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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 15, 2009
By Zach Simeone
KNOX Supervisor Michael Hammond, who has been in office for nearly four decades, is running unopposed for re-election this year, as three vie for the two open town board seats.
Two incumbent Democratic councilmen, Dennis Decker and Nicholas Viscio, are each running for another term as well. They are being challenged by Republican Travis Stevens, who last ran for office in 2007, when he lost the race for county legislature to Democratic incumbent Alexander “Sandy” Gordon.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 in Knox.
This week, the supervisor and town board candidates were asked to comment on the following issues:
Comprehensive plan: We see towns like Berne and Westerlo working on their comprehensive plans for many different reasons. While the planning board has talked about new zoning for windmills and such, should the town do a full review of its comprehensive plan, first developed in the 1990s? Why or why not? If so, what sorts of things should be added to the plan?
One-cut rule: The planning board in recent years has talked about amending the town’s subdivision regulations to eliminate the one-cut rule, which exempts transactions involving the division of land into two lots, and which people feared would be used by developers to bypass planning board review. Should the town do away with the one-cut rule for subdivisions? Why or why not?
Community wind power: The Knox-based group called Helderberg Community Energy has spent the past few years researching the utility of wind-power in the Hilltowns, laying the foundation for the Helderberg Wind Project. Its original plans would place three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines along Middle Road, back from roads and away from houses. How much do you know about the research the group is doing, and should the town of Knox support community wind power? Why or why not?
Reassessment: Knox was last reassessed in 1999, and the state-set equalization rate for the Guilderland school tax in Knox has made it clear the rolls are outdated. Does Knox need to go through a town-wide revaluation again?
Outside his work in town government, Michael Hammond, 67, owns and operates Mountain Woodshop, a carpentry business that has made picnic tables and storage sheds since 1969. He has been the supervisor of Knox for nearly 40 years.
He first took office in 1973, and thinks he has accomplished a great deal in the years since.
“We have several major projects we’re working on, and they’re coming to fruition,” Hammond said. “I enjoy the job, I enjoy working with the people of our town, and I look forward to another two years of meeting that responsibility.”
These accomplishments, Hammond said, include the transfer station, and Knox’s first town hall, originally built in 1977.
“That has served the people very well for the past 32 years without much maintenance at all, and now, we’re going to have a better town hall that’s going to meet the needs of the people for the next 30 years,” Hammond said, referring to the town hall project that will include a series of upgrades and expansions to the current building.
“One thing I really feel the people of our town are benefiting from since we started it is our transfer station, which we started in 1985,” he went on, “and here in 2009, we’re still able to provide garbage disposal for our residents free of charge. That’s a big accomplishment right there.”
Hammond also thinks that the town should do a full review of the comprehensive plan at some point in the future, but not necessarily right now.
“At one point, yes; it always is wise to keep an eye on the development patterns in the town and make sure our comprehensive plan is in tandem with the needs of the people,” Hammond said. “At this point, I believe the planning board is concentrating on updating and integrating the commercial wind turbines. That issue seems to be the point that’s coming more into focus rather than other issues. We have a planning board that has done a considerable amount of research finding materials from other towns experiencing the same issues that we are in our town, and I think the planning board is doing a good job of addressing these and will be presenting the town board with a plan.”
Hammond does not see eliminating the one-cut rule as a necessity at this point either.
“I don’t see an immediate need for that,” Hammond said. “What historically has happened is the fear of developers using that as their main tool to develop pieces of property, but it hasn’t occurred, and, based upon that, I feel that it’s not one of our number-one priorities at this time.”
With regard to Helderberg Community Energy’s mission of bringing community-owned wind power to Knox, Hammond said he would like to see a specific plan presented before commenting on how appropriate it would be for the town.
“We’ve got to really analyze the term ‘community wind,’” Hammond said. “I would like to see what exactly would be in the best interest of the citizens of the town. Financial advantages are a prime consideration, along with environmental, visual, and all the other considerations that come into play when evaluating whether a community should have a commercial wind farm or not,” he said.
As for a reassessment of town property, “It’s not really an issue,” Hammond said. “Certainly, I would not like to see it get to the point where the coefficient of dispersion is so far off, but that’s a problem in any community really.”
Nicholas Viscio, 53, is running for his fourth straight term on the town board.
“I try at the town board meetings to maintain an open and transparent situation with everybody that’s on the board, and I think other members of the board would agree that I try to make everybody work with everybody,” Viscio told The Enterprise. “I always try to keep the drama out of the town hall so we maintain a good, small town.”
In addition to being a town councilman, Viscio is the producer-director of media services at Guilderland High School, working with art classes, and teaching students about film.
“I also produce a variety of media materials for the school district for a variety of purposes, and maintain operation of the television studio,” Viscio said.
In his free time, Viscio continues his work with visual media as an independent filmmaker. His biggest project, he said, was Seedlings, a local production that showed at Proctor’s Theatre in 1988. The movie, about a family and its sawmill, was shot in Guilderland, where Viscio grew up, and in Knox. Exteriors were shot at Rudy Stempel’s sawmill in East Berne; the gazebo in Altamont and Thacher Park make appearances as well.
Viscio also runs a sawmill himself, which helped him build his house, and he is also a pilot.
“I fly out of Albany airport,” he said. “I have a plane there.”
The rest of his spare time is spent visiting his daughters and his grandchildren, he said.
Viscio first got involved in Knox government when revaluation was the hot topic in town.
“I was very concerned with what was going on relative to the inequity in the revaluation process; that’s what got me involved initially,” Viscio said. “We did a revaluation process without going to an outside company. That was my main goal in getting involved initially.”
Viscio also takes pride in his role in bringing Section 8 housing to Knox. The federal program provides government-subsidized housing for low-income families.
“I advocated that with the board, and that has provided some of our most need-for-care individuals in the town of Knox the ability to stay in town, and that has provided even people that own property in town a supplement to rental income,” Viscio said. “That’s something I was really proud of.”
Viscio has also served as liaison to the highway department for union contract negotiations.
“This can be frustrating because I’d like to get the guys as much as I possibly could, but there’s the other end where you’re fiscally responsible for the town, but I think the goal there is to be fair and equitable,” he said.
Viscio was also a liaison to the master planning committee in the 1990s, when the late Earl Barcomb chaired the committee. Barcomb had replaced Daniel Driscoll, who is currently the town’s planning board chairman.
“Earl and I worked together along with a great committee to establish the comprehensive plan,” said Viscio. “When I ran for election for the first time, the committee was up and down and, within the first two-and-a-half years, we put a comprehensive plan into effect.”
The plan, he said, does need updating.
“To do a review of the comprehensive plan would take exactly what it took to begin with: It would have to get a lot of input,” Viscio said. “The comprehensive plan is supposed to be a guide to implementing certain things, and the good of the community has to be part of that.”
He went on to say that the one-cut rule should be modified, but not necessarily eliminated.
“The one-cut rule was meant to provide a means for someone to subdivide their land, to give a son or daughter the ability to build a house on their property,” Viscio said. “Unfortunately, it’s a little bit of a loophole that kind of remains a big backdoor entrance by circumventing the whole planning process and puts the planning board on the sidelines. I have, in the past, proposed that we take a look at that rule, and that we look at a compromise of that rule so that it becomes something that establishes the ability for someone to subdivide their land, but also provides the protection that the rule isn’t going to be used so someone can subdivide their property and turn it into a not-so-favorable condition. It’s a rule that has served the town in the circumstances it’s meant to, but I think there have been a few instances where it has been abused. But it’s not a do-or-die issue.”
Viscio also thinks that the next step the town needs to take regarding wind power is the creation of an ordinance that regulates it.
“Am I opposed to wind power in general? No. Am I opposed to poorly placed wind projects? Yes,” Viscio said. “So, the research of the planning board is key to that process. And I’d have to see proposals as to what the benefit would be to the town.”
Viscio said he has flown over Lowville, N.Y., where there is a large wind farm.
“You can fly over it and there’s no end to the windmills up there, and I understand the town has benefited tremendously,” Viscio said. “The kinds of proposals I’ve heard through Helderberg Community Energy sound like there would be some benefit to the town of Knox if that comes into play. How these figures work out, there really has been no true investigation. I’m still on the sidelines as to whether I support that or not, but I do support alternative energy.”
At this point, Viscio would not support a revaluation of town property, he said.
“Real estate values are in such a flux right now the biggest flux in a long time,” Viscio said. “Once the real estate crisis slows down, we’ll be in a better position for a revaluation. A revaluation costs the town money to do, and the timing is not good.”
Dennis Decker, 49, has lived in Knox his whole life, besides his time serving in the United States Navy. He enjoys camping and boating in the summer, and hunting in the fall, he said.
Now, he is seeking his fourth four-year term as a town board member. He was first elected in 1995, and then again in 1999. He ran for a third term in 2003, but the Democratic candidates were taken off the ballot for not filing proper paperwork. Decker was then elected in 2005 for his third term.
Decker works for National Grid as supervisor of construction, equipment operations, and hazardous materials. He has worked there for 27 years.
“I think we’ve done a lot,” Decker said of the town board. “It’s a team effort, and I feel like we work in a positive and productive manner, and I think I bring that to the board.”
Decker recalls a number of projects he has worked on, and services that the board has brought to town since he has been a councilman.
“We were able to bring advanced life support from different ambulance services to town at an affordable cost,” Decker began. “We built a boardwalk in the town wetlands, put in a new soccer field, resurfaced the basketball courts, and maintained and upgraded our town park, which makes it nice for everyone in the community to be able to use.”
He also noted the upcoming town hall project, and the recently completed cell phone tower.
“Our first contract was with Verizon, and we just signed our second contract with AT&T,” Decker said. “That’s a revenue stream we didn’t have before, and that’s going to be a nice chunk of money for the town.”
He went on to say that the comprehensive plan has been getting need-based updates, making a full review unnecessary at this point in time.
“We went through a thing about mining when someone came into town and wanted to do some mining, and we went about revisiting that section of the comprehensive plan at the time, and we’ve gotten into the small homeowner type windmills,” Decker said. “While you want to keep the rural character of the town, you also want to bring modernization into view.”
Additionally, Decker does not think the one-cut rule should be eliminated from the town’s subdivision regulations.
“Since I’ve been on the board, I don’t know of any times it’s been used that way,” he said, referring to the notion that it might be used to circumvent the planning process. “It’s their property, and, as of right now, I think it’s fine. If someone comes to us, and there’s 15 applications for one-cut rule, then maybe we’ll say, ‘Well, we need to revisit that.’”
Decker also thinks that more research needs to be presented to the town board that would allow him to make an informed decision about whether or not wind power is appropriate for Knox.
“I know they’ve been doing some research; they’ve been to the town board a couple times, but they have not been there seeking permission,” Decker said of Helderberg Community Energy. “It’s basically been knowledge-based; at one meeting I brought up that we had not received any data that was written out in a report, something legible that said, ‘Hey, the town of Knox has an 88-percent chance of making wind power work here,’” Decker said, using 88-percent as a hypothetical figure.
“Is it going to generate energy efficiently, and is it going to work here?” he asked. “Nobody to my knowledge has brought that forward. I want to digest all the material when it comes in, and then listen to the planning board and zoning board input and hear what the public has to say about it.”
Decker thinks that reassessment has been “put on the back burner” because other issues have been in the town’s focus.
“The housing market fell out, and then we got busy with the cell tower thing,” Decker said. “Looking at the rates, even though they look a little skewed, I think the actual coefficient of dispersion is 10 years old, and I think it’s getting close to time to do a revaluation.”
A lifelong resident of Knox, Travis Stevens has been a volunteer firefighter in Knox for 10 years, and is on the town’s conservation advisory council. He first ran for political office in 2007, when he lost the race for county legislature to longtime incumbent Democrat Alexander “Sandy” Gordon, also a Knox resident.
Now, Stevens, 35, is running for his first term as a town board member. In the meantime, he works for the New York State Office of General Services as an energy conservation technical specialist.
“I’d like to preserve the rural character and quality of life that I’ve had, for my son and the next generation,” Stevens told The Enterprise.
Stevens thinks that every few years, the town should perform a scheduled, full review of the comprehensive plan, he said.
“But, as these issues like commercial wind come up, obviously they have to be reviewed and studied in depth by themselves,” said Stevens. “I would also bring together groups for and against, so all points can be discussed, and everyone can be informed. Basically, what I’d like to do is, once the planning board makes a recommendation, I’d like to form a panel of, say, five people including a board member to be a moderator, two people for, and two against to present a neutral presentation to the community. Then I’d hold a series of town hall meetings to give the facts. And then we could have an informed discussion and vote on ordinances. And we should do this for any major issue that has potential to change property values or our rural character.”
Stevens said he would also like to have an open discussion on eliminating the one-cut rule.
“Take the planning board recommendations and have an open discussion with the community,” Stevens said. “It seems that we don’t have that open dialogue when it comes to these issues.”
He went on, “I believe some of the issues, because they’re not discussed or brought forth at town board meetings as a discussion point, you don’t have a very large attendance, and I’ve been going for at least the past three years to almost every meeting…I think that a lot of times, the discussion would be referred to the other boards, whether it be planning or zoning type issues rather than being discussed at a town board meeting itself, and I think I would bring those discussions as a board member out into the meetings.”
Stevens added that, before the town considers community-owned wind power, the town must first define precisely what “community-owned” means.
“By no means am I against revenue streams to the town, but protecting rural character and property values is a priority of mine,” Stevens said. “I still would like to see the numbers from the meteorological tower. And, I don’t believe the town should have ownership of a commercial wind farm.”
The issue of reassessment is another one that needs to be discussed openly, Stevens said.
“We need to set some time aside to discuss the pros and cons,” he said. “Some houses would go up and some would come down. Taxes may not change, but there would be a cost to the town. But, maybe it should be a planned thing, every few years. A lot of it should be future planning, rather than a reactive thing.”