New legs for falling building? Berne officials to meet with owner as DEC assesses

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Pieces of the building at 1628 Helderberg Trail are falling into the Fox Creek.

BERNE — The future of 1628 Helderberg Trail is up in the air pending further discussion between its owner, Ardi Cecunjinan, and Berne officials. 
Last month, the town board voted unanimously to demolish the building, which is falling apart into the Fox Creek that runs behind it and gives name to the business in the building Cecunjanin owns next door, Fox Pizza Market, formerly known as Fox Creek Market.

Deputy Supervisor Anita Clayton declined to comment on the matter this week, saying there was no information to give until that conversation takes place. Ardi Cecunjanin could not be reached. 

As The Enterprise reported earlier on the demolition of the Rustic Barn in Guilderland, Albany County legislators passed a law several years ago that, per Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber, “basically stopped communities from tearing down dilapidated buildings, then incurring a cost to remove them, and then sticking the county with the bill.”

Albany County spokeswoman Mary Rozak told The Enterprise this week that Berne had contacted the county about the demolition of the building at 1628 Helderberg Trail but never followed up. 

“We, in October, got a request asking what our policy was about demolition procedures and re-levying the amount of demo on tax bills,” Rozak said. “We responded to that, but we were never made aware if something was in fact taken down or not, and what the addresses were … and then we heard nothing back after that.” 

In addition to the Helderberg Trail property, the Berne Town Board voted to demolish a decrepit property tucked away on Church Road. 

On Monday, a Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson told The Enterprise that the department “is working with the town to determine if actions are needed to address potential impacts to Fox Creek” by the falling Helderberg Trail building.  

Years ago, the DEC had required the town to construct its first sewer system because of pollution to the Fox Creek.

The spokesperson said that the property owner is responsible for the site, but that the department “has jurisdiction over potential impacts to the bed and banks of Fox Creek, which is a Class C waterbody with trout spawning standards.”

The property also contains a right-of-way into the town’s pocket park next to the Fox Creek, which was created under former Supervisor Alan Zuk. Zuk told The Enterprise this week that he believed the right-of-way was established in perpetuity, meaning that residents will continue to have access to the park regardless of who owns the property.

In 2000, The Enterprise reported that a right-of-way had been secured after the former owners of the property, Marilyn and Frank Dergosits, had blocked passage.

“We think we have a title to the property,” Zuk, said 23 years ago but added that the town didn’t want to tie the matter up in court. “We wanted to get this resolved.” Access for the public was secured on the creek side of the Dergositses’ store, now Fox Pizza Market. The town agreed that the owners of the store would be given the rights to the drive on the left hand side of the store. 

The Enterprise is awaiting a Freedom of Information Law request for the right-of-way documents to confirm this. 

Ardi Cecunjanin — under Napredak LLC — purchased the property at 1628 Helderberg Trail in 2017 from the Albany County Land Bank for $1,500. An application attached to the mortgage, which is available through the Albany County Clerk’s portal, stated that Cecunjinan intended to renovate the property and use it as a store front. 

Convenience store-style signs are still posted on the building, advertising Saratoga Chips and 2-liter soda bottles from behind yellow caution tape. 

Land bank executive director Adam Zaranko told The Enterprise that most properties the land bank sells are “fully rehabbed within 24 months of closing.”

“While the development mortgage helps ensure building owners complete their projects, we recognize that rehabbing vacant buildings is a significant undertaking, and acknowledge that buyers can encounter many obstacles along the way,” he said. “These obstacles include securing dependable contractors, obtaining required permits and approvals, life events such as loss of employment or illness, and/or impacts from and in the wake of the pandemic such as supply chain shortage often create delays in projects that are outside the buyer’s control.”

Normally, when property owners run into problems, the land bank is willing to extend the rehabilitation window, assuming the property owner appears to be working in good faith by explaining the problems they’ve encountered and staying in touch with the land bank, Zaranko said. 

“Overall, we have found this to be a  productive and efficacious way to work with buyers as they navigate the rehab process while ensuring the buildings are returned to productive [use],” he said. “This approach is preferred over the more lengthy and litigious options that we reserve in a mortgage if a buyer doesn’t ultimately perform as agreed.”

Cecunjanin, however, has not been communicative. 

“In the case of the property 1628 Helderberg, Mr. Cecunjanin had reported to our office that he was working with the Town on securing approvals for the subject property along with the adjacent property he owns and operates at 1634 Helderberg and subsequently received an extension on their redevelopment timeline,” Zaranko said, referring to the property used as the Fox Pizza Market.

“However, toward the end of the pandemic Mr. Cecunjanin ceased communicating with our office. I cannot speculate as to the circumstances that caused Mr. Cecunjanin to cease communication, but due to both the lack of progress on the project and the discontinued communication with our office, we referred this to our legal team for further review. We have not made a determination as to how we may proceed at this point.” 

As for whether or not the town demolishes the building, Zaranko said that the land bank will “always defer to the appropriate authorities at [a] municipality and support whatever measure they decide is the most suitable course of action.”

The property was the subject of a letter written to the Enterprise editor last week by resident Mona Monette, who called the signs “ugly” and said, “The building could have been an asset if someone had an eye for beauty.”

The letter reportedly upset the Cecunjanin family, according to Ardi’s brother, who goes by Rush Cecunjanin and runs the Fox Pizza Market. 

He suggested that anyone who “knew the backstory” wouldn’t criticize them. 

“We just had a meeting last week with [Berne] officials,” Cecunjinan said, “and they’re trying to give us some permits to redo it. I mean, it’s an sore-eye when you drive into town. We’ve been trying to fix that building since day one; they just won’t let us because of historic reasons.” 

The town’s zoning laws lay out specific conditions for obtaining a permit for repairs in the historic district, such as keeping the building in line with the “texture and materials” found elsewhere in the district. 

Rush Cecunjanin said that there are a “lot of problems,” but it’s a “sturdy building.” 

Neither town engineer Jason Preisner nor building inspector Jon Heigel could be reached.

Rush Cecunjanin said after this article was first published that, while his brother, Ardi, owns the building, Ardi has nothing to do with the business itself — just as Rush Cecunjanin has nothing to do with the falling building next door. 

“There’s been no problem here for the past seven years,” he said. “Now I’ve got all these people coming and asking … questions over some building that I don’t care about. I only care about running my business.”

 

More Hilltowns News

  • The town had discovered that health benefits for retirees were being paid without authorization, necessitating a resolution to that effect. In addition to formalizing an existing practice, it also adjusts the way benefits work for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2024. 

  • The dam was found to be leaking in 2018 due to a broken pipe, but there were problems finding a vendor so the issue was tabled by the Rensselaerville Town Board at the time. Now, the leak appears to be getting worse, says Ed Csukas, who chairs Rensselaerville’s water and sewer advisory committee. “It’s getting close to being urgent,” he said, “but hopefully not an emergency.”

  • The Berne Town Board voted 5-to-0 last week on a resolution that would allow it to sell Switzkill Farm to Albany County. The sale is subject to a permissive referendum.

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