Berne Democrats say planning board member was ‘attacked with no basis’

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
Emily Vincent speaks at the New York State Assembly Committee on Agriculture hearing in November about the dangers invasive plants pose to her sheep farm.

BERNE — A Berne farmer who serves on the planning board, Emily Vincent, put up a temporary greenhouse this past summer that, according to the state building code, does not need a permit.

Nevertheless, at the town board’s November meeting, Republican Councilman Dennis Palow and the highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, who is also the GOP chairman, raised objections to Vincent serving on the Berne Planning Board based on her building the greenhouse without a permit and also on false allegations that she runs a bed-and-breakfast inn.

At the same meeting, Albany County Legislator Chris Smith said he had the names of three candidates that could serve on the planning board. Smith currently has a project under planning board review.

At the Dec. 12 town board meeting, town council members Dawn Jordan, Karen Schimmer, and Joel Willsey — the three Democrats on the board — called out Palow for asking for Vincent’s resignation and that of board alternate Alexis Goldsmith at the Nov. 14 town board meeting, describing it as inappropriate and saying Vincent was “attacked with no basis.”

Goldsmith lives and works on Vincent’s farm. Neither woman was at either the November or December town board meetings.

Vincent moved to Berne in 2015. She was appointed to the planning board in late 2016, she said. Planning board members are each paid $1,716 annually, according to the town’s 2018 organizational meeting minutes.

Part of Vincent’s desire to serve on the board was the 2016 elections, she said this week. “I felt like, when ordinary citizens don’t stand up, things go terribly wrong,” she said.

Vincent, a member of the Green Party, said she didn’t want to be in a political position, and feels that the planning board was a place where she could affect change in a non-political manner.

She spoke to then-supervisor Kevin Crosier — a Democrat and political rival of Bashwinger and Republican Supervisor Sean Lyons — who told her there was an opening on the planning board and that the board would benefit from her perspective as a female farmer. Vincent also works as a nurse.

Townsend and Lyons did not return calls for comment before press time.

During that time, Goldsmith and Mark Hohengasser were also appointed as planning board alternate members, who would serve on the board if a member could not vote because of a conflict of interest. Upon her appointment, said Vincent, it was determined that Goldsmith and Vincent would not have a conflict of interest.

At the December town board meeting, it was agreed that Hohengasser would take on the newly-vacant position of Switzkill Farm Board Chairman and could not also serve as a full planning board member.

Vincent told The Enterprise this week that, after getting a grant to purchase a high-tunnel greenhouse, she went to the building inspector to inquire about what building permit she might need. She said that by the time Townsend replied to her inquiry she had found, after doing some research, that a building permit was not necessary.

Vincent said that, when she told Townsend this, he told her it did not matter and she would need to pay a fee, to which Vincent replied that he could contact the state to receive a copy of the law stating she did not need a permit.

“He said, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter,’ and I said ‘Well, I’m a farmer; New York State laws are different for farmers than they are for just landowners … ,” said Vincent.

Vincent said that Townsend told her he “was the law in this town” and “what he said went.” She said she told him to contact the state and that she was withdrawing her application. After not hearing from Townsend, Vincent said, she assumed that he had looked into it and confirmed what she said.

Vincent said Townsend never contacted her, visited her property, or wrote a citation for her greenhouse. Prior to the November meeting, no other town officials contacted her about it, she said.

The temporary greenhouse — called a high tunnel — is made up of metal hoops with plastic draped over them; they last around five years, Vincent said. She received a grant to purchase her greenhouse from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Vincent said other farmers in the area also received grants to purchase these as well. Vincent said she intends to grow vegetables in her to sell. She said she received a permit from the state to level the ground to install the greenhouse.

Vincent was critical of Lyons’s direction of the town board meetings, saying she stopped attending meetings after feeling they were “mob run” and feeling unsafe there. She also said that his silence indicated to her that he was in favor of her dismissal. She also said she had not heard from Lyons, Palow or Townsend after the November meeting.

“By his lack of action he’s saying he’s with them and he’s for that,” she said, of Lyons.

 

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
Emily Vincent’s temporary greenhouse forms the backdrop as Yvonne Pulito, 2, from Knox, daughter of Glenn and Mary, watches a chicken peck the ground at Two Rock Ranch, during the Discover the Hilltowns tour in September.

 

December meeting

At the December meeting, Jordan — who serves as the town board’s liaison to the planning and zoning boards — said that Townsend had approached Vincent in May about a permit for a temporary greenhouse on her sheep farm, Two Rock Ranch, and had “let it sit” until November.

Jordan also said that she had found information from the Department of Agriculture and Markets verifying Vincent did not need a permit, and added that Townsend could have found this on his own. The board approved appointing Goldsmith to the planning board, 3 to 2, with the board’s two Republicans, Palow and Supervisor Sean Lyons, voting against the appointment.

Jordan told The Enterprise on Friday that she wanted to bring up what occurred at the December meeting to publicly vindicate Vincent after she was publicly accused in November. Jordan does not know why the temporary greenhouse was brought up then.

“There’s no logical explanation for it,” said Jordan.

The New York State Uniform Fire Prevention And Building Code Act defines a temporary greenhouse as “specialized agricultural equipment.” A 2017 bulletin from the Department of State Division of Building Standards and Codes states that since this does not define a temporary greenhouse as a building, it is not regulated under the state building code.

Temporary greenhouses are also exempt from property taxes but must abide by local zoning laws. Vincent’s farm is located in the residential/agricultural/forestry — or RAF — district. It is also located in a county agricultural district.

November meeting

The incident in November occurred when the board began to discuss appointing Goldsmith as a full planning board member. The Enterprise did not attend the November meeting, but was provided a recording of 17 minutes of the meeting by Jordan. Goldsmith works and lives on Vincent’s farm.

At the November meeting, Palow said Vincent had refused to pay a fee to the town to install a greenhouse on her farm.

“They both should be removed from the planning board,” he said, of Goldsmith and Vincent.

Jordan responded that the structure Vincent installed — a “high tunnel” made up of plastic draped over metal hoops — is not considered a building but rather equipment and does not require a building permit according to state law. Townsend said he had a fee schedule indicating what Vincent should have paid.

Bashwinger added that Vincent was operating a bed-and-breakfast from her farm, which is illegal according to the town’s zoning.

Jordan responded that this was a mistake; the designation was generated by Google Maps and it was being fixed, she said. Bashwinger told The Enterprise this week he had seen the listing of Vincent’s farm as a bed-and-breakfast inn around three months ago and had not been aware that a permit for her greenhouse was up for discussion at the meeting.

Vincent gave The Enterprise a copy of a Nov. 8 email that was actually from Palow but was written under a pseudonym, “Michael,” inquiring if she had an opening for a visitor to her bed-and-breakfast inn.

Vincent said her farm was mislabeled as a bed and breakfast on Google Maps based on reviews and labels from others. She said she spoke to board members like Jordan about it.

“Obviously it was a staged attack,” Vincent said.

Albany County Legislator Chris Smith, a Democrat, asked at the November meeting how long the position on the planning board had been advertised, saying he knew three different people who would be interested in the post, and asked the board to advertise the post for two more weeks on the website. The clerk responded that the advertising was constant.

Lyons made a motion to continue to advertise the position, which was approved unanimously.

Smith said at the November meeting, “I personally asked three people about it and told them and they said they would entertain the idea.”

He never named the three has said were interested.

Smith said this week that he had been clarifying that Goldsmith and Vincent live together but he said that he understood this had been resolved.

“I’m fine with the appointment,” he said this week. “I just wanted to make sure it was legal … It’s legal, so it’s legit.”

Robert Batson, of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, said there are no laws against two people who live together serving on the same municipal planning board, although a town’s code of ethics could bar this, but it would be specific to the town.

Palow told The Enterprise on Friday that he had brought up a greenhouse in regard to Vincent’s position at the November town board meeting.

“We’re still waiting on all the facts from Agriculture,” he said, referring to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.

He declined to answer further Enterprise questions about the meeting and Goldsmith’s appointment and instead asked that the questions be emailed so he could answer when he could “get all the facts.” He has not replied to an email sent Friday evening.

At the November meeting, Palow also presented documents to be entered into the record, including Vincent’s permit application dated May 3, a ticket for levelling the ground for the greenhouse, and a statement from Townsend.

In that statement, Townsend said Vincent dropped off her applications and said “she was exempt because she is a farm.” He said that they then had a “classic game of phone tag” in trying to reach her and eventually told her she had to pay a fee and have him inspect the greenhouse according to town law and the international building code, despite Vincent’s objections and asking him if others with greenhouses had to pay a fee. He said sometime later Vincent built the greenhouse, which he said violated town code 87-4.

The town law in question states that building permits are required for any work on any structure with some exceptions like sheds and pools or interior decorating like wallpapering inside a home — but no mention of greenhouses. Building permit fees would be paid upon submitting an application; a fee schedule that was also submitted by Palow states that agricultural buildings would be charged $8 for every 100 square feet or $100 for an agriculturally exempt building. The fees would double if a building does not have a permit.

Another document submitted by Palow states that greenhouses fall under the definition of an agricultural building. The code also states that an exemption from a building permit does not mean work is exempt from the state building code.

Goldsmith

Goldsmith first came to work on Vincent’s farm as part of a program when she was 19 or 20 years old and returned to the farm throughout her time in college, said Vincent. After graduating last summer, the two agreed Goldsmith could live on the farm in exchange for working there. Goldsmith also works two part-time jobs and aspires to work in agricultural journalism, said Vincent.

Goldsmith was at her family’s home in Indiana for the holidays and could not be reached for comment.

Vincent said that Goldsmith became interested in the planning board’s work on the town’s solar laws and wanted to help the town in some way herself, and so also applied for the position on the planning board.

“They really want younger blood on the board,” said Vincent, saying that they wanted a young person’s perspective.

Jordan told The Enterprise that the town board asked the town attorney about Goldsmith upon her initial application before she was appointed as an alternate. She said the attorney said it would not be a conflict for her to serve.

Jordan also said that Goldsmith was selected because she attended most of the planning board meetings as an alternate and asked intelligent questions and brought up good points. She said she has also completed most of her training to be a planning board member.

Smith also spoke out against Goldsmith’s appointment at the December planning board meeting prior to the town board meeting that month, said Vincent.

“He was visibly angry about that,” Vincent said. “And it made me very uncomfortable.”

Smith is in the process of applying for a historic review of a house he is restoring across from town hall on Helderberg Trail. Vincent said he appeared upset over some of the requirements made by the planning board, such as redoing windows he had already replaced in the building.

“I just felt like it was a staged attack, partially from Chris because he didn’t like what we were saying about his historic review and the things we were saying we wanted him to do, and partially from Chance, because — I’m not sure why,” she said, of the November town board meeting.

Last June, Smith voted against a county bill that would prohibit the hiring of former elected officials or their family members to positions in county government.

Smith said he had not brought up Goldsmith at the planning board meeting, but had started to speak about the importance of having people volunteer for the town before he was cut off. He said that he had no motivation from the planning board’s requirements for his historic review.

“It’s all separate, I have no resentment or anything,” he said. “They’re just doing their jobs.”

Jordan said that Smith had brought in an applicant’s résumé to the December planning board meeting for the empty seat. Three people in total applied for the position, she said. Smith said that one of the people he had spoken to had missed the deadline for submitting his or her application and Smith volunteered to bring it with him as he was already attending the planning board meeting.

Michael Rest, the chairman of the Albany County Ethics Commission, said that a county legislator bringing forth candidates for a town planning board when he had a project before the planning board would be a conflict if the legislator were trying to sway the choice for his own gain. But Rest said that, since the board had gone with its original choice, the point was moot.

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