Rensselaerville approves controversial auto dealer permit

— from Google
A bird's-eye-view of Christopher Gerken's property on Route 351 in Rensselaerville. 

RENSSELAERVILLE — Christopher Gerken will be allowed to run his in-name-only auto dealership in Rensselaerville following a unanimous planning board vote on Nov. 2 in favor of the controversial special-use permit.

The vote followed a strong public showing in opposition to the permit in September, and the county planning board’s own disapproval of the project; though the Rensselaerville Planning Board appears to have met the county’s suggestion for approval by placing conditions on the permit that effectively prohibit Gerken from walking back his claim that he won’t actually operate a dealership on the property. 

Gerken had explained to the board and a packed town hall during the September public hearing that the purpose of his application was to keep his dealer license with the Department of Motor Vehicles from expiring while he’s between commercial properties. He previously owned Matt’s Cycle Center in Coxsackie. 

In its review of the permit, the Albany County Planning Board gave five comments on its recommendation to disapprove the permit:

— The proposed location is zoned Agricultural/ Rural Residential while the proposed use of car dealership is not compatible with adjacent residential land use;

— The proposed project “impacts the community character significantly” since this is a non-residential use proposed in the rural residential zoning district;

— The application should be reviewed for a use variance since the applicant proposes a commercial use in a residential zoning district, which is a potential change of use. Before the town zoning board can grant a use variance, the applicant must demonstrate “unnecessary hardship”;

— The zoning board should consider the precedent-setting nature of allowing significant use variances, or a special-use permit in this case, to the town code in the Agricultural/Rural Residential zoning district;” and

— If the town allows the major home occupation with a special-use permit for the mere purpose of maintaining a license, “it should be done so with strict conditions that prohibit any kind of business operations on-site, employees, dealership advertisements and test drives.”

The planning board had already indicated at the public hearing that it would restrict the use of the property if the permit were granted. 

“This will not be a business that has hours of operation,” Gerken had told the crown in September. “This will not be a business that has employees. This will not be a business that’s open to the public. This will not be a business, period … Basically, I have to take two signs and put them on the front of my building in order to keep a dealer’s license to sell automobiles in the future.”

He said that this was done on the advice of a DMV representative. 

New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 415 states that, in addition to meeting surety bond and record-keeping requirements, a dealer needs to provide a place of business, though no requirements appear to be specified. 

The DMV did not respond to Enterprise questions about the permit and Gerken’s license in time for publication. 

At the public hearing, many residents opposed the project for similar reasons as the county’s planning board, including that a dealership would alter the nature of the community, despite town attorney Andrew Clark’s assurances that conditions could be applied to the permit that would prevent this. 

Others questioned why the town was willing to help Gerken with a loophole, or whether it was willing to enforce its own conditions. 

Gerken and his wife, Jennifer, had been notably upset by the feedback session in September, accusing residents of attacking their characters and values. 

“We’re supposed to be this small-knit family here … You’re being very hypocritical,” Jennifer Gerken had said. 

More Hilltowns News

  • The results still need to be certified by the New York State Board of Elections later this month, but official county-level results show that Janet Tweed, a member of the Delhi Village Board, has eked out a roughly 80-vote win over retired teacher and activist Mary Finneran.

  • In a 3-to-2 vote, the Westerlo Town Board got rid of the town’s planning board — which Supervisor Matt Kryzak has described as “rogue” — despite opposition from residents and the Albany County Planning Board.

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Bonnie Kane is in her first month in that role, having previously served as the district’s high school principal for two years and as an English teacher before that. 

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