By Marcello Iaia
BERNE — The year saw a handful of leadership changes drive developments in the town. Berne officials declared a new era with the 2013 budget, and anticipated a future in which the local economy is sustained by the stewardship of natural resources.
Though Tropical Storm Irene devastated the area in August 2011, its damage was largely addressed this year, and the demolishing of a frame house within the hamlet is still not completed.
Community institutions took steps forward with work on a new library location, a Hilltown market with a café, and a new pastor for the Helderberg Evangelical Church.
A Berne resident with an activist past spoke out on state and local issues, and a sex offender was sentenced this spring.
new and old
Kevin Crosier, supervisor from 2001 to 2009, is back, and the town board has its first enrolled Republican in more than twenty years.
When Democrat George Gebe stepped down as supervisor toward the end of 2011, citing family reasons and cutting his four-year term short by about two years, Peter Vance was made acting supervisor. Vance had just retired as councilman.
Town Clerk Patricia Favreau thanked Gebe at the January 2012 re-organizational meeting for updating the town’s emergency management practices, in light of a heavy snow storm in 2010 and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Bonnie Conklin, a Republican, took her seat on the council, along with Democrat Karen Schimmer, at the meeting. In a town with three Democrats for every one Republican, it was the first time in decades Berne’s town board had been bi-partisan.
A graduate of Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools, Conklin has worked for over 10 years at St. Catherine’s Center for Children and coordinates a prevention program at BKW.
In a letter to the editor sent to The Enterprise before the election, she listed her goals on the council: “seek funding and services for youth, support senior housing, support the sewer district, support business growth, support agricultural growth, restrict an increase on zoning, no industrial wind turbines, and…no tax increases.”
Schimmer wrote in a letter to the editor that she wanted to continue her recent work on the Comprehensive Plan Review Committee as a council member.
“The decisions we are now making about land use, economic development, protection of resources, and community infrastructure and transportation will alter the face of our community, our quality of life, and Berne’s role in the region,” Schimmer wrote in October 2011.
The board unanimously chose Kevin Crosier as Gebe’s replacement over Planning Board Chairman Gerard Chartier and planning board member Timothy Lippert.
Crosier, a Democrat and retired Albany firefighter, had been out of government work for two years, he said, to spend more time with his family.
“When you do public service, the biggest sacrifice is usually made by the family,” Crosier said in January. “But, it was my daughter who actually said one night, ‘Dad, you really miss being town supervisor, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yea, but I left because I wanted to spend more time with you.’ And she said, ‘You did a good job, Dad. You should go back. I’ll be OK.’ So, it was my daughter and wife who both saw that I enjoyed the job, and they were willing to make that sacrifice.”
Elected this past November in a landslide over Republican William Keal, Crosier will be supervisor for the last remaining year of Gebe’s term. He said he plans to run again in November 2013 for a new four-year term.
Just before the election, Crosier told The Enterprise he would be focused on shared services and consolidation efforts to save money and keep taxes low.
A consolidation plan proposed by Crosier in 2006 to merge highway services — some of the costliest items in the budget — with the Albany County Department of Public Works never was realized in the wake of residents’ concerns over jobs.
Crosier said he would not consider a measure that would cost any job.
“As a matter of fact, we’re already cut to the bone,” said Crosier. “That’s the reason why we’re looking at this because the county’s laid off so many people; the town’s let one full-time job go through attrition. We need to look at how we can be more efficient.”
Greater efficiency, Crosier said, can be had with a qualified accountant who can manage in-house payroll and new accounting software.
Hours in the 2013 budget were expanded for a full-time position, filled by Andrea Borst as a senior account clerk; she had worked as a part-time clerk for the town.
Borst will oversee both the general and highway funds, taking over some of the duties of highway clerk Patricia Boice.
Boice’s hours with her other part-time position as court clerk were increased, and her location moves this year, as assistant to the senior account clerk, from the highway garage to Town Hall.
Just before the budget was adopted in November, a few highway workers spoke against the move at a board meeting.
Highway worker Edward Hampton called the decision “not well thought-out,” and said it could have a negative impact on communications within the department. Highway Superintendent Kenneth Weaver was not supportive of the change either.
Back to the land
Through its support of the Hilltown Community Market, research into wind energy and hydraulic fracturing, and discussion of zoning changes, the town in 2012 leaned heavily towards a future focused on preserving Berne’s natural landscape and rural design.
New to the board, Bonnie Conklin last January spoke with Tom Lewis, a real-estate representative for Stewart’s Shops, about the possibility of a Berne location.
It was the third such suggestion of the convenience store chain moving to town, and one Conklin said she had heard from residents during her campaign.
The issues it raised were central to many developments throughout the year. The divide from both residents and town officials came down to business development and convenience versus zoning regulation and the preservation of rural character.
“It’s simple: We will not survive,” Joe McMahon, who owns the independent Fox Creek Market on Helderberg Trail, said of a Berne Stewart’s shop in January.
The newly re-appointed Crosier said a new Stewart’s would be subject to more restrictive zoning changes made for the hamlet in 2005, but did not agree it would stifle local business.
The zoning changes required gas pumps be located at the sides of buildings, and meant Stewart’s would have to purchase three adjacent properties, according to Lewis.
There was steady public opposition to gas stations within the hamlet at town board meetings months before the zoning changes.
Lewis told The Enterprise last January that public support would be necessary for a third attempt to move forward.
“I think an important part of this is, it’s very rare for people who are in favor of something to go to public hearings and write letters, whereas, it is frequently the case that a small minority who are against something will make their objections known,” said Lewis. “Since we tried this last time, I’ve gotten more disappointed phone calls than any other town, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
Similar to the 2005 changes to zoning for the hamlet, the town discussed zoning changes for East Berne based on a study done in 2007 of “current realities” of the hamlet of East Berne, the area surrounding Warner’s Lake, and routes 157A and 443.
Chartier, chairman of the planning board, told The Enterprise in September that East Berne no longer has the businesses it once had.
“It was kind of a self-sufficient part of the community” said Chartier. “A lot of those things are gone, and it’s primarily a residential area.”
The town’s first official zoning map was adopted in 1974.
Planner Nan Stolzenburg and her company, Community Planning and Environmental Associates, performed the study. She was hired by the town as a consultant, and served on the town’s comprehesive planning committee. The committee’s three-year revision of the plan in 2011 suggested amending the zoning ordinance to reflect recommendations in the East Berne hamlet study.
In July, a committee tasked with researching the potential impacts of the gas-drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing presented its report to the town board.
The process, called hydrofracking, uses large amounts of mud, water, oil, and chemicals to break apart shale and extract natural gas. The many trucks required for the intensive process increase traffic and road damage.
Gas drilling of the Marcellus shale, which sits underneath most of the Hilltowns, is seen by some as a boon for economic development in rural areas.
The Berne committee concluded that hydrofracking is a threat to local water resources and recommended the town prohibit the process, citing “deep fractures or faults” in Berne’s bedrock, failed well casings, and high seismic activity in the Hilltowns, among other possibile dangers.
The report further recommended the town determine Berne’s current use of dust-suppression and de-icing materials and notify residents to conduct base-line tests of their drinking water in case a neighboring town allows hydrofracking. Gas companies have considered offering leftover fracking fluid to municipalities for suppressing dust and melting ice.
Crosier told The Enterprise in October that he is against drilling in Berne.
Community members created the Helderberg Hilltowns Association in 2010 with the aim of stimulating the local economy, largely through interdependence and promotion of the area’s natural resources.
This summer, the HHA started its Hilltown Community Market in the Berne Masonic Lodge.
“There’s the market, where we have vendors who can be farmers or artisans; and we have a café in the same building, which can be run by any civic, social, fraternal, or church group, for fund-raisers,” said Schimmer, an HHA member. It was held every Saturday until the end of October.
In June, breakfast foods were sold at the market to raise funds to benefit the Berne Library’s move to a new location and to benefit the Boyd Hilton Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7062 in Altamont.
The Berne Library, housed, since 1969, with the town hall in an old hotel, has acquired the former St. Bernadette’s church, down the road on Helderberg Trail.
The new location, prized for its ample parking space, became available for the library after Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese announced in 2009 the closing of 33 churches in the 14-county diocese, including St. Bernadette’s.
The overcrowded library had been searching for more than 20 years for a new location.
The purchase of the church, made in the summer of 2011, and its continued renovations have been funded through grant money, the town, Friends of the Library, fund-raisers, library savings, and donations.
A new pastor, Wendy Cook, joined the Helderberg Evangelical Church in April.
“We were looking for a minister who was strong, who was a minister who would bring young people back in the church,” said Stacey Wright, a church member who worked on the committee to find a new minister. The committee searched for about four years, she said.
In August, Pastor Cook conducted a moving service for Margery Smith, the quintessential country doctor who died on Aug. 8.
She had practiced in the Hilltowns since 1953, when she married the late Harry Garry, well known as “the singing farmer.”
Helderberg Evangelical is the result of a merger between St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Berne and St. John’s Lutheran Church in East Berne. Cook said part of her job is to help the church, located on Helderberg Trail, forge an identity.
“She’s vivacious. She’s eager. She’s brought some people back to the church already. She’s doing what we were looking for,” Wright said of Cook.
After graduating from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., Cook said she was searching for a church near where she grew up in Pennsylvania and “landed in Berne.”
October brought reports of a hurricane that, like Irene the year before, could bring extreme weather to central New York in the form of a tropical storm. It was called a “superstorm” for its coincidence with a full moon and a westward jet stream. It had a second name, “Frankenstorm,” because Halloween was soon to come.
Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, but Berne saw nothing like it had experienced in August 2011 with Tropical Storm Irene. Major coastal cities, like New York and New Jersey, were severly affected by Sandy, with its death toll rising above 100 and a $60.4 billion aid package approved by the United States Senate at the end of December.
Reports of outraged New York congressmen came after the House of Representatives was adjourned Tuesday night without voting on the aid. A spokesman for Speaker John Boehner said the bill would be decided this month, during the new 113th Congress that starts on Jan. 3, ahead of other legislation.
Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo of New York released a statement on Wednesday, calling the delay “inexcusable” and “unprecedented,” characterizing the delay as being caused by politicians in Washington playing games.
“The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty,” they said. “When American citizens are in need we come to their aid. That tradition was abandoned in the House last night.”
Berne Highway Superintendent Kenneth Weaver told The Enterprise Sandy toppled a few dead trees and caused back-road power outages.
“This time, we got lucky; we escaped it,” said Weaver.
The fast-flowing waters of the Fox Creek during Irene tore at Sue Lendrum’s Agway store and its concrete retaining wall and brought with them a garage that sat high above near a bridge on the Helderberg Trail.
She spoke after the storm of her relief that the Agway made it through Sandy, but she does not think the extensive preparations for an Irene-like event were unnecessary.
“I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘They fooled us,’” said Lendrum.
Just across the street, on the corner of its intersection with Route 443, is a historic frame house scheduled for demolition. In April, Crosier told The Enterprise it was a “potential hazard,” should extreme weather return.
Large hollow blocks with poured concrete and steel rebar inside were used to rebuild the damaged retaining wall along the creek after Irene. Repairs to the wall making up the foundation of the old frame house are awaiting funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s property acquisition program.
FEMA will fund 75 percent of the project, but the demolition and removal of the buildings is conducted locally.
Vasilios Lefkaditis, president of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board and a hedge fund manager, purchased the property in the summer of 2011 to use as an office near his Knox home. Now, he has sold the property to the town in order to take part in the program.
The attempted rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in Berne during the summer of 2011 concluded with the sentencing of Adam Croote in April.
Croote, a 24-year-old man with Hilltown relatives, pleaded guilty to the charges in March and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison by Albany County Judge Stephen Herrick in April.
After Croote’s June arrest, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple described the sequence of the crime, when Croote was babysitting the girl after she came home from school.
“She goes in the kitchen to get a snack, she comes back, and he’s naked, and he sexually assaults her,” Apple said then. “The young girl obviously screamed. He basically tried to snap her neck, and tried to strangle her. She continues to fight and scream, and I’m not sure what prompted him but, thank God, he got up and got out of there.”
Croote was already on the New York State sex offender registry for being convicted of a second-degree rape in Massachusetts in 2005, when he was 17. The registry says he raped a 25-year-old “non-stranger” without force. Croote was given five years of probation.
As a child, Croote had witnessed his father murder his mother. He was later abducted by his grandparents and raised under a false name in the midwest until a missing-child picture led to his return to the Hilltown.
After 20 years with no contact, the Berne family was introducing Adam Croote back into the family, said the victim’s mother.
George Stemple, another relative of the victim, was reported to the Sheriff’s office a month after Croote’s arrest for sexaully abusing the girl.
Cavanagh and government
At 59 and with a history of activism, Berne resident Tom Cavanagh called attention to government throughout the year.
In April, Cavanagh spoke to The Enterprise about his campaign to stop unfunded mandates, costly requirements often blamed for inefficient government spending. He walked 459 miles along the eastern border of New York with Canada to the tip of Long Island, where he grew up.
He said his father used to have him watch television news every day, and he found inspiration in his aunt, a housewife who became an activist.
“If she saw something wrong, she took the politician to task,” Cavanagh said of his aunt.
Cavanagh, enrolled as a Republican since he was 18, helped organize the Hilltown Homefront Patriots, a Tea Party group, in 2010, and has attended the Leadership Institute in Virginia, founded to train conservative activists in influencing public policy.
During the fall, Cavanagh produced a video of flooding heavy rains causing damage to the home he shares with Laurie Govel on the southwest corner of Warner’s Lake on O’Hanlon Lane. He submitted Freedom of Information Law requests for records of nearby road maintenance. There had been no work on O’Hanlon in the past decade.
When The Enterprise spoke with Crosier just before the November election, he continued to hold that the town could not divert the water without the risk of flooding another property and a lawsuit. The problem, he said, lies with a culvert pipe on private property.
“It’s really tight down there, and the town only has a very, very narrow right of way,” said Crosier in October. “So there’s really not much that can be done.”