hale-Spencer


Donato denied
Board rejects his rezone request

By Zach Simeone

ALTAMONT — Local businessman John Donato will not be able to convert his defunct bowling alley into apartments. In a split vote last Tuesday, the village board denied the zoning change.

Until Donato finds someone to buy or rent his former Altamont Lanes Bowling Center, or renovates the interior for a new business of his own, the larger portion of the building will remain vacant.

Donato sought a change of district classification for his bowling alley at 996 Altamont Boulevard, from B, general business, to R-10 M, residential multi-family. The board voted 4-1 against the change, with Trustee William Aylward being the only one in favor of Donato’s request.

A few years back, when business became stagnant, Donato was forced to close the bowling alley, he said. He has been trying for months to have the building rezoned so that he could convert it to apartments. He boarded up the outside with particle board this winter and spray painted messages calling for a rezone.

While the bowling alley is closed, there are two apartments in the building currently rented.

“It’s not over,” Donato told The Enterprise last week.

Mayor James Gaughan thinks that Donato has simply rejected any possible alternative use without even pursuing one. “I’m open to any legitimate and creative use of the building,” Gaughan told The Enterprise, “but all I’ve heard is, ‘I tried to sell it, I couldn’t sell it, and I don’t think it should be a restaurant.’”

“They’re doing what they want to do,” Donato said of the village board. “I’ve got a 9,000 square foot building, and they want a commercial use for it. There’s not even enough parking for a business. So what do I do with it?”

“I just don’t like the idea of changing it to a residential zone and losing any possibility of business,” Mayor Gaughan said. “I’m not convinced that he’s tried to make the most of the building.”

The hearing

Points were made on both sides of the argument last Tuesday night. Some residents feel that Donato’s request flies in the face of the village’s recently adopted comprehensive plan and its goal to enhance the business district. Others feel that one simple truth is being ignored: There is no business with any desire to move into the former Altamont Lanes Bowling Center.

Last Tuesday, the majority was leaning towards the latter. However, three previous public hearings on the matter of rezoning to R-10M saw villagers denying the need for more multi-family dwellings.

At this latest meeting, some villagers expressed points of view similar to those heard at past hearings, opposing Donato’s desire to rezone.

Lois Ginsburg of Euclid Avenue is worried that granting Donato’s request “might set a precedent for spot-zoning in the future.”

Stephen Parachini of Indian Maiden Pass objected as well. “One of the objectives of [the comprehensive] plan is to maintain and enhance the business district,” he said. “I think taking something from the business district – so it’s no longer business – does not meet that objective.” Other villagers echoed concerns that deviating from the so-called “master plan” could lead to trouble.

Earlier in the hearing, though, Donato’s attorney, Paul Wein, was the first to approach the microphone. He thanked the board for voting to hold the public hearing, and apologized on behalf of Donato. “He’s done a couple things in the past that may have antagonized some folks, and I just want you to understand that it’s been out of frustration,” Wein said of Donato. “He’s in a sinking ship and he’s looking for life preservers, and he’s not seeing any.”

Wein went on to recognize that a great deal of time was put into developing the new comprehensive plan. But, while he understands the board’s hesitance in wanting to make changes to that plan, he said that they are treating the plan as if it’s infallible. “Plans can be improved…they can be tweaked,” he said.

Wein also pointed out that the property has been available for sale or rent for nearly eight years. “There have been two minor inquiries that went nowhere. Other than that, there’s been absolutely no commercial interest in this property whatsoever,” he said.

“Look at the next-door neighbor,” Wein added, referring to the Altamont Corners, owned by local developer Jeff Thomas, whom Wein has also represented. “If this [building] had commercial viability, I would assume that Thomas would have expressed some interest in it. He’s not been the least bit interested.”

“I’ve been involved with the property for at least a year,” added Troy Miller, owner of CM Fox Real Estate. “I’ve probably shown it…five to eight times, and we always end up back at the same spot.”

Donato will probably try to sell the building at around $400,000, he said this week. Miller, however, feels that the less-than-$50-per-square-foot price tag is unreasonable for Donato.

“The challenge is to get something there that can generate the income for a reasonable return to, in this case, John.”  Miller said that a bowling alley can be a “neat place to go to, but the reality is, making a living off six or eight lanes is difficult.” The price of converting the bowling alley into some other kind of facility was not financially feasible for Donato, Miller said.

Wein added that, since most people now shop either online or at big-box stores, it is difficult to find any commercial entity that wants to move in there. “Well, maybe you could put a restaurant in there,” Wein went on. “Can the village support two restaurants? Maybe that restaurant would be a success, but it would cause the other one to fail. There aren’t commercial entities knocking on the door. It’s just not viable.” Wein thinks a rezone is the only way to keep that property from going under.

Later, the board heard from Jerry Large of Altamont Boulevard, former lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps. He said he helped write the Iraqi security strategy, and that he knows about planning. He thinks that the comprehensive plan is flawed for several reasons.

“On that side of the road…it’s residential areas,” Large said. “In reality, Altamont’s not a massive business [village]. Hilltown Pizza, Paisano’s Pizza, there’s one survivor. Subway, Hungerford Market, there’s probably going to be one survivor.” At the end of the day, the board is simply denying Donato the ability to thrive, in a community where he’s done “a lot of great work,” said Large.

Furthermore, Large said that, if Donato were given the chance to convert his building into apartments, it would be “renovated to perfection,” and would be attractive to those who seek living space in the area.

Dorothy Taber has lived on Altamont Boulevard for over 50 years, and has seen the level of business on her street deteriorate to nothing. “I’ve seen many businesses come and go over the years,” she said, “there’s not one existing business on Altamont Boulevard.”

In support of Donato’s desire to rezone, Taber presented a petition that read: “We the undersigned believe that John Donato should be allowed to convert the bowling alley building at Altamont Boulevard into apartments, and the area be rezoned to allow this.”

In two days, she got 50 signatures.

“I also talked to five of his tenants, and they all told me what a wonderful landlord he was,” Taber said. “He was at their beck and call. Whenever they needed him, he was there.”

Taber was applauded upon returning to her seat.

Final words

Before voting, the board stated their views.

Trustee Kerry Dineen pointed out that Altamont has a higher percentage of multi-family housing than Voorheesville and Delmar, both larger municipalities than Altamont. “And actually, the percentage was so close to the Guilderland percentage; considering their size, we probably surpass them as well, as far as availability of apartments and multi-family dwellings,” Dineen said. Furthermore, she feels that, contrary to the opinion of some villagers, businesses can succeed in Altamont.

On the other hand, Trustee Aylward felt Donato’s request was reasonable. “Location, location, location is the whole story, is it not? he asked.” He thinks, in short, that the building is not appropriately located for commercial use.

“We don’t want a derelict property,” Aylward continued. “This is a property that has not seen activity for a while, and therefore it can be useful. If we rezone it, we are putting people in that location who can then go into the center of the village and spend money. I think that’s a good idea,” he said.

“A lot of you talked in support of Mr. Donato as being a really good guy and making an effort to make the business succeed and doing good work,” said Trustee Christine Marshall. “But really, the decision that we have to make is not based on whether Mr. Donato is a good person or not. It really goes beyond that to the broader community.”

Donato is unsure of what to do next. “I guess I’ll put it back on the market for a while,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll tear it down and put a car wash there.”

The current zoning for the building allows for use as a car wash, said Donato. “I mean the building’s paid for, so I guess it won’t hurt to tear it down and put a car wash there. Why not? They can’t stop me from making a living if it’s in the zoning, right?”


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