Entrepreneurs plan gas stations very near each other in town that now has none

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

In the Knox hamlet, parade watchers sit in front of the Stevens gas station on Memorial Day last May, waiting for floats, flags, and familiar faces. The station sits among historic homes and across the street from the Knox Reformed Church. Its gas pumps are rusted through and tall green weeds have filled some of the cracks in its front lot.

KNOX — Before he flew on missions around the world and lived in Denmark, Michael Morey worked as a teenage pump hand one summer at Margaret “Si” Stevens’s Mobil gas station that developed a reputation for its resistance to modernization.

Morey, 52, wants to re-open the property as a general store and, eventually, a gas station, similar to how Stevens ran the business. He plans to call it, “Knox Variety Store and Gas,” and to live at the store as Stevens had.

The Albany County Legislature approved his sole bid for the property — at $5,000 — on the sealed-bid foreclosure auction this summer and Morey expects to close on it this month. But Morey’s biggest obstacle may be with the town as questions about zoning and the condition of underground storage tanks remain.

Morey says he bid relying on the Stevens family’s word of the tanks’ good condition, which have leak detection systems.

The owner of a property just a few lots away, Vasilios Lefkaditis, has been working on a similar plan on the same side of Route 156, Berne-Altamont Road, the main street in the Knox hamlet.

Morey and Lefkaditis both say the town badly needs a gas station, but they disagree on whose property runs afoul of the zoning law.

Lefkaditis, 42, has said he wants to establish a gas station since he petitioned the planning board to create a business district in the hamlet. Still, any business will need to be reviewed by the planning board, and the frontages of both properties — 142 feet for Lefkaditis and 75 for Morey — don’t meet the zoning law’s 150-foot stipulation for a gas station.

The property where Lefkaditis plans to put the pumps was home to the Knox Country Store and a post office in recent years. Their closure was cited by candidates in recent elections and by some residents who called on the town to approve the commercial zoning. Knox formerly had no business district, only pre-existing businesses that were grandfathered in under the zoning law.

Lefkaditis hasn’t yet been able to find a willing fuel supplier, saying that their feasibility studies indicate the hamlet is on the cusp of what they will consider.

“I don’t know how everybody else lives, but, me and my wife, we actually time the gas needle with the food shopping because everything’s so far,” said Lefkaditis.

Morey wants to replace the pumps at the Stevens gas station and have the tanks tested before offering gas, but he hopes to have a store selling groceries, cigarettes, newspapers, scratch-off tickets, and supplies for farmers, like work gloves, as soon as he can.

He said he will first try to buy his gas directly from an independent fuel supplier at the Port of Albany.

Margaret Stevens — longtime owner of the station that she inherited and had once been a blacksmith shop — cited the zoning law when the Mobil gas company wanted her to change her hanging metal sign with its painted logo to an illuminated one, and required a canopy over her pumps as part of Mobil’s branding. She refused to comply, saying she couldn’t afford the changes, and continued her business with her brother, who owned a fuel business, pumping gas into her tanks.

The property was listed by the county among those designated as sensitive, having possible environmental problems or historical significance for the auction.

According to Mary Rozak, a spokeswoman for the Albany County executive’s office, the parcel was listed for public auction twice in 2012 — a bid was rejected the first time, and no bid was apparently received the second time.

“According to the owner’s son (who lives next door), there is monitoring equipment in the house for the gas tanks,” the 2010 pre-foreclosure inspection report says. Though Stevens had no children, she has relatives in the Hilltowns.

County Legislator Travis Stevens recused himself from voting on the bid approval.

Three underground tanks are in service and one was removed, according to the storage tank database for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Two 550-gallon tanks were installed in 1973, and a 1,000-gallon tank replaced an older one in 1987. The two smaller tanks are made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic, while the larger tank is made of steel with a painted asphalt coating and an “original sacrificial anode” meant to prevent the tank’s corrosion.

Their pipes do not have leak detection systems, the DEC records show.

Michael Morey

Morey remembers Knox from his boyhood as a thriving town with many farmers. He expects to hire two to three part-time employees.

A widower, Morey plans to live in the house on 2170 Berne-Altamont Road, which is part of the same building as the store and where Stevens lived for most of her life.

“I just need a house again,” said Morey. “I couldn’t stay in my house without my wife there anymore, so I got out of there.”

Morey and his wife, Sherry Morey, worked and spent time together constantly, and they restored an 18th-Century house near the Coeymans Landing Marina. They planned to re-open a rehabilitated, old store there until she fell ill.

They first met when they were children — he was from the Hilltowns and she was from Albany — playing in the pool at Thacher Park.

They met again despite their lives taking them to work in Florida and Denmark. Morey once owned rental buildings in Albany next door to a tavern he decided to try one day.

“Lo and behold, there she stands, working,” Morey recalled, “and from that day forward we were just together.”

He graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo in 1979, playing guard on BKW’s successful basketball team. As a young man, he joined the United States Air Force, then the Air National Guard, flying large military transport planes, eventually working as an engineering assistant for Maersk Air, a now-defunct airline in Copenhagen, Denmark. Morey said he has been self-employed as a contractor since the early 1990s.

In Morey’s bid application, he wrote that he has worked in construction and the rehabilitation of historic homes in Berne, Copenhagen, Oklahoma, and Coeymans, planning to maintain the property in the Knox hamlet “as historic as possible.”

“I’m from the mountain, and it’s rural,” said Morey of his desire to move back to where he grew up. “I mean, I’ve lived in cities. I’ve lived in big European cities. I prefer the mountains. And I prefer my own business, and I prefer my own house. I’m not a renter.”

Morey estimated the cost of repairs in papers submitted to the county. He figures on $13,650 in materials costs and $7,250 for labor to make both interior and exterior repairs. He also notes that possible problems with the tanks and pumps could cost over $100,000.

The real-estate database realRecord gives 1850 as the year the building at the Stevens gas station was first built. The two-story frame building is listed in the town’s comprehensive plan among structures considered historically important in the town. The plan puts the date of the building as 1830, and the building that once housed the post office around 1840.

A 19th-Century house adjacent to the gas station is listed on the tax roll under Margaret Stevens and Ronald Stevens. It once had delinquent taxes, but they were paid this past July and none are currently outstanding, according to Rozak.

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