Switzkill Farm building collapses after town and county talks on transfer stop

he Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

An old farm building at Switzkill Farm in Berne collapsed, reportedly over the holiday weekend. 

BERNE — Metaphor has become reality in Berne, where a building on the town’s prized Switzkill Farm property has fallen apart, highlighting what critics of the town’s Republican government say is deliberate neglect.

The collapse comes several months after the town terminated negotiations with Albany County, which had helped the town purchase the property in 2014 and had expressed interest in a takeover early last year — something the town board, led by Supervisor Dennis Palow, seemed highly agreeable to at the time. 

However, the board ultimately “nipped it in the bud,” according to county spokeswoman Mary Rozak, having turned down “any type of negotiation.”

Rozak told The Enterprise this week that the county hasn’t had contact with the board in well over six months.

When asked about this, and for comment on the collapsed building, Palow declined to comment and requested that The Enterprise cease contact with him. 

At a town board meeting on Jan. 10, Palow said that the county had essentially ended negotiations, not the town. 

This was not how Rozak characterized the negotiations when reached again the following day, though she declined to get into specifics on the record. 

“There were negotiations that were going on and the negotiations came to a standstill,” Rozak said, “because there were things on different sides that we couldn’t come to terms with. And then there were discussions and then we hadn’t heard … It was our recollection that there were things that were said and then the board said, ‘No, that’s it.’”

Rozak said the county has since moved its attention to other land projects, but said the option remains for future negotiations around Switzkill.

 

Collapse

The town’s former building administrator, Timothy Lippert, told The Enterprise this week that he was called by an insurance representative who was seeking more information about a claim filed by the town, apparently in connection to a collapsed farm building that sits along the main road leading up the property. 

Lippert said he hasn’t worked for the town in over six years, and had advised that the insurance representative call the town hall. The town’s current building inspector, Jon Heigel, could not be reached, nor could an engineer from the firm that holds a contract with the town, Lamont. 

“It makes me so sad to see and hear what is happening at the Farm,” former town board member Karen Schimmer, who voted in favor of the purchase in 2014, told The Enterprise in an email this week. “It had such potential for the Town and its residents.  Yes, it needed work, but with a bit of vision, patience, time, and focused care,  it could have been a true asset for the Town and the surrounding area.  

“One need only read the Strategic Plan to realize how vital it could have been,” she said. “Abandoning the property to decay and ruin is simply neglect, though I confess, the outbuildings were probably not salvageable, and are no great loss.” 

The property, which has a large mid-century main lodge as well as farm out buildings had been owned by a Buddhist organization before the town purchased it, largely with grant funds.

 

Checkered history

Supervisor Palow, who last March had harshly criticized the administration of the former supervisor who oversaw the purchase, Kevin Crosier, for not taking what he says was a similar offer made by the county back in 2014, could not immediately be reached for comment. Crosier said no such offer was made, and that he would have been happy to have the county take the lead on the property, but that it wasn’t interested; Rozak declined to validate any of the claims.

Last year’s offer had appeared to be one of the few legal, and simple ways out of ownership for the town, something that Palow and other GOP-backed board members in the town have been seeking without success for several years, claiming that upkeep of the property is a waste of town money. 

The first main thrust of these endeavors was an announcement by Palow, then deputy supervisor, in 2020 that the purchase was made illegally since the town did not put out a notice saying that the purchase was subject to a permissive referendum. 

Crosier denied that a permissive referendum was required, stating — as the lawyer for another group involved in the purchase, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, later would — that permissive referendums apply only when purchases are made with borrowed money, and that the town had paid its roughly $150,000 share of the cost in cash.  

Most of the rest of the $475,000 purchase price came from the Open Space Institute  and Albany County.

This announcement gave way to a lawsuit filed by Thomas Spargo, a prominent GOP figure in the town and convicted felon, alongside two other Berne residents, that sought to nullify the purchase. They were represented by the highly controversial former United States congressman, John Sweeney. 

The suit — already characterized as slapstick by supporters of the property — was dropped just three months later, after Sweeney told The Enterprise he was “concerned in going forward” with the case, declining to elaborate. 

A month after the suit was dropped, the town moved to appraise the property so that it could begin the process of selling it — something that would be highly difficult, if not illegal, since the property likely falls under the definition of parkland, which can only be sold or converted with approval from the state legislature and governor. 

And in any event, the property is under a conservation easement, managed by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, that makes it unattractive to developers, since they would be unable to alter much of the property. 

At the same time it authorized the appraisal, the board voted to sever the town’s contract with the caretaker of the property, Nelson Kent, who resided on the property as part of the agreement and did not receive a salary. 

The situation remained stagnant from a public perspective until last year, when Palow announced the county’s interest in purchasing it. Then, the following August, the board heard a presentation from an auctioneer, Randy Passonno, who was interested in auctioning off the property. Nothing ever came of it, however, despite apparent board interest.

Now, the board is soliciting bids from loggers interested in sourcing lumber from the property. 

All the while, residents criticized the GOP-backed board members who were trying to get rid of the property for deliberately neglecting it and sullying its image to make their case for ditching it more appealing. The town board had, in 2020, essentially disbanded the board that managed the property and put a halt on all events there, including revenue-related weddings, unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With Kent gone, the property has been completely empty and unused, except by nature enthusiasts.

Most critically, the buildings there, such as the residence that Kent lived in, and a grand lodge that is the property’s hallmark, are going without repairs, and perhaps worsening in condition as a result. 

The Enterprise could not see any signs of serious damage to these main buildings on a visit to the property this week, but did observe an ad hoc repair made to the main lodge — a chimney whose base is covered in plastic to mitigate what is apparently a leakage problem, which Lippert called “duct-tape-and-trash-bag roof maintenance.” 

“It’s good for two weeks, until you line up a contractor for a proper fix,” Lippert said. “Four years is dereliction of duty.” 

 

chuckd
Online
Joined: 09/05/2014 - 18:44
You can't be serious. And you're mayor?

“Please do not contact anymore or about any story for the Town of Berne,” (Berne Town Supervisor Palow) wrote in an email. “As I stated before all your stories you write about the current board and the Town are false and shows the residents you are lying.” 

Is that a Royal Edict?

More Hilltowns News

  • The local law, which will be subject to a public hearing in February, would transform the assessor’s office to make it more like that of most other municipalities in New York State by concentrating assessment authority in the hands of one person who’s appointed rather than three people who are elected.

  • Troy Weeks, of Rensselaerville, was arrested on Jan. 10 for his alleged involvement in the Jan. 6 riots at the United States Capitol in 2021, and was charged with interfering with an officer among other federal crimes. 

  • After Albany County withdrew its offer to purchase Switzkill Farm in Berne because it became apparent that the property needed substantial investment, it offered to help “secure” the buildings on the property to prevent further deterioration while the county focused on other projects, according to county spokeswoman Mary Rozak, but Berne officials “didn’t want any part of that.” 

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