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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 26, 2012

Zoning preserves Berne’s character

In recent weeks, we’ve received and printed letters urging a Stewart’s gas station and convenience store be built in the rural Hilltown hamlet of Berne. We’ve also heard from Hilltowners who believe such a store would put locally owned mom-and-pops out of business.

This gives us a strong sense of deja vu. It also gives us pause.

In 2005, the town was bitterly divided when Stewart’s — a company based in Saratoga County — bought property in the hamlet with plans to build.

“This is not good for the town,” said Kenneth Bunzey who owned a house next to the properties that his family had lived in for generations. Bunzey vehemently opposed the plan. “Neighbors are becoming enemies,” said Bunzey, a town judge.

Tom Lewis, the site director for Stewart’s said this month, his company would be interested in building a store in Berne. “Our sense back then was really the same that it is now,” he told our Hilltown reporter, Zach Simeone, “which is that it’s a very underserved market.”

While Stewart’s perspective hasn’t changed, neither has the town’s zoning.

In 1995, with the guidance of planner Nan Stolzenberg, Berne completed a major overhaul of its zoning, which serves as a beacon of good rural planning. The zoning ensures that the hamlet will retain its historic charm.

And the hamlet is where Stewart’s is determined to place its gas station and store. “The only place I would locate a shop would be just on that part of Helderberg Trail where all the houses are, between the school and right before that sharp turn at the end of the road,” said Lewis this month.

Back in 2005, Lewis said that Stewart’s made the decision to withdraw its plans based on the town’s zoning regulations and not the vocal opposition of some hamlet residents.

The ordinance “requires restrictions that we believe limits our ability to successfully operate our business,” Lewis wrote in a letter to the town board.

Kevin Crosier, who was supervisor at the time and who this week was appointed supervisor again, said in 2005, that Stewart’s withdrawal was a victory for the zoning ordinance. “These design standards worked exactly the way they were supposed to,” he said at the time, calling it “the strictest zoning in the county.”

The zoning, which still stands, required new construction in the hamlet to meet standards intended for the building to blend in with the historical character of the hamlet.

When Stolzenberg evaluated Stewart’s plan in 2005, she listed aspects that would violate the zoning ordinance, including the height of the sign, the flat-roofed canopy over the gas pump, and the fact that the front façade was not parallel to the street.

If Stewart’s were to meet the town standards, Lewis said at the time, it would not be able to run the store profitably. He gave the example of restricted hours of operation, saying that would be bad for business. He also said the company prefers to have parking lots in front of its stores rather than to the side or behind as the zoning dictates.

“Our customers need to have access right up front,” Lewis said in 2005.

Lewis said this week that Stewart’s would consider trying again in Berne. “If I thought there was enough public support to approve our application, then I would have to sign some contracts with willing sellers at a price that made sense, and then I’d reapply.”

Public support isn’t the issue. The public was involved through a hearing process in forming the current zoning laws in Berne. And the town board — elected by the public — adopted the ordinance. If Stewart’s wants to build in the hamlet, it could come up with a design that follows the regulations. That would fulfill the law, preserve the hamlet’s character, and might even make its neighbors into appreciative customers.

It makes no sense, if Stewart’s won’t meet the zoning requirements, to pursue a plan to build in Berne.

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