Knox vote on biz district ends in tie

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Split board: Danielle Rolfe, center, who lives in the proposed business district at the intersection of routes 156 and 157 — and almost directly across from the former Highlands tavern — asks board members for help determining allowed uses of a business district, which were sent to her in a public notice.

KNOX — A public hearing at the Knox Town Hall for the first of three proposed business districts was followed by a tied vote that will stall the decision until next month.

The public hearing, held on Tuesday night, was to discuss a business district proposed at the intersection of routes 156 and 157. The room was packed with 40 to 50 people, many in favor of businesses coming into the town, with a few concerned about whether a district was necessary. Knox has a population of 2,642, according to the last federal census.

Knox currently has one business district in its hamlet with no businesses in it. The district proposed for routes 156 and 157 had been repeatedly rejected by the planning board, so the town board decided to proceed with a hearing on its own.

The planning board had cited “safety, infrastructure, geology and lack of demand” for recommending against creating the district, urging instead to “focus our efforts and continue to work with the town and comprehensive planning process to explore potential business districts in town.”

The town board is also looking to review two other proposed business districts, one along Route 146 in the vicinity of Street Road and Middle Road, and one along Route 157 in the vicinity of Ketcham Road.

A split vote

Following the sometimes heated discussion, Councilman Earl Barcomb suggested the board postpone the vote until next month’s meeting, as Councilman Dan Hanley was absent from the meeting and had asked to review the audio recording of the public hearing. Audience members had been asked to state their names and whether they lived in the business district for the town clerk and for Hanley’s benefit. Hanley has not returned a call for comment from The Enterprise.

Councilwoman Amy Pokorny made a motion to put off the vote, which Barcomb seconded. Some audience members became upset, suggesting that tabling the vote was simply to prevent the business district from being established.

“Of course,” said one resident in the audience, as laughter erupted from a few others.

“What a joke!” said another.

“How can we vote without him there?” asked  Councilman Dennis Barber.

“You got four people there,” said someone in the gallery.

“We have a quorum,” agreed Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis.

The vote to postpone the decision was tied, 2 to 2, with Barber and Lefkaditis opposed to it.

“He asked for the opportunity to listen to the recording and to participate,” said Pokorny. “So that’s why I felt its important.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said resident Laura Martin, in the gallery. “You have all these people here.”

“We knew Mr. Hanley was not going to be here,” said Barcomb. “We said right from the beginning that we were going to be putting the vote off until the next meeting. This is not a surprise.”

Lefkaditis then made a motion to approve the proposed district. Barber seconded the motion. The two voted yes, and Pokorny and Barcomb voted against it.

Board members’ reasoning

Both Barcomb and Pokorny had expressed favor toward smaller businesses being established in the town during the meeting, but were hesitant to make an immediate decision.

Barcomb said he would like to see home-based businesses be given more leniency in the town’s zoning ordinance. The town’s current zoning ordinance allows businesses to be conducted in an individual’s home provided no one other than the property owners or tenants are employed; one additional person may be employed if a special-use permit is issued by the zoning board. The zoning ordinance also restricts home businesses from having external evidence of a business save for one sign.

“The opportunity for home occupation, or small, privately run mom-and-pop businesses...are really what we are looking for,” said Pokorny, of what she had determined from the audience discussion and past surveys of the town. She heads a group charged with revising the town’s outdated 1995 comprehensive land-use plan.

“No,” said Martin.

“Just the opposite,” said another audience member, who asserted that restaurants, gas stations, and convenience stores are what the town needs.

Pokorny, who has announced her candidacy for Knox supervisor, later told The Enterprise that she was not sure how she would vote on the business district at the next meeting.

Barber had said he was in favor of a new district because he wanted to see more small businesses and possibly keep younger people working in the town.

“No one’s staying here; there’s nothing to do here,” he said.

He added that there had to be a reason a larger business like Stewart’s Shops wasn’t establishing a location, and why there were already small businesses in the proposed district.

Lefkaditis, who has long pushed for establishing business districts, said that he felt a business district would “set the table” for businesses to be established.

“You have to let the the entrepreneurial spirit grow,” he said.

He listed businesses found in remote, rural areas such as the restaurant Maple on the Lake in Berne, Amy’s Place Ice Cream in Schoharie, and Hannay Reels in Westerlo.

“That particular area — the 156/157 region — it’s low-hanging fruit,” said Lefkaditis. “Because they’re [the businesses are] already there...all we’re doing is legitimizing them.”

The area now has a woodshop, a plant nursery, a closed restaurant, and a storage barn.

He added that he found the decision by the conservation advisory county and the planning board to deem the intersection dangerous was arbitrary.

“The small group of people have been hand-picked over decades, and they’ve been there for decades,” said Lefkaditis. “They’re disconnected from the community.”

Some audience members clapped.

“Why didn’t I get applause?” asked Barber. “I supported it.”

The audience clapped again.

Audience feedback

From the gallery, Knox resident Bruce Countryman said he was opposed to a new business district.

“There’s no need to push these things along,” he said. “They [the townspeople] don’t want it to become a city.”

“There’s no way this town is going to be a city,” said Denise Hoffman, another audience member. “It doesn’t have to be that extreme.”

Others noted that the area already had businesses that had been grandfathered in after the town’s zoning law was established. Todd LaGrange, whose property abuts the district, said it “has pretty much been a business district,” noting the woodshop, bar, and greenhouse that are located or have been located there.

Countryman later suggested that something like the now-closed Highlands tavern could be opened with a variance, as it had been before.

Tom Wolfe, the sole planning board member who favored the business district, went over the reasons the planning board had voted to recommend the town board not establish a new business district.

The majority of the board was concerned that the town’s karst geology — limestone eroded to produce sinkholes and caves — would not allow for businesses to set up a septic or sewage system that could support so many people.

“Karst is a serious concern, but, the way to deal with karst is through the Albany County Health Department,” said Wolfe, who asserted that this agency could determine if a business could be set up and operate its septic system safely. “These things can be managed,” he added.

Wolfe also said that the New York State Department of Transportation could be relied on to determine if curb cuts to enter businesses would be safe at the intersection. Robert Price, chairman of the planning board, said later at the meeting that the board had found the intersection unsafe due to a number of accidents recorded over the last decade.

Following the public hearing and discussion, Highway Superintendent Gary Salisbury said he had to repair the guardrail on Old Stage Road after several accidents, and he suspected that Old Stage is being used as an alternate road to Route 157, which he said was in poor condition.

Wolfe also said the planning board had been concerned about complaints from a neighbor of the now-closed Highlands restaurant, but that businesses are often permitted only if they mitigate conditions such as on noise.

“People just have to complain,” he added, saying it was the best way to notify the town.

He added that the town would likely support smaller, entrepreneurial businesses, like home occupations, and Knox would not end up more urban due to its stable, aging population.

Some in gallery were concerned about the aging population, and wondered if businesses would keep the town’s youth in Knox.

Lefkaditis also read two letters that had been submitted to the town board. One was from Arthur Brearton, who lives in the proposed business district; Brearton stated he was opposed to rezoning of their property and other property in the district.

The other letter was from planning board member Travis O’Donnell, describing how the town would first have to become more business-friendly before considering another business district.

“The ‘if you build it, they will come’ myth has been refuted once already by the business-less Knox hamlet business district,” he wrote.

O’Donnell stated that the town would need to: offer monetary incentives such as tax breaks or loans for businesses, develop its assets such as by setting up bike paths or agricultural businesses, establish infrastructure like a sewage system or high-speed internet, promote businesses on something like social media, collaborate with or establish a chamber of commerce, and conduct workshops for local businesses.

“First, let’s agree to surrender the fiction that business districts are the single prerequisite for economic development,” he concluded.

Later in the meeting, Lefkaditis, who had owned and refurbished the still empty Knox store, said he found the letter offensive, suggesting that it was disparaging of the owners of a business currently being set up in the hamlet. Other board members disagreed that that had been the intent.

Lefkaditis told The Enterprise on Wednesday that he had sold the store to the owners of the convenience store and restaurant Fox Creek Market in Berne for $180,000 about two months ago. County records show a transfer in May of that amount. He said the owners intend to open a larger convenience store in Knox by October. Mike Cecunjanin, an owner of the Berne store, declined to comment, saying it was too early to remark on the matter.

 

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