Berne rejected county’s offer to help preserve Switzkill Farm buildings after sale stalled

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

An old barn on Switzkill Farm collapsed in December after the town of Berne turned down Albany County’s offer to preserve the property; negotiations for a purchase are on pause because of the property’s overall condition. 

BERNE — The town of Berne rejected an offer from Albany County to help preserve the buildings at Switzkill Farm while negotiations for a purchase are on pause. This diminishes Berne’s chances of eventually getting rid of the property, which has been one of the town board’s biggest priorities since Republicans took power in 2020.

The county had offered the town $150,000 for the property in March of last year, according to emails obtained from the county by The Enterprise through a Freedom of Information Law request.

County spokeswoman Mary Rozak told The Enterprise this week that the county didn’t realize the overall condition of the property and so the idea of purchasing it was tabled. 

The county then offered to help the town prevent further deterioration of the property while it focused on other projects, but was rebuffed by the town, which “didn’t want any part of that,” she said. 

This characterization of the talks is in direct contrast to what Supervisor Dennis Palow had told residents at a town board meeting earlier this month, where he claimed that the county withdrew the offer because it had no money and wanted to revisit discussions in three years.

Palow noted that, in three years, there would be an election and suggested that the county was waiting for Democrats to come back into power to resume the negotiations. 

He made no mention at the January board meeting of the county’s offer to help maintain the property. 

Palow and all of the other town board members have declined to answer questions about the negotiations from The Enterprise, which has covered the property now known as Switzkill Farm since before it was purchased in July 2004 by a Tibetan Buddhist group whose name for the place was Ongnyi Nyingjé Ling or Center for Wisdom and Compassion.

In 2014, the town acquired the 358-acre property, which included two large buildings and a number of smaller farm buildings from when it was a game farm, also called Switzkill. 

Grants, mostly from the Open Space Institute, and funding from the Albany County Capital Resource Corporation provided all but $112,500 of the $475,000 purchase price. The remainder came out of the town’s capital projects fund.

Purchased when the town board was controlled by Democrats, the Berne Republicans for several election cycles made an issue of the purchase and, once in control, disbanded the board of volunteers that had promoted events on the property.

The GOP board has proposed auctioning off Switzkill Farm as well as logging it; both are complicated because the property has a conservation easement. Selling the land, even with an easement, is likely to be difficult because of state regulations protecting municipal parkland.

 

County assistance

It’s unclear how, specifically, Albany County would have provided assistance to the town.

“I don’t know the specifics,” Rozak said of the county’s offer. “If that meant boarding things up, or winterizing the plumbing — whatever it would have entailed, we had said we could certainly do that .… The wording had always been ‘secure it’ or ‘shore up’ in such a way that further deterioration, at least to the insides of the buildings, were not taking place,” she said.  

She added that it was “apparent that the property was not being maintained by the town of Berne” and described the town’s portrayal of negotiations as “disingenuous.”

Switzkill Farm used to have a caretaker, Nelson Kent, who lived on the property and maintained it without a salary in exchange for his housing, but his contract was canceled by the town board in 2021 after a split vote, with former councilman Joel Willsey, the only Democrat on the board, who did not run for re-election, voting against it and former councilwoman Bonnie Conklin abstaining. 

The reason, according to the board, was that the property no longer benefited from Kent’s services because the town stopped holding events there in 2020, the same year that it disbanded the seven-member Switzkill Farm Board. 

 Just last month, well after the county told Berne that it needed to fix up the property for a sale to be feasible, a building on the property collapsed

“I’m going to say this very frankly,” Rozak told The Enterprise this week. “Berne officials have a responsibility to their residents, but they cannot simply say that, because we engaged in a discussion, that someone else is responsible for whatever’s happening to that property now … Whatever state the property is in, it is because of inaction or lack of further discussion on the part of the town of Berne.”

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