Business districts recommended for Knox

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Demand: Kristen Reynders handles her business, Hitmans Towing, on two smartphones inside her garage on Route 146. The Knox Planning Board, in a split vote, has recommended that a business district be created from the Reynders’ property to Lewis Road. Reynders told The Enterprise demand for her towing services has grown rapidly. With her garage, she plans to offer auto repair services and state inspections.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Garage dog: Sergeant, a black and white pitbull, stares up at a newcomer to the garage of Hitmans Towing.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Back to business: The site of Knox’s central convenience store and post office is now vacant and cannot be re-established as a non-conforming commercial use under the current zoning ordinance. The Knox Planning Board unanimously recommended that this area in the Knox hamlet, on Route 156, be designated a business district.

KNOX — The town board will decide whether to move forward with the designation of business districts almost 40 years after the zoning ordinance anticipated such areas in Knox.

A handful of people who were in the gallery at the July planning board meeting want to operate businesses in the proposed districts — for car repair and inspections, and renting out the former general store; neither is allowed under the current zoning laws.

The car repair and towing business is currently being run illegally in a residential district not flagged for business in the town’s comprehensive plan. The vacant general store, also zoned residential, is in the hamlet, which the master plan mentions as the possible location of a business district.

The board heard, too, two separate proposals to build housing for elderly people.

The planning board is also recommending the town update the zoning ordinance, which Chairman Robert Price said does not contain all of the town’s regulations related to zoning.

Price, who helped write the town’s comprehensive plan, said Wednesday that notices of public hearings have been drafted for the business districts. Before forwarding them to the town board, however, he said the planning board has to determine how the current 100-foot buffer required for any business districts should be changed to accommodate the small lots of the recommended districts. Definitions for senior housing in the zoning ordinance need to be recommended by the planning board, as well, he said.

Such changes to the town’s zoning law come when surveys are being collected for a revision to the Knox Comprehensive Plan, created in 1994 to guide and coordinate decision-making.

“Certainly there’s public support for it,” planning board member Thomas Wolfe said, acknowledging the requests before the board for business districts. “There’s obviously public support for senior citizen housing. I think, for us to back off and wait for another day is really, whether you agree with where it is or not, is really neglecting our duty in some respects.”

According to the comprehensive plan, a survey conducted in 1990 showed two-thirds of respondents were in support of a business district. Forty percent of the 900 surveys mailed out were returned. For existing businesses, 82 percent of respondents approved of a district for the area of the then-gas station, post office, and general store in the hamlet; 66 percent were in favor of the area of the town garage and the Township Tavern; and 57 percent were in favor of the area of Highland Farms Restaurant and the Mountain Woodshop on Route 156.

“The comprehensive plan is not an iron-clad document. It’s a guidance document,” Price said during the meeting, after board member Daniel Driscoll pointed out the comprehensive plan doesn’t recommend one of the two business districts outlined at the July meeting.

Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, who is coordinating the revision of the plan, said Tuesday that 30 survey responses have been collected from residents so far, and she hopes to have the revision completed with the help of volunteers shortly after the end of the year.

“I would say almost everyone who responded said that they miss having the store in the hamlet, and that is pretty much across the board,” said Pokorny, who used to own the Knox Country Store with her husband, now the town assessor, Russell Pokorny. “A lot of people said that they would like to see business opportunities for young people so that they don’t have to move away in order to make a living…,” she said. “So there is quite a lot of support for business.”

The town board will now vote on whether to hold public hearings for the proposed districts, and the county, which maintains state routes, would have to give approval.

Commerce

The planning board voted, 5 to 2, at its July meeting to recommend the town board designate a business district on the south side of Route 146, extending west from Lewis Road, where Altamont Spray Welding is located, to the property of Hitmans Towing at 1039 Township Road. A separate business district was recommended by a unanimous vote for lots 14 through 19 on Route 156 in the hamlet, including the site of the former Knox Post Office and the vacant Knox Country Store.

Regulations for business districts have been written into the Knox zoning ordinance, first created in 1974, but none have been created for the rural area. Both candidates for supervisor in the upcoming November election told The Enterprise that commercial development in Knox would be a priority. The newcomer on the Republican line, Pamela Fenoff, is the planning board secretary. She is running against the long-term incumbent, Democrat Michael Hammond.

Citing a description in the zoning ordinance of future business districts as “centrally located,” Daniel Driscoll and Robert Gwinn, both long-time planning board members who helped draft the 1994 comprehensive plan, voted against creating the district on Route 146. The proposed district for the hamlet is among those suggested by the plan, but the one on Route 146 is not.

“The planning board is supposed to be a planning function, and we should be presenting to the town board a comprehensive look at business districts, of what we should be planning in the town, rather than this one shot deal,” Gwinn said Wednesday, adding that potential business districts should have the support of the comprehensive plan.

The zoning ordinance requires a 100-foot buffer where any future business district shares a boundary with a residential district. Business lots abutting residential lots may be required to have “a wall, fence, compact evergreen hedge or a landscaped strip of trees or shrubs so designed as to form a visual screen not less than six feet in height at the time of planting.”

Kristen Reynders owns Hitman’s Towing Services, which has four tow trucks, on Route 146. The zoning ordinance states any “public garage” used for profit and servicing automobiles must have a special-use permit in business districts and is prohibited everywhere else.

In her garage, Reynders hopes to bring in more business if the district is created. She has a tire changer, welding equipment, and two lifts for minor repairs for state inspections. Outside, a five-foot fence extends across the driveway.

 “We have everything to do it; we just can’t legally do it,” she told the planning board during its July 11 meeting.

Reynders, now 24, told The Enterprise she started her towing business with her husband seven years ago, with one truck in her father’s driveway in Altamont; They bought property in Knox after neighbors complained and village zoning enforcement gave them a warning.

Planning board member Thomas Wolfe was the most outspoken for the creation of the district on Route 146, calling it “the cleanest way out,” after Price first made a motion not to recommend any change to the ordinance, saying it would set a bad precedent.

“We ignore a lot of zoning violations all over the place, ‘What’s another one?’ But I was never comfortable with that,” Wolfe said at the meeting. “You pass regulations, you make laws, but there’s violations all over the place. ‘What’s one more?’ But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do.”

According to minutes of the June meeting, Earl Barcomb, a member of the planning board and the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, said that Route 146 should be considered for a business district because it is a main thoroughfare and the location of existing businesses, two other criteria for such areas in the zoning ordinance.

Driscoll said he had heard at a previous planning board meeting that Altamont Spray Welding had purchased property on the north side of Route 146. Driscoll said in July that Robert Delaney, the town’s building inspector and zoning administrator, should be told that would be a “clear violation” of the zoning ordinance by expanding a non-conforming use.

Mark Schrowang, president of Altamont Spray Welding, told The Enterprise Tuesday that his business hasn’t purchased more property and doesn’t have plans to expand. Its founder, Robert Bareis, said he believes Altamont Spray Welding was started in 1972, but wasn’t sure. Any use of land that doesn’t conform to the town’s zoning ordinance but was established before the law was passed in 1974 is allowed, or “grand fathered in,” but cannot expand or be re-established after closing.

Reynders told the board she had collected neighbors’ signatures on a letter explaining her intentions with the garage.

District in the hamlet

The district recommended for the hamlet was sought by Vasilios Lefkaditis, who also attended the July meeting.

Lefkaditis, manager of a real-estate equity fund, has expressed interest in the former site of the Knox Post Office and the Knox Country Store.

The post office was closed in November of last year because of a mold, leaks, exposed electrical wires, and rodents. Officials from the town and the United States Postal Service have said they can’t make progress on the foreclosed property without an owner. It is now owned by Bayview Loan Servicing.

“We have not exhausted, but we’re virtually at the point of exhausting outreach with the ownership at the current location,” Maureen Marion, spokeswoman for USPS, told The Enterprise in May.

The town has offered space in Town Hall for the USPS, but Marion told The Enterprise it would have to meet certain security standards. Knox postal customers are now using a bank of post-office boxes in East Berne.

“We have highway contract routes where the drivers are able to handle the mail that’s already been prepared…and then they put it into units that are outside,” Marion said of possible solutions for Knox.

In some places where a post office has closed, one can be co-located or established within a convenience store, but Knox doesn’t have a store, Marion said.

Lefkaditis said he has been negotiating for the property for almost two years.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet. I would not be running the business out of there,” Lefkaditis said on what he would plan for the site. “I would be making the store available for other businesses to operate.”

Lefkaditis, a member of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, said the lease with USPS in the frame house was “extremely biased” to the tenant.

“When you negotiate a lease, you always negotiate the build-out…how much of it’s going to be done by the landlord; how much of it’s going to be the responsibility of the tenant,” Lefkaditis said.

Marion did not return a call this week, seeking comment.

Senior housing

In March, Altamont developer Jeff Thomas was resuming the process of designing a postponed senior housing project because Berne had just secured bids for the hamlet’s multi-million dollar sewer system.

“If it can’t be affordable, then there’s no sense in building it,” Thomas said in March.

Since then, two separate plans for senior housing have been brought to the town of Knox, where Chasity McGivern and Linda Carman each want to build.

McGivern’s project was granted preliminary approval by the planning board in July, subject to site-plan approval. The motion was made contingent upon the town board’s amending the zoning ordinance to adopt definitions of senior housing, which the planning board is to recommend at a later meeting.

McGivern is a real-estate agent and BKW School Board member. She has told The Enterprise she is representing a group of Hilltown residents seeking not-for-profit status with a phased plan to build a 20-unit cluster development on Knox Cave Road, near the ambulance station. Each unit on the 19-acre parcel would be 1,300 square feet.

McGivern is a member of the Helderberg Ambulance Squad and said her grandmother’s need to find a place to live three years ago motivated her to pursue the project.

One of the most vocal advocates for seniors in the Hilltowns, Linda Carman (who writes a column for The Enterprise on the Hilltown Seniors) is now putting together a plan for her own two-story building of 24 apartments. She told The Enterprise on Tuesday she is currently working with a Hilltown church group but she would not say which group nor would she say where the land in Knox is located.

Carman lives in Knox and has spoken about her motivation to locate housing for elderly people in the Hilltowns was her mother having to live her last days in a Guilderland nursing home, since there was none closer to home.

With a target rental rate of $600 to $800, Carman said she is concerned McGivern’s units won’t be affordable, or that Thomas’s project won’t come through. She said Thomas hasn’t responded to her e-mails and Carman called her project a back-up plan.

“I just think my units are going to be easier to maintain, and more cost-effective,” said Carman.

Price asked Carman for any sketches or drawings she had for the proposed building, which Carman told The Enterprise she hopes to bring in September.

Other business

In other business, the planning board:

— Voted to propose to the town board that planning board secretary Fenoff, work with the planning board, on behalf of the town board, to update the zoning ordinance. Price said a law regulating motorcycle noise isn’t in the zoning ordinance and the update would make a comprehensive copy of the ordinance available to the public; and

— Heard from Price that he would investigate further the county’s ability to create a state-certified agricultural district map overlaying a town’s map. The county maps are used for the state’s pre-emptive Agriculture and Markets Law.

The planning board recently amended the zoning ordinance to eliminate the separate designation of horse-riding academies in the town in order to conform with the state’s law. Wolfe had suggested the planning board examine the town’s separate designation of swine farms.

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