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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009
2008 in review: Altamont
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
ALTAMONT The village progressed in a more or less orderly fashion in 2008.
The mayor and trustees continued to follow through on a comprehensive plan they had adopted the year before.
The library continued in its mission to renovate the historic train station at the center of the village, holding fund-raisers throughout the year that united the community. The first highly visible part of the million-dollar project was realized when a new slate roof went up. When winter arrived, banners on utility poles portrayed the station on a dark blue background under a star-studded flake-filled sky.
The Altamont fairgrounds continued to draw crowds for events ranging from the traditional annual tri-county fair where this year crowds watched cows give birth to rock concerts and a new Helderberg Mountain Nationals Car show and Swap Meet.
The Peter Young Center, perched on the hill above Altamont, continues to help those with addictions. In July, the state’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services notified Young that his proposal to start a new program helping rehabilitate veterans from the Gulf Wars had been accepted. It is one of four programs called “100 Beds for Veterans,” an OASAS-sponsored initiative to increase treatment services for veterans in upstate New York.
“Veterans came to me and they said they had a need,” said Young.
A Catholic priest and the chief executive officer of Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment, Young has been leading programs in addiction recovery for almost half a century. Through years of listening to those in need, he has distilled his mission to a crystal clear mantra: “Find programs applicable to their recovery.”
Although the new veterans program in Altamont is the third of Young’s upstate programs to focus on the addiction issues of veterans (the others are in Menands and Syracuse), it is the first to specifically concentrate on the needs of those who served in the 1991 Gulf War and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cindy Pollard continued to use her Home Front Café as a place where veterans could talk to kids and the community about war. One of the war heroes she hosted, in May, was Roger H.C. Donlon, the first American soldier in the Vietnam War to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.
“He’s a remarkable man,” said Pollard. “Twenty years after he lost so many of his men, he went back to Vietnam to build a memorial.”
Donlon wrote a book, Beyond Nam Dong, which William Westmoreland, the retired Army general, has called an “inspiring story of a courageous soldier and patriot.”
In February, the village board unanimously passed a new zoning law, replacing the 1971 regulations.
“This is the culmination of well over two years worth of work by an extraordinary committee, made up of many members of the community, our staff, and professionals, chaired by our Trustee Dean Whalen,” said Mayor James Gaughan, referring to the architect on the board. Throughout the process, the board considered hundreds of letters from community members, along with multiple points of view expressed by residents during four months of public hearings that started in October of 2007.
The board clashed with local landowners and businessmen along the way, and butted heads with residents over the proposed historic overlay district.
Carl Schilling’s parcel off of Schoharie Plank Road and the undeveloped Bozenkill property were denied the multi-family designation that the committee had recommended; John Donato had been trying for nearly a year to have his Altamont Lanes Bowling Center re-zoned as an apartment building, but it remains zoned for business.
“It’s a grand first leap for positioning ourselves for all these other things,” Mayor Gaughan told The Enterprise of passing the new law. “This now creates a starting point for what was envisioned in the comprehensive plan, and I would like to highlight our renewed interest in our cultural and historic heritage. On a practical level, it is an update of a well-over 30-year-old plan that was way out of date not only in terms of vision, but in terms of building codes and recent changes in law.
“The thing that I’m particularly interested in is that it puts us in an excellent position to solicit grants and get funds. One part I’m particularly interested in is developing the pathways and sidewalks that connect parts of the village….It will help us get grants for the Crounse House on the corner of Gun Club; we have some grand plans for that.”
The public was invited this fall to a meeting where details of a Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan were discussed and a similar session is scheduled for Jan. 8. The plan, funded with a grant from the Capital District Transportation Committee, identifies ways to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, bike racks, and signs.
The village also looked at its underbelly, the century-old sewer system, with an eye towards locating and repairing widespread leaks, an initiative started in the summer of 2007. A sum of $103,000 was set aside for repairs once the investigation was completed and the village received a federal grant of $78,000 to look at drainage issues.
The mayor also made a commitment in December to replacing trees on Altamont’s side streets. The matter came to light when Grand Street resident John Sands challenged the village board to create a tree preservation policy. He said that 19 trees had been cut down on his street, over the years, and had not been replaced.
The mayor hopes to see the village museum, now in cramped quarters at Village Hall, one day move into the Crounse House. Frederick Crounse, Altamont’s first doctor, built the Federal-style frame house over 150 years ago. The town of Guilderland and the village purchased the property jointly by paying back taxes to Albany County.
Gaughan sees the museum as a portion of what could make the Crounse House a functioning and integral space for Guilderland’s and the village’s future. His ideas include an area for art exhibits, a meeting center for the community, and an information center for people visiting the village.
As for his role in developing the museum, Gaughan said in October, “My job is to look at the big picture and move the project forward. I see the Crounse House as part of an overall economic development strategy for the village and the museum archive is part of that.”
An Altamont Business Forum was formed this year, holding its first meeting on Nov. 17. Trustee Kerry Dineen told the village board in December that the purpose of the meeting was for interested Altamont business owners to meet and discuss ways in which to further local business interests.
Several Altamont businesses closed or moved out of the village this year.
Paul DeSarbo, former mayor of Altamont, closed his photography shop, Prestige Photo. After moving the shop from Delmar to Maple Avenue in Altamont in late 2006, DeSarbo was forced out of business due to a lack of patronage. The state of business in Altamont is “deplorable,” he said.
John Donato, owner of Altamont’s then-defunct bowling alley, said this spring that villagers’ habits for shopping and seeking entertainment have changed; they, like the rest of Americans, now look to shopping malls and the Internet.
Thomas Sands wanted to buck the trend this year. He’s looking for a new business to occupy the former Altamont Pharmacy, which closed in 1992.
Jeff Thomas’s Altamont Corners with space for four businesses at the intersection of Main Street and Altamont Boulevard saw its spa move to Western Avenue in Guilderland and its fitness center close a Chinese restaurant replaced it. The other two businesses a pizza parlor and chain sandwich shop remain.
At the other end of the village, Thomas has started work on a new State Employees Federal Credit Union building, on the corner of Gun Club Road and Route 146.
“If you look at the geography of Altamont, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for businesses,” Thomas said in March. “A lot of people don’t realize that Altamont’s only a square mile. It’s not really attractive for business when they could go on, say, Western Avenue,” referring to Route 20 that runs through Guilderland.
The key, according to Thomas, is diversified commerce. “If you have the right product, with good service, you’ll do just fine,” he said. “One of the ingredients that makes a village is healthy commerce, and another is the ability to make the village self sufficient.”
Equally important are location and availability of parking, said Thomas. “Some of these other businesses are off Main Street which doesn’t help,” he said.
Troy Miller, owner of CM Fox Real Estate, said in March that the village is very supportive of service-related businesses. “Retail, however, is a different animal,” he said. Several eateries, formerly located in the Maple Avenue building where he now has his office, had closed quickly in recent years. “I think Altamont’s a great place to have a business for a real-estate company, though,” he said.
Thomas’s long-planned senior housing complex just outside the village line, Brandle Meadows, was under construction this year and some units are completed and sold.
The complex uses Altamont municipal water, which had been an issue for the water-strapped village until Altamont’s new wells came on line.
This year, the village board also unanimously approved giving Camp Wildwood village water. The 86-acre camp at the end of Leesome Lane, just outside the village, serves children with disabilities. Without a natural source of water, the camp had transported water by truck and long requested municipal water.
“We’re thrilled,” Thomas Schreck, communications director for Wildwood Programs, said this summer. “This is something we wanted for a long time and we certainly understood the issues that the village was having, and the fact that they’re helping us out with this is fantastic.”
Crime and court
Anthony Salerno, a long-time Albany police officer appointed Altamont’s public safety commissioner in 2005, continued his community policing initiative. He had said that it is one of his missions to teach kids lessons before their mistakes have serious consequences.
“Not everyone is going to like me,” Salerno said soon after taking office. “You will see a concerned commissioner and police department that leads the village down the right path.”
In May, after waiting nearly a year, Justin Fields had his day in Altamont court, 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 was 16 when he was charged with two counts of assault on May 15, 2007 after a fight in his home at 206 Main Street in the village. His older sister, Amanda Fields, 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 in May, referring to Salerno.
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.
In June, the Subway sandwich shop at Altamont Corners was broken into and $446.86 was stolen. A Schenectady man, James Allen of Nott street, was promptly arrested after the early-morning June 29 break-in and charged with burglary, petit larceny, and criminal mischief.
“The door was locked,” said John Hurley, Subway’s director of operations for the Capital District. “He actually broke into the store and was able to shut off the alarm.”
In September, a dog described by Salerno as “dangerously aggressive” was killed by a police officer’s single shot. The week before, a pair of pit bulls attacked and killed two cats belonging to different families who live on Altamont Boulevard, said Salerno.
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 2, a jogger on Route 146 by Arlington and Brandle roads reported that “a dog came up to him aggressively,” said Salerno. “He got away and called 911.”
Following the call, Salerno and Rich Savage, Guilderland’s animal control director, “secured the area,” said Salerno, ringing it with four police cars and waiting for two-and-a-half hours.
“Around 12:30, myself and my officers tried to quarantine him,” said Salerno. They had a wooden-handled device with a looped rope at the end to put around the dog’s neck.
“He lunged at me...He came in an attack mode...with his ears back, his tail up, his fur up,” said Salerno. The dog, he said, was three to four feet from him, straight ahead, and an armed officer was three feet to his side.
“I gave the order to shoot,” said Salerno. The officer killed the dog with one shot and no harm to Salerno. “I spent a lot on training; that’s the key,” he said of the officer’s accurate shooting under pressure.
Salerno said of the dead dog, “I felt bad we couldn’t control him.... It’s very upsetting to all of us.”
At Village Hall
Altamont’s $1.2 million budget for 2008 was termed “lean” by the mayor, just $20,000 more than the previous year. It kept the tax rate the same.
In September, the village hired a deputy clerk Patricia Blackwood with the goal of training her as clerk.
After a decade as village clerk, Jean LaCrosse is planning to retire.
On her first day of work, Blackwood told The Enterprise, “I love it; I do.” She said what appealed to her was the diversity.
LaCrosse is training Blackwood with the goal of having her assume all the clerk’s duties by April. “There are a tremendous amount of things to learn,” she said.
Forty people inquired about the new post, LaCrosse said, and 30 applied.
Gaughan called the review of candidates “a rather intense process.” The field was winnowed by himself, LaCrosse, and Trustee Christine Marshall, he said.
Blackwood, he said, worked for 17 years for a computer start-up company, Logical Net, which was downsizing. He said her skills as office manager and with payroll are “very transferrable.”
Gaughan said the new post was included in the current budget. The post was advertised at a starting salary of $27,446 per year “with excellent benefits, including health insurance” for a 30-hour work week.
LaCrosse said many of the accomplishments she is most proud of in her decade as village clerk weren’t part of her designated duties. She was instrumental in the renovations of the village courtroom and in upgrading the village office technology and equipment.
Her favorite activities were coordinating the village park programs. Asked why she took on the added responsibilities, LaCrosse answered with a smile, “I must be a child.”
Asked about her plans for retirement, LaCrosse, who declined to give her age, said, “I can’t imagine myself not busy. It’s a shocking thing to think about leaving. I’ve made many nice relationships in the office and in the community.”
This year-in-review article is based largely on reporting by Zach Simeone and Philippa Stasiuk.