Guilderland 2005 in review

GUILDERLAND — While angry residents stormed Town Hall several times this year, a resolution was found for nearly each conflict.

Large landowners met with town officials and both compromised on a final plan for rural Guilderland. The supervisor and Guilderhaven, a local group that cares for stray animals, found a way to work together and the town’s animal shelter was renovated. And, after many contested their high assessments on Grievance Day, most accepted their new land values.

In addition to Guilderland’s completing its rural guidelines, planning was an issue in other areas as the Northeastern Industrial Park submitted a draft of its environmental impact study and the city of Watervliet announced plans to raise the reservoir. The town also implemented a new water filtration system in September; it has seen cleaner water already, officials said.

After a week-and-a-half trial in June, Erick Westervelt, a college student from Guilderland, was found guilty of second-degree murder. Although he and his family maintained his innocence, Westervelt was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

A month before, another Guilderland native, Hashim Burnell, was charged with the shooting death of Todd Pianowski, also of Guilderland. Burnell pleaded not guilty and a trial has not yet been scheduled.

At the beginning of the year, Pyramid Cos., the corporation that owns Crossgates Mall, the town’s largest taxpayer, ended its 12-year fight with the town and school district. It accepted the town’s assessment of the mall, which is over $80 million more than Pyramid had claimed it was worth.

In the summer, after arrests followed several gang-related incidents at the mall, its management enacted a curfew. Now, on Friday and Saturday nights, those under 18 need a parental escort to shop in the mall. Since the curfew, however, more people have been arrested at Crossgates.

Also this year, Guilderland Democrats again dominated November’s election, gaining all posts. And, Denise Randall made history as she was the first female to be elected judge in Guilderland.

By less than 200 votes, Randall ousted Republican Judge Steven J. Simon, who has been town justice for 25 years. This is the first time in Guilderland that both town justices will be Democrats.

This will be the third consecutive term in Guilderland’s more than 200-year history that the town board will be controlled by all Democrats with a Democratic supervisor.

But, the election was not without controversy, over debates, a candidate’s eligibility, and an incumbent’s nomination.

Rural Guilderland

In October, the town board changed the zoning in much of western Guilderland. The change was part of enacting the rural Guilderland plan — adopted in July and drafted over two years — that some residents first fought and then, with compromise, came to praise.

The new zones, called Agricultural-Rural 3 and 5, will keep the characteristics of the old Agricultural zones, but will encourage clustering and open-space preservation, said Supervisor Kenneth Runion.

The rural Guilderland plan was drafted by John Behan, of Behan Planning Associates, as part of the town’s implementing its comprehensive land-use plan.

Behan worked for over a year on town guidelines for farmland and open-space conservation. His plan consists of an open-space and farmland protection plan, rural design guidelines for the town, and a proposal for a new hamlet zoning district.

The first public hearing on the plan was packed with over 100 people and many voiced strong objections. Residents formed the group LOGIC, Landowners Offering Guilderland Intelligent Choices, which was among the protesters.

Some LOGIC members said that selling their land is how they plan to support themselves in retirement. If the town put zoning or lot-size restrictions on their properties, they said, the land will be devalued if they try to sell it.

Behan told The Enterprise in response that this wasn’t true. Smart zoning helps protect property values, he said.

The western half of town, which, except for the village of Altamont, does not have municipal water, is rural while the eastern part — with water — is largely developed.

During the earlier public meetings, some residents and LOGIC members said they wanted town water so their part of town could be developed. Others stated they were glad western Guilderland does not have municipal water, because that keeps developers away.

At the final hearing, no one spoke against the plan and LOGIC members thanked the town supervisor and board, the town planner, and Behan for working with them.

This is because the town and Behan agreed to slightly change the plan. The modifications included increasing the size of proposed country hamlet districts from 40 acres to 160 acres. The idea of clustering, to encourage open space, remains, but more businesses are allowed.

The adopted plan offers more incentives for maintaining open space in a country hamlet. Before, landowners who kept over 60 percent of their land as open space got a density bonus from the town. Now, if they maintain 75 percent or more as open, the landowner will be awarded additional bonuses.

Also, if developers agree to extend public water along corridors where water is not currently provided, they may be awarded bonuses.

Animal shelter changes

In November of 2004, Runion decided to change the policy at the town-owned animal shelter, so that dogs who are not adopted in a certain period of time would be sent to another shelter, where they could have been killed.

Guilderhaven volunteers were angry, their spokesperson, Sue Green, said in January after negotiations with the town broke down, because they spent months raising $100,000 — in cash and donated services — for renovations to the shelter on the premise that Guilderland runs a no-kill shelter.

Runion responded that the new policy would save taxpayers money and would be more fair to the abandoned animals at the shelter. Dogs would have had 90 days under Runion’s policy to be adopted before they were sent to a kill shelter. This, Runion said, was more humane then having an animal live alone in a cage for years.

A week after the Enterprise story ran, residents packed a town board meeting, speaking out against the policy. But Runion began the meeting by saying he had rescinded the kill policy. He was trying to do what was best for the town’s dogs, he said.

Under the town’s new policy, if a dog’s owner can’t be located and a rescue organization does not want the animal, the dog will be evaluated by an animal behaviorist and possibly trained.

Guilderhaven members were happy with this, but then another conflict occurred.

In July, Green claimed the town was not accepting Guilderland’s check for over $40,000 in cash donations for the shelter’s renovation.

Runion said he was willing to take the funds, but, the check came with a list of conditions, saying that the town can cash it if Guilderhaven has control over decisions for the project. Runion said the town was locked into a position where it couldn’t accept the money because of the conditions.

In September, after several rounds of negotiations, Guilderhaven agreed to give the town the funds with no strings attached. For the rest of the fall, work continued to rebuild and renovate the shelter.

Town revaluation

The town, including the village of Altamont, had its revaluation this year for the first time in six years. Many residents were upset because of the large increase in value of most Guilderland properties.

Tuesday, May 24, the state-set day for citizens to contest their assessments, known as Grievance Day, was chaotic at Guilderland Town Hall as hundreds of angry residents waited for hours to have two minutes each with the town’s board of assessment review.

From 8 a.m. until midnight on Grievance Day, 238 residents went before the Guilderland board. Another 250 people filed their grievances and did not wait to speak to the board. Only 42 had their assessments lowered.

Assessor Carol Wysomski said earlier she expected a high number of grievances. In March, her office was bombarded with calls and visits from people who were alarmed with the level of increase to their homes, since taxes are based on property values.

The Enterprise reported then on the informal hearings Wysomski had scheduled for residents. Nearly 600 people came to her office and she explained to them how she came up with their assessments, she said.

The 488 people not satisfied with this, however, chose to come to Grievance Day.

For the past five years, the average home in Guilderland has been assessed at $125,000, Wysomski said earlier. The new average is about $180,000, she said.
"The market is up because interest rates are down," Wysomski said of the reason for the large increase. "I have 1,200-square-foot ranches in Westmere that were $119,000 that are now $180,000."

A review of Guilderland’s new assessment roll by The Enterprise showed that almost all properties had increased in value; very few had decreased or remained the same. Overall, the tax base increased by about $800 million, Wysomski said earlier.

Revaluation is fair, Wysomski explained, because, without it, as newcomers move to a town, they pay taxes based on the price they paid for their property while parcels that haven’t sold recently usually remain at a lower rate, skewing the tax rolls.

As the town board drafted its budget, it decided to appoint extra members to its board of assessment review for next year. These members won’t be able to vote, but can hear cases and give their opinions to the voting members. This is to make Grievance Day run faster and more smoothly.

Industrial park plans

The privately-owned Northeastern Industrial Park — located on Route 146 in Guilderland Center — has, this summer, after years of requests by the town, submitted a draft of its environmental-impact study for the town’s master plan.

The town has been waiting since 1999 for the industrial park to submit its environmental impact study. The town and zoning board decided then that the industrial park was appearing before the zoning board too frequently for new development, Runion said.

While adding individual warehouses to the industrial park does not create a significant impact, many businesses do, he said. The town then asked the industrial park for an environmental-impact study.

Six years after the industrial park was to submit a plan, the draft of an environmental study was announced, at the July town board meeting.

The industrial park is located on 550 acres in Guilderland Center, along Route 146 and Depot Road. The industrial park has been in operation since 1969 and contains 2.9 million square feet of warehouse space.

Land use at the industrial park is primarily warehouses and offices to support the warehouses, the report says. Surrounding the industrial park are: the CSX railroad, along the eastern edge; residences and the Guilderland High School, to the north; residences, agricultural land, and forested land, to the west; and industrial, residential, agricultural, and forested land, to the south.

According to the environmental-impact statement, the industrial park’s yet-to-be-revealed master plan proposes 1.6 million square feet of new industrial use; 160,000 square feet of office use; and 190,000 square feet of research and development use. Also to be built are: a truck stop with a 16-unit motel; a convenience store; a diner; a fuel station; restrooms with showers; and 30 tractor-trailer spaces with hook-ups. These are to be used by park tenants rather than the general public.

The Northeastern Industrial Park, which is on the site of a former Army depot in Guilderland Center, wants to build in two places that the Army has classified as Areas of Concern, or sites that were determined to be a risk to human health.

This inflames local activists, who for years have been trying to warn residents about toxic waste buried at the former Army depot. The buried materials affect almost everyone in town because tributaries to the Watervliet Reservoir, Guilderland’s main source of drinking water, run through the industrial park.

The environmental-impact statement briefly outlines development to be built on Areas of Concern 1 and 7.

AOC 1, the United States Army Southern Landfill, in the southern portion of the depot next to the railroad tracks and bounded by Depot Road, has a pond on the site. It is about 1,500 feet from the main channel of the Black Creek and is classified as a Class 2 site by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, meaning it is a significant threat.

AOC 7, the Triangular Disposal Area, in the southeast end, roughly between AOC 1 and 4, has buried debris such as railroad ties and glass bottles.

The report also says that construction could impact AOC 8, the Black Creek, which flows through the property and into the Watervliet Reservoir.

David Buicko, chief operating officer of the industrial park, responded briefly to The Enterprise in September about worries about the industrial park building on the polluted areas of concern.
"Some things are common sense," he said. "If there’s an area of concern, we won’t build on it till it’s mitigated."

The town board has asked the industrial park to make revisions on the draft of its report.

Buicko also responded briefly to The Enterprise this month about a dump site on wetlands near the Black Creek in AOC 4, which the Army said occurred since the land became an industrial park. Buicko said the Galesi Group, which owns the park, is working with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to clean it up.

Toxic cleanup
In other news this year related to waste from the former Army depot, the Army Corps of Engineers in September started a massive cleanup of hazardous materials from 40 acres on Depot Road owned by Joan Burns. By the time the operation shut down for winter weather in December, 1,400 cubic yards had been removed and Burns, who had spent decades trying to get the site cleaned, said she was "very optimistic."

Gregory Goepfert, the project manager from the Army Corps, secured $650,000 for the project from the Defense Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense sites, known as FUDS, which is greatly underfunded.

Three years ago, Goepfert secured FUDS funds, originally intended to clean up a former burn pit from which a toxic plume emanated. The money was used instead to clean up a site by Guilderland High School where the district was building a new bus facility, after buried Army debris was discovered there. That cleanup cost about half-a-million dollars. Goepfert then secured another $300,000 from FUDS to clean up the burn pit.

In the process of this year’s cleanup of Burns’s land, Goepfert said other wastes were discovered; one container tested high for mercury.
Asked in December if the work on Burns’s property is staying within the $650,000 procured, Goepfert said, "I don’t know that just yet."

Raising the reservoir

In August, the town board hired the engineering firm Barton & Loguidace to review the city of Watervliet’s proposal to raise the level of the Watervliet Reservoir.

Watervliet is asking for permission to put a gate on the Normanskill dam to raise the water level a few feet.

By doing this, the amount of water in the reservoir will more than double, from 1.7 billion to 3.5 billion gallons, Jim Besha, president of Albany Engineering Corporation, told The Enterprise earlier.

After the project is complete, the city will have more water to sell to other municipalities, like Bethlehem, New Scotland, and Duanesburg, Besha said.

The Enterprise reported on the reservoir project in detail in April. Then, environmental activists Thadeus Ausfeld and Charles Rielly said that the reservoir should be dredged and cleaned up, before more water is added to the supply.

Ausfeld and Rielly co-chair the restoration advisory board, founded years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers to advise on the cleanup of the old Army depot in Guilderland Center, which had used the Black Creek to remove waste.

Ausfeld, who runs Guilderland’s water-treatment plant, also worried that raising the reservoir will add more sediment and pollutants to the water supply. He says this will cost Guilderland because it has to purify the water before it can be piped to Guilderland homes and businesses.

Besha told The Enterprise then that the reservoir is not polluted and is "one of the cleanest water bodies." Many more studies will be conducted before the project begins, he said.

New filtration system

For cleaner town water, the town began using a $1.7 million filtration system at its water-treatment plant this year.

Since Guilderland began using the system in September, it now has to use only half of the amount of chlorine it previously used to clean the water, said Ausfeld.

He and William West, the town’s superintendent of water and wastewater management, both told The Enterprise of how the new system is making Guilderland’s water safer than bottled water.
The idea for the new granular activated carbon (GAC) adsorption system was spawned almost three years ago. Then, an Enterprise article — "Hot spots: Water woes beneath the surface" — uncovered and publicized a problem.

Water in some areas of Guilderland had levels of disinfectant byproducts in the 100’s, mostly because they were at the end of unlooped water lines where chemicals became more concentrated. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contamination limit is 60 parts per billion.

The new system will help solve this problem, Ausfeld and West said. Also, this fall, the town board asked an engineering firm to create a feasibility study on looping dead-end water lines in western Guilderland.

Higher chlorine amounts are typically needed to reach the end of a distribution system; at the end of a pipeline, water and chlorine are in contact for long periods of time. Often dead-end lines produce higher readings.

Westervelt sentenced

Erick Westervelt, a Guilderland resident who last fall was studying at the University at Albany and aspiring to be a police officer, was convicted in June of second-degree murder. He was later sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

After a week-and-a-half trial and one full day of deliberation at the Albany County Courthouse, a jury handed down the guilty verdict. The 12 people were convinced that, using a hatchet, the 23-year-old Guilderland man beat Timothy Gray so severely in the head at his Bethlehem home that Gray died a few days later.

Although Westervelt left behind no DNA evidence, he did write and sign a confession. Prosecutors say he also had a motive: his ex-girlfriend had left him for Gray.

The defense tried to convince the jury that Westervelt was interrogated in such a way that he made a false confession. A psychologist testified about how, after hours of threats in an uncomfortable setting, suspects are often coerced by police into saying they did something they didn’t.
"I’m very pleased," Assistant District Attorney David Rossi, who prosecuted the case, told The Enterprise after the verdict. "I think the Bethlehem Police Department did an outstanding job."
"I respect the jury," Mark Sacco, Westervelt’s attorney, said in response. "But, my client maintains his innocence that he didn’t do it. The proof is not there; there’s no forensics or eyewitnesses. He’s got an alibi."

Westervelt is appealing and his family believes in his innocence. During the trial, both of his parents testified that he was at home with them on the night of the murder.

Burnell charged

A young Guilderland man was killed in May in his Western Avenue apartment. The man arrested for the murder maintains his innocence.

Todd Pianowski, 22, was found dead on the floor of his living room, shot in the head and upper torso with a .40 caliber handgun. Pianowski was a student at Hudson Valley Community College who loved bowling.

Hashim Burnell, 19, formerly a Guilderland resident, was charged with the murder. He pleaded not guilty in Albany County Court.

Guilderland Police Chief James Murley said that, at 2:30 p.m. on May 5, Pianowski’s girlfriend returned to the home they shared — in the 1700 Designer Apartments, at 1702 Western Ave. — and confronted the killer.
"He held a gun to her head," just before he ran out of the apartment, Murley said of Burnell.

Guilderland Police and State Troopers then launched a massive search and, after about eight hours, arrested Burnell and charged him with murder.

Burnell was an acquaintance of Pianowski, police said. Murley told The Enterprise that he believes Burnell intended to shoot Pianowski and his motive "was a drug-for-money deal."

Paul DeLorenzo, Burnell’s attorney, said that the district attorney’s office is misinterpreting witness statements. He said he has evidence to convict someone else.
"We do know who did it," DeLorenzo told The Enterprise in May. "We have some good evidence that strongly indicates it was someone else." He would not reveal who that person is.

Burnell is in jail now, awaiting trial.

Crossgates settles

Pyramid Cos., the town’s largest taxpayer, ended its 12-year fight with the town and school district in January. The corporation, which owns Crossgates Mall, will not be paid back the $24 million in taxes that it had fought to regain.

Pyramid this year accepted the town’s assessment of Crossgates Mall, which is over $80 million more than Pyramid had claimed it was worth.
"It’s very beneficial to the taxpayers," Runion said. "It puts 12 years of litigation behind us."
School Superintendent Gregory Aidala agreed. "We feel we’re at peace now that this ends 12 years of legal entanglements," he said.

The settlement removes the possibility of litigation for the next five years, Runion said. However, if Pyramid chooses to challenge its assessment in 2010, the town and school district will fight again, both Runion and Aidala said.

Pyramid Cos. contested the town-set assessment of Crossgates, contending that the mall is worth less, and therefore Pyramid should pay lower taxes. Last year, the town assessed the mall at around $198 million and Pyramid said its value was $115 million.

The town and school district joined forces to defend the town’s assessment; both were confident that Pyramid would lose if the case had gone to trial.

Represented by the Syracuse law firm Hancock and Estabrook, the town and school district have won in several rulings, but still had more to deal with, along with Pyramid’s appeals. The case never went to trial.

A spokesperson from Pyramid did not return calls for comment on the settlement.

Curfew enacted

This July, Crossgates Mall enacted an escort policy, which, according to mall management, would reduce violence and arrests. Under the policy, on Friday and Saturday nights after 4 p.m., those under 18 must be escorted by a parent or guardian who is over 21.

The idea for the policy came after two gang-related incidents occurred in March at Crossgates Mall. Then, police arrested at least eight people and, with a Taser gun, stunned two of them.

And, on May 7, a 25-year-old man was stabbed at the mall in what police said was another gang-related brawl.
These incidents, Chief Murley said then, and "increased violence on a weekly basis" at the mall, caused the escort policy.

However, after the May incident, no such arrests occurred, either before the escort policy or after.

Carousel Center in Syracuse — owned Pyramid Cos., which also owns Crossgates — enacted an escort policy in 2003, to answer complaints of disruptive teenagers roaming the mall.

Since then, Carousel has had more visitors and increased sales on the weekends, Michael Bovalino, chief executive officer of Pyramid, told The Enterprise earlier.

With the Crossgates policy, on Fridays and Saturdays after 4 p.m., shoppers under the age of 18 need a parent or guardian, who is over 21, to escort them.

At Crossgates, extra security guards check shoppers’ identification cards at the entrances to the mall, stopping anyone under age and without an escort.

The Crossgates policy does not apply to the mall’s cinema area, to teen employees of the mall, or to the mall’s anchor stores with separate entrances.

Teens under 18 can enter those stores, do their shopping, and leave. Or they can go to the theater, see a movie, and leave. What they can’t do is congregate in central areas like the food court without being escorted by their parents.

A Guilderland police lieutenant told The Enterprise in October that she thinks the policy has been effective.

Lieutenant Carol Lawlor said that the police department has heard from many people that Crossgates Mall’s atmosphere is better on Fridays and Saturdays.
"We’re very supportive of the mall’s decision," she said.

However, The Enterprise calculated the number of arrests at Crossgates Mall for 10 weeks before the policy and 10 weeks after and found that, since the police has been enacted, the number of arrests has not decreased. In fact, 87 people were arrested since the policy began, compared to 82 who were arrested in the 10 weeks before.

While the number of shoplifting arrests may be the same, because the mall’s anchor stores are still open to anyone, violence at the mall has been reduced, said Lawlor.

The mall hasn’t had as many fights since the policy or shoppers calling the police to report concerns about large crowds that may get violent, she said.

Still, at least a dozen people were arrested since the curfew because they refused to show their identification to the guards at the mall’s entrances. When pursued by the guards and later asked to leave, they refused and were then arrested for trespassing. Some got violent and were charged further with disorderly conduct.

Election friction

The Democrats celebrated on the night of Nov. 8, as the voters reaffirmed the party’s control of the town. Incumbent Patricia Slavick gained the most votes for town board and her running-mate, Paul Pastore, came in second.

Democrat Denise Randall was the first woman to be elected town justice in Guilderland, ousting long-time Republican Judge Steven J. Simon.

Also, unopposed Democratic incumbents — Supervisor Kenneth Runion, Town Clerk Rosemary Centi, and Receiver of Taxes Jean Cataldo — retained their posts.

However, the election wasn’t without controversy.

In May, as the Republicans announced their candidates for town board, Democratic incumbent Bruce Sherwin told The Enterprise that, although he wanted to run for re-election, he was not being nominated by his party.

Sherwin said that, because of his independent voice on the board, he was ousted and branded disloyal by David Bosworth, the Democratic chairman and town board member.

Most of the time, the board’s members — all Democrats — vote unanimously. Sherwin had at times cast the only dissenting vote and, most of the time, was the only board member to draw heated discussion.

Sherwin described a time when Bosworth was challenged. Bosworth made a motion that no one seconded. Sherwin said that Bosworth then sent an e-mail to town board members, scolding them for embarrassing him.
"I may have commented once that I didn’t get a second," Bosworth told The Enterprise earlier in response. "It’s good parliamentary procedure...Without a second, you can’t have a lot of discussion. I thought I should get a courtesy second."

Bosworth also said then that he does not decide who the committee endorses. He is only one of 64 committeemen and one of 8,500 Democratic voters, he said.

The Democratic party later chose planning board attorney Pastore to run in place of Sherwin, but, Bosworth said, this was the party’s decision.

In September, more conflict arose since leaders of the Republican party had complained to Patricia Slavick’s employer that the Democratic incumbent was violating the Hatch Act by keeping her job and running for town board.

Slavick, an accountant, told The Enterprise that she’d done all she could to clear her candidacy with her supervisor at the state’s Office of Mental Health. The Hatch Act is a law that prohibits federal and certain state workers from running for an elected office.

When told just before the Democratic caucus in September that her job was in conflict, Slavick decided to quit, she said.

Still, Republican candidate Michael Donegan told The Enterprise that Slavick’s leaving her job wasn’t good enough. She violated the law for too long and she should drop out of the race, he said.

Through October, Donegan and Republican Ed Glenning wrote several letters to the Enterprise editor calling for a debate with their Democratic opponents.

They wrote that the Democrats were afraid to debate and, again, said that Slavick and Pastore were controlled by Bosworth who called the shots and refused to let the candidates debate.

Bosworth responded through The Enterprise and in a letter to the editor that the Democrats aren’t opposed to a debate, but, if invited to one, would need time to get organized and set rules both parties could agree on. He added that he doesn’t control any Democrats.
The McKownville Improvement Association held a "Meet the Candidates" night, as it has the past several elections. While this isn’t an official debate, Bosworth said, residents are given an opportunity to ask questions of all candidates who attend.

Candidates from both parties attended the McKownville event and an official debate was never held.

More Guilderland News

  • “This legislation levels the playing field for hotels and motels by collecting sales and occupancy tax on short-term rentals, addressing an estimated $550 million in lost local revenue over the past five years,” said the bill’s sponsors.

  • “This means a great deal to not only this community, but my family as well,” said Councilwoman Amanda Beedle on flying the pride flag. She said she had brought the matter to the board because she wanted “to show that this town is very open and inclusive and welcoming to all.”

  • The May 17 petition filed by Cuyler Court residents William and Colleen Anders claims that, in July 2023, the town’s use of heavy equipment to access “stormwater or water management facilities” caused damage to their driveway and yard, which when combined with Guilderland’s “negligence and failure to maintain certain components” of those facilities, led to “significant flooding” of the Anders’ basement six months later. 

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