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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 22, 2009

Neighbors first: A reporter’s dark-of-night ramblings and revelations

By Jo E. Prout

The temperature dropped to 14 degrees below zero last Wednesday in my neighbor’s barn. That was the night I traveled across New Scotland and Westerlo at 1:30 a.m on my way home.

Taking the back roads sounded good to me when I left work; I was tired and I wanted the extra 15 minutes of sleep that I’d lose if I took the Thruway. Writing a down-to-the-wire story about a changed vote on the New Scotland Town Board had kept my adrenaline going, but I was finished writing, and the adrenaline was finished flowing.

By the time I got to New Salem, I started counting the deer on the road, and on the sides of the road. I knew, as I watched the deer munch in a front yard, that someone was going to be disappointed when his bulbs didn’t come up this spring. I also realized, as I headed to Clarksville, that the deer were going to take up my precious 15 minutes. I passed several herds between the Meadowbrook Farm and the goat farm on Clarksville South Road, and I ended up driving 35 miles per hour the whole way.

I remembered John Biscone, a member of the commercial zoning advisory committee, telling me during an interview that the commercial zone at routes 85 and 85A was far away from many New Scotland residents. He wondered why those in Clarksville would have the same say about the zone as residents who lived nearby.

I wouldn’t go that far, myself, but at 2 in the morning, Clarksville sure seemed far. That tired “jewel of Albany County” imagery people quote at meetings didn’t look tarnished to me; the town looked vast and rural, and too isolated for my cell phone to work if my engine stalled in the cold.

By the time I got to the goat farm, the flurries started. The sky just spat bits of snow, but the blinking snowflakes imitated reflective deer eyes, so I slowed down further.

I was driving my husband’s truck. I had given him a candle and matches years ago, in case he were ever stranded in the winter time. I’d read that the heat from one candle could keep a person alive until rescued. I wondered if he still had it in his truck. It probably wouldn’t have mattered; it wasn’t 30 degrees out there, it was below zero. If I had car trouble on those isolated roads, I’d have to hoof it to the nearest house and hope for the best.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t think of approaching, let alone waking up, strangers, but I was in New Scotland, heading to the Hilltowns. The people here are different, and, except for a random looney you’d find anywhere, safe. I figured I could take my chances on finding someone safe, not looney.

People I interview tend to ask for my opinion, trying to converse with me as they would anyone by inviting agreement to see where one stands. Some don’t understand that conversing isn’t really in my job description; I’m a fly on the wall, a listener, an observer, a recorder. But, they still ask me.

Several times, when I’ve spoken with Sphere Development partner Gregory Widrick, he has asked if I live in New Scotland, and, hearing the answer is no, if I would want to. Understandably, given the political circumstances, he has not felt welcomed here, and he hasn’t seen many residents’ good sides, I would guess.

I’ve covered New Scotland off and on for more than a decade; I’ve seen neighbor disputes get ugly, political alliances come and go, friendships destroyed, and other friendships continue with great resilience. That last group always surprises me, but I’m always glad to see it. I saw it this month.

During a recent planning board meeting, board member Charles Voss left early for a family emergency to care for his wife. His young children arrived, informed him, and he left to deal with it. His children temporarily remained behind. When a friend of Voss, town board member Douglas LaGrange, announced that Voss was dealing with the emergency and wouldn’t return, the roomful of people — board members, town employees, and town residents — calmly took action, and then continued with their business.

Planning board member Beth Stewart, who has medical training, stepped away from the dais and left the room. LaGrange grabbed Voss’s belongings for him. Stewart returned with the children and placed them next to residents in the audience who could, and did, look after them — the same residents who were there to air their opposition to Stewart’s positions on zoning and planning issues, and who had done so repeatedly in person and in print.

After nine months of arguing among themselves, stating that they had been friends for years and that the mudslinging was not personal, the town residents proved themselves right. They’re neighbors first, as they’ve said all along.

So, yes, I would want to live in New Scotland, Mr. Widrick. However, I didn’t want to die there. That sounds melodramatic when the temperature has climbed above zero and the sun is shining, but in the middle of the night on the coldest night of the year, or the decade, a lone driver’s thoughts turn dark. I was never so glad to reach Route 32 as I was that night. At that point, if the truck died, I would have New Scotland- and Greenville-based State Troopers only moments away, and my cell coverage would be better, too. There was no need to bother the neighbors.

Editor’s note: Jo E. Prout is going on maternity leave next week. The Enterprise eagerly awaits her return.

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