2013: Thacher Park to get a facelift
The Enterprise — Tyler Murphy
Profile in planning: The first-ever master plan for John Boyd Thacher State Park was released in November 2013 by the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation after months of planning and public input. The plan, to make the park a four-season, regional draw, calls for a new visitors’ center atop the Helderberg escarpment and introduces bike trails as well as rock-climbing while combining Thacher with nearby Thompson’s Lake State Park.
NEW SCOTLAND — While politics were static in 2013 — the incumbents faced no challengers in town elections — the future of Thacher State Park drew regional interest as did the disposition of an unprecedented negligent-homicide case.
A sad saga that had riveted residents since Aug. 10, 2011 came to a close this past January when LuAnn Burgess of Voorheesville was sentenced.
Instead of jail, the driver who crashed into a Voorheesville church and killed three women standing outside was sentenced to spend 600 hours warning community groups and speaking to lawmakers about the hazards of driving under the influence of prescription medication.
In a deal with prosecutors, Burgess had pleaded guilty to three negligent homicide charges, admitting she was responsible for the deaths of the three victims — members of a walking club visiting Voorheesville — who were instantly killed when they were struck by Burgess’s Toyota Highlander.
The Albany County Sheriff’s Office said an onboard computer in Burgess’s vehicle showed she had not braked during the accident. Responders at the scene reported Burgess was unaware she hit three people until police informed her at the hospital, where she was treated for minor injuries.
Burgess’s sentence also suspended her driving privileges for the rest of her life and placed her on five years’ probation.
The unprecedented case exposed gray areas between medicine and law.
When the accident occurred, Burgess was taking six prescription medications related to her Parkinson’s disease. At the heart of the case were discussions about how much of a role that cocktail of prescribed medications played in the accident.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even the judge noted the case was unprecedented and exposed a wider concern about how drivers taking prescription medications should be handled by the justice system.
In March 2012, the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced it was creating a master plan, the first ever for John Boyd Thacher State Park, which lies mostly in New Scotland. The office assembled a planning team of administrators, park staff, and professional planners; held two public feedback sessions; and encouraged citizens to write their views.
This past July, a draft of the master plan was released. It called for combining Thacher with Thompson’s Lake Park in name, as the two are already managed together.
The plan called for construction of a new visitors’ center atop the Helderberg escarpment; a re-design of the former pool area to be developed into an area where ropes courses would be taught by an outside contractor; removal of the current shooting range; restoration of closed vendor booths; and expansion of the beach and camp areas at Thompson’s Lake.
“Having a new visitors’ center is a really important impact, said Salim Chishti, a planner with the Office of Parks. “There has not been a central place at the park where people can get information and orient themselves.”
As a whole, planners envisioned the entire park becoming an interactive museum, with trails and new signs directing visitors to its historical sites where native peoples had camped for 8,000 years. The focus would also be on geological formation, such as caves and fossils — attractions for which the park was founded.
In August, a hearing on the proposal at New Scotland Town Hall was well attended by the public. Seventeen people spoke, most of them favoring the plan.
A geologist who works for the state, Charles Ver Straeten, said fracturing in the rock at Thacher makes it unwise to build a visitors’ center so close to the edge of the escarpment, as described in the draft.
Expanded trails, including those for mountain bikes, as well as the introduction of rock-climbing on some areas of the cliff, received favorable comments from members of groups involved in those activities.
Managing invasive species and expanding bird conservation areas were also parts of the plan addressed at the hearing.
A couple of speakers advocated for the return of the swimming pool, closed in 2006; several who live on Thompson’s Lake objected to expanding the beach there; two equestrians asked that horses not be forbidden; and the president of a cavers’ group said some of Thacher’s several dozen caves don’t require the tours the plan calls for.
In September, a 44-year-old East Greenbush man, the father of three children, Ronald Gene Czajkowski, fell 120 feet to his death while attempting to illegally climb the escarpment at Thacher. Police believe he was killed instantly by the fall after an improperly secured climbing anchor, attached at the top of the cliff, gave way.
“At this time,” said Captain John Layton of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office in September, “Thacher does not allow climbing or rappelling. We are asking people not to do that.”
He noted that Czajkowski was inexperienced, having only been climbing twice before and that he went by himself “which is something not recommended for any climbers to do,” said Layton.
“A comprehensive plan is looking into incorporating it,” said Layton of rock-climbing at Thacher.
The master plan allows rock climbing at the park, for the first time ever, in designated areas where professional climbers would first install permanent climbing and safety aids. Climbers would also have to get a permit from the park before climbing once such safety measures have been taken.
Adoption of the finalized park plan was announced in November. The plan adds a 4.6-mile bike path connecting Thacher to Thompson’s Lake, and increases the number of campsites at the lake, making them smaller than the current sites to be used for tents. The sandy beach area along the lake will also be extended to the park’s property line, adding 1,350 square feet of beach and swimming area.
Few changes were made to the draft and the visitors’ center remains the priority.
Alane Ball Chinian, the director of the Saratoga-Capital District Region of the Office of Parks, responded through The Enterprise in November to the concerns raised earlier by Ver Straeten, saying the state would review any potential building site to ensure public safety.
“Anyone taking up the project would have to make sure the ground we’re building on is suitable,” said Chris Fallon, the park’s manager, in November.
“It’ll establish an orientation point for the park,” he said of the center, which will be built at the Indian Ladder picnic area, a few hundred feet back from the edge of the escarpment and could be visible along Route 157, the main road through Thacher.
“We’re looking to draw people in with signage,” said Fallon.
According to the master plan, the center will include space for exhibits of park geology, wildlife, and local history; for meetings; for park offices; for a gift shop; and for restrooms.
John Kilroy, president of the Friends of Thacher Park, said his group, which has 200 dues-paying members, is excited about the master plan and the visitors’ center.
“I hope it goes forward as they envision,” he said, with the museum and natural history area.”
Officials say the plan will help plot the course of the park for at least the next decade. As far as a schedule for implementation, Ball Chinian said, “It all depends on our ability to leverage help with our partners and what resources are available to us…It’s not on a timetable; our goal is to try and make it happen within our means.”
Fallon said several proposals could be implemented right away. The park is already preparing to extend the Tory Cave Trail system, he said, and is in the process of removing invasive species and clearing overgrowth from viewing areas.
Fallon expects the visitors’ center to be developed in the next two years.
“We’re looking at a lot of different things and several issues at the same time,” he concluded. “It’s not one thing versus another.”
Elections: No contest
Citing recent leadership changes, past defection, and a need to solidify the party’s message, the New Scotland Republican Committee declined to endorse any candidates in November’s elections so it can regroup, said Albany County Republican Commissioner Rachel Bledi this summer.
“It’s fair to say it’s because we’re in the process of reorganizing,” said Bledi.
Longtime Republican Committee member Glenn Schultz added to the sentiment in July, saying, “For the sake of running someone, I’d rather spend the time letting people know who we are and then, in two years, run strong.”
“There were some defections in the party due to the big-box development issues,” said Bledi.
She singled out Councilman Douglas LaGrange, who left the Republican Party in the face of a development controversy involving a large commercial project in New Scotland.
The controversy began in 2008 when the Cazenovia-based Sphere Development became interested in hundreds of acres of land at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A, which was zoned for commercial development but had only ever been used for agriculture; it has been owned by a group of private investors since 1971.
Sphere proposed building a Target-anchored mall there.
After two failed attempts, and two election cycles, the town board in 2012 passed a law limiting the size of large-scale development at the intersection.
“It wasn’t, in fact, that they supported big-box stores coming into New Scotland,” Bledi said of Republicans, “but they didn’t believe in a size-cap law.”
On Election Day, close to 2,300 New Scotland residents turned out to vote. The town has 6,219 registered voters: 37 percent are Democrats, 25 percent are Republicans, 27 percent are unaffiliated, and the rest belong to small parties.
A large number of those who went to the polls on Election Day in New Scotland did not cast their votes for local offices.
In the supervisor’s election, giving Thomas Dolin another two-year term, official tallies from the Albany County Board of Elections show he received 1,168 votes on the Democratic line, 419 on the Conservative line, 165 on the Independence line, and 22 write-ins for a total of 1,752 votes. There were 514 “under votes,” meaning not all votes were cast for that office.
Similarly, while Daniel Mackay received 1,547 votes or 46 percent, for a second four-year term, Councilman Douglas LaGrange received 1,749, or 52 percent, there were 1,238 “under votes” for that office; there were also 42 write-ins.
Town Clerk Diane Deschnes was the top vote-getter, receiving 1,882 votes for an eighth two-year term with 400 “under votes,” and Highway Superintendent Kenneth Guyer got 1,875 votes and 405 “under votes” for his first, full two-year term.
All of them ran on three lines — Democratic, Conservative, and Independence Party.
Dolin said in November that the town in 2014 should focus on “modest residential and commercial growth.”
He said that would “go a long way” in easing the tax burden.
The town’s roughly $7 million budget for next year leaves a roughly $2 million reserve fund, keeping the tax increase under the 2-percent state cap.
Dolin said the town is still open to most businesses except for the largest of big-box stores.
“The town is definitely taking a hard look at the intersection of 85 and 85A,” he said. “It’s a great resource if it can be developed properly.”
Water in the works
Leading up to the election, all of the board candidates said water is scarce in the town and districts have various methods of procuring it. They also agreed that, wherever water is located, or infrastructure put in place to transport it, development often follows.
Several districts in town have their own source of water while several others rely on it being piped from outside the municipality, with most of those receiving it from the neighboring town of Bethlehem. The hamlet of New Salem will form another water district in the coming year, a project nearly a decade in the making, after the town, residents, and Bethlehem came to an agreement to install new lines.
Two pending developments will also increase water demand: the Kensington Woods housing development will have its own water source and possible treatment center while the Colonie Country Club project will pipe water in from Voorheesville.
In June, the planning board voted to approve the construction of 12 new upscale homes near the intersection of Route 85A and Picard Road. The major subdivision will turn 31.4 acres of rural land, consisting mostly of cornfields and woodland, into 12 lots.
Before the board approved the application, the contractor, MJ Biernacki Builders, agreed to some additions and stipulations, aimed at addressing concerns that development at the rural site might alter water drainage and negatively impact neighbors.
One of the modifications includes building a one-foot tall earthen berm through part of the property, and across several of the lots, to reinforce its drainage systems. Board members also requested a clause be added to the new homes’ deeds making homeowners legally and financially responsible for taking care of their on-property drainage systems. Those duties mostly include keeping the basins and shallow drainage ditches, known as swales, free of debris and plant overgrowth.
The contractor developing the site, Michael Biernacki, said the lots would first be sold to buyers before the land is developed and the homes designed, allowing for a variation in their costs and when they will be built.
“It could be two years,” Biernacki estimated.
At a public hearing in May, more than 40 residents filled the town hall’s meeting room with several speaking about concerns that storm flooding around the area could worsen as a result of the countryside being developed into lawns, paved driveways, and homes. Many area homeowners complained they already suffered from water-drainage problems and periodic flooding.
The proposed project is near a protected wetland but no wetlands are in the development, or will be affected by it, said Joseph J. Bianchine, an engineer hired by Biernacki.
Planning board members speculated in June that the town board might create a new water district for the area, in which case the municipality could care for the system if neglected by homeowners, who would then charge a fee for the cost of the work on their tax bills.
Dolin said this fall, speaking in general about the town’s water districts, that typically those receiving water from a neighboring municipality pay a higher rate. Many of the installations are paid with 20-year bonds but, since most pipes need to be replaced about every 30 years, residents getting water outside the town see little relief, he said.
Mackay pointed out that the scarce water supply in town had a positive aspect since it helped maintain New Scotland’s rural landscape, which many residents value.
To help manage the town’s expanding water and sewer infrastructure, and to ease the responsibilities on the highway superintendent, New Scotland hired a commissioner of public works in August to oversee the new department.
The town budgeted an annual salary of $23,490 for the part-time post, which requires about 20 hours of work a week.
With the creation of the New Salem Water District and the possible development of Kensington Woods adding another 340 homes to the town’s water districts, causing an increase in New Scotland’s residential water demand of about 50 percent, Dolin said the commissioner’s workload could eventually double, which may mean his hours and compensation would have to be increased, too.
Discussion about the new post began in earnest after the former highway superintendent of 18 years, Darrell Duncan, left the town post in March 2012 for a job as head of Albany County Public Works. The highway superintendent’s responsibilities had included managing the town’s parks, buildings, roads, transfer station, vehicles, sewer and water, trash collection, animal control, and disaster relief.
“It was becoming obvious to me and the board the situation was unworkable, that it wasn’t feasible for one person to be responsible for so much,” said Dolin.
In August, the board, in a split vote, appointed Wayne LaChappelle to the new post.
Mackay cast the dissenting vote, saying he preferred another candidate, but he said he supported the creation of the department and the position.
LaChappelle is a retired town of Bethlehem police officer who worked in law enforcement for 26 years. In 2003, he made an unsuccessful run for New Scotland town supervisor on the Democratic line. Earlier that same year, he was appointed to the zoning board of appeals, after having been on the town’s water committee. For the last 10 years, he has also been a contractor operating the Wayne Site Development Service.
After New Scotland implemented a new attendance policy last year that limited absences for town officials, LaChappelle resigned from his zoning board post earlier this year before the town board could review his reported lack of attendance, which could have led to his removal.
He cited personal medical reasons for the absences and told The Enterprise he also left the zoning board so he could seek the position of public works commissioner.
Mackay said the past attendance issues were “a concern” that had not been discussed during the Aug. 14 public meeting but were talked about behind closed doors in a prior executive session.
Residents at the public meeting, such as Anne Carson, Timothy Stanton, and Sharon Boehlke, asked if LaChappelle were receiving disability benefits and wondered if his physical status would impact his new duties.
Dolin confirmed LaChappelle was on disability, but noted he ran a construction business. He also said the commissioner’s job did not involve a lot of physical labor but was a lot of paperwork.
LaGrange assured residents by saying, “He serves at the pleasure of the board. If there are any conflicts, we can address it then.”
During the public comment period, Stanton, who had run for town board on the Republican line, also questioned the wisdom of creating any new municipal jobs.
“I find it really disturbing to see yet another position in town government get created that’s growth is basically stagnant,” he said.
LaChappelle, who was at the meeting, shrugged off any tension over Mackay’s concerns, saying he looked forward to working with the board and respected the process.
“Checks and balances, that’s what it’s about. Dan has been a real professional — respectful. I’m happy as a resident that he’s on the board,” he told The Enterprise.
“I enjoy the small-town atmosphere,” he said. “I will never have a closed-door policy.”
Kenneth Guyer, who was elected to his first full two-year term in November, had been an employee of the highway department for nearly 15 years before being appointed to replace Duncan.
In 2013, he said, the town completed repairs to the Wolf Hill Road bridge, which was damaged by tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011. The project cost $300,000 and the town was approved for full reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state.
Another project, to repair damage to Krumkill road, should be completed in 2014, he said, partly because the federal funding for the work had been slower in getting approval.
Guyer helped LaChappelle in the transition of setting up a new department.
Also, Guyer said, Bethlehem and New Scotland officially entered into a shared service agreement in 2013, allowing New Scotland to pave an additional $85,000 worth of roads. In total, New Scotland paved about $318,000 worth of roads, which is about four-and-a-half miles.
“The DPW is a big learning curve,” Guyer said in November. “I’m still devoting time to water and sewer stuff and helping out as the transition takes place. Wayne and I are working together and collaborating — I didn’t just wash my hands of it. But it certainly frees up my day to allow me to spend more time on highway duties.”
End of an era
On the very first day of 2013, Paul Cantlin retired after overseeing New Scotland’s building and zoning departments for more than two decades.
When he was hired, in 1988, he was the only employee for both departments, working on a typewriter from an office in a converted home. When he retired, the departments had three employees, an electronic filing system, and offices in the town hall.
A carpenter who knew construction as well as the residents in the town, Cantlin said last January, “New Scotland is primarily rural and that character hasn’t seemed to change.”
During his time with the town, Cantlin reviewed hundreds of building applications and permits. His main duties were to help homeowners interpret and comply with New Scotland’s zoning and code ordinances. Often, Cantlin said, his role at the town was to serve as a liaison between the laws and the public, helping people understand the requirements and procedures.
“As far as zoning laws, in a respect, they are like living things — documents that change as things come into play,” said Cantlin. “As a town, you really have to look at it and keep updating it, comparing it to the master plan, as everyone has a sense of where the town is going and that it can get there.”
Cantlin took a new job with New Scotland’s privately contracted engineering firm, Santec, overseeing the environmental impact of developments.
After Cantlin stepped down from his post, the board appointed former building inspector Jeremy Cramer to head the department.
“He has a good head on his shoulders; he converses well with people, and has a good attitude,” Cantlin said of Cramer.