After outcry, Knox holds faith in planning

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Pamela Fenoff stood in the gallery to make a motion to amend the zoning ordinance in an effort to prompt town board members to follow at the Feb. 11 town board meeting. Fenoff and about 30 other residents attended the vitriolic meeting in support of Hitmans Towing, which has been cited for violating the town’s zoning law by operating a business in a residential area. Fenoff, the town’s planning board secretary, lost a bid for supervisor against Michael Hammond in November by 63 votes.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Tension and talking: Town Attorney John Dorfman, left, responds to an outspoken gallery of people who turned out to support an embattled towing business in Knox as two councilmen, Dennis Decker, center, and Dennis Barber, right, review their packets during the Feb. 11 meeting. Residents complained that Dorfman was speaking instead of the board and demanded answers from council members when requesting changes to the zoning ordinance to protect Hitmans Towing.

KNOX — A crowd of nearly 30 people in this rural town of 2,700 rallied at the Feb. 11 town board meeting to call for the council to support a towing business cited for violating the town’s zoning law.

People in the gallery at times shouted at the board, the crowd’s frustration boiling over as the town’s attorney, John Dorfman, answered many questions addressed to the board about why Hitmans Towing on Route 146 had been allowed to operate in a residential district for years without being ticketed, why a business-district proposal has taken months to be finalized, and whether the town board would amend the zoning ordinance to allow the business.

Supervisor Michael Hammond asked that suggestions for changes to the ordinance to be given to him so they could be passed on to the planning board, warning of the need to account for the extra consequences of a zoning change.

“It is a good thing to come and vent and to tell us what’s going on,” said Councilman Nicholas Viscio. “We appreciate what goes on with the businesses that go on, but you cannot dissolve the order which cements the town.”

Board members remained firm in their determination to follow the process of zoning and planning board review, despite calls from the gallery to take action that night and despite a petition offering possible changes to the zoning ordinance presented by Anna Wolfe.

The law allows for the town board to amend the zoning ordinance by its own motion, but it also requires any proposed amendment to start from or be referred to the planning board. To contradict the planning board’s recommendation, the town board has to give reasons for its opposition.

Kristen Reynders, owner of Hitmans Towing, pleaded not guilty in Knox Town Court after she was issued a citation for a zoning violation in January. Her case was adjourned until March.

“Who are you to be speaking until these board members address you?” Robert Smith of Guilderland asked Dorfman. Dorfman said, after the meeting, he was answering questions because they were of a legal nature.

Smith said he was the Realtor who helped Reynders with the purchase of the property where Hitmans Towing now exists with four trucks. Reynders built a home on the property where she lives with her family.

Smith requested, amid a clamor of shouts from the gallery, that the board make a motion to change the ordinance. When no motion came, Pamela Fenoff, the planning board secretary and Hammond’s opponent in the most recent election, stood in the gallery to make a motion to change the non-permitted use of a public garage in a residential district to be a conditional use allowed under a special-use permit.

“Why should we lose something? I mean, how many businesses have we lost so far?” said Donald Hempstead, speaking from the gallery during the public comment period.

Hammond said a recommended change to the zoning ordinance to allow for commercial uses in a multi-use district would be featured at the next town board meeting. A public hearing would then have to be set before the final vote to adopt the measure.

“Mike, you need to start leading; we’re drawing a line right here,” Todd LaGrange said to Hammond, speaking from the podium before the board. He said Hammond had given businesses difficulty in the past. Hammond declined, after the meeting, to respond to LaGrange’s comments.

Of the dozen speakers from the gallery, none spoke in opposition to Hitmans Towing.

“My responsibility is to enforce the zoning in the town when it comes to my attention,” Dorfman said during the meeting.

Recently retired as town clerk, Kimberly Swain asked why years passed without the code enforcement officer, Robert Delaney, citing the business. The business moved to Knox in 2010.

“You may be absolutely right, but that is not the issue,” said Dorfman to Swain.

He told The Enterprise after the meeting that he received a complaint about Hitmans Towing and, after researching the issue, directed Delaney to ticket the business.

“I’m not so sure we’re going to do that,” Dorfman said of charging Reynders again, for continuing to violate the ordinance, saying he did not know whether or not she was still operating her business.

Smith told The Enterprise after the meeting that Delaney told him over the phone before an offer was made on the property that he would not encounter problems with the zoning ordinance because there had been a pre-existing use at the property. Uses not permitted by the zoning ordinance are “grandfathered in,” or allowed to continue as long as they were established before the ordinance was adopted in 1974. Once a business closes, though, a later buyer of the vacant property after 180 days is no longer grandfathered in.

Delaney could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Dorfman said during the meeting that his information contradicted Smith’s. He said Delaney signed the complaint filed with the court.

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Edward Hampton, a highway worker, is now filling in after the highway superintendent stepped down. Local party committees say Hampton and Randy Bashwinger will be on the ballot in the November election.