Is Switzkill Farm a white elephant or an untapped resource?

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

A flock of Canada geese take off from a pond on Switzkill Farm, in Berne, after being startled by a passerby. The town property, which local Democrats say is being neglected by the Republican-backed town council, is also home to deer, beavers, woodpeckers, and many other wild creatures.

BERNE — Supporters of the Switzkill Farm feel that the current GOP-backed town board is letting the expansive town-owned property languish and that projects beneficial to the community — from the instruction of school kids to attracting astronomers — have fallen by the wayside.

Karen Schimmer, a former Democratic board member who voted with the rest of the board in 2014 to authorize the purchase of the property and served as a liaison between the town board and Switzkill Farm Board while she was in office, told The Enterprise that the property was understood to be a fixer-upper when it was purchased, and that activation of the property’s potential requires investment of both time and money. 

Schimmer left office at the end of her term in 2019, having not sought re-election.

Schimmer said that, by dissolving the Switzkill Farm Board and entertaining the notion of a single committee that would oversee two parks in addition to Switzkill Farm, the town board would effectively squash any of the development goals held by the original Switzkill Farm Board, which had come up with two strategic plans for the farm.

With the recent revelation that Berne’s code-enforcement officer, Chance Townsend, does not meet the state’s legal qualifications to occupy that post, town residents have all the more reason to be suspicious of various issues he’s raised about the controversial property, which portray the scenic land as a burden on the town’s taxpayers. 

Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat, told The Enterprise that the issues brought forth over the years were “questionable at best,” suggesting that it’s all a ploy by his Republican-backed colleagues, most of whom have spoken out against the town’s ownership of the property in the past. 

The Switzkill Farm Board, which the GOP-dominated town board failed to reappoint on Jan. 1, also managed events on the farm, which included the town’s annual winter festival, as well as weddings and other gatherings for which the buildings were rented out. Switzkill board member Mark Hohengasser, who works for the state as a park planner, developed trails on the property, Schimmer said.

According to the strategic plan’s executive summary, the board also developed a partnership with the Berne-Knox-Westerlo schools and made the buildings of the property accessible to people with handicaps, sometimes traveling “great distances” to secure equipment that benefitted the property.

“All their energies went into that,” Schimmer said of the various projects and responsibilities, adding that a consolidated board would “dilute the efforts so tremendously that it would become effectively non-effective … All of that [development] has come to a screeching halt.”

The Switzkill Farm Board’s latest strategic plan, completed in February 2020 after the board began updating its original document in 2019, contains an analysis of the property’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, known as a SWOT analysis. 

Among the opportunities the board hoped to pursue were International Dark Sky Certification, which the plan suggests would draw astronomers from far outside of town; leasing of fields for agricultural use; and an incorporation into the Long Path, a 358-mile trail that runs from New York City to John Boyd Thacher State Park in New Scotland — with a goal of one day reaching the Adirondacks. 

On a tour of the property led by Schimmer, she told The Enterprise that she had instructions for building a Native American longhouse, which could be constructed in one of the property’s open fields as a live exhibit for students. 

And standing before a small pond on the property, Schimmer mused, “Can you imagine Shakespeare in the Park up here?”

Schimmer posited that a strong enough cultural attraction in the town would draw visitors from far enough away that they’d need lodging and food, allowing for the development of local bed-and-breakfast venues, and boosting revenues for restaurants like Maple on the Lake.

Threats to the farm, though, as indicated by the SWOT analysis, include: failure to recognize the property’s potential as a resource for the town, failure to recognize the importance of the Switzkill Farm Board, lack of communication between the town and Switzkill Farm boards, and degradation of the property “consequent to the failure to undertake improvements in a timely fashion.” 

Schimmer said she’s spoken with Supervisor Sean Lyons about the potential of the park, and that he agreed with her that the park has “a lot of potential.”

“Then he does something like this,” Schimmer said of the board’s dissolution, along with budget cuts, “that shows there’s no interest in promoting or encouraging the place.”

Politically motivated?

Since the town purchased the property in 2014 under the leadership of Democrat Kevin Crosier, Republican-backed candidates in Berne have campaigned on their disapproval of the purchase, arguing that more input should have been sought from residents before the board, made up entirely of Democrats at the time, voted to approve the sale.

At the town board’s Oct. 14 meeting, Townsend and the Republican-backed board discussed a propane tank leak for which the town was erroneously billed, along with issues related to the roofing of one of the property’s several buildings, which is experiencing a leak, raising questions about mold. 

The 350-acre property, formerly a Buddhist center, includes a lodge, a retreat house, and five other unoccupied buildings. 

“They are trying to say that, if the rafters are stained they have a load-bearing capacity that is significantly reduced ...,” Willsey told The Enterprise. “They said they were missing truss roof components when it is not a truss roof.” 

Schimmer told The Enterprise last month that the town knew that the propane tanks that leaked were outdated, but that appropriate action was never taken. The strategic plan indicates that the town board was responsible for expenditures related to “large items, structural improvements, and infrastructure.” 

“They want emergencies and crises at the farm for political reasons, in my opinion,” Willsey said. 

Nelson Kent, who lives on the property as a caretaker, declined to comment on the matter.

Lyons told The Enterprise on Nov. 9 that he was “researching” his response to Enterprise questions about the property, as well as Townsend’s certification, but did not answer these questions before press time.

The Enterprise learned from the New York State Department of State the following day that Townsend, whose latest tenure spans Jan 1. through the present, is not certified for the position because he failed to complete required in-service training, adding that he has not made any progress on the training that would certify him for next year.

“I am personally convinced that the [code-enforcement officer] was secretly hired because he is very politically motivated,” Willsey told The Enterprise when he was informed that Townsend is uncertified, “and is willing to let his enforcement be influenced by GOP political goals.”

Townsend was first hired by the town in 2018, when Democrats were in control of the board, but raised ire just three months into his term when he expelled Switzkill Farm’s two Buddhist tenants at the time — Kent and Diane Poole — from the property indefinitely, with only a few hours of notice, citing a faulty sprinkler and smoke alarm system. 

Lyons blamed the expulsion on the Switzkill Farm Board, alleging that it allowed the tenants to live there under unsafe conditions.

Poole, who lived on the property for several years, moved out of town after the incident, and Kent would not return as a tenant until that July, after the town board voted to allow him to live there rent-free in exchange for management of the facilities. 

Townsend resigned as code-enforcement officer in 2019, citing frustrations with the Democrat majority at the time, but was reappointed this year after Republican-backed candidates took control of the board. 

Earlier this year, Townsend suggested that the Switzkill Farm lodge, which has been rented out for weddings and other events, is not properly zoned for such uses, but Willsey, along with the town’s attorney, Javid Afzali, noted that town buildings are not subject to use schedules.

Willsey told The Enterprise that this same issue was discussed amid the controversy over the expulsion of Kent and Poole, “so the fact that municipal properties need not comply with local zoning was not a new discovery.” 

No major complaints about the property in general were lodged by any town official at the Oct. 14 meeting, but the discussion reinforced a belief that the property is a money pit, stated more explicitly by Republican board members in the past.

Earlier this year, Republican Councilman Dennis Palow, who is also the deputy supervisor, told residents that the property has cost the town $408,934.39 since its purchase in 2014, while generating only $28,609 in income. 

The Enterprise requested financial documents related to Switzkill Farm’s operation from Town Clerk Anita Clayton, the town’s Freedom of Information Law officer, but received only a summary sheet that listed the same numbers Palow had announced.

Of Palow’s financial information, former Switzkill Farm Board member Richard Ronconi told The Enterprise earlier that it “didn’t sound accurate.”

Lyons said at the start of the year that the town would audit the Switzkill Farm Board, along with the town’s conservation board and youth council, and would consider merging the three entities. 

Significant public outcry over the Switzkill Farm Board not being reappointed on Jan. 1 resulted in Lyons allowing the Switzkill board to resume meetings and continue planning events, like Winterfest, and no clear information about the audit has been publicized since.

Lyons’s preliminary 2021 budget removes the salary of the Switzkill Farm Board chairperson and reduces funding for the property by approximately $5,000, leaving a total balance of $10,300.

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