Old Knox leaders try new biz plans
Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
Kristen Reynders handles her business, Hitmans Towing, on two smartphones inside her garage on Route 146. With her garage, she plans to offer limited auto repair services and state inspections. The Knox Planning Board, in a split vote, decided not to forward a proposal for a business district that would encompass the towing business. Reynders said this week she has submitted a request for a special-use permit to the zoning board of appeals, pending review in the new year.
KNOX — A challenge to incumbent Democrats in the close November election was unsuccessful but touched upon broad issues of zoning and land use in the town throughout the year.
One of the main complaints brought by Independence Party member Pamela Fenoff who ran for supervisor and Republican Robert Altieri who ran for councilman was that the town board hadn’t done enough to foster business in Knox.
At planning board meetings, the issues of the town’s zoning ordinance played out on a smaller stage. Two business districts were considered for recommendation to the town board, a change to conform with state Agriculture and Markets Law was passed, and modifications were made for expected housing for elderly people.
The first district, called business district number one, was forwarded and its boundaries are nearing consensus on the planning board, but a second district tested the town’s enforcement of the zoning ordinance and leniency with businesses.
Since the closing of the last commercial enterprise in the hamlet — a post office — in 2012, the town has had to wait for the United States Postal Service to resolve its problems with its landlord and plan for a solution in Knox.
Supervisor Michael Hammond announced at the December town board meeting that a kiosk of postal boxes had been ordered, to be installed outdoors at Town Hall. A survey would be sent out, the postal service said, to poll residents on the need for postal services.
The town’s comprehensive land-use plan, currently under revision, suggested businesses could be established in the hamlet, where a pair of vacant buildings have a new owner planning to rent to businesses.
Fenoff, the planning board secretary, ran against Hammond, the incumbent Democratic supervisor, and lost with 437 votes to Hammond’s 500, according to official results from the Albany County Board of Elections. She wrested a third line on the ballot, the Independence Party, from Hammond in a primary race with 19 votes to his six in September.
It was Fenoff’s first run for public office, spurred on, she said, after she learned Hammond had been the town’s supervisor for four decades.
Incumbent Democrats Nicholas Viscio, a councilmember for two decades, and Amy Pokorny won new terms, besting Altieri, the only Republican challenger for two council seats.
Pokorny was appointed to her seat in 2012 after serving on the zoning board of appeals.
Thirty-nine percent of registered voters in Knox are Democrats, 22 percent are Republicans, 27 percent belong to no party, and the rest are members of small parties, including six percent who are Independence Party members.
Fenoff, 49, works part-time as an office manager for Krieger Solutions, a social consulting firm.
After the election, Fenoff has attended town meetings regularly. She announced her publication of a Knox community newsletter, called “Rural Roots,” at the December town board meeting and questioned the town board about records management in Town Hall.
Historic birth and death records are being kept in a closet, not the fire-proof records room, she noted, and recommendations from a state grant for records management consulting hadn’t been followed.
Hammond and Kimberly Swain, a Republican, confirmed at the December meeting that the records, dating to the mid-19th Century, were kept in a meeting-room closet for the registrar of vital statistics to access. In the records room, Swain said during the December meeting, some records aren’t properly organized according to a database set up under the $7,000 grant.
Swain did not seek re-election in November.
Since October 2012, when Planning Board Chairman Robert Price spoke to the town board about a seminar on high-volume hydraulic fracturing he attended at the University of Albany, the comprehensive plan has been drawn gradually into greater focus. Its revision is now being conducted with public input, overseen by Pokorny, and taking into account the future of agriculture and business in the town.
In December 2012, planner Nan Stolzenburg, who has worked as a consultant for several local governments on comprehensive plans, submitted a suggested course of action for revision. According to her review, the town would derive its vision statement from two sources: public input and a “planning inventory” of government data on population and geography.
Stolzenburg wrote in her review that public input would be crucial to an updated plan.
“In the end, it will be important for the town to document its data, including public input,” she wrote. “If there were ever challenges to a law that was based on the comprehensive plan, you will want to show what the public had to say and to show there is legitimate community needs addressed by that regulation.”
Among her criticisms of the last comprehensive plan, adopted in 1995, Stolzenburg wrote that its description of transportation was weak and of community character was vague. There is no clear set of recommended actions for the town to take, she wrote.
The plan reports on surveys conducted in 1974 and 1990 that indicated Knox residents and landowners favor a business district in the hamlet, where a gas station, a general store, and a post office once existed. By lower margins, survey respondents approved of business districts in the area of routes 146 and 157, where other businesses are operating.
Pokorny has so far taken 49 responses to a set of three broad questions about a vision for the town from which a townwide survey is to be developed. Knox has a population of 2,692 and 1,026 households, according to 2010 demographic data from the United States Census Bureau. Seventeen of 30 surveys specific to agricultural and large-tract property owners have been returned.
When the agricultural survey was first sent out, Kenneth Saddlemire, a Knox farmer, said at the September town board meeting that the wording of a question about the use of genetically modified crops and pesticides encouraged a negative pall on a modern tool.
“What we learned is that, for a number of farmers, it is a priority to be able to make use of that kind of technology,” Pokorny said this week of survey responses about genetically modified organisms.
Further questions are now being developed from the responses, along with focus groups, for a more detailed survey that the town board plans to each of 922 households determined by through the Albany County Board of Elections, Pokorny said.
“One of the really valuable comments we got from one of the workshops was that, any questions we ask the public in this survey that has a financial impact in terms of taxpayer expenditures, that should be a part of the question,” said Pokorny.
The update is meant to address six general topics taken from the first round of survey responses:
— Commercial and economic development;
— Agriculture — “Because everybody values the open space and rural character of Knox,” Pokorny said. “That was probably the first response in almost every survey we got back”;
— Open space and the natural environment;
— Community character;
— Cultural, recreational, and historic resources; and
— Town government, infrastructure, and community services.
The town examined a modification to its zoning ordinance that would allow elderly citizens to live in Knox in specialized housing.
Such structures have yet to be constructed, but the ordinance change was motivated by a proposal from Chasity McGivern, who, with a group of other Hilltown residents, she said, is planning to build a 20-unit rental development in phases on Knox Cave Road. Each unit on the 19-acre parcel would be 1,300 square feet, she said.
McGivern is a real-estate agent for Prudential Manor Homes and a member of the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board.
Linda Carman, a Knox resident involved with the Hilltown Seniors group, has proposed a two-story, 24-unit plan for apartments at an unspecified location. She said this week that her plan is on hold after speaking with Jeff Thomas, an Altamont developer who has proposed a senior housing complex in Berne pending the completion of a sewer project slated for April.
The change to the ordinance specifically defines senior housing as being for people aged 55 and older. It includes multiple dwelling or cluster developments among residential uses, subject to planning board approval.
A proposed district for commercial uses has been sent back to the planning board for further modification, after a public hearing and town-board review sought larger boundaries.
The initial proposal covered just a handful of lots on the corner of Route 157 and Knox Cave Road. A second district had been proposed, covering businesses on the corner of Lewis Road and Route 146. A towing business there, called Hitmans Towing, had been established and operating in violation of the zoning ordinance.
The second district was voted down, 4 to 3, at the planning board’s October meeting.
Just over a year ago, the post office occupying a rented space in an old frame house was closed. The property was deemed unsafe when mold, rodents, and faulty electrical wiring were discovered.
Maureen Marion, a spokeswoman for the United States Postal Service, estimated that 75 post-office boxes serve Knox residents, who now get their mail at the East Berne Post Office. Others in Knox are served by rural-route carriers.
Since the closure, the USPS had trouble contacting the former owner, Marion said, and the property had been foreclosed. The property, with the next-door building that had held Knox’s general store, was purchased from Bayview Loan Services for $65,000. The buyer, Knox resident and BKW School Board member Vasilios Lefkaditis, plans to renovate and rent the space to businesses, but, he said, the post office declined his offer for the space.
A bank of boxes has been ordered for installation at the Knox Town Hall, Marion said, but a survey of customers needs to be conducted first. She added that some retail postal services, called a village post office, could be associated with a business, but a full-scale post office as the hamlet once had wouldn’t return in what the USPS calls a discontinuance.
“To staff it, perhaps just two hours a day, with a full postal presence is a challenge for us to do at this juncture,” said Marion. “So we’re looking for an opportunity to co-locate some of the most essential services.”
Knox Fire District
Just as the tax rolls became public in May, the Albany County Farmland Protection Board had discussed the pressures that farmers face from fire district levies. Individual fire districts, by state law, have the power to grant an exemption to farmers, or not.
John O’Pezio, a Knox resident who represents agribusiness on the county board, noted in April that the fire district tax for many farmers is more than the town and highway taxes combined.
“The reason that farmers discontinue farming is most often economic,” said O’Pezio in April. “And they’re subjected to large tax burdens because they have very large parcels of property.”
The typical exemption for property taxes on farmland can keep the cost of farming significantly lower. But fire districts aren’t required to grant the exemption, except by resolution from the board of fire commissioners that oversee a district.
Knox commissioners received an e-mail in April to consider passing the property tax burden on to non-agricultural properties by allowing agricultural exemptions to apply to the fire district levy.
“It took us a little while, but we decided not to go along with the ag exemption, because it would put more of a burden on the non farmers, which there’s a lot more of,” said Dana Sherman, chairman of the board of fire commissioners, this week. “Also, the farmers told us themselves that, if we grant that, their barn and property will be exempt, but their house won’t be exempt, so it’s really not that much of a gain for them.”
In the spring, town Assessor Russell Pokorny estimated that the average agricultural property tax would decrease by about $70 and all other properties would increase by $10, if the fire district passed a resolution allowing the exemption. He said Knox has a handful of farmers and about 140 properties with agricultural exemptions.
The board of commissioners has been discussing the enlargement of the firehouse near Town Hall, Sherman said, and will submit its plans to architects for cost estimates in March.
An addition at the back of the firehouse, built in 1988, would create needed space in the building, he said. The dimensions of trucks have grown much larger, Sherman said, and, without fire hydrants in a rural town, the trucks need to hold additional water for more and larger homes.
“Bigger is more exposure,” Sherman said of houses built in recent years.
There would be more space to wash and maintain trucks and to store tools. Since the trucks would be moved away from the 16-inch wide lockers, the firefighters would have more room to don their gear.
“A man is a lot more than 16 inches,” said Sherman. “You can picture the scene, when they’re rushing.”