Spargo sues to nullify Berne’s purchase of Switzkill Farm 

Switzkill Farm, in Berne

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

From atop Switzkill Farm, in Berne, the Catskill Mountains are cloaked in atmospheric haze. ​

BERNE — A lawsuit filed late last year by former State Supreme Court Justice and convicted felon Thomas Spargo against the town of Berne and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy seeks to undermine the town’s 2014 purchase of Switzkill Farm, as well as eliminate a conservation easement that was placed on the property as part of the purchase. 

Spargo, a Berne resident, is joined by fellow residents Philip Stevens and Ian Connors in the order to show cause, and the group is represented by John Sweeney, a former congressman. Sweeney could not be reached for comment before press time.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Peter A. Lynch is presiding over the case. The Supreme Court is the lowest rung in the state’s three-tiered court system.

The suit alleges that, because the town board in 2014 did not provide residents sufficient information about the purchase and conservation easement, nor sufficient opportunity to provide input, the purchase and easement should be nullified, and the town should hold a permissive referendum on the purchase.

The purchase had been spearheaded by then-Supervisor Kevin Crosier, a Democrat. Although Spargo and Stevens are both currently enrolled as Conservatives, both have been active in Berne Republican politics. Stevens was formerly the Berne GOP Party chairman and Spargo was the GOP-backed Berne Town Board’s controversial choice last year to chair the town’s planning board.

Some Berne residents have complained that the 350-acre property, a former Buddhist center, is a “white elephant” maintained by taxpayer money. Switzkill Farm has been an election issue, and the current GOP-backed town board has disbanded the Switzkill Farm Board that had overseen the property.

The property’s purchase price was $475,000, but cost the town only $142,700, including a $12,500 fee for the easement. The rest of the money was provided by Albany County and the Open Space Institute.  

The time-sensitive nature of those contributions is what led to the town’s quick purchase of the property, which was authorized 62 days after it was listed for sale, according to the suit.

The current town board, now made up of a GOP-backed majority, raised the question of the purchase’s legality last summer, saying that the town was obligated by law to advise residents of their right to petition for a permissive referendum.

According to New York State Town Law, a permissive referendum is an optional referendum that is brought about by a resident’s petition, which must be filed within 30 days of the approval of the statute or resolution in question. For a resident to know to submit a petition, though, the town clerk needs to file a notice on the town’s website and in the town’s paper of record. 

According to meeting minutes, the Berne Town Board in 2014 did not authorize Town Clerk Anita Clayton — who is still Berne’s town clerk — to publish such a notice when it authorized the purchase of Switzkill Farm on Sept. 10.

Crosier told The Enterprise last year that the authorization was not subject to permissive referendum because it was not purchased with borrowed money; rather, the town paid in cash the $130,200 required to close the deal.

 

Suit’s claims

Many of the points brought up by the suit have been covered by The Enterprise in the past, albeit in a different context, but it expands on concerns often voiced by residents and politicians.

The suit alleges that the town “interfered with the legitimate opportunity for private purchasers to buy a large parcel of land with several buildings for a price and value that could have well exceeded the sale price of $475,000, and the parcel would have been returned to the property tax rolls and for a benefit to all of the taxpayers in the town of Berne.”

It also argues that the property, as a preserve, is redundant. “The Switzkill Farm provides nothing that is unique to the residents of Berne,” the suit reads, “because they are surrounded every day and all the time with beautiful vistas of forested hills, sweeping valleys of fields and farmland with streams and ponds dotting the landscape throughout the entire town of Berne.

“Berne is not an urban or suburban town running out of space to preserve,” it continues. “There are dozens of places throughout Berne that are equivalent or better examples of unique environmental offerings that could attract great public interest.” 

The suit also argues that the 2019 vote by the then-town board, controlled by Democrats at the time, to transfer $150,000 into a reserve fund for the property “constitutes a significant budgetary penalty to the taxpayers of Berne” because of the limitations associated with reserve accounts. 

 

Farm’s view

The not-for-profit Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, which holds the easement for Switzkill Farm, is piecing together, bit by bit, a Helderberg Conservation Corridor, which stretches from the Catskills to Thacher Park and the Helderberg escarpment. 

Aside from the environmental benefits of the easement, the Switzkill Farm Board, before it was dissolved, saw benefits for the town recreationally and commercially.

The Switzkill Farm Board’s latest strategic plan, completed in February 2020 after the board began updating its original document in 2019, contains an analysis of the property’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, known as a SWOT analysis.

According to the strategic plan’s executive summary, the board, in addition to running annual community events at the farm as well as booking paid events like weddings, developed a partnership with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools and made the buildings of the property accessible to people with handicaps, sometimes traveling “great distances” to secure equipment that benefitted the property.

Among the opportunities the board hoped to pursue were International Dark Sky Certification, which the plan suggests would draw astronomers from far outside of town; leasing of fields for agricultural use; and an incorporation into the Long Path, a 358-mile trail that runs from New York City to John Boyd Thacher State Park in New Scotland — with a goal of one day reaching the Adirondacks. 

Threats to the farm, though, as indicated by the SWOT analysis, include: failure to recognize the property’s potential as a resource for the town, failure to recognize the importance of the Switzkill Farm Board, lack of communication between the town and Switzkill Farm boards, and degradation of the property “consequent to the failure to undertake improvements in a timely fashion.” 

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