Four vie for two trustee posts in Altamont's 2019 election

ALTAMONT — The village has a contested election for the first time in years as four candidates are running for two trustee posts.

While village elections do not involve traditional parties, the two incumbents — Nicholas Fahrenkopf and Michelle Ganance — are running on the Altamont First line. The challengers — Simon Litton and James Sullivan — have formed the Altamont Community Party.

The elections are March 19, with voting at Village Hall from noon to 9 p.m.

The four candidates for village trustee were asked about relevant background and their reasons for running as well as about these issues:

— Development and Altamont’s comprehensive plan: The rezoning of 107-109 Helderberg Ave., so that Stewart’s could build a larger shop; Jeff Thomas’s plan to build a 26 apartments and commercial space in the heart of the village; and, to a certain extent, the proposed cell tower on Agawam Lane have all brought out residents to meetings to air their grievances.

— Are these proposals good development projects for the village?

— What kind of development is good for the village?

The village’s comprehensive plan was cited by many residents in their opposition to the Stewart’s rezone; should Thomas’s mixed-use development proceed, the comprehensive plan will almost assuredly be invoked again by those who oppose the project.

— Should the village update its comprehensive plan — why or why not?

When the village of Voorheesville and the town of New Scotland updated their comprehensive plans (in the case of New Scotland, it was a hamlet plan and a town-wide plan) there was explicit language regarding the aesthetics of homes and businesses.

Voorheesville’s plan went so far as to disallow chain stores and restaurants from specific areas of the village, so much so that Stewart’s put the old Smith’s Tavern up for sale because the new zoning would not allow the company to put a new store on the spot.

— Should Altamont’s comprehensive plan be updated with language as rigorous as that of Voorheesville and New Scotland’s comprehensive plans?

— Or, if you don’t feel that the Altamont comprehensive plan should be updated in the first place, should the village planning board take into account other things, like aesthetics, when reviewing projects rather than just making a determination that the proposed project is compliant with the village zoning code?

— Engaging citizens: The village’s lack of transparency, or lack of citizen engagement, has drawn the ire of some residents, for instance with the Grand Street sidewalk project and the proposed cell tower on Agawam Lane or even with the brief time allowed for citizen input on the Stewart’s rezone.

Some Grand Street residents were upset that they had no notice their lawns and yards, in the village right-of-way, were going to be disrupted, with trees cut down, even though, by law, the village was under no obligation to notify them.

— Should the village have notified residents about the plans and given them a chance to express their views?

— Is a policy needed to engage residents, or at least notify them, on projects that will affect them or is it the responsibility of citizens to attend meetings or read news accounts to discover such projects themselves?

With the proposed cell tower, although the planning board will make the decision on whether or not it is built, it was the village board that, five years ago, entered into the agreement with Enterprise Consulting Services.

— When this became an issue again, should the village board have done more, perhaps take up again or re-evaluate the contract during a monthly meeting so that residents would be made more aware that the project was happening?

— In general, in what ways — if any — should the village board interact with residents?  

— Police force: By population, Altamont is the smallest village in Albany County; with about 1,740 residents, it is one-third smaller than the next smallest village, Green Island, which has a population of about 2,600. Three of the six villages in Albany County have their own police force — Altamont, Menands (population, 4,000), and Green Island; however, Green Island is also a town.

— Does a village as small as Altamont that is served by three other police departments — Guilderland, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Police — needs its own police force?




Nicholas Fahrenkopf


ALTAMONT — Nicholas Fahrenkopf is seeking re-election so that he can continue to work on and see through to completion a number of projects.

“I like the work that I’ve been able to do as village trustee; we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said. “Some of the projects that I’ve been working on aren’t quite finished yet. So I’d like the chance to continue doing that work.”

Projects Fahrenkopf has cited include the further implementation of the Nixle communication system, updating the village’s website, and seeing something happen with the historic Doctor Crounse House.

Fahrenkopf, 33, was appointed to the board in November 2015, after Trustee Cathy Glass resigned. In March 2016, he won a special election to keep the post.

He and his wife, Katie, have lived in the village since 2013; the couple now has two children.

When he and his wife began to look for a home, Fahrenkopf said, they wanted a place with a good amount of land, and a neighborhood feel — a place where they could walk around the neighborhood and talk to neighbors.

“The property we were able to find in the village really hit all of those things,”  Fahrenkopf said; the street where he lives is now full of young children who are close in age to his own kids.

He earned both his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in nanoscale engineering from the University at Albany and now works as a development engineering supervisor at the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, creating the the next generation of microchips.

Both he and Michelle Ganance are running as members of the Altamont First slate; Fahrenkopf ran on the same line in 2016. The party, he said, has been around for about 14 years, when Kerry Dineen ran for trustee and James Gaughan ran for mayor in a hotly contested race.

“One of the biggest things,” Fahrenkopf said of Altamont First, has to do with taxes. “Since Gaughan and Dineen were elected, property taxes haven’t gone up,” he said. “That’s really important to me.”

Keeping that fiscal discipline, he said, will require new ways of thinking, like swapping out the village’s current street lights for high-efficiency light-emitting diode lamps or “things like we did last year, where we were able to get the assessment of the reservoir property reduced.” Altamont pays taxes on a reservoir it no longer uses, located in the town of Knox.

It’s especially important in New York State, Fahrenkopf said, “Where one of the jokes is: If you have it, we’ll tax it; and, if it’s fun, we’ll regulate it, so it’s no longer fun.” Having a responsive, efficient local government, Fahrenkopf said, is important, and, “I think it’s been very important to the other folks on the [Altamont First] line.”

On development, Fahrenkopf said, “That’s not really my area of expertise. I want to leave a lot of the decision-making to the planning board. A lot of people don’t realize that planning and zoning board members go through a lot of training to be able to handle these things.”

His position, Fahrenkopf said, is not determine whether a proposal is good or bad; rather, he said, “I try to look at it holistically.” His thought process, he said, is to at least give the proposal a chance.

“That was really what drove my vote in the Stewart’s rezoning issue,” he said. “I wanted to see if Stewart’s could make something that was palatable to a planning board.”

Fahrenkopf, along with his running mate, Ganance, and Mayor Kerry Dineen, voted in December 2018 to rezone 107-109 Helderberg Ave., from residential to commercial, so that Stewart’s could try to build a new, larger store.

Speaking about the balance between progress and preservation, Fahrenkopf re-emphasized his point about choosing to settle in Altamont because of the community, about wanting to continue to preserve the things that make Altamont unique.

“That said, sometimes, we as a community can’t save and preserve everything,” he said. “We don’t want to forego any and all developments in order to prevent any changes to the community.”

It’s the job of the village board to find the middle ground, he said. “It’s a really narrow path that we have to walk with steep slopes on either side.”

If too many businesses and development proposals are rejected, he said, the word would get out and the village could be left with a ghost town. Conversely, Fahrenkopf said, if too much is approved, the village could be overrun with commercial excess.

“I’d argue that we have a number of vacant lots and storefronts in the village,” he said. “We’re not really at risk for commercial excess; if anything, we’re closer to running the risk of a ghost town.”

The village comprehensive plan, Fahrenkopf said, should be updated; however, he is leery about including in it the strong language that Voorheesville’s plan has.

On transparency and citizen engagement, Fahrenkopf said, that, yes, the village should have notified the Grand Street residents about the sidewalk project. But, he also points out, the village board at the time acknowledged that it should have done more and committed to doing so in the future.

On having some kind of resident-notification policy, he said,“How much a project does or doesn’t affect somebody might be open to interpretation. So maybe we should formalize it.”

But how people get their information today, Fahrenkopf said, can make it more difficult to reach them. Not every resident subscribes to The Altamont Enterprise and even fewer read the legal notices, he said.

“Not everybody reads the minutes of our meetings,” he said. “And, you and I both know that not many people come to our meetings.”

Meeting dates and other short announcements are placed on the sign board outside of village hall, he said, but there is only so much that can be “crammed” on there. The village does mailers as well, he said, but it is also trying to be more environmentally conscious.

One of the things that the village board is working on, he said, is a better electronic communications policy; a new village website should be up and running in the next couple of months. Expanding the Nixle communications platform, from updates about road closures and local emergencies, to include announcements about meetings and public hearings is something Fahrenkopf wants to do this year.

The structure of the village police, Fahrenkopf said, with one full-time employee and the rest of the department part-time, is “well-suited for a village of our size.”

With its police department, Altamont receives a high return on minimal investment, Fahrenkopf said; an already trained part-time police force means that the village isn’t picking up the tab on pension contributions or health-care costs.

In a follow-up email to The Enterprise, Fahrenkopf pointed out that the village of Menands, with a population of nearly 4,000, spends about $1.2 million on its police department; with a population of about 1,700, Altamont spends about $175,000, he wrote.

Thinking in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, Fahrenkopf said that the peace of mind villagers receive from knowing that a local officer patrols the village for a majority of the day (8 a.m. to 11 p.m.) is worth the small cost spent on a village police department.

“And obviously, if the village didn’t want a police force one, then we wouldn't have it,” he said, before concluding,“I definitely think it is worth having.”

“One of the things that’s been on my list since before I was on the village board, is getting a sidewalk on Gun Club Road,” he said. “Because so many people use that as a loop around the village, but it’s kind of a Guilderland road.”

If he’s elected, Fahrenkopf said, one of things he’d like to work on is fostering better relationships with the town, county, and state.

Another example, he gave was from last year, when the asphalt around the train tracks on Route 146 — a state road — next to the Altamont Free Library was torn up and causing people problems, there was a long wait to get it fixed.

“A lot of people were upset,” he said, but the maintenance of the road “is out of our hands.”


Michelle Ganance


ALTAMONT — Michelle Ganance is looking to keep her seat on the village board in part because of posterity. She was appointed trustee in September 2o18; for the year prior, she had been a member of the zoning board of appeals.

“I’m running because I really love where I live, and I want my kids to grow up in a village that they want to come back to and live in, too,” she said, and that means being involved in decisions that will affect the future, decisions, for example, about village law and the environment.

Ganance, who grew up in Guilderland outside of the village, has lived in Altamont for 15 years. She works as a computer programmer for the New York State Office of Information Technology Services. She earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education from Maria College, and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from The College of Saint Rose. She and her husband, Vince, have two children.

“The village is very quaint,” Ganance said when asked why she and her husband chose to live in Altamont. “Everybody knows everybody else.” She also said that Altamont Elementary School, with its small class sizes, was a major factor their choosing to move to the village.  

About running on the Altamont First line with Nicholas Fahrenkopf, Ganance said, “We have a lot common, so it only made sense for us to run together.”

On the current proposed development in the village, Ganance would not offer an opinion. About the proposed 26 apartments and commercial space adjacent to the library, she said, “I cannot really speak on that development ... because nothing has come in front of me as far as specifics go.” With the proposed cell tower, she said, the decision was made five years, when she wasn’t a trustee.

“But what is important with all of these issues,” Ganance said, is that there is a mechanism in place already to deal with the details of development: the village planning board.

Working to attract and keep businesses in the village, Ganance said, is important because the entire point of a village is to be able to obtain goods and services where you live. “I mean, without these businesses we would just be a suburb,” she said.

To build the local economy, Ganance said, to keep the village a village, Altamont needs to adapt. That means helping the local businesses in the village. Ganance, along with Fahrenkopf and Mayor Kerry Dineen, voted to rezone 107-109 Helderberg Ave., from residential to commercial, so that Stewart’s could build a new, larger store on the site.

Ganance said that the village comprehensive plan should be updated, and said she would want to be part of that process. But she would not say if an updated Altamont comprehensive plan should have language as strong as that of Voorheesville’s.

“I couldn’t be sure [about including strong language] unless I had time to do research, and take into account all the different forms of input and all the information I could gather,” she said, adding that the decision is not “something I would do off the cuff.”

Ganance would not comment on the Grand Street sidewalk project as an example of the village’s lack of citizen engagement, saying that she wasn’t a board member at the time and did not have all the specifics on how that project was handled.

For the proposed cell tower on Agawam Lane, Ganance, again, pointed out that she hadn’t been a member of the village board when the agreement was passed. But, she said, “We can’t go back and renegotiate or re-legislate a decision that’s already been made, or the village will never move forward.”

As for communication between the village board and public in general, she said, “We do a lot and we plan to do more.” Ganance said that a new, interactive village website will be online soon.

She also cited the Nixle communication system as another means of interaction. Nixle is an alert system that residents can sign up for to receive information about road closings and community news, as well as critical alerts. Residents can receive Nixle alerts via text, email, or mobile application.

Ganance also said it’s incumbent on residents to try to find out what’s going in the village. “Our villagers need to be more proactive,” she said. “We’re going to have a website; we send out newsletters with information; we’re going to be using Nixle. We’re taking a lot of steps to better communicate with our villagers.”

As for the village police, Ganance said, “When I moved here all those years ago, around that time, they had done a survey of the village: ‘Does [Altamont] need a police force?’ And, there was a resounding, ‘Yes, we do.’ In my opinion, it’s essential that we have in a police force.”

Just because Altamont is a small, Ganance said, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some of the same problems as any other village, town, or county. “We need quick response too,” she said. Ganance also pointed to the familiarity and comfort that residents have with the village police: “Half the time we know their name; they know us.”



Simon Litten



ALTAMONT — Simon Litten was moved to run for trustee because of the village board’s decision to rezone so Stewart’s could expand.

“There are a number of things that I thought about as a consequence of that,” Litten said. His first thought was that there shouldn’t be new development in such close proximity to village streams.

An environmental scientist by profession, Litten, 71, said that, on a large scale, he’s thought a lot about the impact that development has on watersheds and wetlands, and “if you have the opportunity to work with communities, small communities, then you can possibly make a difference.”

For over 30 years, Litten worked for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation; currently, he’s working for the Hudson River Foundation.

Having a say in the type of development that comes to the village is another reason Litten decided to run. Recently, Litten and his wife, Edna, were driving through the hamlet of West Sand Lake in Rensselaer County, a place that Litten said has been taken over by chain stores.

“So when you go down the main drag there, it’s like an ocean of asphalt,” he said. “And that’s not what the people of Altamont want to see — that’s been made very clear.”

The Littens moved to Altamont from Syracuse in 1980. They were looking for a place with a strong sense of community, and one that had older homes with some sense of character, Litten said. He and Edna have four grown children.

Litten holds a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in biostatistics, and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science.

On development, Litten said, “I do not think that the expansion of Stewart’s is in the best interest of the village.”

The cell tower issue, he said, was conducted with minimal transparency. The village proactively offered the site, Litten said, so there was wasn’t any effort on the part of Enterprise Consulting Services to look for alternatives.

Dense development that is responsibly planned, Litten said, would highlight Altamont’s walkability and be a benefit to local business.

Asked if the proposed 26 apartments and commercial space adjacent to the library is an example of that, Litten said, “I think that the devil is in the details.” He’s concerned that one of the two entrances to the site would cut right across the parking lot of the Altamont Free Library. “There’s a lot of children walking there,” Litten said, “It’s not a good place to put an exit.”

However, if the egress issue could be resolved and an environmental plan was developed to deal with any future improvements that may have to be made the underground creek that flows beneath the site, Litten said, “I would generally be in favor of a responsible development, and, that would also include what [the proposed development] looks like.”

Another consideration that needs to be taken into account, he said, is whether or not there is enough water to supply the site.

Litten said that the current comprehensive plan should be reviewed to determine which recommendations have been implemented, which may have been deemed impractical, which recommendations the plan has made that the village has yet tackle, and then proceed from there.

“I think [the comprehensive plan] has a lot of great ideas in it, and I think it would be a mistake just to write a new one without a thorough exploration of what the existing one has in it,” he said.

Litten referenced a zoning model called form-based code that is not just a written code but has visual elements like diagrams and pictures. “It gives developers or builders a much clearer idea of what the community wants to have,” he said.

If the village were to move toward updating its comprehensive plan, Litten said, form-based code is something that should be considered; it’s a mechanism that would allow the village to be much more explicit about what it is looking for from developers.

Finally, on the comprehensive plan, Litten recommends that an inventory be taken of the village’s existing trees and their health. “This is something that could be done by families,” he said. “It’s something that would be part of a stormwater protection program, and it would be, I think, highly educational.”

The village “very much” needs to engage citizens, Litten said. The village, he said, has been somewhat overwhelmed in its ability to disseminate information to the public; the village office is understaffed.

“I think that is very much incumbent on the village to tell people when there’s disturbance in their neighborhood,” Litten said.

“The village, I think, needs to be more proactive” about distributing meeting agendas prior to the meetings, he said.

Asked how the village should interact with residents, Litten said, “Well, communication is obviously an issue. Many people feel that they are not doing a really great job with it.” Hiring more clerical staff, he said, is one way to help with that.

“And, one of the things that we’ve been batting around is the possibility of creating a parallel website where some of that information that the village doesn’t distribute, could be distributed to interested people,” Litten said; the site could be used by board members to post material.

Litten tied his thoughts on the police force to his thoughts on village transparency, saying, “I would like to see … a little more evidence of what exactly it is that they do, how many stops do they make for speeding; how many stops do they make for drivers failing to yield to pedestrians and the cross walks?”

At the Dec. 12, 2018 village board meeting where the Stewart’s rezone was approved, he said, there some discussion about the danger of the current store’s parking lot and someone asked the “very reasonable” question: How many accidents have actually taken place in that area?

“So, I think that the question can be approached first by looking at data,” Litten said, and finding out exactly what it is that the village police are doing, and then proceed from there.

If he’s elected, Litten said he’d like to develop more programs that engage the village youth, citing as an example, the environmental study team program at the Schoharie River Center in Burtonsville. The environmental educational program teaches teens how to conduct aquatic surveys of insects that live in the water; the insects, he said, are indicators of water quality.



James Sullivan


ALTAMONT — James Sullivan always anticipated being involved in local government. He grew up in the town of Niskayuna, where his grandmother was deputy supervisor and his stepfather was town attorney.

“And then my neighbor approached me,” Sullivan said of Edna Litten, wife of his Altamont Community Party running mate, Simon Litten, “saying that her and some friends were looking for some people to run, and would I consider it? I said yes.”

Sullivan, 36, teaches fourth grade in the city of Schenectady. He and his wife, Mya, have lived in Altamont for seven years; the couple has two children.

“It took about two years of looking for the right house to come up,” Sullivan said of the search to find his family home in the village.

The couple, he said, chose Altamont because it strikes a balance between the wants of each spouse. Growing up in Niskayuna, amid suburban sprawl, Sullivan said that he wanted a home closer to the country; his wife, by contrast, grew up in Saugerties, “in the middle of the woods,” and wanted to be closer to “things.”

Altamont, Sullivan said, is a great mix of the two.

“Also, another huge contributing factor to why we moved here,” he said, was Altamont Elementary School.

The first plank of the Altamont Community Party platform, Sullivan said, deals with the village’s comprehensive plan: using it; updating it; and following it. “So, in terms of growth and development, there’s a lot [of the comprehensive plan] that talks about balancing development with preserving our history,” Sullivan said, “The [Stewart’s] rezoning, in my opinion, seems to go against a lot of what’s in the comprehensive plan.”

“In terms of the other projects,” Sullivan said, his opinion on the proposed mixed-use development project next to the library is incomplete because so many of the details are unknown. For example, “mixed-use sounds fantastic,” he said, but the proposed project has mostly one- and two-bedroom apartments.

“When I think about … allowing families to come here and start here, I don’t think of one- and two bedroom-apartments, I think of  two- and three-bedroom,” Sullivan said, so, the proposal “didn’t seem to jibe with that aspect of the comprehensive plan.”

As for the type of development that is good for the village, Sullivan said, it needs to be balanced with the needs and wants of the residents.

“And, I think that’s really at the crux of this whole Stewart’s thing,” he said. Residents showed up at the Dec. 12 village board meeting where the rezone was approved, he said, characterizing the meeting: “You have 2-to-1 people speaking against [the rezone]. That’s not really considering the needs and wants of the people.”

Sullivan said that the village’s 2007 comprehensive plan “absolutely” should be updated. “The plan calls for it to be updated every six years, so we’re overdue,” he said. However, Sullivan said, the comprehensive plan should not be “thrown out the window” — a sentiment shared by his running mate. Sullivan, like Litten, said that the plan should be reviewed for successful recommendations, those deemed impractical, recommendations that have yet to be implemented, and then proceed from there.

The language in an updated plan should not “be as rigorous as to block companies or people who want to do business here,” Sullivan said. The updated comprehensive plan, he said, should be specific enough so that users — the planning board or building inspector — can read it and say: The proposed project doesn’t follow what’s in the plan; adjustments are needed.

Defining the “character” of the village is one example cited by Sullivan that could be made more clear in an updated plan. “What does [character] mean to you versus what does [character] mean to me?” he said. “We probably need to be a little bit more specific than that.”

Had the village notified residents whose homes were going to affected by the Grand Street sidewalk project, Sullivan said, “I think, that would have tamped down a lot of the opposition to the project.”

As for the proposed cell tower on Agawam Lane, he said, the rules for public notice had been met, even though a legal notice is the “bare minimum of what they have to do.”

“I like to read as much of the paper as I can but I don’t get to read all of the legal notices, and I don’t think a lot of other people do either,” he said.

Communication and transparency, Sullivan said, is the second plank of the Altamont Community Party platform. In just two weeks, he said, he and Litten have set up an email newsletter that will notify people when the village posts new information like meeting agendas or minutes. Set up through MailChimp, an email marketing service, the newsletter will remain a free notification system so long as the number of people who sign up to receive the email remains fewer than 2,000; Altamont, as of 2017, had a population of about 1,740.

As for whether the village needs a policy in place about notifying residents if a project will affect them or if it’s on the residents to attend meetings and read news accounts, Sullivan said, “It would be nice if there was just a clear black or white answer on that, but I don’t think there is. I think it’s a little bit of both.”

Unfortunately, he said, people don’t read the newspaper like they used to; however, Sullivan also points out that he is a member of a nonpartisan Altamont community group on Facebook, which for all of its problems, is still a good way to get information to a lot of people.

“Sitting on my lunch break, I can scroll through and see what’s happening in the village,” he said of the Facebook group. “Not to say that social media is the answer, but I think we need to find something a little bit more user friendly than the legal announcements — as long as it stays nonpartisan.”

About the Altamont Police Department, Sullivan said, “I’ve always been really, really happy that we had our own police force. I think the fact that they’re our own and they’re here constantly really adds to that [sense of ] community.”

The local officers, he said, are more accessible, more present than town, county, or state officers; for example, they attend the summer movies in the park. “It may seem trivial, but that sense of safety and community is really important,” Sullivan said.

But he is quick to acknowledge that, just because the local police are friendly and show up for community events, residents aren’t necessarily any safer.

“But, when you can put a face with the car, I think that’s important,” he concluded.

The Altamont Community Party’s third plank, environmental sustainability, is an issue not previously discussed that Sullivan said was an important subject that he would work on, if elected.

“Exploring development and modernization through the lens of environmental sustainability is really important,” Sullivan said, citing as an example, the solar panels that both he and his running mate have on their barns.

And, specifically, for the village, there are programs free to villages and towns that will audit the energy consumption of municipal buildings. Additionally, he said, he’d like to explore using solar panels on village-owned buildings.


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