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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 19, 2009

Town board extends moratorium despite protests on owners’ rights

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — For months, residents have packed town meetings to oppose a mega mall proposed at the old Bender melon farm.  Last Wednesday, for the first time, the town board heard significant opposition to extending a moratorium on commercial development, as citizens advocated property rights.

The board voted unanimously to add another three months to the moratorium on commercial development over 30,000 square feet, making the aggregate length of the moratorium one year.  The board later voted to set a public hearing on a wind-power moratorium.

“At the very beginning of this process, even the Albany County Planning Board recommended a one-year moratorium,” Bob Prentiss read from prepared notes at the meeting.

“I guess we were amateurs when it came to moratoriums,” Supervisor Thomas Dolin responded.  The initial length was six months, which was extended by three months in the fall, and now another three months. 

Prentiss was among a handful of citizens who often attend board meetings in support of the group New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, which formed in response to Sphere Development’s mall proposal. 

Often, residents who are members of NS4SED, or are supportive of the group’s platform, fill New Scotland’s meeting halls.  Last Wednesday, though, there was an almost equal number of people who were opposed to the moratorium and to the proposed law that would cap the size of a building in the commercial zone at 50,000 square feet.

“I don’t support any moratorium,” said Joseph VanValkenburg.  “I’m a country kind of guy,” he said, adding that he’d rather go five miles than 15 to pick up building materials, a reference to Sphere’s proposed commercial development at the old farm at the corner of routes 85 and 85A.  “I really don’t understand what the huff is all about,” he said.

Karen Moreau also criticized the moratorium, saying, “It’s too broad.”  It affects all commercial development in the town, she said, not just Sphere’s plan.

When asked how often the town is presented with proposals for a commercial development over 30,000 square feet, the size at which the moratorium would take effect, the town’s building inspector, Paul Cantlin, said, “I can’t think of the last one.”  Most commercial activity in recent years has consisted of businesses moving into already constructed buildings, he said.

Although the group of about half-a-dozen that she was sitting with hadn’t formally arranged to be at the meeting together, Moreau said this week, “There’s a cause being trumpeted by NS4… it’s diametrically opposed to anyone who owns property.”  She said that there’s a “very strong possibility” that property owners might organize.

“There’s no formal opposition group yet,” Roselyn Robinson said this week.  Robinson had been the chair of the Citizens Zoning Advisory Committee, which was appointed by the town board to advise it on bringing the town’s zoning code into line with its comprehensive plan, but she resigned with two other members of the five-member committee when allegations of a conflict-of-interest against co-chair Elizabeth Kormos went unanswered.  The two remaining CZAC members, Kormos and Michael Naughton, submitted a bill to the town board that would cap commercial buildings at 50,000 square feet and shopping centers at 100,000 square feet — it is currently under review by the town’s planning board.

Robinson, who has been critical of the size-cap bill, said that she was surprised by the number of her supporters at last week’s meeting.  She had gotten some phone calls from people asking when the next meeting was to be held and she had heard that some people were planning to go, she said, but it wasn’t until after the meeting that people started talking about organizing.

Since she sits on the board of assessment review, Robinson isn’t sure if she would be part of such a group; it would depend on who would be doing it and what the platform would be.  “Would I possibly consider it?” she asked.  “I suppose.”

Wind power moratorium

After Shell WindEnergy approached several landowners in the Helderbergs with a proposal for a 100-megawatt wind farm that would have stretched over four towns, including New Scotland, some municipalities have started looking at the rules they have governing the use of wind turbines.

The New Scotland Town Board set a public hearing for 6:30 p.m. on April 15 for a six-month moratorium on the construction of wind turbines while the town hammers out legislation to handle the increasingly popular energy source.

As of now, a wind turbine is not a permitted use in New Scotland’s code, said Councilwoman Margaret Neri, which, in practice, means a wind turbine can’t be built on vacant land since they are allowed only as an accessory use.  Neri and Jo Ann Davies, an alternate on the planning board, are researching the topic.

“I think we need to get our ducks in a row,” Neri said of why the town should enact a moratorium.

“It’s an absolute moratorium,” Dolin said, except that it allows for agricultural use.  It is “brand-new science” to the board, he said, and needs to be studied because people are entitled to protection.

“The reason is because of ignorance,” VanValkenburg concluded, to which Councilman Douglas LaGrange responded, “It is an ignorance.  We don’t know what we’re looking at.”

In the fall, when Shell was making its proposal to local landowners, it approached the Van Wies, who own Meadowbrook farm in Clarksville, Gail Van Wie said.  Company representatives told them that federal laws supercede state and local laws, she said.

At the time, Chanon Motherall and Kevin Johnson, of a company related to Shell, told Rensselaerville resident Peter Boudreaux that plans for using part of the state-protected Partridge Run nature preserve were in the works.  “I was told… the state’s really pushing it.  It’s a done deal,” he told The Enterprise in October.

“Sounds like they’re telling falsehoods,” said Rick Georgeson, of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.  Alienation of state land for building would require authorization from the state legislature, he said.

“Shell hasn’t commenced any kind of process or even inquired about the requirements we might impose at this point,” Lori O’Connell, also of the DEC, wrote in an e-mail to The Enterprise.  Shell has since withdrawn, but another company, Rhizome Integrated Energy, has plans to put turbines in the Helderbergs.

The proposed law for a moratorium in New Scotland begins by recognizing the merits of wind power, but finding that “Wind energy conversion systems and related facilities present significant potential aesthetic impacts because of their large size, lighting and shadow flicker effects.  Such facilities may also present a risk to bird and bat populations if not properly sited.”

When asked this week if six months would be long enough to deal with the issue, Neri laughed and said, “One thing we’ve learned in New Scotland is we can always extend that moratorium.”  More seriously, she added that having a moratorium will allow the town time to explore resources and information from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, engineers, and other agencies.  “It’s a great way to take a breather,” she said.

Other business

In other business at recent meetings, the town board:

— Voted unanimously to change the date of the public hearing on proposed Local Law I, commonly called the size-cap law, to April 22 at 6:30 p.m. in the high school’s performing arts center;

— Voted unanimously to table a vote on the approval of the environmental assessment for Local Law I until the March 11 meeting;

— Heard a presentation at the Feb. 11 meeting from Robert Barber of Gateway Energy Services who had met with town Clerk Diane Deschenes and figured that his company could save the town almost $4,000 a year on energy bills.  The board voted unanimously to change from National Grid to Gateway at its Feb. 18 workshop meeting;

— Voted unanimously to accept a grant for a new van for the town’s senior citizens’ program, for which the town is to pay 20 percent, which is $8,735;

— Voted unanimously to appoint Melanie Ernst as a part-time clerk in the supervisor’s office, to be paid $12 an hour for 15 hours a week.  Before the vote, Baron said that she did not question Ernst’s ability or worth, “I just question the process.”  She was concerned there were no other applicants due to the lack of advertising — she asked why the post hadn’t been advertised in the newspaper or on the town’s website.  “I hear you,” Dolin said;

— Talked at great length about hiring procedures during its Feb. 18 workshop meeting.  Baron felt strongly that the town should have a policy for hiring that includes advertising in the newspaper and posting on the town’s website.  “I would rather err on the side of being open,” she said, while Councilman Richard Reilly had concerns about being locked into a rigid policy that would preclude certain “intelligent,” or practical, hiring decisions, like hiring an interested town hall employee to fill the recently emptied position for cleaning the building;

— Talked at length about possible changes to the employee manual at the Feb. 18 workshop meeting;

— Voted unanimously to create a petty cash fund, in the amount of $200, for the senior outreach coordinator.  Baron said that people often give money to Susan Kidder, the coordinator, to be given to senior citizens who need it — a petty cash fund will make the contributions and disbursals easier to manage;

— Voted unanimously to authorize the supervisor to sign a memorandum of understanding between Senior Services of Albany and the town;

— Voted unanimously to grant a request from Kevin and Mona George to rename Jacob Court as Willow Creek Court;

— Voted unanimously to permit Darrell Duncan, the highway superintendent, to go out for bid on a pickup truck for the parks department;

— Voted unanimously to approve the 2008 Service Award Program List for the Onesquethaw Fire District and New Salem Fire District Length of Service Award Programs;

— Heard from Cheryl Domanico that she has been having trouble with neighbors who are using loud motorcycles and four-wheelers.  “It’s like a little race track going on,” she told the board.  “So, I need your help”; and

— Set a workshop meeting for March 4 at 6:30 p.m.

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