2015: Berne woman still wants name cleared

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Pastor Wendy Cook points out a stained glass window in Helderberg Lutheran Evangelical Church in Berne, which, along with the Berne Reformed Church down the street, celebrated 250 years of worship in Berne and continued raising funds to restore its historic building.

 

BERNE — Institutions continued their ascent in this rural rectangle, putting a spotlight on its central orientation in the Hilltowns.

A fire tower for training first responders, a communications tower on a nearby hill, and the location of one of the county's first salt sheds shared with a town all rose to the fore this year.

One of its oldest institutions, the town justice court, saw an increasing number of cases go to jury trials, with one causing both judges to recuse themselves. The case against Marcia Pangburn, charged with resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration as she visited a cemetery, was eventually dismissed by a judge in New Scotland, over her objection, just before a jury was to be seated.

It was an incumbent's year in elections as councilwoman Dawn Jordan won her first full term and Karen Schimmer kept her seat while two assessors remained. The board remains all Democrats.

Bridge re-opens, store closes

The Route 443 bridge over the Fox Creek in Berne opened in August after being rebuilt over the summer. But the general store next to the bridge wasn’t able to recover from the closure and closed itself this fall.

The $1.01 million bridge project was completed in two phases over two summers to accommodate school-year traffic. The Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools are located on Route 443 at the other end of the hamlet from the bridge.

 

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia
Elected for a one-year term, Dawn Jordan began 2015 as a newly-ratified member of the Berne Town Board, raising her hand to swear her oath with town Attorney William Conboy. 

 

After the Berne store was closed in March 2014, Ray and Tammy Weiler decided to take up the reins and keep it going. They opened the Fox Creek Market on June 1, 2014 and were making a go of it. “We did it for the community,” Ray Weiler said. Their children helped out at the store.

This summer, the Weilers said revenues had decreased by 75 percent since the bridge closed on June 30 and that the problem was made worse because large construction vehicles at times made it hard to enter the store.

The store had averaged 100 to 115 customers a day, which decreased to below 50 during the roadwork, Tammy Weiler said. Business before the closure had been “steady,” she said.

In August, Ray Weiler wrote a letter to the Altamont Enterprise editor, thanking the newspaper and its readers for their support, stating the Weilers were “very excited that possibly our store will be back on its feet after losing this horrible battle!”

But by October, business had not returned to its former pace. “Sales are what they were when the bridge closed. They never bounced back,” Tammy Weiler said. “We’re in debt $30,000. Our accountant said, the longer we stay open, the more in debt we’ll be....We are closing. We’re left with no other option.”

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
The flow of traffic stopped across Helderberg Trail, coming from the east end of the hamlet, as a project was underway this summer to replace an aging bridge over Fox Creek. 

 

In the summer of 2014, the state’s Department of Transportation had widened and improved the intersection of routes 443 and 156. Previously, buses and trucks had difficulty negotiating the narrow intersection. Work in 2014 also included removing a building that had been damaged during Tropical Storm Irene in order to improve sight distance and the turning radius at the intersection.

This past summer, the state replaced the aging bridge, which carries an average of 1,231 motor vehicles per day.

Toward towers

While the store was emptied at the end of the year, other town residents began looking at erecting and filling new structures.

Making similar proposals in Westerlo and Rensselaerville, the Albany County Sheriff's Office put forward a plan to have a communications tower installed on Jansen Lane on a hill just above the hamlet of Berne. It is requesting a special-use permit from the planning board, though a representative has said it is also reviewing whether the county is immune from local zoning laws.

Part of the sheriff's county-wide "interoperable communications system," the towers are meant to be used for better transmission between first responders, police, and municipal departments. Cellular companies could potentially put their equipment on the towers.

The town board has waived fees for the application, but the project awaits further review by the town and the public. It proposes a roughly 180-foot tower on a 60-by-50-foot area with a small building.

In the nearby hamlet of East Berne, The Hilltown Regional Fire Training Corporation has already started the review process, having this year launched its campaign to show residents its plans for a fire tower and training facility and raise enough money for the structure.

Officials estimate they need just under $1 million to build the facility, and they hope to break ground in 2017.

Located along Route 443 in East Berne, the chosen site is also planned for the new East Berne firehouse. The environmental review conducted before engineers design plans showed the planned site is very closed to several acres of federally designated wetlands, and 2,600 feet of stream waters flow through the property and drain into the Fox Creek.

“We have to be extremely wary of those boundaries, so as not to disturb those wetlands,” said Richard Guilz Jr., chairman of the not-for-profit corporation and chief of the Berne Fire District.

Civil engineers from the county will help. With the town's salt storage for keeping roads safe during winter, the county will lend even more. It announced a joint storage facility with the town using $300,000 in state funds. Both the county Department of Public Works, which has a property on Cole Hill Road, toward the southeastern part of town, and the town will use the storage, which will be built at the town's highway department on Helderberg Trail in the Berne hamlet.

Keeping tons of sand and salt dry, officials say, means workers will be able to manage it more easily and waste less.

Town court

With an increased budget and enlarged space, town justices Albert Raymond and Alan Zuk saw several cases go to trial in 2015.

Among them, Marcia Pangburn pushed to have her case dismissed, hiring an attorney to defend her against charges of resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. She was arrested in 2014 when sheriff's deputies tried to have Pangburn perform tests for intoxication at a cemetery near her home late at night as she was mourning her dead relatives.

After hearings were held on the admission of evidence into the trial, Judge Zuk recused himself, saying he had “correspondence and input from community members,” and wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Raymond, too, recused himself to "ensure the appearance of fairness and impartiality to all…"

The case was moved to New Scotland Town Court, where Judge David Wukitsch decided to dismiss the case, as Assistant District Attorney Brittany Grome had requested just before a jury was to be seated.

“The judge dismissed the case in the interest of justice, over my objection,” said Lewis Oliver, Pangburn’s attorney.

In several court appearances, Pangburn had neighbors and her mother and sister by her side through 2014 and 2015. She never got a trial by jury as she had wanted, and she has said she would like to pursue a civil rights suit naming the sheriff’s office and the deputies involved in her arrest.

Claiming similarly that he was improperly stopped by a sheriff's deputy, Brian Hoover, a Berne man, appeared in Berne Town Court nearly every month for more than a year.

A few weeks ago, on Dec. 8, a jury of town residents found him guilty of driving while ability impaired by a drug, and driving while ability impaired by the combined influence of drugs. He had been convicted of driving while intoxicated in 2010.

Hoover told The Enterprise he suffers from anxiety, depression, and congestive heart failure, and had trouble finding work as the case was pending. He said he takes Xanax regularly, the drug found in his car, due to his anxiety.

More Hilltowns News

  • BERNE — After decades of dominance in Berne, the Democrats lost the town board majority in the 20

  • Knox Planning Board Member Debra Nelson suddenly left a March meeting that she was attending remotely before she could cast her vote on whether to override the county planning board’s recommendation against a proposed solar facility.

  • Former Berne Deputy Town Clerk Jean Guarino says her boss, Town Clerk Anita Clayton, suspected her of leaking information about thePublic Employee Safety and Health Bureau report regarding the death of highway worker Peter Becker. The PESH report is a public document.

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