In the sale of Picard’s Grove, what’s done in haste will be repented at leisure.

Jeanne Picard Fish is an Enterprise subscriber. She comes into our news office in person each year to renew her subscription or to buy one for a friend. A petite, energetic woman, she talks up a storm, often hopping from one favorite topic to another —  from her love of an Altamont Reformed minister to her pride in her family’s preparation of huge quantities of food for Picard’s Grove gatherings, from her love of her horses to her pride in being a farmer.

So we were both stunned and saddened this past week to learn that she had been deemed “incapacitated” and sent to a nursing home, which her brother describes as being like a prison cell.

As we delved into the story to find out more, we found more questions than answers. The lawyer appointed as guardian of her property, Joseph L. Kay, has arranged to sell, for $500,000, her 87 acres at the foot of the Helderberg escarpment, and her barn and house — each two centuries old — as well as a dance hall and a restaurant that could seat over 700 people.

Strangest of all, the papers he has filed in State Supreme Court, Albany County indicate he believes the historic house and barn should be demolished and, according to the sales contract, all of the contents of the buildings will belong to the developer making the purchase.

We have nothing against the developer, Michael Bernacki, but we believe the price is not right and that assets are being ignored in the name of haste.

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

Why wouldn’t the guardian of Fish’s property catalog the personal property and sell it? Fish’s brother, Herman Picard III, says the house is filled with antiques, and the dance hall and restaurant have valuable equipment that could be sold. The sales contract lists a pickup, a Cadillac, and a John Deere tractor among items that will become Bernacki’s property.

The contract further states that no real-estate broker is involved in the sale. Again we question why the guardian of Fish’s property wouldn’t cast a wider net in looking for a purchaser, perhaps someone who would pay more for the property. Wouldn’t that best benefit Fish?

Herman Picard and his wife, Suzanne, say that no one in the family was contacted when Fish was moved from a hospital where she was diagnosed with dementia to a costly nursing home. They are looking for a facility closer to home that is nicer and also less costly.

Herman Picard was named guardian of her person and says he wants what is best for his sister.

Most inexplicable of all is the Picards say offers higher than Biernacki’s have come in but Kay told them he will entertain such offers, in cash, only in court on Feb. 26. The sales contract with Biernacki says the closing date is set for “on or before February 20, 2020.”

We understand that Fish needs money for her care. But how is such great haste, at the cost of more money, helping her in the long run? 

Interest in this story is larger than the Picard family. Picard’s Grove was a community gathering place for generations and many people have a fondness for it. Beyond that, the farm is in the midst of the larger Helderberg Conservation Corridor. And, also, New Scotland residents who value historic homes and barns have been dismayed that such structures would be torn down without giving others a chance to buy them and preserve them for what could perhaps be more money than the quick sale that is in the works.

We hope that the judge deciding the matter on Feb. 26 will balance Fish’s long-term needs against the advantages of a quick cash sale.

There are lessons to be learned from this beyond the situation of Jeanne Picard Fish and her family.

We commend the town of New Scotland for taking a first step to preserve the history in its midst. The town passed a law in November that will establish a commission, not yet set up, which will document and evaluate buildings in town over 100 years old before a demolition permit is issued.

The commission is solely advisory. Still, it can work to help residents understand that, once a building that is part of the town’s history is demolished, it is gone for good — and so is part of New Scotland’s character.

“This sort of thing doesn’t come around very often,” Herman Picard said of the house and barn built of hand-hewn beams in the early 1800s. “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Supervisor Douglas LaGrange said, when we asked him about the early 19th-Century 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.

Of course the town can’t save every historic barn when agriculture is no longer the mainstay of New Scotland. But, our point is, if the Picard farm were advertised for sale and listed with Realtors, there’s a chance that, not only the history and open farmland could be saved, but Jeanne Picard Fish might end up with the same amount of money — or more.

Her family believes that is what she would want.

Further, the Helderberg Conservation Corridor is important for ecological and environmental reasons as Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, explains in our front-page story.

King said the lands at the foot of the escarpment along Picard Road have “a real unique set of attributes that make it special.” He named the “unusual geology” and noted, “The Helderbergs are considered the birthplace of modern geology.” The area is recognized as important by the state. It has diverse birds and amphibians, and hydrology that matters.

King also noted something that all of us, even those of us who are not scientists, can recognize: “People appreciate the scenic view on Picard Road,” he said. “Looking west toward the escarpment is one of the most striking views.”

Coincidentally, last week Albany County Legislator Jeff Perlee filled two pages of our paper, the first part of a series on the Helderebergs, writing about the importance of the viewshed. That view — from the top of the escarpment as well as looking up at the escarpment — spawned a healthy tourist trade a century ago, but is not just important for the past.

It is the key to a prosperous future. Two decades ago, we wrote reams on an in-depth study developed by representatives from each of the Helderberg Hilltowns as well as from the municipalities below the escarpment — the towns of New Scotland and Guilderland and the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville — and Albany County, too. 

The Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide looks at geology, soils, hydrology, plants, animals, agriculture, aesthetics, recreation, historic and cultural resources, and land-use controls.

This in-depth exploration of “the county’s signature landform” was meant to offer guidance as local communities developed comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances. We were pleased this week that the guide was referenced as Guilderland updates its solar law. A large group of vocal citizens sees the value of the Helderberg view, as our front-page story reports, and believes solar farms can be placed where the view won’t be marred.

The guide was not meant to frustrate growth but rather to ensure that growth was designed in a way to respect the uniqueness of the escarpment. Unfortunately, few municipalities followed through with being caretakers of the escarpment.

New Scotland has in recent years shown a great deal of care and courage in developing a plan for a hamlet at its center that will preserve open space by clustering development, and we commend town leaders for this. But, in writing the story on the sale of the Picard farm, we learned that property at the foot of the escarpment is zoned so that a house could be built on each acre.

Surely it’s worth a look to see if zoning for land in the Helderberg Conservation Corridor — not just in New Scotland but in all the towns on top of and below the Helderbergs — can be more conducive to preserving open space. 

This is important not just for hydrology, for birds and for animals, but also for the economy of the area that will grow if it is an attractive place to visit and to live.

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