County on verge of buying Switzkill Farm

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel

The 358-acre Switzkill Farm property.

BERNE — The Switzkill Farm saga may, at long last, be coming to an end. 

The slumped but highly prized property is expected to be bought from the town of Berne by Albany County for $150,000. The county legislature’s finance committee approved the purchase of the property at its Nov. 16 meeting, and Guilderland legislator Mark Grimm says that the full legislature is expected to authorize it at its next meeting on Dec. 4.

It’s a sudden turn in what had been portrayed by the town as ongoing negotiations about a partnership. As recently as September, Deputy Supervisor Anita Clayton had said the property would remain in the town’s possession and essentially be refurbished so that it could be used as more than just a natural landscape that’s open to the public. 

Neither she nor Supervisor Dennis Palow could be reached for comment. 

County Executive Daniel McCoy told The Enterprise this week that, although the county will own the property, “we still will work with the town of Berne because it is in their yard.” 

 

Point A to Point A

All the news of Switzkill Farm over the past few years has come to resemble an M.C. Escher painting, looping itself with logical inconsistency.

There had already been a number of efforts by the Republican-backed town boards to rid the town of the property, or to at least make some money from it since the GOP took control of town government in 2020. 

The 350-acre property had been purchased in 2014 by a Democratic town board led by then-Supervisor Kevin Crosier.

The property’s purchase price was $475,000, but cost the town only $142,700, including a $12,500 fee for the easement. The rest of the money was provided by Albany County and the Open Space Institute. A conservation easement overseen by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy protects the property from development.

Attempts by Republican boards to sell the land privately faltered because laws around municipal parkland would have significantly complicated the process, and a lawsuit brought by convicted former Supreme Court Justice and current Conservative Party chairman Tom Spargo (along with two other residents) was dropped

More recently, the town had proposed a logging operation there. 

Albany County originally proposed buying the property in March of 2022, but pulled back the offer late last year after the county realized how poorly the 350-acre property had been maintained since Republicans took control of the town board in 2020 and disbanded the committee that had overseen it. 

Earlier this year, the Enterprise reported that one of the several buildings on the property had collapsed. Though it had been in rough shape to begin with, and was considered by former councilwoman Karen Schimmer — who was on the board when the town purchased the property — to be “no great loss,” it was still a potent metaphor. 

Despite this, the town rebuffed the county’s follow-up offer to invest county money in maintaining the remaining properties, with the idea being that the county would eventually revisit the idea of buying it outright. 

This was a confounding revelation, not only because the Berne Town Board never mentioned to residents that the county had made this offer, but because the Republican-backed town boards and their supporters have complained that the property costs too much money to maintain. 

After the Enterprise reported this offer, the town board announced that negotiations had started up again

Along the way, the town board’s various schemes and reversals caused a great deal of pain for those who believe the property has a strong enough cultural value to be worth financial investment. Now, all that anxiety can be put to rest.

When The Enterprise told Schimmer this week about the pending county purchase, she said the news “made my day.”

“The derelict condition of the farm will be remediated, and it will become a usable resource for not only the citizens of Berne, but the entire county as well,” she said. 

“I’ve always felt the farm had enormous economic, educational, and recreational potential. It will surely take time, but it is my hope that its potential will now be realized. The Strategic Plan, put in place by the farm’s former board under  the Crosier administration, details the many possible benefits to the Town.  

“It is unfortunate that the condition of the Lodge and the other farm’s  buildings have been allowed to deteriorate over the past four years, but I’m optimistic that will now change under the County’s purview, and it will become the asset it was intended to be.”

Crosier told The Enterprise this week that a county sale was “great news.”

“They have destroyed everything they touch,” he said of the Berne Town Board. 

He was referring also to the town’s finances, which are more precarious than ever after the town spent virtually all of its unassigned fund balance and has had to raise taxes by 752 percent for 2024 to fill its revenue gap. 

With there now being a razor-thin buffer between sudden expenses and taxpayers’ wallets, offloading the Switzkill Farm property is likely as much of a relief to the town as it is to the property’s more dedicated supporters and, if the deal goes through, it will put $150,000 in town coffers.

County spokeswoman Mary Rozak told The Enterprise that the town “couldn’t afford to manage it anymore” and that the conservation easement that’s on the property severely limits development. 

County legislator Chris Smith, a Conservative representing the Hilltowns, told The Enterprise this week that he would have preferred the property be sold privately so that the town can still earn tax money off of it, but said he was glad that the expense of the property is now spread across the whole county. 

Going forward

For now, there are no solid plans for the property other than to reinforce the buildings there and get everything up to snuff. 

“We need to really get in there and start stabilizing it better to protect what’s there now,” McCoy said. 

The $150,000 sale-price is meant to pay the town back its original purchasing share, plus reimburse Berne for the work it has done so far, McCoy said. Grimm told The Enterprise that the money will come from the county’s community initiative fund. 

McCoy said he was “fine” with the price “because we have to protect it.”

“We can fight all day long over what should be done or shouldn’t be done, and I finally came to the conclusion [that] it’s good for open space, working with different organizations to protect and do what we initially wanted to do,” he said.

He said the county has more resources than the town so can “start doing some extraordinary things,” pointing to what the county has already done at places like Lawson Lake. 

McCoy said that the county will be prioritizing other projects — “Lawson Lake, finishing that off, and the rail trail” — before it really digs into Switzkill, but that the restabilization efforts will begin immediately.

“We’ve just got to stop the damage to preserve it for the future, not just for residents of the county, but hopefully for the visitors that we’ll have come here and utilize this beautiful piece of property.”

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