2015: Guilderland dealt with growth and change

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Kenneth Runion, talking to Nick Viscio at an election event in May, left his position of supervisor a month before his eighth term was up. He announced in January 2015 he would not seek re-election after 16 years as supervisor, and, in November, he moved out of state, leaving the newly-appointed supervisor, Peter Barber, to take his place.

GUILDERLAND — Guilderland dealt with growth in 2015 as SUNY Poly made plans to expand on its eastern edge, and Vincent Wolanin, after five years, got approval for 210 luxury apartments in Westmere. To handle the newly burgeoning economy after the doldrums caused by the 2007 recession, the town studied the Westmere corridor to plan for its future, and passed a law to deal with abandoned properties.

2015 was also a year of change in Guilderland as its long-time supervisor, Democrat Kenneth Runion, announced, after 16 years at the helm, he would not seek another term. In a close November vote, Peter Barber — like Runion, a Democrat and a lawyer — won the supervisor’s post, taking office a month early as Runion left for Florida. At the same time, Republican Lee Carman was the top vote-getter in a town board race originally too close to call, and will join four Democrats on the board next month.

Abandoned properties

The town board passed a new local law in April that requires accountability from the owners of vacant buildings in town.

It requires either the landowner or the bank to register with the town and post a $5,000 bond to be used for the maintenance of structures on the property. It also requires the property owner to hold a minimum of $150,000 of liability insurance.

The intent of the law, according to Kenneth Runion, who was supervisor when it passed, is to motivate property owners to privately maintain their properties or aggressively market them so they don’t have to deal with the costs associated with upkeep or registration.

The town attorney, James Melita, said the definition of abandonment includes “overgrown vegetation and walkways.” He said the law was retroactive, meaning even buildings that had been abandoned for years would be subject to registration, not just buildings that become vacant in the future.

On the list of abandoned properties at that time were the Governors Inn on Western Avenue, the Nedco Pharmacy on Carman Road, a rustic barn on Western Turnpike, and a handful of homes in McKownville.

Runion said residents who take note of abandoned buildings, whether commercial or residential, should call the town of Guilderland’s building department to report them.

Under the law, property owners have 11 days from the time they are contacted by the town to register.

John Haluska, a citizen who pushed for the law and congratulated the town board on passing rapidly, later pointed out that it wasn’t being enforced.

 

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
Abandoned property law: A local law passed by the town board requires abandoned properties, like this old pharmacy and gas station on Carman Road, to register with the town and post a bond of $5,000 to be used for maintenance of structures on the property.

 

New flood zone regulations

As of April 1, new regulations were in effect for areas determined by a national program to be in a floodplain.

The National Flood Insurance Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA — is aimed at reducing the impact of flooding on private and public structures.

FEMA updated flood maps, with recommendations from the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, and encouraged communities to adopt and enforce floodplain regulations based on the new maps.

Municipalities were given a standard flood law, from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, on which to model their own local laws.

Due to the remapping, some properties are now in special flood hazard areas, meaning they are required to either purchase flood insurance or the premiums for their current flood insurance will increase.

Companies or individuals planning construction or other development in areas of special flood hazard will have to obtain a permit, and standards for construction materials and methods, utilities, and elevation are set forth in the local law.

There is some grandfathering in with the newest maps and the National Flood Insurance Program. Premiums have increased for those living in newly-designated flood plains, but not more than 20 percent in a given year.

It is important to note that incidents of flooding covered by homeowners’ insurance are not the same as incidents of flooding covered by specific flood insurance.

For example, rain coming in through a leaky roof does not qualify as a flooding event. The flooding covered by flood insurance must be caused by the ground-level water rising or another topographical change, such as a mudslide.

Local areas declared subject to flooding include property along the Vlomankill, Normanskill, Hungerkill, Bozenkill, Switzkill, and Ten Mile Creek.

County bans fracking waste

The Albany County Legislature passed a bill in April that bans the disposal of hydraulic fracturing waste in area landfills.

The legislature was led in the vote by Bryan Clenahan, a Guilderland resident, who represents the 30th District.

Hydraulic fracturing — a form of mining which uses pressurized fluid to break rock formations and release natural gas — is banned in New York, but is an active practice in nearby Pennsylvania.

“We don’t even know exactly what is in fracking waste, but we know it contains toxins and radioactive elements,” said Clenahan. “We wanted to send the message that Albany County won’t be a dumping ground for it.”

A report showed that, since 2010, about 510,000 tons of solid hydraulic fracturing waste, and 23,000 barrels of liquid waste, had been dumped in five landfills in New York State. None of the landfills were in Albany County, but, there was some dumping in Syracuse, and Clenahan said he feared haulers would migrate to this area eventually.

A violation of the law will be a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $25,000 or 30 days in prison.

The Albany County Department of Public Works is authorized to carry out the requirements of the local law.

 

Sean McCuthcheon, pictured here with his wife, Cathy, was a 19-year employee of the Town of Guilderland Highway Department. He died in May when, while collecting leaves, a town truck backed up over him. His death was declared an accident. His wife said he loved the people he worked with, who were like family to him.

 

New Highway Department guidelines

The town’s highway department implemented new safety guidelines after the accidental death of Sean McCutcheon in May.

McCutcheon, a 19-year employee, was killed when he fell from the truck he was on, picking up yard debris, and the truck backed up over him.

McCutcheon had served in the United States Air Force from 1981 to 1984, and married his high school sweetheart, Cathy, two weeks before he was honorably discharged.

His wife said he was a wonderful father to their two children, and loved the people he worked with; they were like family to him.

Investigations showed his death was an accident.

Highway Superintendent Steve Oliver said that a New York State Police inspector was brought in to check over the department’s vehicles and found that everything was in working order; all the safety equipment on the trucks was functional and all safety procedures were followed.

The Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, which enforces safety and health standards put forth by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, specifically for public safety employees, encouraged Oliver to formulate guidelines specific to leaf collection and bagging.

“There are certain things that everyone needs to be reminded of,” said Oliver. “When you work with this equipment every day, sometimes things like truck alarms don’t even register anymore, it’s like background noise.”

He said the morale of the department has suffered after the loss of McCutcheon.

“We all took it really hard, it was horrific and I think we’re all still stunned,” Oliver said. “When you work with someone for more than 20 years, they’re so much more than a co-worker.”

 

— Photo submitted by Vincent Wolanin
Luxury apartment complex: After five years of seeking approval, Vincent Wolanin’s 210-unit apartment complex at 1700 Western Avenue will finally move forward. The eco-friendly development, including a common room and a pool, is geared toward professionals and provides a lifestyle Wolanin said Guilderland residents need.

 

1700 Western Avenue

An apartment complex received town board approval after more than five years and many concessions on the part of the developer.

In February, the board voted unanimously to approve Vincent Wolanin’s 210-unit complex on 22 acres at 1700 Western Ave.

The luxury, gated apartment complex will feature 210 units in five elevator-serviced buildings over an underground garage, and four two-story buildings with enclosed garages. There will also be a clubhouse, a pool, and a 12,000-square-foot mixed-use building.

The community, according to Wolanin, will also be “eco-friendly, with recyclable metal roofing, extra insulation, energy-efficient appliances, light-emitted diode light bulbs, and low-flow faucets and toilets.

Opposition from neighbors stemmed from traffic concerns due to the density of residents at the complex; with more than 500 parking spaces, they said the number of extra cars would make it impossible to get out onto Western Avenue.

In response to the concerns, the developer eliminated proposed entry and exit points onto Johnston Road. A traffic study showed the number of cars at the complex would not have a significant impact on the traffic patterns of the neighboring side streets and Western Avenue.

Wolanin said the development fits with the town’s comprehensive plan and is a necessity in Guilderland, where, he said, similar housing is more than 40 years old.

He broke ground on the project in the spring and expects it to be complete in 2016.

 

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
Westmere corridor: Two grants allow Westmere residents to weigh in on a study that makes recommendations for future improvements in their neighborhoods. Westmere consists of a mix of single-family homes and small businesses, and residents’ main concerns are traffic, pedestrian and bike safety, and green space. Route 20 got new sidewalks this year.

 

Westmere’s future

A public meeting in May attended by roughly two dozen people — half of whom were residents — addressed potential plans for the future of Westmere.

A $52,000 grant from the Capital District Transportation Committee and $18,000 from the town of Guilderland were allocated to fund a study to develop a strategic neighborhood plan for the Westmere corridor, which runs from the bottom of Fuller Road, up Western Avenue to Route 155.

A preliminary assessment was presented at the meeting and residents were asked to voice current concerns and make suggestions for improvements.

Martin Hull, a representative from the IBI Group of Albany, the lead consultant on the project, said the main goals of the study were to find ways to connect residential areas with commercial areas; protect adjoining areas from incompatible land use; improve facilities for cyclists and pedestrians; and install sidewalks on side streets.

Concrete plans included discouraging new large-scale retail development and encouraging small business development; improving the Crossgates Ring Road; enhancing transit services; expanding footpaths and trails; and defining gateways and signs.

Residents mainly spoke of the dangers of cycling on Route 20, the recent loss of trees, and the difficulty of navigating during rush hour.

Hull said the study would definitely focus on adding trees along Western Avenue, in part because driving past a line of trees makes people feel as though they are driving faster than they really are and forces them to slow down.

One resident requested that “smart lights” or “adaptive signals” be considered as an option for some of the busier intersections in the corridor. The signals can adapt to real-time traffic conditions.

Hull said the purpose of the study was only to envision what is possible in the future, not to immediately exact the changes.

The town’s grant writer, Donald Csaposs, said, “Of course, some of the things would be impossible to achieve.”

Having the study in place, though, said Hull, would give the town a better opportunity to receive funding for projects.

SUNY Poly Dorms

In September, the state’s University of New York’s Polytechnic Institute released an environmental assessment report from Fuller Road Management detailing plans for new student housing and parking.

The report came months after 11 houses on Loughlin Street and Fuller Road were bought by a development company.

The president of the McKownville Improvement Association, Donald Reeb, said he had talked with people who had sold their homes and was told they could not talk about it or they’d lose their contracts.

The report discussed a three-phase project that will ultimately include three new dormitory buildings, a student center, and more than 800 parking spaces.

Phase one will involve constructing a 104-bed student residence that will provide 2,000-square-feet for use by the school’s security department and installing 709 parking spaces in the vicinity of Loughlin Street. The existing buildings there will be demolished to accommodate the parking lot.

Phase two includes the construction of a student center and a 250-bed dorm on Fuller Road.

The third and final phase includes construction of another 150-bed dorm on Fuller Road.

“My main concern is that they not come into McKownville,” said Reeb. “They should not expand beyond their footprint.”

Jerry Gretzinger, the vice president of strategic communications and public relations, sent a press release detailing 10 facts about the university’s “plans to pursue student housing” in response to the concerns.

The release said that Fuller Road Management Company complied with all of the requests for proposal rules, with criteria including that use of a “local developer” and that the housing be “within a 10-minute walk.” It said those requirements are “logical and consistent with what other educational institutions do.”

The financing of the housing projects, it said, is done through student housing payments.

“It is disingenuous to suggest that prior to the advent of SUNY Poly, Loughlin Street was a quiet residential area far removed from any type of academic or economic development activity,” said the release, referring to the Freedom Quad, less than one-quarter mile from the street, which houses hundreds of students.

Reeb said the release did nothing to assuage his concerns and that SUNY Poly was just “not trying very hard to be a good neighbor.”

The first phase of the project is slated to begin in 2016, with phases two and three going forward in 2017 and 2018.

Holt-Harris Property

The University at Albany Foundation purchased a historic piece of land in McKownville the second week in December and residents of the neighborhood are concerned about its possible development.

Richard P. McGinn Jr., chief financial officer of the foundation, said there are currently no plans to develop the property.

The land, 8.7 acres at 100 and 200 Nicholas Lane and 18 Waverly Place, was formerly known as the Holt-Harris property, after the family that had owned it.

The University at Albany showed interest in purchasing it in 2011, but the asking price was $1.6 million, and the assessed valuation was $597,000.

McGinn said that the University at Albany Foundation purchased the property for $600,000 — $3,000 more than the assessed valuation, which hasn’t changed since 2011, and $1 million less than the original asking price.

“We were approached by the seller,” he said. “We were not actively seeking to buy the land.”

Reeb said that, if the university developed the parcel, it would be revoking a promise made to the community nearly 20 years ago.

He said that, in 1963, the late Colonel Walter Tisdale, then the assistant president of the university, promised the McKownville Improvement Association that the university would never take over any residential land in the area.

Brother and sister John-Holt Harris III and Susan Holt-Harris were the owners of the property, which was once part of the Christian LeGrange Farm. The LaGrange family members were some of the earliest inhabitants along the Normanskill.

In 2011, Ms. Holt-Harris said the land was for sale because her father had owned it and had died a decade ago. The family had no use for the property, she said.

McGinn also said there was an important distinction between the University at Albany and the University at Albany Foundation. The university itself did not buy the land, he said; the foundation did.

The University at Albany Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation organized to accept contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations, and other organizations to support activities and programs of the university.

“We’re an independent entity,” said McGinn.

There are still, he said, no immediate plans to develop the property, but, since the sellers were actively trying to get rid of it, the foundation wanted to make sure no one else purchased it.

“We wanted to make sure we had input on what happened there,” he said. “”We did not want to not have control, if that makes sense.”

The foundation distributed letters to residents neighboring the property to let them know there may be activity there in the coming weeks to address “health and safety concerns.”

There are empty concrete pits that need to be filled in, an old barn that needs to be removed, and two abandoned houses that need to be secured, he said.

Reeb said the university was “pushing its luck” by purchasing the property.

 

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Peter Barber, showing his support for a fellow Democrat at an election event,, where he chats with party chairman David Bosworth, barely edged out his opponent for town supervisor, Brian Forte, in the November election. Barber received 52 percent of the votes. He was appointed supervisor early, in December rather than January, when former Supervisor Kenneth Runion retired a month before his term was up.

 

Elections

Election season started early in 2015, when long-time Supervisor Kenneth Runion announced his retirement in January.

Runion said, at a town board meeting, that he did not intend to run for re-election after serving eight consecutive terms.

Within 24 hours of the meeting, three prominent town Democrats — town board members Brian Forte and Al Maikels, and zoning board chairman Peter Barber — announced their intentions to run for the position.

Kathy Burbank, also a Democrat, the former executive director of the Guilderland Chamber of Commerce and briefly the director of Community Caregivers, said the Guilderland’s Democratic Committee had approached her and asked if she wanted to run for supervisor.

After a caucus in July, Barber was selected by the committee as the endorsed candidate.

Burbank said the date for the caucus had been changed without notice and speculated that it was because the committee wanted to make sure specific candidates were chosen.

The real reason the date was changed, according to the Democratic town clerk, Jean Cataldo, was a health crisis of the party’s chair, David Bosworth. He had been hospitalized and was in “grave condition” and wanted to make sure the caucus was held “while he was still around,” she said.

Bosworth has since recovered.

The candidates chosen were Barber for supervisor, and Maikels and Rosemary Centi — the former town clerk — for town board.

Forte said after he was not endorsed for supervisor, he was not given the option to run for re-election to the town board.

Shortly after the Democratic caucus, Forte announced that he would be running for supervisor on the Republican ticket, along with Republican Lee Carman and Conservative Michele Coons, who had both made runs for the board in the past.

It was a tight race, with Barber edging out Forte — garnering 52 percent of the votes — and the town board results were too close to call the day after the November election.

Forte said he thought he lost the election, in part, due to some negative campaigning by the town’s Democratic Party.

A flyer had gone out the week before the election saying that Forte was guilty of “drinking and driving” and “pay to play.”

In December 2014, Forte was arrested in Herkimer County for operating a snowmobile while under the influence of alcohol. In January, he issued a public apology at a town board meeting, where he called it a “stupid mistake” and said it would never happen again.

Forte also took campaign contributions, for a total amount of $1,750, from developers who had a proposal before the town board. Forte voted in favor of the project — which has since been pulled — without recusing himself due to a conflict of interest.

Barber said he did not pay for the flyer — the Democratic Committee did — but he was aware of it.

After the absentee ballots were counted, Carman and Centi were declared the winners of the town board race.

Carman had decided not to run for re-election as an Albany County legislator, representing the 29th District, to run for town board instead.

Barber was appointed to the role of supervisor early, in December rather than at the town’s organizational meeting in January, when Runion decided to retire at the end of November, neglecting to finish out his last term.

Runion said he wanted to focus on his family, particularly during the holidays, and also wanted to give Barber a chance to transition to the position before the New Year.

Runion had sold his house in Altamont and was unable to find another, said Barber, so he headed to Florida, where he normally spends time in the winter.

Mark Grimm, a Republican and former town board member, ran against Democrat David Cardona to represent of the 29th District, and won with 65 percent of the vote.

Democrat Dennis Feeney ran unopposed for another term representing the 28th District, and Democrat Bryan Clenahan was unopposed in the 30th District.

Paul Miller, also a Democrat, received the party’s official endorsement in the 32nd District, over long-time incumbent and fellow Democrat Mary Lou Connolly.

Connolly debated backing out of the race entirely, saying Miller had the support of the “powers that be” in Albany, but decided to run on the Independence and Conservative lines.

She lost to Miller, who received 66 percent of the vote, but said she would find another way to continue to serve the people of Albany County.

More Guilderland News

  • In a Jan. 5 letter to the Surface Transportation Board, village attorney Allyson Phillips writes that Altamont is opposed to CSX’s attempted acquisition of Pan Am Systems because the running of a 1.7-mile-long train twice per day over the Main Street railroad crossing would leave parts of the village inaccessible to emergency responders for as long as 10 minutes.  

  • The project, which includes the renovation of an existing 172,000-square-foot building as well as the construction of ten 15,000-gallon storage tanks each at a height of nearly 47 feet, was approved by Guilderland’s zoning board in October.

  • GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland Town Board by a unanimous 5-to-0 vote

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