Santa came by train without a permit

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Santa arrives by train in Altamont on Dec. 10, 2022.

ALTAMONT — At the Dec. 6 Altamont Board of Trustees meeting, Mayor Kerry Dineen asked if there was a motion to consider SMS Rail Lines request to hold a Santa Train event on Dec. 10. 

No motion was made. 

“OK, so that is denied at this point in time,” Dineen said. 

After some more discussion, Dineen discussed putting forward a motion to approve an SMS event for Dec. 11, but it still appeared the trustees weren’t on board with the proposition. 

Dineen ultimately rescinded the idea of a motion to allow SMS to hold a Santa Train event on Dec. 11. “There’s no motion,” she said. “I’m erasing it. Santa magic.”

The Santa Train event still took place, and by all accounts was very well attended. 

Dineen did not reply to a set of emailed questions seeking answers for, among other things, if there’d be consequences or ramifications for SMS moving forward with its event without village approval; whether Altamont Community Tradition ever received board approval for its WinterFest event; and whether safety concerns raised at the Dec. 6 meeting were addressed on Dec. 10.

Steve from SMS Rail, who declined to give a last name, declined to comment whether he was aware the company needed a permit to hold the Santa Train event, or whether there were any consequences for putting on the event without a permit.

But he did say he believed this year would be the event’s last, with Norfolk Southern taking over the line; SMS had leased the former Voorheesville Running Track from the freight carrier. 

In years’ past, the Santa Train had been a part of the broader Altamont Community Tradition’s winter event, previously known as the Victorian Holiday and now known as WinterFest. ACT is a not-for-profit run by volunteers.

Prior to 2022, the Santa Train hadn’t arrived in Altamont for two years, according to Laura Shore of ACT. Shore told The Enterprise there hadn’t been a Santa Train in those two years because of COVID. “And because of the very, very large crowd,” she said. “We didn’t feel like we could handle it safely” for the Dec. 10 event this year. 

Shore noted that crowd size had increased dramatically following the first two years of the pandemic, and ACT felt it didn’t have the volunteer manpower to handle it. “We didn’t feel like we could handle it safely,” she said.

In conversations about the overall 2022 event, Shore said, when ACT made its decision on the Santa Train specifically, “We didn’t know where we would be with COVID. And we felt like it was just something that we didn't want to be responsible for bringing that many people together.”

Shore concluded, “And we just decided that, because we hadn’t had it for two years already, that we … [would] move in a different direction.”

As for putting on the rest of WinterFest, she said the group felt comfortable with the decision because a lot of events were outdoors and “broke up [into] different components.”

The same Santa that arrived by train on Dec. 10 and spent two-and-a-half hours listening to kids’ requests was also on hand at an outdoor tent during WinterFest the next day, Dec. 11.

 

December meeting

At the Dec. 6 village board meeting, frustration was expressed at the last-minute nature of the SMS light-on-the-details request to hold the Santa train. Also, throughout the meeting, the SMS request was contrasted with that of Altamont Community Tradition. 

“This is kind of tricky, because this was an event that literally just came about,” Dineen said of the SMS Santa Train event on Dec. 6. “I had received a message saying we’re going ahead with an event on December 10.”

Dineen said she wrote an email in response that said, “Well wait a minute, now. We have some standards of meeting for any event, whether it’s a 5k race, anybody who’s come to these [board] meetings you know we approve things by board vote generally.”

Dineen then used the Altamont Community Tradition’s WinterFest as an example. 

“They came to us months ago with the plan,” Dineen said. “The President, the acting president, always runs details by, in the past, two of our board members had been involved, and still are, I think, with the activity. So it’s an ACT-sponsored event that the village is very involved in. It’s kind of, I’d say a co-event sometimes because we had different aspects of it that we helped — not helped with facilitate — but we were part of.”

Dineen said she was approached by a resident in October who asked her about having the train come through the village this year. 

“I love the Santa Train. I think it was a great event,” Dineen recounted. 

She said former village trustee Dean Whalen, a member of ACT, as well as her mother both “worked very hard on bringing that to Altamont.”

But Dineen said, “It’s not about the train,” there are procedures and a process in place for approving things like the Santa Train event. 

There are also safety concerns, the mayor said, “how it’s going to happen, how it’s organized, and things like that.”

Dineen said it was “a little troubling,” because the board was being asked to approve something for which it had few details. 

The mayor said she was personally worried about safety. She was concerned that only one police officer would be on patrol Dec. 10. 

“And to be straightforward with people that are here. And then people at home who see this afterward,” Dineen said, “our code states, for the gathering events, there are things that have to be done; it has to be a letter submitted, talking about the event, etcetera.”

But, according to village code and Dineen’s own description of it, ACT did not comply with code. 

ACT applied to use Orsini Park, using a proper village parks application, on Feb. 8, 2022; the request was OK’d the same day. But ACT did not submit a letter to the village describing its 2022 WinterFest event. Nor did the event appear on a meeting agenda for board approval in all of 2022. 

The Enterprise obtained ACT’s application through a records request. 

Asked about its application and if ACT submitted a letter, Shore said, “We did what we do every year, we filled out an application.” But she also said she keeps in regular contact with the village throughout the year and noted ACT has regular space in the village’s quarterly newsletter to advertise its work.  Also, at the board’s November meeting, Shore offered trustees a rather extensive update on WinterFest, noting the Santa Train wouldn’t be part of the event for reasons of crowding and COVID. 

Speaking about SMS, Dineen said during the Dec. 6 meeting, “This will force us now, looking at this, we need more specific language because this, this can’t happen again.”

The mayor said the village needs an actual application, not just a letter 

Trustee Tresa Matulewicz said she wasn’t comfortable approving the SMS request.

The village’s attorney, Allyson Phillips, explained the event wasn’t taking place on village property. But the concern was, if the board were to issue a permit “for what could be considered a mass-gathering event,” does it have the responsibility to ensure the Santa Train event meets certain standards “that we have typically applied when processing these requests for a permit.”

Phillips’ said her recommendation, based on past practice, is that the village required certain plans and procedures be in place.

“It’s my understanding for events of this size, and for this event in past years, it has been held and organized on dates where we could ensure that there was public safety personnel who would be available to provide assistance at the event,” Phillips said. “To the extent that this application hasn’t provided the same level of information, has not made the same preparations, as far as either paying for the presence of emergency-service responders, similar to what other organized event organizers have done, or at least making sure that it’s scheduled on a date when those can be provided by the village.

“Without those pieces in place — and those have provided a basis for you to issue permits on similar events, or even the same event in past years. It sounds as though the village would have a basis not to approve the permit this year.”

Trustee Michelle Ganance said the board did not want to set a precedent whereby ACT had jumped through hoops and done all that was required of the group and provided the board with all the necessary information that SMS wasn’t providing trustees. 

The board then declined to take a vote on the motion. 

Trustee Nicholas Fahrenkopf was absent from the Dec. 6 meeting. 

 

Emails

Through a records request, The Enterprise obtained emails and other materials related to the Santa Train event. 

On Nov. 18, Matt Bushart, a track superintendent with SMS Rail Lines, reached out to Dineen to clear up “some mis-communication going on in regards to this year’s Santa train.”

In a Nov. 21 email from Dineen with the subject line “Phone meeting,” the mayor wrote to Bushart and Lance Peck, another SMS Rail employee, that she was “truly disappointed, and was honestly taken aback, by the reaction I received after outlining the issues with trying to host a Santa Train event on the same weekend as Winter Fest.”

Dineen wrote that the additional train event would negatively impact WinterFest while causing “upset among our community members who have spent months preparing and planning.”

She wrote that she realized the “plans to incorporate the train into the festival didn’t work out,” but “creating a rival event at the last minute clearly does not have children’s interests at heart and seems disrespectful to all the residents and businesses who have invested in Winter Fest.”

Dineen, after consulting with “some of our planning folks” in addition to the village’s zoning code, wrote “the following pertains to all events”:

“No person or persons shall give or cause to be given within the limits of the Village any exhibition, performance or entertainment without having first applied in writing to the Mayor of the Village for a permit therefor and without having received a written permit signed by the Mayor and one of the Trustees …”

SMS did apply on Nov. 30. 

As for what, if any, consequences there will be for SMS proceeding without an approval, the mayor did not respond to a question about the topic. 

Altamont’s code states that holding an event without village permission constitutes disorderly conduct, resulting in a $25 fine for each violation.

Dineen in her Nov. 21 email to Bushart and Peck recommended if they were interested in holding the Santa Train event, they plan for the following weekend, Dec. 17 and 18, so the company had time to apply for a permit and the village had time to review its plans and “issue the appropriate permit as we did for both the library and ACT events.”

On Nov. 30, SMS submitted its letter to the village that said, “SMS Rail in collaboration with landowner Jeff Thomas would like to formally request a village exhibition permit for our Santa Train event.”

Thomas is the owner of Altamont Corners plaza, which is adjacent to the railroad tracks running through the village. Thomas had no previous connection with the event, although those on social media thought he was responsible for the Santa Train — a point even made by trustees during the Dec. 6 meeting. 

SMS then explained in its Nov. 30 letter, in minimum detail, in the opinion of trustees on Dec. 6, how the Santa Train event would unfold on Dec. 10. 

Previously, SMS didn’t need a permit before because the Santa Train had been part of the broader Victorian Holiday event, and its paperwork had been included as part of ACT’s paperwork, according to an email from Dineen to Thomas.

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