Switzkill Farm lawsuit dropped

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider

Birdseye speedwell, a flowering plant from the veronicas family, is held up for observation by a botany group at a Bioblitz on Switzkill Farm in Berne to identify various species of plants on the town-owned land. This is one of many activities that defenders of the property argue it provides for the community.
 

BERNE — The lawsuit filed by three Berne residents against their town and the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy over the 2014 purchase of Switzkill Farm has been dropped.

The attorney representing those residents, John Sweeney, filed the stipulation discontinuing proceeding on March 25. Sweeney did not respond to Enterprise inquiries this week regarding the decision.

Sweeney told The Enterprise in March that he was ready to drop the case because he thought there was “an opportunity for a negotiated settlement,” but had been advised by “involved parties” that Berne had documents that could affect that decision.

At that time, Sweeney had requested from the town virtually all documents containing any reference to the 100-acre property, because, he said, he didn’t know the exact nature of what he was seeking.

“We’re pending potential litigation so I’m being very cautious with my words and what I say here,” Sweeney said at the time, “but we believe that within the confines of what we’ve asked for that there are materials that exist that are cogent that we had no prior knowledge of. As soon as we get it, we certainly would share that with you and the public.”  

Berne Supervisor Sean Lyons — a Republican who replaced the Democratic supervisor who oversaw the purchase, Kevin Crosier — did not respond earlier to questions about what the document might be, nor did the town’s attorney, Javid Afzali.

Lyons did not immediately respond this week to an Enterprise request for comment on the suit being dropped.

The lawsuit’s main thrust was that the all-Democratic town board of 2014, after voting unanimously to approve the purchase, did not notify residents of their supposed right to a permissive referendum. Crosier, who was not involved in the suit, and the attorney representing Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Jon Crain, argued that, because the purchase was made with cash-on-hand rather than a loan, no referendum was required.

The suit was brought by Berne residents with GOP connections: Spargo, a former State Supreme Court justice and convicted felon; Philip Stevens; and Ian Connors Although Spargo and Stevens are both currently enrolled as Conservatives, Stevens was formerly the Berne GOP Party chairman and Spargo was the GOP-backed Berne Town Board’s controversial choice last year to chair the town’s planning board.

Their lawyer, Sweeney, is a former Republican congressman.

This lawsuit was the most formal attack against the controversial purchase to date. Residents have long complained about the hastiness of the board’s vote to buy the property, which Crosier said was a result of funding opportunities that would vanish if there was any delay.

The property was purchased from the Tenzin Gyatso Institute, a not-for-profit Buddhist organization, for $475,000, the bulk of which was covered by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy and the Open Space Institute — two not-for-profits.

Berne’s own contribution for the acquisition, after fees, was $142,700.  

While initial criticism of the purchase was bipartisan — even then-councilmen Wayne Emory and Joe Golden voiced their reservations regarding the swiftness of the purchase before casting their “aye” votes — the matter has since turned political, with Republicans bemoaning the tax dollars reportedly spent on maintaining the property while Democrats defend it for its utility and potential for generating revenue.

Last year, Councilman Dennis Palow, a Republican, stated that, in addition to the purchase price and a $150,000 reserve fund that was set up for the property, the town had spent $116,500 on maintenance. This, he said, was in contrast with the $28,609 it generated.

Before the pandemic, the venue hosted weddings and other town events, all of which were overseen by a seven-member board, which was disbanded when Republican-backed members formed the town board majority. The GOP-backed town board then formed a more general Recreation and Parks Advisory Board, which oversees all the town’s recreational properties, including a town park and pocket park, in addition to Switzkill Farm. 

The Enterprise submitted a Freedom of Information Law request for the property’s finances but received only a summary spreadsheet that could not be independently verified.

Richard Ronconi, who had been on the now-dissolved Switzkill Farm board for four years, told The Enterprise last year that Palow’s numbers didn’t sound accurate.

“They’re trying to do anything they can to get rid of the farm,” Ronconi said at the time, “so I’d take those figures with a grain of salt.”

Ronconi said he felt the farm generated more than the sum provided by Palow, but explained that, either way, the property should be viewed as an investment.

“All those four years we were bringing in money,” Ronconi said, “but when the new board came in they didn’t want us to spend money. But the whole idea was we need to invest some money in it so we can get more people up there and make more money.”

More Hilltowns News

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  • Knox Planning Board Member Debra Nelson suddenly left a March meeting that she was attending remotely before she could cast her vote on whether to override the county planning board’s recommendation against a proposed solar facility.

  • A county-level lawsuit alleging that the Working Families Party didn’t submit original documents when authorizing their candidates for local office names candidates from Berne, Bethlehem, Guilderland, Coeymans, Colonie, and the city of Albany.

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