Residents of proposed Knox business district speak out against it

business district in Knox

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

A map of a proposed business district in Knox was presented at Tuesday night’s town board meeting. Residents in several of these parcels were not in favor of the proposed district.

KNOX — A proposed business district, along the intersection of routes 156 and 157, was twice rejected by the planning board here only to then be taken up by the town board.

The proposal failed twice in split votes before last year’s town board but will now be voted on by a board with two new members who ran alongside the supervisor, Vasilios Lefkaditis, who has been pushing for the district.

It would be the second business district in town. The other, in the hamlet, has just one business, in a building that Lefkaditis bought and renovated before selling it to a restaurateur.

Several residents of the proposed district expressed concerns Tuesday night during what will be the first of two public hearings.

Pollution concerns

Arthur Brearton, who owns a 40-acre parcel of land in the proposed district, opposed the plan, saying the town does not have the infrastructure for it.

Brearton said that he grew up in Wynantskill, where a chemical spill from a dry cleaners contaminated wells in the area. As dry cleaners are allowed in a business district, he said he is also concerned about pollution in Knox.

Brigitte McAuliffe, who owns a 26-acre parcel in the proposed district, said she came to Knox in 2000 after living within a South Carolina “superfund site,” or an area that the federal Environmental Protection Agency cleans up following an environmental disaster. In this case, a tank at a nearby gas station leaked and contaminated her well.

“Everybody is gambling with the lives of the people who live here,” she later said.

When someone in the gallery spoke up about putting in a gas station, another resident countered that he’d rather drive five minutes than pollute their water.

Dee Woessner, the co-chair of the town’s Democratic committee, also expressed her concern about the potential pollution. A member of the Conservation Advisory Council, she said that the business district has karst geography, meaning that there are pockets in limestone bedrock that allow liquid to pass through. The planning board had also cited karst topography when it rejected the proposal.

Woessner said that pollutants from businesses could end up in the Altamont Reservoir, a resource owned by the village of Altamont but located in and taxed by the town of Knox. Although the reservoir is no longer in use, Woessner said the town could lose tax money were it polluted.

In the gallery, Bill Pasquini asked why there was concern about businesses polluting through the karst geology when there were so many homes and small businesses that could already be polluting with household chemicals, fertilizers, or vehicle fluids.

Eric Marczak, a zoning board member, speaking from the gallery, said that, while it is true “pollution starts right in your home sink,” large-scale pollution poses bigger risks. A former state Department of Health worker at the Wadsworth Center, Marczak said that he helped with the initial tests for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; his own home in Glenville was tested, he said, and his water was found to have the chemical trichloroethylene and his family was concerned they were at risk for developing cancer.

“I don’t think that 2,000 people can afford a multimillion dollar lawsuit,” said Marczak, referring the the approximate population of the town.

Ethics questions

A letter submitted by Amy Pokorny — a former town councilwoman who left the board after losing the supervisor’s race in November — stated that the town board could risk violating Local Law 1 of 1970; the ethics law states that no town employee shall have any interest, financial or otherwise, that would conflict with his or her public duties.

Lefkaditis, a hedge fund manager, has sold property in the current business district to a new restaurant owner. The supervisor called Pokorny’s statement a “personal attack” and “baseless, shameless, gutter politics.”

Others in the audience also asked if board members or the supervisor had some vested interest in creating the new district since this is the second time Lefkaditis has put forth the proposal, which had previously failed in two town board votes that were tied 2 to 2. The town board had already gone against recommendations by the town’s planning board and conservation advisory council.

“What is the reason for the push for this?” asked Brearton, who asked the board members if any of them had some vested interest in a new business district. Lefkaditis and the other board members said they did not.

“I have enough of a headache where I am,” said Councilman Karl Pritchard, referring to his business as an auto dealer and mechanic — his business is outside both the current and proposed business districts and is permitted by the town.

Neighborhood disturbances

Another resident of the business district who moved to the area last year also expressed concern that the town had continued to push for the district. He said he was disappointed he had not been notified for Tuesday’s public hearing.

He also said that he was concerned about a new business district affecting property values, particularly if a bar or a gas station is put in. Likewise, McAuliffe, who owns 26 acres in the district, said that she had signed a petition to reopen the Highlands, restaurant in the proposed district that had operated, on and off for decades before closing several years ago.

But now, McAuliffe said, she believes she would rather the restaurant stay closed since, when it was open, there were disturbances such as visiting snowmobilers riding across her property.

A neighbor of the now-closed Highlands, Brearton was also concerned that his and others’ living situation in a quiet, rural area would be disrupted.

“You’d no longer be able to stable horses there,” he said, as private stables are not permitted in business districts, which he said could affect property resale value.

After the public hearing was adjourned, board members discussed removing from the proposed district parcels owned by the concerned residents.

Travis O’Donnell, recently a planning board member, said from the gallery that the zoning ordinance allows residents to protest a proposed amendment. Landowners in or neighboring at least 20 percent of the affected area may sign a petition in protest, and so the amendment then must be passed by at least four of the five town board members.

“You’ve got 22 percent of the landowners … ,” he said, referring to the acreage owned by those speaking that night.

Other comments

Earnest Cupernall, who was appointed to the Conservation Advisory Council after the hearing, asked during the hearing how many viable properties there are for businesses in the Knox hamlet district. Lefkaditis said there were very few. Reminded about a trailer park being sold, Lefkaditis said it was up against a swamp.

Councilman Dennis Barber read a memorandum submitted to the town board last year by the planning board, which expressed concerns about geology, infrastructure, and lack of demand, and noted that home businesses are already permitted in the town.

Robert Price, a planning board member who had served as planning board chairman before he was replaced by Thomas Wolfe in January — Wolfe had been the only planning board member to support the proposed business district at routes 156 and 157 — read his own letter.

Price stated his concerns about the sharp turn on Route 156, where the speed limit is between 45 and 55 miles per hour. He also said that the town “buried” the notice for the meeting in the legal section of The Enterprise and had no other announcement besides notices that were sent to residents of the proposed district.

Price later said that he believed the State Environmental Quality Review Act paperwork for changing the zoning had been filled out improperly, because it stated the proposed district has a majority of property housing low-impact businesses, which he said was not true. Lefkaditis said he would review the SEQRA.

From the gallery, Gary Kleppel, a sheep farmer and biology professor at the University at Albany, said that he is not against a business district, but that he was concerned that the proposed district had been expanded in size and that the town board had ignored concerns from the planning board about the district such as traffic and the karst geology.

Councilman Earl Barcomb read a statement from Robert Gwin, a planning board member who resigned earlier this year. Gwin wrote that the only potential for growth in the town is in housing developments, which the town could encourage with the proper zoning. He added that this could increase the town population and then lead to a demand for businesses in town.

“Want a walkable community? Not going to happen with large-lot zoning,” he wrote. He added that he suspects some townspeople don’t believe Knox could do “what Berne did,” which Barcomb suggested refers to Berne’s sewer district.

Gwin also pointed to the fact that the process to introduce the law was not done properly and that the proposal doesn’t meet legal requirements.

Wolfe said that concerns about how businesses would affect the area could be alleviated because the zoning board would still have to issue a variance for businesses to be established in a business district. A resident of the proposed district later countered that the town board has recently changed the planning and zoning boards with new appointments, suggesting that this would negate the safeguards.

Town attorney Javid Afzali said that there were a “handful of problematic steps” that the town board had taken in proposing this business district for a second time. Lefkaditis described it as a “handful of legal mistakes.” To correct these mistakes, Afzali said that the board would have to pass a resolution stating that the bill is being introduced.

The board voted, 4 to 1, to introduce the bill, with Barcomb dissenting.

Attendance law

Following a public hearing on the matter, the board voted, 3 to 2, to enact a new law that authorizes the town board to dismiss planning or zoning board members who miss more than two meetings in a year. Barcomb and Barber voted against the motion; Supervisor Lefkaditis, who had introduced the bill in January, voted in favor of it along with the two councilmen who had run alongside him this past November, Karl Pritchard and Kenneth Saddlemire.

“How do we ensure that it doesn’t become a political tool?” asked Barcomb. He noted that the planning and zoning boards are meant to be independent from the town board, which is why they have longer terms.

From the gallery, Pasquini replied that it did not have to become a political tool so long as the members showed up for their meetings. Pasquini, who has been outspoken in supporting proposals by Lefkaditis like the business district, was appointed to the planning board later that night to replace Travis O’Donnell, who has been opposed to the proposed business districts in the past.

Woessner asked from the gallery how many times such absences have been a problem.

“More times than it should,” said Lefkaditis, to which Woessner replied that that wasn’t an answer. Lefkaditis clarified that he believed it has been three or four times.

Price said that the text of the bill implies that board members cannot miss any public meeting in the town. The text originally stated board members “shall be required to attend public meetings.” Afzali replied that the bill had been changed to state “of their respective boards,” to indicate that members were not required to attend other committee meetings.

From the gallery, Wendy Barcomb, the councilman’s mother, asked if extenuating circumstances would be considered for board members, which Lefkaditis said would be allowed. Afzali emphasized that the law would not cause an automatic removal of a member, but give the town board authority to do so.

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