Lefkaditis’s rankling MRD proposal denied amid ‘hypocrisy, lies, and fear-mongering’

— Enterprise file photo
A map of where a proposed multi-use recreational district was proposed in Knox shows that a number of properties were removed from the proposed district upon owners’ requests.

KNOX — After more than three years of debate, a decision has been reached: Knox will not yet accept a Multi-use Recreational District at the junction of routes 156 and 157, which currently stands as a primarily residential district.

Dennis Barber and Earl Barcomb, Democrats, voted against the plan. The three GOP-backed candidates voted in favor. Because the proposal failed to obtain approval of the Albany County Planning Board, a supermajority — 4 out of 5 votes — were needed to put the plan into effect.

The plan would have converted 11 parcels of land — nine residential and two agricultural — at a total of 80.2 acres, into a zone that would be more flexible for business development. Unlike a residential area, an MRD allows for uses such as general retail stores, studios, and restaurants. But, unlike a business district, it would not allow for funeral homes, laundromats, or designed shopping centers. 

“The vote was a disappointment,” Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis told The Enterprise in an email this week. “The failed vote all but assures that the Highlands restaurant will remain closed the local businesses who have indicated their desire to grow and offer more jobs and conveniences to the community lose their ability to do so, which is something the community has called for and is needed in the remote Hilltowns.” 

Before the vote, Lefkaditis, who had come up with the plan, claimed that the discussion surrounding his proposal had been marred by “hypocrisy, lies, and fear-mongering.”  

The rezoning was proposed by Lefkaditis in June 2018. Lefkaditis originally pushed for that area to be rezoned as a business district, submitting that proposal in 2015, but it was rejected twice by the town’s planning board, concerned about pollution and traffic safety issues. And it was met with further resistance from residents, including a number who had lived in the proposed district and asked to be removed from it.

Lefkaditis intended the MRD to be a compromise between promoting business growth in Knox, and maintaining the rural nature of the area that residents had grown accustomed to. 

“[As a residential district], there are significantly more aggressive options permitted right now. Those are gone with the MRD,” Lefkaditis said at the meeting.

Eyebrows remained cocked, however, with residents concerned about environmental impacts, living conditions, and the potential for ulterior motivation by Lefkaditis, who also deals in real estate.

Lefkaditis asserted that neither he, nor any board members, had contemporary plans to invest in that area in the event of rezoning. A roll call plea ensued, with each board member declining an interest in benefiting financially from the rezoning.

“At least, not at this moment,” said a cheeky Earl Barcomb, who has opposed both the business district proposal and the MRD proposal since inception.

“Keeping your foot in the door, huh?” Lefkaditis replied with a laugh. “I like that.” 

“It hasn’t all been fact-based”

Throughout the meeting, references to Knox’s comprehensive plan flew back and forth between the opposing factions. Lefkaditis claimed the comprehensive plan included surveys taken in 1995 and 2016 that verified “the people want this.” 

“These facts are undisputed,” Lefkaditis said.

But opponents detracted the surveys, which Lefkaditis projected on the wall, saying they were too old and didn’t reflect the whole of the community. 

“Do we even know if these people live in [the affected area]?” asked one attendee.

“No,” said Lefkaditis, who asserted that 60 percent of respondents were nonetheless in favor of a regearing toward business.

 “Wait, how many people actually responded to this thing?” asked another resident from the gallery.

About 16 percent, it turned out, based on a hazy estimate Lefkaditis supplied on the number of surveys sent out. 

“So 60 percent of 16 percent of residents want this. Not the majority,” came a response from the gallery.

Additionally, opponents leveraged the Albany County Planning Board’s disapproval of the MRD. On Feb. 25, 2019, the county board cited as reasons against the district:

— Incompatibility with surrounding land uses and community character;

— Potential impacts to traffic and county and state roads;

— Inadequate infrastructure, and lack of plans for the provision of infrastructure;

— Potential environmental impacts and water-quality concerns; and

— Inconsistency with the town’s comprehensive plan

“Lies,” said Lefkaditis about the county planning board’s claim that the proposal is inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.

The decades-old comprehensive plan lists as its general goals: the preservation of natural resources, and both the rural and historical character of the town; the encouragement of both agriculture and economic development; and the maintenance of a “continuing planning process to ensure that the goals herein are implemented through appropriate revisions to the zoning ordinance, the subdivision regulations and other appropriate Town action”

In December 2018, Insite Northeast, a private civil engineering design firm contracted by the town to perform an environmental assessment, found that “the proposed action’s land use may be different from, or in sharp contrast to, current surrounding land use patterns.” It also cited water quality and odors as potential areas of concern. Despite this, the firm ultimately concluded there would be a negligible impact on the environment. It also considered the project to be “consistent with the existing community character.” 

“I take the [Albany County Planning] Board’s recommendation with a grain of salt,” Lefkaditis said, declaring at one point that it was “under influence from a small group of individuals” who oppose the rezoning. 

To prove his point, Lefkaditis pulled up minutes from an Albany County Planning Board meeting in April, wherein Knox resident Amy Pokorny was in attendance and told the board her concern that Lefkaditis “may have personal interest there.” 

Amy Pokorny, a Democrat, had served on the town board and then ran unsuccessfully against Lefkaditis for supervisor in 2015. Her husband, Russell Pokorny, also a Democrat, is challenging Lefkaditis in November. 

Discussion abounded on whether Amy Pokorny stated on basis of fact that Lefkaditis’s personal interest was conflicting with his public service, or simply conjecture.  

Pokorny assured the audience that her statement was “just speculation.”

“We need to get away from emotions and approach this with the facts,” Lefkaditis had said earlier in the meeting. 

“Well, hang on,” countered Barcomb. “It hasn’t all been fact-based.” 

On Barcomb’s insistence that the town move forward on the values of the comprehensive plan, Lefkaditis derided it as a “convenient excuse for a political campaign,” referencing Barcomb’s re-election hopes for 2020. 

“I’m just confused, I guess,” Barcomb told The Enterprise, regarding the barb. Declaring himself as someone there to serve the people, he said, “I have no aspirations to further my political career.”

Barcomb had cast the sole vote against moving forward with the MRD in August 2018, and has opposed both the MRD and business district since his inauguration.

“Unfortunately, I have heard from countless residents the view that [Barcomb’s] excuse is a bit hypocritical,” Lefkaditis told The Enterprise in an email. “Meaningful laws and pending changes to the town’s Zoning Ordinance were supported such as a blight law, home occupation, and hog farming and waiting to update the comprehensive plan was never a concern, but it becomes a concern when we discuss small local businesses, jobs, and conveniences. It makes no sense.”

“The people that lived around there were pretty vocal about not having their area changed,” Barcomb told The Enterprise, adding that no one from the area approached him in support of the rezoning.

“I’m not looking for a response”

Crucial to the debate, for some, was the way in which Lefkaditis purportedly dodged residents’ concerns about the Multi-use Recreational District. At the beginning of the public hearing, Councilman Ken Saddlemire listed the businesses that currently exist in Knox, as well as a sampling of the goods and services they offer, before going on to lament that, early on in the process, “alliances had been made, lines had been drawn, and the chance to negotiate and try and find a solution … had vanished.”

He argued that the town “extended an olive branch” by rescinding the original business district proposal and putting forth the MRD proposal instead. 

“I appreciate everything you just said,” replied Brigitte McAuliffe, who lives in the area proposed for the MRD and had filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office about the town not following proper procedure. “Except there was no olive branch extended. The olive branch would have been an explanation, and I was told repeatedly that you guys didn’t owe me an explanation.”

Lefkaditis countered that he promised to address the “why” on the night of the vote, and that he’d address it later in the night. When McAuliffe attempted to argue, Saddlemire jumped in: “I’m not looking for a response.”

The squeaky wheel

McAuliffe has been a persistent critic of the MRD and also of Lefkaditis; she inquired at the state comptroller’s office about Lefkaditis’s tardiness in submitting required annual financial reports. The town is now being audited. When the board voted, 4 to 1, to move forward with the MRD proposal last August without providing the public a map of the affected area, McAuliffe filed a public integrity complaint with the New York State Attorney General, who has not yet responded.

“[Citizens] have every right to voice their disapproval and should absolutely do so when they feel the need to,” Lefkaditis told The Enterprise in an email. “And there’s always an opposition to progress. Even when the town considered a cell tower on Street Road a decade ago, the then-planning board and several residents opposed it. But despite the opposition, the cell tower was built and has been a significant benefit and service to the community.”

The Knox Town Board voted unanimously in 2008 for the Street Road cell tower after removing a piece of the town’s property from a land conservation district.

For some, like the woman who stood up at the end of the Oct. 8 meeting to voice her support for those who speak to authority and exercise what she described as democratic values, McAuliffe is a force to be admired. Others, typically those on the opposing end of her beliefs, express a clear frustration.

“I have a very few people who give me the [middle] finger,” McAuliffe told The Enterprise.

McAuliffe first started attending town board meetings to voice her concerns over the rezoning, which would have affected her property. The issue is important to her because of prior experience living in a zone that allowed for commercial development. 

She was living in her first home in North Carolina when, McAuliffe told The Enterprise, she was notified by mail that her well water was contaminated by a business uphill. She couldn’t cook with the water, shower, or drink the water, she said. The government listed it as a superfund site, meaning an area of top priority for cleanup because of toxic waste and the risk it poses for human health. 

“They didn’t tell us when they were testing,” she said. “We have no idea how long we were contaminated for.”

The government drilled a new well for McAuliffe, 800 feet deep, to get below the contaminated water, but couldn’t guarantee its sanitation without continual testing, she said. Eventually, she brought the issue to court, where she received a settlement and left the area.

McAuliffe bought her Knox land in 1999, broke ground soon after, and moved into her home in 2001. “When we bought our property here, we had everything tested,” she said. 

At one point in the Oct. 8 meeting, proponents of the MRD said that planning board oversight would prevent serious impact to the environment.

“I have witnessed multiple times where shortcuts were taken when they shouldn’t have been,” McAuliffe responded at the meeting. 

“Nothing like insulting volunteers,” said Lefkaditis, before moving on. 

When asked about her role in the years-long process, McAuliffe told The Enterprise she felt “overwhelmingly supported.”

“I’ve met a lot of really terrific people,” she said, admitting that she and her husband, Sean, tend to be homebodies. 

McAuliffe is glad it’s over for now, but expects the issue to come back if Lefkaditis stays in office. “Our focus is on the election and getting people back in office who listen to the people,” she said.

Barcomb told The Enterprise that he is fairly certain the MRD would need to start the legal process from the beginning before another vote could be taken, but advised it was something the town’s attorney, Javid Afzali, would know more about.

Lefkaditis did not respond to an Enterprise question about the matter in his email. When The Enterprise called Afzali for comment, he hung up and did not respond to email.

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