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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 13, 2008
Kormos says she’ll resign, New Scotland extends moratorium
By Jo E. Prout
NEW SCOTLAND After a public hearing Wednesday with a standing-room-only crowd, the town board unanimously adopted a local law to extend the commercial building moratorium three months.
The board also voted unanimously to take no further action against controversial Commercial Zoning Advisory Committee member Elizabeth Kormos. Immediately after, Kormos said that she would resign from CZAC.
“The town board has not found Liz guilty of anything,” said Supervisor Thomas Dolin before the board voted.
“I don’t care whether [committee members] have a financial interest. I hope they do. [This is] a bogus issue about advisory boards having a conflict of interest,” he said. Dolin, an attorney and former town justice, said that he spoke, not as an attorney, but on the basis of his own research.
Kormos and CZAC have been the subjects of controversy since the town board here appointed the advisory committee in May to align the town’s zoning with its most-recent comprehensive plan, created in 1994. The zoning came to public attention when Sphere Development Group, of Cazenovia (Madison Co.), began considering the former Bender melon farm at routes 85 and 85A for a large-scale retail center with Target as an anchor store.
Kormos, a real estate broker, was a partner with a team that proposed to create a smaller-scale retail development on the same property in 2006. That offer was rejected.
CZAC Chairwoman Roselyn Robinson claimed that Kormos had a conflict of interest as a member of the committee because of Kormos’s attempt to develop the property about which the zoning alignment was designed.
Kormos, who is also a member of New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, a grassroots group opposed to Sphere’s mall, has said that a 50,000-square-foot cap on commercial buildings would match the town’s comprehensive plans proposed use for the commercial district. NS4SED signs hailing this size cap are posted around town.
The town had planned to hold an ethics violation hearing, but realized last week that it does not have a proper ethics committee. Last week, Dolin and town attorney Michael Mackey said that involved individuals with a complaint could ask the Albany County Ethics Committee to render an opinion.
During the public hearing before the town board’s vote, many of the more than 100 residents in the gallery expressed dismay and disgust with members of the board, with some calling for Democratic members Peg Neri, Richard Reilly, and Deborah Baron to step down.
Pointing individually at Neri, Reilly, and then Baron, environmental engineer Kurt Anderson, of Bullock Road, said that the board members should “keep your good names, step down, and let others take your place.”
Sharon Boehlke said that she had written letters to voters in support of Neri, Reilly, and Baron in the latest election.
“I have never been so disappointed in a board,” Boehlke said. She said that voters ask her, “ ‘How can you ever have let me vote for these people?’ I’m disappointed in myself for not seeing all of this,” she said.
Reilly said that he had not taken a position on the type of development that should go in.
“I’m not an advocate for Sphere. I’m not an advocate for big-box,” he said. Reilly said that he does not have signs promoting a cap in his yard.
“I don’t see that as my role in the process,” he said. Reilly also said that a 50,000-square-foot cap could allow twenty-five 50,000-square-foot buildings in the commercial zone.
“This is a complex issue,” he said. “I’m very much open and listening. We just want to make intelligent decisions.”
“There is a complexity to this, but it’s not sub-atomic physics,” said resident Michael Weinstein.
“I’ve heard a lot about intelligence,” said former board member Andrea Gleason, who was elected on the Republican line. “I would like to hear about some common sense.”
Many residents also complained about the short extension, asking the board to, instead, adopt a six-month extension. The town board had adopted a six-month moratorium in March after the Albany County Planning Board had recommended a year-long moratorium. Town Attorney Michael Mackey said last night that the board could not, because the local law for a three-month extension had been advertised.
John Biscone, a member of CZAC who has been reticent about speaking about his position on the committee but who has publicly been described as favoring a large-scale development like Sphere’s, said that CZAC “bounced around several ideas. I want to see a size limit on the buildings…I don’t even know anybody involved with Sphere.” He said to people who think he supports a big-box development, “You’re dead wrong.”
After the board voted to extend the moratorium, which will now end March 1, 2009, Reilly said, “No board member opposed the extension. CZAC wanted three months, so that’s what we went with. There’s clearly misinformation out there.”
Reilly said that accounts in e-mails and newspapers of the possible conflict of interest for Kormos were not accurate, and he said that the suggestion of a “witch hunt” was wrong.
“We’re committed to this process. If an issue comes up, we need to take a look at it,” Reilly said. “We’re not trying to remove a viewpoint from the committee. This is about risk. We should respect the process.”
“I think it’s also about public trust…and confidence in the process,” Neri said. She told Kormos, “You repeatedly tried to buy this property over eight months. That should have been disclosed.”
“No one asked any other member,” Kormos said.
Reilly said that the non-disclosure “could be a basis to remove an individual, but I don’t want to divide the community.”
Board member Douglas LaGrange said, “I still see no present conflict of interest. She’s one vote of five. If there’s a problem with what she brings, there will be a four out of five vote. We’re the accountable ones. They’re an advisory committee.”
Reilly noted that Kormos’s attorney, Peter Lauricella, is a member of the county ethics committee. He said that the idea of asking the county committee for advice “just floors me.”
“I would recuse myself,” Lauricella said.
Robinson and Kormos disagreed on the discussion during the CZAC-held executive session when Kormos was first told of the possible conflict.
“You accused me of a current conflict,” Kormos said.
Robinson said that Kormos had made an offer on the Bender melon farm property slightly more than a year ago, and that she had signed offers on the letterhead of a construction company.
“I had no interest since November 2006,” Kormos said. “I was a minority partner in the deal.”
“You were a partner,” Robinson said.
The town board had not planned to take action, but Lauricella said, “You can’t just leave Ms. Kormos hanging here. There needs to be some kind of a closure here.”
Dolin warned the board that it was on the verge of a violation of section 1983 of civil action for deprivation of rights concerning Kormos.
“If she is removed for [no reason], I won’t have any part of it,” Dolin said. When the crowd requested a vote favoring Kormos, he said, “There is no motion on the floor.” Kormos was not found guilty of an ethics violation, he said. “I’m not even sure she’s been charged with one,” Dolin said.
After the vote, Kormos said, “I am, frankly, willing to resign as long as Doug [LaGrange] can replace me. I want this process to occur and I want it done right.” Each town board member had selected a CZAC member. Kormos was chosen by LaGrange.
“It comes down to Liz was bullied,” said local attorney and NS4SED member Dean Sommer.
Members of the crowd asked Kormos to continue serving on the committee as applause broke out and the crowd disbanded.
Interested committee members
Dolin said that people are appointed to advisory committees because they have financial interests in the outcome of the committee decisions.
Baron said that she did not appoint Robinson, a real estate attorney, to the committee because of her business interests. “I didn’t get the rules,” she told Dolin with sarcasm.
Kormos “is a professional real estate broker. What do you think she does for a living?” Dolin said. He said that appointees typically have financial interests in their concerned projects.
“Attorney General [Andrew] Cuomo agrees with me,” Dolin said. He said that the advisory committee’s job “is to get a philosophical question.” He said that members’ motives are understood.
Dolin also said that trust between board members “is a bogus issue. You don’t have to trust each other. This is not a secret society.”