Hitmans Towing saga: Yesterday's ticket may be tomorrow's business district

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

Vacant: The Knox Country Store and the former site of the town’s only post office, in back, were unused this past summer and still are. The hamlet currently has no commercially active properties. The town’s planning board forwarded a proposal for an enlarged business district for the area for the town board to review on March 11.

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia

In demand: Kristen Reynders, the owner of Hitmans Towing on Route 146, used two phones to conduct her business last summer soon after the town planning board had voted to recommend her area of the town be designated as a business district. The planning board has since deliberated over business districts encompassing Reynders’s property and in the Knox hamlet. On Feb. 27, the planning board voted to recommend both districts to the town board.

KNOX — The towing business cited in violation of the town’s zoning law in January was included in a business district recommended by a 4-to-2 vote of the Knox Planning Board on Feb. 27.

Around 30 supporters of Hitmans Towing on Route 146 attended the Feb. 11 town board meeting in outcry and circulated a petition after the Hitmans’ owner, Kristen Reynders, had been ticketed for operating a business in a residential district. Supervisor Michael Hammond agreed at the meeting to forward zoning amendments suggested by residents to the planning board.

Robert Price, the planning board's chairman, said he requested two sheriff’s deputies at the meeting last Thursday but told them they could leave during what he described as calm and civil public comments. Planning board members estimated that 30 people attended the Feb. 27 meeting.

Reynders is scheduled to appear in court on March 12, the day after the town board will consider the planning board’s recommendations for two business districts. The first district nearly follows the lighting district of the town’s hamlet on Route 156 after the town board requested a previous proposal be enlarged.

Price told The Enterprise that a second business district is recommended to the town board from Lewis Road to the Hitmans property.

The proposal is subject to town board adoption before becoming law.

The proposed second district has been voted on twice before regarding the area cited by Price, but the size and boundaries of the district were not determined during the Feb. 27 meeting, he said.

The town currently has no business districts, although its comprehensive plan, adopted in 1995, recommends locating one in the hamlet and in other areas that had businesses at that time, two decades ago.

A petition from Reynders, submitted to the town board on Feb. 11, suggested three options for changing the zoning ordinance to allow Hitmans to continue operating. On Feb. 27, planning board member Thomas Wolfe made the motion for the board to vote on each suggestion, to determine which would result in the least impact.

On one suggestion, to broaden the definition of home occupation, which allows for business activities in residences, Price joined Robert Gwinn and Daniel Driscoll in opposition; the motion failed, 3 to 3. All six planning board members present voted against the suggestion to change a “public garage” to a conditional use, allowed with a special-use permit.

The third option, creating a business district where Hitmans is located, passed, 4 to 2, with Price, Earl Barcomb, Brett Pulliam, and Wolfe voting for it and Driscoll and Gwinn against it. Betty Ketcham was absent.

“At last night's PB meeting, the board proceeded under the assumption that the TB had asked us to recommend the best (least objectionable) of the recommendations in the Hitmans petition,” Driscoll and Gwinn wrote in a minority opinion. “In our opinion, however, none of the options in the Hitmans petition were legal; all were completely unacceptable.”

Price said he is preparing a memorandum for the town board that will outline the majority’s opinion, calling it a “good compromise to an awkward situation” for the town. He declined to explain what makes the situation awkward, but said it would be in the memo on March 11.

“It has the least impact. It’s finite. It’s discrete,” Wolfe said this week of the business district. “It’s a rezoning of a very small portion of the town on the south side of Route 146.”

The planning board in July originally voted to create a second business district to include Hitmans, but then reversed itself in October after impacts on the environmental review were modified. Driscoll and Gwinn consistently opposed the district. Pulliam, Price, and Wolfe have consistently been for the district, while Ketcham and Barcomb have changed their votes.

Comprehensive planning

Driscoll, Gwinn, and Price helped to write the town’s current comprehensive plan, which is in the process of being revised as the town board seeks public input.

Driscoll and Gwinn wrote in their opinion that the second business district would be illegal, if adopted, because it contradicts the comprehensive plan’s recommendation that business districts be “centrally located.”

The zoning ordinance and the comprehensive plan allow for business districts, but the town has designated none so far.

Driscoll and Gwinn cite New York’s Town Law that states land-use regulations must be in accordance with the comprehensive plan.

“It is generally flat and well-drained, has good access to State Route 156 and County Route 252, and is centrally located,” the comprehensive plan states, describing the hamlet as the site of a potential business district. “However, other than recognizing the existing business activities, there is little room for any expansion, the lots are small, and there is no public water supply or sewer system.”

The minority planning board members wrote that Hitmans is closer to the eastern edge of the town and that its area is not among the business districts recommended by the comprehensive plan.

Since the comprehensive plan was written, the post office, gas station, and convenience store in the hamlet are no longer operating.

“They closed for all kinds of reasons, none of which had anything to do with the three boards in the town,” Price told The Enterprise this week.

The Highlands Restaurant on Route 156, also in an area mentioned in the comprehensive plan as appropriate for commercial development, recently closed. The plan mentions Route 146 as well, but farther west than Hitmans, where Township Tavern, a restaurant, stands.

Altamont Spray Welding is encompassed by the second proposed business district near Hitmans Towing. Its founder, Robert Bareis, told The Enterprise earlier that he believes Altamont Spray Welding was started in 1972. The town’s zoning ordinance was passed in 1974 and allows non-conforming uses that were started before its adoption to continue if unexpanded.

A car repair shop less than half of a mile west on Route 146, Mickle’s Automotive, has been considered grandfathered in during the planning board’s discussions. The town and county highway garages and the Township Tavern Restaurant are on the same road.

Trust, slippery slopes, and enforcement

 “Just as important, in our opinion, is the understanding that a zoning ordinance is a compact of trust between Town government and the residents, protecting individual homes or businesses,” Driscoll and Gwinn write in their opinion. “By amending the Zoning Ordinance to accommodate an individual business, that compact of trust is broken.  Anyone in Town can then anticipate that they (or a neighbor) can ask for and be granted a similar amendment to accommodate another land use that would violate the Ordinance.”

The zoning ordinance requires any “public garage” used for profit and servicing automobiles to have a special-use permit in business districts and is prohibited everywhere else.

Price said he told Reynders during the Feb. 27 meeting that her request to be allowed to inspect vehicles is a “slippery slope,” because some inspections would reveal needed repairs, for which she might be tempted to buy parts and do in her garage. “And they’re not seeking a permit to do automotive repairs,” Price said. “They’re seeking a permit to do inspections.”

Pamela Fenoff, the planning board’s secretary, has been outspoken about the issue, vigorously supporting Reynders and using Facebook and e-mails to encourage other residents to come to town meetings.

Fenoff campaigned for supervisor in the last election against longtime incumbent Michael Hammond. She told The Enterprise the town’s zoning laws aren’t enforceable and Hammond’s administration is at fault. She said Reynders is a representative of the future of Knox.

“I believe that, if she is allowed to stay, the town officials will step up,” said Fenoff of Reynders. “They will probably start paying attention to zoning violations, and they will hopefully run the town the way it needs to be run. Part of that is you enforce the laws you have, or you get rid of them if they aren’t enforceable.”

Fenoff plans to move to North Dakota this summer due to her husband’s work.

Wolfe said Reynders’s situation has become an emotional issue among town residents, in part because she has been operating in the town for years without citations from the town.

“They admire, I think, the spunk and the entrepreneurship of Kristen Reynders,” Wolfe said of residents who support her. “She’s a very sweet little girl. She’s got a dream, and she’s humping to grow a business and be successful. Some people think that’s a good quality and they admire it.”

Reynders has said she moved to Knox from Altamont in 2010. She had formerly parked her tow truck in her father’s Altamont driveway. She bought the Knox land with the garage on the property and got building permits and a certificate of occupancy for a house she built on the same parcel.

In her application for a special-use permit with the zoning board of appeals in December, Reynders wrote that she employs six local people. She wrote that she has no plans to expand the business and believes it “fits the community.” The business has four trucks and the garage has one bay.

“I agree that we do need to create a business district, and we certainly do need to change the zoning ordinance to do that,” Driscoll told The Enterprise. “But to do it in a way that is clearly meant to benefit one particular little corner of the town, one particular business, it’s just not in keeping with the comprehensive plan.”

Driscoll, a longtime planning board member, said changes to accommodate particular businesses with land-use regulations can be viewed by courts as not in accordance with a comprehensive plan.
“It is not for the sole benefit of an individual, because it involves more than one specific lot or tax-map lot,” Wolfe told The Enterprise.

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