Picard’s Grove set to be sold to developer for $500K

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Iconic view: An historic barn sits right on Picard Road. Directly across the street is the farmhouse, half hidden by trees. In the grove are two large white buildings where clambakes were held.

NEW SCOTLAND — Picard’s Grove, a community gathering place for generations, is slated to be sold to a developer.

The property has an historic house and barn, which are to be demolished, and is also in the midst of the Helderberg Conservation Corridor.

The 86.87-acre property, which straddles Picard Road, with the bulk of it running along the base of the Helderberg escarpment, is owned by Jeanne Picard Fish.

The day after Christmas, Fish was declared “incapacitated” according to a petition filed in State Supreme Court, Albany County. She turned 75 on Dec. 31..

By that same Dec. 26 order, her brother, Herman Picard III, was appointed guardian of her person. Joseph L. Kay, a lawyer based in East Greenbush, is guardian of Fish’s property.

Fish grew up in the property’s sprawling white farmhouse, living with her parents, Alice and Herman Picard II, and two brothers, David and Herman III, on one side of the house; her grandparents, Meta and Herman Picard I,  lived on the other side. Her brother David Picard died on May 11, 2019.

Her remaining brother, Herman, is distressed by the quick sale and feels Fish’s interests are not being served (see related story).

Fish is living now in a Valatie nursing home, which costs about $13,000 a month, according to the petition. Her current assets total about $3,700 and Kay says he has accumulated about $90,000 in bills and debts, the petition says. He also notes Fish owes about $9,000 in taxes.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
The farmhouse on the Picard property is at the site where William Allen settled, at the base of the Helderberg escarpment, in 1779, according to research done by Chris Albright.

 

“The residence and barn are in a state of disrepair,” Kay writes in the petition. “I am told the barn has to ‘come down.’ I have been inside the residence, and to me it either has to be demolished, or, at tremendous and unknown expense, gutted and rebuilt.”

The property also includes two large buildings behind the house, which hosted catered events, as well as a half-dozen smaller outbuildings.

Kay’s intention is to sell the property quickly for $500,000 in cash to Michael Biernacki, of Biernacki Property Management.

“On one of my visits to the property I met with a builder, Michael Biernacki, who seemed genuinely interested in the welfare of Jeanne Picard Fish,” Kay writes in the petition. “He was quite upset at what had befallen her, and wanted to see her moved to a better living situation.”

Kay writes that he tried to sell the part of the property across Picard Road from the house to Biernacki and Biernacki offered $168,000. “I then asked him to make an offer for the property, all of it, and all personal property on the premises,” Kay writes. “He offered $500,000, cash.”

According to Albany County rolls, the property has a full-market value of $764,348. New Scotland’s assessor, Michael McGuire, noted that the assessed value is $703,200; New Scotland has a 92 percent equalization rate. The land alone is assessed at $192,400 and there is an agricultural exemption on the property, he said.

Kay writes that he contacted several appraisers and “no one was willing to get involved with this matter.” One appraiser, Kay said, gave him a ballpark figure of $6,000 per acre for farmland in Albany county, which he asserts “brought the price of $500,000 well within reason, especially with no real estate broker involved.”

The 86.71 acres listed by the county, when multiplied by $6,000, totals $521,220.

According to McGuire, properties in New Scotland of five acres or more have sold for a per-acre price ranging from $1,500 to $17,000. He explained that farmers would have one use for vacant land and developers another. 

“Developers pay more because of the change in use,” McGuire said. “They subdivide and sell houses.”

Ultimately, Kay writes, the appraiser who gave him the $6,000 figure “would not furnish a written appraisal, as he did not want to get involved in a ‘family matter.’ He was adamant, so at this time I have no written appraisal of the property.”

The “family matter” referenced may be a suit dismissed in 2016 by the Appellate Division, the middle level of the state’s three-tired court system, which found, in a split decision, in favor of Fish. The lower-level Supreme Court had found in favor of her two brothers who had challenged Fish’s ownership of the land. In 1977, Alice Picard had executed a will, directing that her real property be held in trust for her children and named Fish as executor and trustee of the trust, according to court papers.

However, in 1988, Alice Picard conveyed her property to Fish in a quitclaim deed. After Alice Picard died in 1997, the three siblings continued to work in a business that leased premises on the property, the court papers say.

The will was never admitted to probate, and David and Herman Picard alleged it was not until 2013 that they learned Fish had taken title to the property in 1988, court papers state; they were ultimately unsuccessful in getting a share of the property, which remained with Fish.

In the current petition, Kay writes that other parties have expressed interest in purchasing the property. “I told them there would be a court proceeding to approve the contract of sale for $500,000, and I would give them notice of any court date,” he wrote.

The court date is currently set for Wednesday, Feb. 26, at 10 a.m. at the Albany County courthouse.

The sale contract states that the sale includes all fixtures and articles of personal property and has a long list of items from chandeliers to air-conditioning equipment. The sale also includes vehicles listed as a 2001 Chevrolet pickup, a 1995 Cadillac sedan, a John Deere tractor, and two horse trailers.

“The personal property has no value but is instead left on the property to be removed by the purchaser,” the contract states.

The closing date is set for “on or before February 20, 2020.” No real-estate broker is involved in the sale, the contract states.

Kay and Biernacki did not return calls from The Enterprise.

 

Conservation

The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy has been protecting lands along Picard Road at the base of the Helderberg escarpment.

Jeanne Picard Fish’s acreage lies between two protected properties — the Foster Property, about 100 acres known as Locust Knoll, and the roughly 90-acre Snowden property. Nearby is the 80-acre Lehman property, also protected, and behind that is property owned by the Heldeberg Workshop; the conservancy is currently raising funds to buy a conservation easement to protect that roughly 250-acre property as well.

The swath of protected lands along Picard Road is part of the larger Helderberg Conservation Corridor, which has about 3,500 acres that are protected or planned for protection, according to Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy.

This includes about 2,000 acres in John Boyd Thacher State Park and land that stretches off of the escarpment with its limestone cliffs, across the fertile Indian Ladder farmlands and over to Black Creek Marsh, which is owned by New York State.

Asked this week if the conservancy would like to protect Fish’s property as well, King said, “If we had the funding resources, we would love to protect it.”

He went on, “We see great value in protecting corridors for wildlife to move in developing areas.”

Biernacki has recently built large new houses in what had been a field at the end of Picard Road that opens onto Route 85A.

King said the lands at the foot of the escarpment along Picard Road have “a real unique set of attributes that make it special.”

First, he listed the “unusual geology.” King noted, “The Helderbergs are considered the birthplace of modern geology.”

Second, he listed “great history — both human cultural history and archeological history.” He noted that the Helderbergs were a tourist destination in the Victorian era and cited Verplanck Colvin’s 1869 article in Harper’s.

As for archeological history, King said that the area is recognized as “an important Native American site.” He cited “digs” that have been performed at Heldeberg Workshop over the years.

“The convergence of wetlands and wildlife have attracted people through the ages,” King said.

The area, King said, is recognized in New York State’s open-space plan, which he described as “the blueprint for the state to decide on areas worthy of protection.”

King said, “This is considered a priority area.”

He noted, too, “The Audubon Society has declared it as an important bird area.”

The area is important for its hydrology as well, King said, since water moves from above the Helderberg cliffs through layers of limestone before resurfacing in the Tygert Road March. 

“It has among the highest reptile and amphibian diversity,” said King.

Building homes on the Picard-Fish property, King said, would “further break up the corridor.”

He went on, “People appreciate the scenic view on Picard Road. Looking west toward the escarpment is one of the most striking views.”

Aside from not having funds available to protect the Picard property — the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy is currently in the midst of raising $1.2 million to purchase the Bender Melon Farm property elsewhere in New Scotland — King said, “We only work with people who want to sell.”

He went on, “It’s really unfortunate Jeanne is not the one determing the future of her property.”

King said he could understand the “immediate needs” for Fish’s care. “The court has a decision to make,” he said. “It would certainly be nice to see consideration given to the neighborhood and what people perceive as the wishes of Jeanne Picard … They’ve got to seek that balance.”

 

Town’s view

New Scotland Supervisor Douglas LaGrange notes that the Picard property is in a residential/agricultural zone, which allows for houses to be built on 1-acre plots.

Referring to Kay, LaGrange said, “The lawyer called me probably last month and mentioned that unfortunately Jeanne was to the point of having to be cared for and he was instructed to satisfy her bills. He said he wanted to touch base with the town because he didn’t want to get into a situation with his approach. I told him we don’t control beyond zoning per se.”

LaGrange said he further suggested to Kay, “My approach would be, if you need to lop off property to pay for Jeanne’s care, I would start toward Martin Road and come toward the barn. Biernacki does one to three houses a year … By the time he gets to the end, it might be more palatable to folks who would have possible issues.”

Asked his thoughts on the plan, outlined in court papers, to tear down the house and barn, LaGrange said he’d heard from someone who knew Fish and had been inside her house that it had not been kept up.

He concluded, of the barn, “I’m not moving another barn.” He was referring to the town’s saving the century-old Hilton barn from a development on Route 85A by moving it across the street to make it the centerpiece of a town park.

 

History

Chris Albright, who grew up at the base of the escarpment and lives there still, on Martin Road, has done extensive research on properties near the escarpment including the Picard property. His interest began when the late Roger Keenholts, longtime Altamont historian, showed him a 1767 map of houses along the base of the Helderberg escarpment.

That was 30 years ago. “The Van Rensselaers owned all of Albany County and leased the farms,” Albright said of the Dutch patroon. Albright looked at the Van Rensselaer surveys to piece together maps of local farms. He has sifted through historic deeds and also gathered period newspaper clips.

The Picard farm, he has found, was originally settled by William Allen who was born in Perth, Scotland. After marrying, Allen came to America and settled at the base of the Helderberg escarpment in 1779, Albright found.

The Van Rensselaer family surveyed its properties in 1789; that survey shows Allen’s house at or near the location where the Picard house stands today, Albright concluded.

Allen had seven daughters and, when he died in 1805, he left the property to his wife and, after her death, to their two youngest unmarried daughters, Martha and Margaret. After their mother died, the farm was split evenly into two 97-acre parcels.

The farm stayed in the family until 1916 when it was sold to Herman E. Picard who had immigrated to the United States, from Germany, in 1897. He started Picard’s Grove soon after purchasing the property. It continued to be operated by two more generations of Picards.

Albright, who is 60, remembers when Picard’s Grove, with its clambakes, was booming. “Every summer, you’d see the field full of cars,” he said.

He knew Jeanne Picard Fish as a neighbor. “I helped her last year when her tractor broke down,” he recalled.

Albright is bothered by the prospect of the historic house and barn being torn down. A long-time member of the Dutch Barn Preservation Society, he noted historic elements in the buildings and believes they are structurally sound. He believes the lawyer brokering the deal is paving the way for Biernacki to demolish the buildings by stating they are unsound.

“It would be optimal if someone purchased it who could restore the house and also grant a conservation easement,” Albright said. He hopes that “someone willing to pay more than Biernacki will come forward.”

New Scotland passed an historic preservation law in November, establishing a commission that is solely advisory.

Under the new law, before a demolition permit is issued for a structure older than 100 years in New Scotland, the town building department gives the commision 30 days’ notice to evaluate and document the building for historic or architectural significance — unless the structure poses an immediate threat to health or safety.

The new law states that “designation on the … Register of Historic Places is strictly a local honorary listing … An owner of property on the Historic Register has no restriction on the use, maintenance, additions to, or alterations of the property as a result of this designation.”

Alan Kowlowitz, president of the New Scotland Historical Association who pushed for the legislation, told The Enterprise this week that the timing of the Picard property sale is unfortunate since the commission has not yet been formed.

The earliest its members would be appointed is in February, he said.

Even if the members had been appointed, Kowlowitz said, “The commission doesn’t have decision-making authority … We could make recommendations. It couldn’t say, ‘No, you can’t tear this down.’”

But, he went on, the threat to the Picard buildings “underscores the importance of having a commission in place … It’s a bully pulpit … It can make the public aware of what the town can lose.”

Kowlowitz concluded, “If a historic structure is torn down and no one knows, it’s like a tree falling in the woods … People aren’t aware of what is lost.”

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