Neighbors work together, and with every level of government to get fire retention pond installed on Guilderland farm

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

After fires took the home of his sister and brother-in-law as well as the home of a close neighbor, Gardner Road resident Rick Ketterer worked his way up the regulatory ladder — town, county, state, and federal — to obtain approval to install fire retention pond on his property. ​

GUILDERLAND — Rick Ketterer came into The Enterprise news office last week because he had a story he wanted to tell.

It was Thursday, March 5, the day after the town of Guilderland had finished laying a pad, for free, on the front of the Ketterer’s property that could support the weight of multiple fire trucks, next to the fire pond that Fred Wagner, owner of Helderberg Excavating and Trucking, excavated for no charge.

“In this day and age,” Ketterer said this week, when political parties’ status quo is back-and-forth brawling, when almost everything within a town is either one way or the other way — when a person’s party affiliation becomes core to his or her identity, an entire community pulled together for public safety without politics ever entering the picture. 

“I just — in this day and age — it’s not something I expected,” he said. 

Ketterer had come to The Enterprise office on March 5, because he wanted to make sure those who had helped get the fire pond installed received recognition they deserved. 


Gardner Road

Of the more than 60 properties on Gardner Road, Ketterer estimated that, before last week, between half and three-quarters lacked basic municipality-provided fire protection. 

Distance and elevation made running a town water line economically impractical, he said. The area in general just lacks water, save for a leg of the Black Creek that flows through Thacher’s Shadow Farm, which has been in the family of Rick’s wife, Helen Ketterer, since 1961, he said.

In March 2010, Bill and Dorothy Schoonmaker’s home at 5816 Gardner Road burned down; Dorothy is Helen’s sister, Rick Ketterer said. Firefighters at the time had trouble fighting that fire because of the lack of water in the area, he said, and that’s what got him to thinking about a solution. 

But the thought really didn’t turn into action until Paul and Theresa Oliver’s home at 6051 Gardner Road burned to the ground in 2016. “They were really the catalyst behind the thing because that was a bad fire,” Ketterer said. 

“We were unable to save anything,” then-Altamont Fire Chief Paul Miller said at the time. The closest hydrant had been a mile-and-a-half away from the Oliver home, on Armstrong Circle. Tankers had to transport water to portable ponds that the firefighters had set up at the scene; Miller estimated that 100,000 gallons of water were used to extinguish the fire. 

Both the Schoonmakers and Olivers have since rebuilt their homes, Ketterer said. 


A plan emerges

Ketterer began his town-level outreach sometime in February 2017, he said, receiving nothing but positive feedback from the Guilderland Center Fire District and the town’s fire inspector.

But when Fred Wagner, owner of Helderberg Excavating and Trucking, said he would volunteer his time and equipment to excavate the pond, Ketterer said, “That gave me a large push. ” 

When asked why he volunteered to dig the pond, Wagner said simply that the Ketterers were his neighbors. Adding that he’s also good friends with Paul Oliver, Wagner said, “I love this town, I just wanted to help out and do my part.” In addition, his parents used to live on Frederick Road, just off of Gardner Road. 

If it were a typical job he had bid, Wagner said, the project cost would have been “substantial,” but he declined to say what that cost would have been. 

Before he retired, Steve Oliver, the former Guilderland Highway Superintendent, told Ketterer that, after he got the pond built, the town would come in with fill and lay the pad for the fire trucks, Ketterer said. The current highway superintendent, Greg Wier, kept Oliver’s promise and completed the job on March 4.

Estimated construction costs for fire ponds can range from $20,000 to nearly $50,000; depending on site conditions and other specific features, ponds can have a per-acre construction cost of $30,000.

Originally, Ketterer had thought that water could be drawn directly out the Black Creek. But the problem, he said, even though it’s not a “classified stream,” Albany County, New York State, and the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t want the water taken directly from the creek. 

It was best to install a separate holding facility close by, all three said. 

The project is actually built to Albany County’s original fire-pond design from 2017 — a dry hydrant attached to a PVC pipe running underneath the creek and adjacent bank, and into the pond. 

Ketterer, who is 71, retired from CSX in 2009, where he was a trainmaster, in charge of the rail company’s entire Syracuse-to-Montreal operation. 

He has lived in Guilderland since 1978, and, in that time, he said, he’s almost always had a good experience when he’s had to reach out to the town for one reason or another. But he didn’t expect, when he started the process with Albany County, that it would go anywhere. 

But, Ketterer said, he kept receiving encouragement from people; “they kept telling me what doors to go knock on next,” and, soon, a process that he had thought would become mired in a bureaucratic morass, became a lot  easier. 

“Something that I thought I would just get, ‘Yeah right, if you want a fire pond — go build it yourself,’” Ketterer said, which is what actually happened — with help from others — but it’s not how the county process played out. 

As the project came together, Ketterer began to hear more often: “I’ll take care of this end of it, you go work on the next,” he said. “It just fell into place.” 

“As we finished it, it began to make me feel like there is still — for all the garbage that goes on in the world right now — when you come down to basic people, we all work together,” he said. “And this community did, within the county, the state, the feds, the town, fire department … I never got a cross word out of anybody, I never got any kind of anything — except encouragement.”


From puddle to pond 

The land in which the pond now sits hadn’t any functional use, Ketterer said, it had previously been grass and overgrowth. The new fire pond holds between 100,000 and 120,000 gallons, he estimated; the fire department had asked for 40,000 gallons.

The pond straddles the Altamont and Guilderland Center fire districts. A sign that predates pond construction is posted at what is now the entrance to the Gardner Road fire pond that says, “Entering Guilderland Center Fire District: Dial 9-1-1.” 

After working with the county, Ketterer applied for a permit from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation in July 2018, which signed off on the project a just month later. 

But the DEC told Ketterer, because of something having to do with the Hudson River watershed, “we really would like to acquiesce to the Army Corps of Engineers,” which he admitted made his heart sink a bit, because he “didn’t know what” he was  “getting into with the feds. ”

Ketterer applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers soon after getting the OK from the state. 

Ultimately, with just some minor modifications, Ketterer said that the Army Corps of Engineers agreed with the county, stating that water had to be drawn from a pond — it couldn’t come directly from the creek.

But something happened in between obtaining state approval in August 2018 and March 4 of this year — the longest federal government shutdown in history. 

And so, an approved permit sat on a desk in Troy for months on end.

Ketterer said that the staffer he had been working with at the Army Corps of Engineers, as a consequence of the government shutdown, had been pulled from his normal job and reassigned elsewhere. 

So, a permit that had actually been approved in April 2019 wasn’t made known to Ketterer until October of last year — causing the project a near-year delay. 

Lucky for Ketterer, Fred Wagner was a bit more reliable, showing up with his machines almost as soon as the permit was in hand. 

The Army Corps of Engineers permit allowed Ketterer to block off the stream at the culvert, the tunnel running under Gardner Road, for no more than a day to do the pipe work, but four hours was more preferable. 

It took the two men 2 hours and 45 minutes to perform the work. 

The dry hydrant is attached to a PVC pipe that runs a foot-and-a-half below the surface of the steam, the pipe then traverses through about 12 feet of embankment before it hits water, extending eight feet into the pond (where the pipe is perforated). 

The pipe work was also completed in October 2019.

Ketterer said that, when Wagner dug out the pond, he found something rare — three springs; he was unaware of any other springs on Gardner Road. 

The three water sources fill up the pond so well that its water level is a foot higher than the adjacent stream. In addition, another spring that Ketterer hit years back when he was digging out his cellar also feeds into the pond, he said. 

With four sources feeding the already 10-feet deep pond, he said, if the surrounding embankment were built even higher, it’s likely that the water would rise with it. 

But, Ketterer said, “In the long run, I hope we never use it,”


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