Richard Otto, Berne town board candidate

Richard Otto

BERNE — Two years after he began as an alternate member of the Berne Zoning Board, Richard Otto has identified what he sees as overly restrictive regulations for the town’s land. It wasn’t until the outpouring of people against the state’s gun-control legislation that Otto was encouraged to run for a board seat for the first time.

The town board passed a resolution in April denouncing the quick passage of the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act by the state legislature in January. The town board called for more public input and invited state representatives to hold a hearing in Berne. Otto said he was approached after he spoke during the hearing and asked if he would run on the Republican line. A Democrat since 1968, Otto said he applied to enroll as a Republican last month.

Otto would like the town board to pass a resolution in favor of repealing the SAFE Act.

Born in Queens and raised in the Bronx, Otto, 66, worked for the New York City Fire Department for 25 years, as a dispatcher, a supervisor, then an administrator in charge of communications for Staten Island.

He said he has had a yearning to live outside of the city since he was a child and often spent vacations with his family in natural settings.

“I was the only kid in my public school who knew anything about strip cropping and contour farming and all that stuff,” said Otto, who, as a child, was a fan of the television program Modern Farmer.

Otto said he has lived in Berne for nine years. People recognize him for his Switzkill Road farm where fields of sunflowers grew on either side of its driveway. He used the seeds for oil.

“I’m the relative outsider up here,” said Otto. “I notice now, knocking on doors, that I know very few of the people up here. A lot of the people out here know about me, which I find very informative and interesting.”

Among his grievances with the town’s zoning regulations, Otto said, lakeside properties shouldn’t need a variance to build on their small parcels.

“There should be another classification for a place like that, where it becomes a non-conforming but permitted use, instead of going through the whole process,” said Otto. He said another zoning board member said during a hearing that fines should be used retroactively to penalize people for violating the zoning law.

“I’ve said to people on the ZBA, our job here is to give people variances,” said Otto. “This idea of following the process is nice up to a point, but people can have their own dreams and desires and things they want to do with their own property.”

Otto said he has researched hydraulic fracturing, but he has yet to study the report compiled by a subcommittee for the town.

“What I’d like to do is get a couple other people to give input, to see if this report is accurate, or biased, or if we can rely on it,” said Otto. “As I say, from what I’ve read about fracking, it seems relatively benign.”

Otto would be open to amending the zoning law if it could encourage commerce, though he said he wouldn’t encourage big-box businesses. He suggested forming a committee, separate from current town boards, to study how this could be done.

“Apparently, the people on these boards are happy to work with these rules that are restrictive or ridiculous,” said Otto of planning and zoning boards. “So, if they can’t be trusted to do what’s best for the people or best for the town, then we should have somebody else come in and do it.”

Otto is concerned that sharing highway services with the county could lead to a loss in the quality of services, because the Hilltowns have unique road needs.

Otto was a member of the Plainview School District special education committee. He described his approach to the committee, the zoning board, and, if elected, the town board:

“Again, to get an idea of how the system worked and see what I could do to help the people that had the problems,” said Otto.

Otto, the father of an autistic daughter, said he has organized and advocated for parents in schools. He said, if elected to the Berne Town Board, he would aggressively pursue grant money for expanding Internet access to homes in the rural town. He said the lack of technology in many rural homes, and the increasing need for it in schoolwork, has led to inequality among rural students.

He wants to renegotiate the town’s contract for telecommunications and suggested another base station for cell-phone service should be placed on the ridge overlooking Helderberg Trail, rather than just the cell site established in the bell tower of the Evangelical church, in the hamlet of Berne.

“If it has to do with people who don’t like cell towers, then we have to organize people to speak their piece, too,” said Otto.