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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 15, 2005

Doctor finds cure for board’s concerns

By Nicole Fay Barr

GUILDERLAND — After a year of negotiating with neighbors and modifying his plans for a medical facility on Carman Road, Dr. William Tetrault is ready to build.

Last Wednesday, after much discussion, the town’s zoning board granted Tetrault a special-use permit for the project. While three neighbors and one board member voiced concerns about traffic and stormwater runoff, the board unanimously decided that Tetrault’s project would not have an adverse effect on the neighborhood.

Tetrault will merge three parcels — one of which already has a medical building — into one parcel of five-and-a-half acres, at 3761 Carman Road, next to Mike’s Diner. A new medical building will then be constructed.

The existing building is used by Capital Care and is 500 square feet. A new, 23,000-square-foot building — more than four times as big — will be used for additional doctor’s offices. This, Tetrault said, will enable him to bring specialists, such as cardiologists or physical therapists, to treat patients a few times a week.

One neighbor and two patients of Tetrault told the board that the project would be an asset to the community.

Tetrault first came before the zoning board in August of 2004. Then, many neighbors were worried about traffic, noise, and the removal of a large hill, which some called a berm or a dune.

Since then, the doctor and his engineers had met with residents and come up with several modifications to the plan. Tom Andress, of ABD Engineering, went over these changes with the board last Wednesday.

The building will sit back further from the road than originally proposed, Andress said. A parking lot will be in front of the building, but many trees and plants will be in front of that, shielding the view of the complex from Carman Road, he said.

The zoning law requires 234 parking spaces for this project. However, the board gave Tetrault a variance to construct only 162. He will "bank" 49 more spaces. That is, green area on the property can be used for that many spaces later, if they are needed. This still leaves Tetrault 23 spaces short, for which the town gave him a variance.

Less of the hill to the north of the property will be removed, Andress said, and, instead of removing trees from the area, more will be added. Neighbors had complained earlier that removing trees would take away their privacy and their buffer for noise and lights.

Traffic and stormwater

The biggest issues the board had with Tetrault’s project were traffic and stormwater runoff.

Rob Osterhaut, of town-designated Boswell Engineering, told the board last Wednesday that he felt Andress resolved problems in both areas. Osterhaut said he felt ready to sign off on the project.

Board member James Sumner said he wasn’t satisfied that Creighton Manning, which did a traffic analysis, had answered his and neighbors’ concerns.

While a representative of the engineering firm insisted that, from the complex’s northern exit and entrance, there is adequate sight distance — 1,000 feet in each direction — Sumner questioned her accuracy.

The entrance sits on the crest of a hill and Sumner said this could be dangerous.

Neighbors Robert and Kimberly Bailey and Charles Norfleet all said Creighton Manning’s study might not give a true picture of traffic on Old State Road. The study was not done at peak hours or while school is in session, they said.

The site is near the road that leads to Lynnwood Elementary School. Saint Madeleine Sophie and Pine Bush Elementary are also on Carman Road.

Engineers added later that, even if school added 10 percent more traffic, the road could handle this.

The neighbors said, too, they thought the entrance shouldn’t be on the crest of the hill, but closer to the light at the intersection of Carman and Old State roads.

Charles Norfleet read a letter expressing similar sentiments from his wife, Carol, who could not be at the meeting.

"I don’t oppose a medical building. I oppose extra traffic in a residential neighborhood," Charles Norfleet said.

Sumner later asked how many patients would be traveling to the complex each day.

Tetrault told him that some doctors see 25 or 30 patients a day, while other specialists may see only a few. He assured the board that his building will not be like the large medical complex on Washington Avenue.

"Our intent is to build a facility that’s an asset to the town and not a burden to the town," the doctor said. "We’re trying to bring in various services to the community that don’t normally exist there."

Osterhaut later insisted that the traffic study is adequate and Andress’s entrance and exit plans are safe.

Clenahan said he shared some of Sumner’s concerns, but thinks they’ve now been addressed.

At a few zoning board meetings, neighbors on Sunset Lane, which is behind the medical building, spoke about water and drainage issues they’ve had over the years. They worried that, with the addition of this complex, their properties would be flooded further.

Some parts of the stormwater-management plan need to be "fine tuned," Osterhaut told the board last Wednesday, but he was confident that Andress would take care of the technical issues.

Kimberly Bailey, who lives behind the site, said, if some of the hill or berm is removed, more water may flood her land.

"I have a sump pump now that runs non-stop," she said.

Andress said later that adding trees to the hill will help control water from flowing onto Bailey’s property. Ron DePersis, who lives on Sunset Lane, said he’s never had a problem with water drainage.

Clenahan agreed that water would not cause trouble.

"I think if this is done right, it can create an improvement to the situation," he said. "I think it’s an overall good proposal."

After more discussion, and hearing from two patients in favor of the complex, the board approved the project.

Before voting, Sumner said his comments were not about the medical complex itself, which is a good thing. He said he’s still worried about traffic and water drainage, but then he voted in favor of the special-use permit.

Alternate Tom Remmert voted in place of Mike Marcantonio, who recused himself.

Serafini: property is neat— Linehan upset by zoning violations

By Nicole Fay Barr

GUILDERLAND — Andrew Linehan is fed up with a nearby property owner’s zoning violations. Unsatisfied with the actions taken by the town’s zoning department, Linehan asked the town board for help last Tuesday.

Linehan’s complaints are about Anthony Serafini, who owns part of the subdivision where Linehan lives — Williamsburg, off of Fuller Station Road. The Serafini family owns many developments in Guilderland.

For years, Linehan said, Serafini has had construction debris and unregistered vehicles and trailers on the property.

Rodger Stone, the town’s zoning-enforcement officer, told The Enterprise this week that Serafini has been in violatoin of the zoning code for a long time. Stone said the town has been trying to work out solutions with Serafini and, if he doesn’t remove the debris and trailers by Sept. 26, a judge in town court will decide his punishment.

Anthony Serafini, however, tells a much different story. When contacted by The Enterprise this week, the developer said he knows nothing about the Sept. 26 deadline or about having to remove the debris and trailers from his property.

"We’ve never had any problems before," his wife, Annette Serafini, said. "We try to keep it neat. As you’re working, you need to have supplies. We are trying to cooperate with the town."

"I’m a very clean person. I’ve never even had a parking ticket," Anthony Serafini said.

Serafini said he’s working with the town to renew his building permits — expired since 1988 — so he can keep the equipment on his land.

Donald Cropsey Jr., the town’s chief building inspector and zoning administrator, did not return calls from The Enterprise this week.

Linehan said Serafini’s treatment is unfair since he has violated the law for years. He asked the town board to intervene and force Serafini to remove the items from the property.

Supervisor Kenneth Runion told The Enterprise this week that the town board will intervene if, after going through town court, Serafini still does not comply.

Upset neighborhood

Linehan has lived in Guilderland for 20 years and, last year, he moved to the Williamsburg subdivision. The development has two parts, the original section and a few streets known as New Williamsburg. Serafini owns New Williamsburg.

Linehan moved to 6003 Queen Mary Court — part of the original Williamsburg subdivision — for open space, he told the town board last Tuesday. His house is part of an upscale neighborhood with perfect lawns and gardens. Linehan’s property is a few blocks from where officials say Serafini has zoning violations.

Soon after moving in, Linehan said, he heard of the violations from neighbors. He gave the town board a list of code violations committed by Serafini.

Construction supplies and brush are strewn about the property, he said.

Two unregistered tractor trailers are there, he said, and a field office trailer is there. The office trailer’s building permit is dated Dec. 1, 1987, Linehan said, and was only good for six months.

Serafini also has two signs that do not conform to the town code and permits for these are supposed to be renewed every six months, but aren’t.

Previously, Linehan said, an unregistered van was on the property and two rusted, 55-gallon drums were there, but have since been removed. Linehan asked that the ground and groundwater be tested for contamination, since he thinks the drums contained fuel.

Linehan began talking to his neighbors and found that they, too, were very upset with the state of Serafini’s property.

Linehan contacted the zoning department this May, he said. He spoke to Stone, he said, who was very helpful.

All of the violations that Linehan cited are true, Stone told The Enterprise Monday.

Of the construction debris, he said, "I consider it rubbish myself."

Stone reported that Serafini told him he needed the materials for construction-related uses. But, Stone said, the materials do not appear to have been touched in years. If it really is rubbish, Stone said, it is in violation of the town code.

"I didn’t build his house," Serafini said of Linehan. "These [tractor] trailers were there when he bought the property. They’re there for materials and tools for construction. I don’t know about this construction debris."

The Enterprise went to the site Tuesday and saw two tractor trailers on Lexington Drive. Most of the length of the vehicles were in the woods, surrounded by tall, shade trees.

The only debris The Enterprise saw was a pile of what appeared to be branches and yard brush near the tractor trailers. This is all in a wooded area, not in the direct view of any houses.

The field-office trailer is a small, clean-looking building surrounded by a neatly-trimmed lawn. The office is across the street from a backyard that is surrounded by a tall, wooden fence.

Of the field office trailer, Stone said the building permit did expire in 1988 and no new permits have been issued.

Serafini told the town that he uses the trailer, Stone said.

Stone said he’s been with the town for six years and has never seen anyone using the trailer in that time. Linehan said he looked in the window of the trailer and saw a 1993 calendar on the wall.

"The [office] trailer has been there 20 years. The [tractor] trailers are not near anybody," Serafini said. "They’re on empty lots. They will be removed; it takes time."

Many neighbors have complained to the town over the years about Serafini, Stone said.

"I’ve taken a number of phone calls and few of the callers have identified themselves," Stone said. "At least six different neighbors have called in the last several months.

"The complaints started in 2003," he said. "We’ve been trying to work out some type of arrangement since then."

The town has sent letters to Serafini, had meetings with him, and tried to compromise, Stone said. Most of the town’s efforts have been unsuccessful, he said.

Action derailed"

On July 11, 2005, Stone sent Serafini an appearance ticket for town court. It stated that Serafini was to appear in court on Aug. 29 because he is in violation of the town’s zoning law, by storing unlicensed tractor trailers on his property.

The ticket states that the town has written to Serafini about the vehicles six times between July of 2003 and June of 2005.

"Additionally, Mr. Serafini has no valid building permit for the site and his construction shed is still there, along with signs and rubbish," Stone wrote. "We also have had several verbal discussions with Mr. Serafini, which have accomplished nothing."

Linehan was pleased that the town was taking action, he said.

"Rodger Stone had it all moving forward," he said, "but then the whole thing got derailed."

Serafini and his attorney met with the town in early August, Stone said. Stone was then told — by Cropsey and zoning administrator, and Janet Thayer, the zoning board’s attorney — to cancel Serafini’s appearance ticket.

This is not unusual, Stone told The Enterprise.

"We try to work it out as peaceably as possible," he said. The town doesn’t like bringing people to court, he said, so it tries to reach solutions out of court.

The town gave Serafini until Sept. 1 to remove the items in violation from his property, Stone said.

By Sept. 1, Serafini removed an unregistered van from the property and two rusted, 55-gallon drums, both Stone and Linehan said.

But, they said, the construction debris and vehicles are still there.

Last Tuesday, Linehan complained about this to the town board. He is angry that Serafini’s appearance ticket was canceled.

The Enterprise asked Supervisor Runion if he feels Serafini is getting special treatment. He didn’t answer the question, but said that the zoning department is handling things.

Last Tuesday, Linehan asked the town board to require Serafini to remove the materials immediately. If Serafini does not do this, Linehan said, the town should charge him $100 a day, as allowed by the town code.

"I thought the board was very positive about helping out," Linehan told The Enterprise this week. "They clearly understand the issues...they’ll do what they need to straighten this out."

The town has now decided to give Serafini until Sept. 26 to remove these items. He is scheduled to appear in court that night.
If Serafini has complied with the law by then, Stone said he’ll ask the judge for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. That is, Serafini’s case will be adjourned for six months and then dropped if he receives no more tickets in that time.

Asked what will happen if Serafini does not comply by Sept. 26, Stone said, "We’ll ask the court for a remedy...But, I’d hate to see it come to that."

A town judge can only fine Serafini, Runion said; he can’t mandate the cleaning of the property.

If Serafini is fined and still does not remove the debris and vehicles, Runion said, the town will hold a public hearing to discuss the town’s doing the work.

The town has done this a few times and has charged the violating property owner for the cleanup.

Serafini insisted to The Enterprise that he knows nothing about the Aug. 29 and Sept. 26 court dates. He plans on cleaning his property, he said, but said he has no deadline to do so.

"I will remove the stuff. It’s not going to stay there, but I need time," Serafini said. Asked how much time, Serafini said he didn’t know.

Asked what he’d do if the town requires him to remove the materials immediately, Serafini said, "I can’t give you an answer."

Man collared for coke
Woman arrested for prostitution in Guilderland

By Nicole Fay Barr

GUILDERLAND — A routine traffic stop led police to arrest a professional escort for prostitution and to charge her client with possession of cocaine.

Nicole M. Knight, of 169 Waite Road, Amsterdam, was arrested on Sept. 1, for prostitution, a misdemeanor.

Michael J. Iwanos, 45, of 1427 Western Ave., Guilderland, who police say had solicited sex from Knight, was charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance, a felony.

Guilderland Police say that Knight, who works for Wild Orchids, a Schenectady escort service, charged Iwanos $100 for oral sex, at the Best Western hotel in McKownville.

An employee for Wild Orchids, who refused to give her name to The Enterprise, said that the women who work there do not provide any illegal services.

Each employee, including Knight, signed a contract agreeing to this, she said. Knight was fired after her arrest, the woman said.

Employees of the business are upset, she said, that "one bad apple" can hurt Wild Orchids’ reputation like this.

"We’ve been in business for a long time," she said.

But, she added of Knight, "On the other hand, she says this isn’t true. I try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. She’s a good person; she’s very nice."

The woman declined further comment about the type of services Wild Orchids provides.

In the phone book, its ad describes the business as an "exotic escort service" that uses discreet billing. The ad says Wild Orchids provides "upscale women for upscale gentlemen," and participates in "no illegal services."

Guilderland Police were led to Best Western after a traffic stop. After midnight on Sept. 1, said Guilderland Lieutenant Carol Lawlor, officers pulled over a car driven by Jonathan Eisler. They found that he was wanted by the Saratoga Police, she said.

Eisler, 22, has the same address as Knight. Lawlor said she was unaware of Eisler’s relationship to Knight, but said, "It’s not like he’s employed by Wild Orchids or anything."

During Eisler’s arrest, officers saw that his passenger, Knight, appeared to be impaired by drugs, Lawlor said.

Knight told police that she knew there were drugs in Room 236 of the Best Western hotel, Lawlor said. Police investigated and found Iwanos in that room. He allowed officers to search the room, Lawlor said.

Police found a bag of white powder, believed to be cocaine, and other related items, under the mattress of the bed, the arrest report says. Iwanos was then charged with possession of cocaine.

Iwanos told police that, earlier, he had paid Knight $100 in cash for oral sex, the report says. She was then arrested for prostitution.

Suparmanto, the manager of Best Western who goes by one name, told The Enterprise that he didn’t know why two of his guests were arrested on Sept. 1.

Police came into the hotel, went straight upstairs, and, a few minutes later, escorted Knight and Iwanos out, Suparmanto said.

"We weren’t informed about why they were arrested," he said. "There was no commotion at all."

The next day, Suparmanto said, the hotel’s housekeeping manager cleaned the room. All Iwanos left behind were a few beer bottles, he said.

"We really don’t know what our guests are doing in their rooms," Suparmanto said. "They pay for the room and it’s theirs. They can do whatever they want."

Asked why Iwanos was not arrested for soliciting prostitution, Lawlor said she didn’t know. Perhaps he will be charged later, when he appears in town court, she said.

Prostitution arrests are rare in Guilderland, Lawlor said. The last one was years ago, she said.

Guilderland Police do not have a policy for arrests of prostitutes and their clients, she said; the department follows the penal law guidelines.

Neither Knight nor Iwanos could be reached for comment this week. They are both scheduled to appear in town court at a later date.

RPI takes in displaced students
Safe from the storm, O’Hara plans spring return to Tulane

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Patrick O’Hara says he feels grateful. Then he says it again. And again.

He’s in the midst of taking courses he cares about at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, living on a campus in Troy that he describes as welcoming, near friends who were part of the same Odyssey.

O’Hara, a 2004 Guilderland High School graduate, was to be a sophomore this fall at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Tulane closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But, thanks to the Gulf Coast Visiting Scholars program, O’Hara is continuing his studies uninterrupted. He’s at a different highly competitive private institution, founded like Tulane in the first half of the 19th Century.

"I’m really grateful that I got back home, and RPI has been great," said O’Hara. "It’s just amazing how much people are willing to help."


O’Hara arrived at his uptown New Orleans campus in August to be a resident advisor in the Honors Dorm at Tulane.

"We didn’t really pay attention to Hurricane Katrina," said O’Hara, "because it was originally going south. We started paying attention when it looked like it was going to come back by us."

His parents in Guilderland, Nancy and Michael O’Hara, were following reports of the storm and were pleased Tulane was on top of it.

"Tulane took no chances and evacuated the kids who couldn’t get flights home up to Jackson State University in Mississippi on Saturday night," said Michael O’Hara.

The O’Haras thought the pattern would be the same as last year when the students had stayed at Jackson State a couple of days and then returned safely to the Tulane campus.

"I thought, ‘Here we go again,’" recalled Michael O’Hara.

"It all happened fast," said Patrick O’Hara. "They loaded us on charter buses."

O’Hara and his fellow students were allowed to take "whatever would fit in our laps." He brought toiletries, a change of clothes, his Game Boy, and his phone, leaving his laptop computer in the dorm, thinking it would be a brief stay away.

The Tulane students stayed in the Jackson State gymnasium, where they had stayed before. They were made comfortable with pillows and blankets. Many of the freshmen who had just arrived on campus were able to get flights home, said O’Hara.

"We drove them to the airport every hour on shuttles," he said.

Two televisions were set up in the gym. One was kept on the weather channel and the other broadcast various programs like sporting events.

"Some of the kids who didn’t live on campus were worried about their apartments," said O’Hara. "My stuff was on the fourth floor so I knew it would be fine."

The mood was still stable Monday, he said, as the center of the hurricane went east of New Orleans.

"Monday night we were feeling pretty confident; the levees hadn’t broken yet," said O’Hara.

"When we woke up the next morning," he said, "there was a dramatic change. The levees had broken...Eighty percent of the city was under water."

By Tuesday, midday, the storm had hit Jackson, knocking out power and flooding the campus.

"After that, it was harder to get information on what was happening," said O'Hara.

He expressed admiration for the college’s president, Scott Cowen, who stayed on Tulane’s campus, dispatching information and directions.

Cowen, who relocated with an emergency team to Houston on Sept. 2, continues to communicate with Tulanians through the university’s website.

"My love for the city and anguish for what has happened has no bounds," he wrote in a Sept. 12 posting. "Out of this tragedy we will be stronger, we will be wiser, and we will do whatever it takes to replace despair with hope; acquiescence with action; disorientation with focus."

He also stated, "Physically, we may be in Houston but our hearts and minds are in New Orleans as we work feverishly to return to the city — the sooner the better. Every day we become more optimistic that we will be back on campus and in our homes well in advance of our formal spring semester opening."

"My bosses talked to President Cowen," said O’Hara as they remained in the gym at Jackson State. "My boss was leaving on Wednesday...He was taking three friends up north with him to Maryland. He offered to take me with him. I took the offer."

O’Hara then got a flight home from Maryland.

Parents’ perspective

Back home in Guilderland, his parents had been figuring out their options.

Patrick is the youngest of three boys. His brothers attend universities in the state system — one at Brockport and the other at Albany.

"He’s always been a really good student," said Michael O’Hara of Patrick. "He got lots of scholarship offers...

"Tulane invited him to be part of their honors program. When he visited his senior year, they were great. They wined and dined him. He loves it. He can’t wait to get back."

After the storm struck, Michael O’Hara, who works as a conservation officer for the state, spent time on the Internet making a list of colleges, many that his son had applied to when he was in high school. Patrick had not applied to RPI, his father said.

"I saw one estimate on the Internet that over 100,000 college kids were affected...We were scratching our heads and originally thought of SUNY Albany."

He then discovered the American Association of Universities, with about 60 schools, including Tulane and RPI, announcing reciprocal agreements.

"If you paid tuition for Tulane, RPI doesn’t charge you anything," said O’Hara. "They say, ‘We’ll work out the money between us.’"

O’Hara was also impressed with the way RPI cleared away all the usual hurdles that go with college admissions so displaced students could begin class immediately.

"They were just great; they cut out all the red tape and he and about 20 other Tulane students are already there and starting to attend classes," said O’Hara.

"After being displaced...he thought he’d live at home," Michael O’Hara said of Patrick. "RPI said, you’re eligible for a dorm room. He looked at us and said, ‘I could still live at home.’

"We said, ‘If you want to be with your friends, go ahead.’ One of his best friends from Tulane is right across the hall."

Refuge for students

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many colleges and universities offered refuge for students displaced by the storm.

"It’s a great tragedy and it deserved a response like this by the nation," said Karl Lunta, the director of media relations for the University at Albany.

New York’s governor, George Pataki, announced on Sept. 3 that the state’s public universities would provide the lower in-state tuition rates at all of its 84 campuses; the schools were directed to offer immediate admission to all displaced students.

David Henahan, a spokesperson for the State University system, said Monday that a total of about 190 displaced students are now at 25 state university campuses, ranging from community colleges to universities with doctoral programs.

"What we’re seeing is mostly students from New York who had gone to the Gulf States to college," said Henahan, naming Loyola, Tulane, Xavier, Dillard, and the University of New Orleans as some of those places.

The state campuses have done a tremendous job of "fast-tracking," he said. "Many of these students did not have transcripts, so we have to make an accommodation, which we’re happy to do."

Asked how long the displaced students will attend the New York schools, Henahan said, "Our focus is very immediate...We want to help them get back to the college of their choice."

Lunta said, as of Monday morning, the University at Albany has six displaced students in undergraduate programs and three in graduate programs.

"We have provided housing," he said. More students may still arrive, he added.

RPI’s Gulf Coast Visiting Scholars program will accept up to 100 students who had enrolled at Tulane or Xavier universities in New Orleans. The program is also available to students from the Capital District who have been temporarily displaced from their studies by the storm.

"It became immediately apparent we would need to respond in some way," said Theresa Bourgeois, spokesperson for RPI.

She credits the university’s president, Shirley Ann Jackson, for espousing the philosophy, in the midst of the crisis, that "everyone needs to do what they can do." For RPI, this meant helping to educate the next generation of scientists, engineers, and architects, she said.

The university has received over 180 inquiries from potential students, said Bourgeois on Monday, and about 70 visiting scholars are already on campus.

"We anticipate 30 more students before the week’s end," she said.

"Rensselaer is waiving tuition, room, board, and fees," said Bourgeois, for the fall semester.

RPI decided to focus on Tulane and Xavier, she said, because they would have students with similar interests to those at RPI.

The cutting of red tape lauded by O’Hara, she said, was brought about by "a large number of people in the Rensselaer community who worked very hard to make things as smooth as possible for people who had been through difficult times."

A toll-free number was set up to put callers in touch with each of the university’s five academic schools. Teachers and administrators volunteered to determine if RPI would "be the right academic setting" for interested students.

The visiting scholars were then "put in touch with residential-life folks and student-life folks," said Bourgeois, "who took care of all kinds of details."

A group of volunteers, for example, made sure that each visiting scholar was greeted on arrival, and sessions were provided with the computer staff so the students could set up Internet accounts and be provided with the technology needed for class work.

The smooth transition for so many new students, Bourgeois said, "reflects what an extraordinary community we have...There’s been an enormous outpouring of support for this initiative. Everyone wants to help."

"So good to us"

Patrick O’Hara, as one of the recipients of that support, reiterates how grateful he is.

"RPI’s been amazing," he said. "We’re very grateful. They’re giving us free room and board....A lot of my friends are in the same quad I live in."

O’Hara, who is pursuing a double major in computer science and Asian studies at Tulane, says the computer courses at RPI are a perfect fit for him.

"A couple of the classes are the same as what I’d be taking at Tulane," he said.

He is hopeful he’ll be back at Tulane for the spring semester. "We’re all still planning to go to Tulane in the spring....Even if the city is in bad shape, Tulane is uptown, above most the flooding."

He described the old New Orleans as "as fun city." He stayed away from Bourbon Street which he described as "mostly a bunch of drunk tourists.

"I did like the French Quarter, some of the non-tourist places," he said.

Being "a local kid" with family nearby, he hasn’t "really suffered too much," said O’Hara.

He concluded, "I’m just so grateful that I got back home, and RPI is so good to us."

School budget-building: What role should citizens play"

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The school board here is looking at the way citizens participate in the budget-making process.

The superintendent surveyed recent members of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee after some of the volunteers had, in recent years, criticized the committee. Seventy-nine percent of those who returned surveys said the process should be revised.

In his report to the board Tuesday, Superintendent Gregory Aidala stressed the old adage that the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.

Last spring, the district’s $76 million budget passed with 54 percent voting in favor and 46 percent opposed. This was a decline in support for recent years, but it was also the year that the town of Guilderland reassessed property, with greatly increased values.

The district first set up a citizens’ committee to review budget proposals in 1977. The process was last revamped in 1993, after Guilderland voters soundly rejected a school budget for the first time in nearly two decades, causing the board to adopt a contingency plan.

The committee was changed, at the behest of board members, from a review committee to an advisory committee so that citizens would have more input and could decide on cuts outlined by the administration.

The revamped committee in 1994 — made up of 61 community residents, the nine school board members, and 10 administrators — was, at its first session, presented with a lengthy list of potential reductions to scale back a budget that would have brought a 21-percent tax hike.

The $44 million budget that ultimately resulted was soundly defeated that spring by a record number of Guilderland voters.

The following year, a $46 million budget passed handily on the first try — by a ratio of three to two. The tide had turned.

In recent years, committee sessions have been televised. The committee, made up of 15 to 30 members, has met five or six times in February and March, in two-hour sessions, largely hearing presentations from administrators, with a chance to comment during the last session.

Aidala’s survey, which was completed by 32 out of 85 recent committee members, was made up of seven questions. Fifty-nine percent thought the presentations helped them to understand the budget while some asked for shorter presentations and for focus on facts and figures.

Sixty-nine percent thought their involvement had made a difference in the budget adopted by the school board while others saw the committee as "window dressing" or "a big PR job."

Aidala recommended maintaining the committee but changing the format. His recommendations centered on limiting the televised presentation portion of each meeting to one hour. The next half-hour would be spent on small-group discussion, and, in the final half-hour, each small group would summarize for the larger group what was discussed.

Board views

While the board members agreed with the premise that the committee should be retained, with a changed format, most rejected the small-group discussion recommendation.

"Small groups don’t work for me," said board member Richard Weisz.

He suggested the first session be a presentation and the later sessions by used to "attack" issues such as class size, health and retirement benefits, privatizing some school functions, or special education. Comparisons would be made with other districts and facts and figures would be analyzed.

Later he mentioned other issues such as near-empty afternoon school-bus runs and examining what percentage of the budget is spent on administration.

"Some of this may be scary," said Weisz, as current school-district approaches are questioned.

Committee members feel now that they listen for 15 hours and have five minutes to speak, Weisz said; with his proposal they would sit and listen for the first session and than participate in working though presented problems.

"I’d like to get back up to our 60-percent approval," said Weisz of the budget vote.

Board member John Dornbush called Weisz’s approach "interesting," but said, "I’m afraid of raising expectations on things we won’t be able to act on." That, he said, could make committee members "really frustrated."

"We need to restore credibility and trust," said board member Thomas Nachod, stating that the board owed it to the public to investigate issues such as those raised by Weisz.

Some of the proposals could be acted on, he said, giving the example of privatization. "I’ve been told you can do it in 60 days," said Nachod.

"We ought to open it up to everything," said board member Peter Golden. "Give them a sort of an open session."

"The intractable problem is people have opinions but varying levels of knowledge," said board Vice President Linda Bakst.

Some of the most useful committee suggestions are from people with professional experience, said Bakst. Speaking with a political bent, she said "is of limited use."

Reading the survey results, Bakst said, "I don’t know we need to change all that much."

She suggested making the presentations shorter and more factual and analytic, and making sure everyone has a chance to speak.

"Small groups with fixed questions and leaders...is almost too contrived," said board member Barbara Fraterrigo.

She said that more than 80 percent of the budget costs are fixed and recommended examining union contracts, the biggest part of the budget.

Fraterrigo also said presentations should be shorter and stated of participants, "You have a right to question anything, but you do it politely."

Colleen O'Connell asked if Weisz’s idea would lead more to philosophical discussion. "Do you see it as looking forward to the next budget"" she asked.

Board member Catherine Barber said that a common theme from the budget committee members is that they need to be given more information. "I think that’s a good idea," she said. She described the members as "a cross-section" and said, "People are not shy about expressing themselves...Somehow it all works out."

"I don’t think we need to change a whole lot with this process," said Dornbush.

He also said that voters are not swayed by how the citizens’ budget meetings are conducted.

President Gene Danese concluded, "It will give people satisfaction" in participating in the process.

Aidala said the board’s input will be taken into account as the recommendations are revised. He said he understood from the board that presentations should be limited to an hour.

"We’d like to have something in place before we start the process in February," he said.

Public input

The first opportunity that citizens have to participate in budget-building comes next month.

On Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. in the high school’s large-group instruction room, district residents are invited to share their views on the budget with the school board.

The autumn public session was initiated in 1998, and was strenuously debated by the board at the time. The long-time board members had argued then that the community already had avenues for input — through school cabinets, board meetings, and communicating with board members — and that administrators were best aware of school needs.

The newer board members — including Bakst, Danese, and Fraterrigo — argued in 1997 that early public input was important.

"The piece that’s missing is that priority-setting should be linked to the budget process," said Bakst at the time.

Danese agreed and Fraterrigo said, "It would be useful early on in the process to get some publicity, some hype, on a brainstorming session...Invite groups to come and share their input....We should work towards the community feeling some ownership."

Tuesday, the board discussed the turnout of 30 citizens at last year’s fall session. The participants have typically been seated in a circle with school board members for the session.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders said the large number made such an arrangement awkward for televising and suggested participants register in advance so accommodations can be made.

Although Dornbush said the idea was a good one, he stated, "We don’t want the public to perceive any additional barriers."

In the beginning, it was thought of as an informal discussion, said Bakst, but it really isn’t. She said the room could be set up as it is for school-board meetings, where a gallery faces the board members, who are seated behind tables in front. Those addressing the board, one by one, step up to a microphone to speak.

"We’ll start advertising," said Aidala, "and ask people to let us know if they plan to come, and adjust accordingly."

Reservoir on the rise"

By Matt Cook

GUILDERLAND — While Watervliet’s engineer has confidence in a project that would raise the city’s reservoir in Guilderland five feet, some Guilderland residents are wary.

According to Jim Besha, president of Albany Engineering Corporation, consulting engineer for Watervliet, the plan is to modify the dam on the Normanskill to stabilize the surface of the reservoir at 267 feet above sea level. Currently, Besha said, the reservoir fluctuates with the seasons, reaching 267 feet only in the spring.

The higher dam would increase the reservoir’s capacity by half, flooding 50 acres to bring the surface area to about 980 acres. Watervliet plans to sell the excess water to other municipalities in need.

Computer-operated steel gates would replace wooden flashboards on the top of the concrete dam, automatically altering the flow out of the reservoir to maintain the water level. Watervliet taxpayers would pick up the $3 million bill.

At a meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Best Western in Guilderland, reservoir neighbor James Green noted that part of his property floods every spring.

"If we go to 267 full time, is that field going to be underwater"" Green asked.

Other Guilderland residents are concerned about pollution in the reservoir. Built in 1915 and owned by Watervliet, it provides drinking water to all of Watervliet and those in Guilderland with public water.

Thadeus Ausfeld, who runs the Guilderland water-treatment plant, warned against sedimentation. Mud and other material from upstream is slowly clogging the reservoir, and will eventually bury Guilderland’s water intake pipes, Ausfeld said.

"We’re going to make a swamp into a bigger swamp. It doesn’t make sense," Ausfeld told The Enterprise.

Charles Rielly co-chairs, with Ausfeld, the Restoration Advisory Board which advises the Army Corps of Engineers on the cleanup of the old Army depot in Guilderland Center. The Black Creek, which the depot had used to remove waste, feeds the reservoir. At Tuesday’s meeting, Rielly read a prepared statement warning against sedimentation and pollution off of nearby Route 20.

Both Ausfeld and Rielly, along with some other Restoration Advisory Board members, support dredging the reservoir before changes are made to the dam. They have been unable to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to pay for tests that would document whether toxic waste from the old depot has migrated to the reservoir.

"Along Route 20, where fishing was once popular in my lifetime, only a foot or so of water covers a large area of mudflats," Rielly said. "Dredging these mudflats and depositing the material on the bank would extend the shoreline out from the highway, thereby providing a buffer for vehicular accidents and possible terrorist attacks."

Besha has said the reservoir doesn’t need to be dredged.

"From an environmental standpoint, there’s just not that much sediment in the reservoir," he told The Enterprise in April.

The Watervliet Reservoir’s watershed is one of the largest in the state, Besha said. It covers nine towns, three counties, and 120 square miles. Because the watershed is so large, he said, the reservoir almost always stays near its full capacity even while other local reservoirs, like the Alcove Reservoir in Coeymans, decline significantly in dry seasons.

However, Ausfeld and Rielly are worried the large watershed could be a source of pollutants and silt. They recommend creating a comprehensive watershed management plan.

"Watervliet should take charge," Ausfeld said.

Besha countered that Watervliet only has control over the reservoir.

"They can’t tell the town of Knox, the town of Duanesburg, the town of Guilderland what they can and cannot do in the watershed," Besha said. The only city in the state that has been given that kind of power is New York City, he said.

After the meeting, Besha questioned Ausfeld and Rielly’s data. He showed The Enterprise a map of the watershed his firm prepared with 1,272 data points, indicating very little pollution. If the water were polluted, Besha said, Watervliet wouldn’t do the project, because it wouldn’t be able to sell the water to other municipalities.

A man, a plan, a dam

The Watervliet Reservoir is in the center of Guilderland, surrounded by routes 20, 158, and 146. Few people see it in its entirety, at least legally. The reservoir is closed to the public except for a small fishing area on the south shore.

Last Thursday, Besha, who grew up in Guilderland and now lives in Berne, led local press on a tour of the reservoir in a Watervliet boat. Though the Everglades-style airboat broke down several times on the trip and eventually ran out of gas, forcing the reporters to paddle back to shore, Besha got a chance to explain Watervliet’s vision.

Once the gates are in place, he said, the reservoir’s capacity will increase about 50 percent, from 1.29 billion gallons to 1.9 billion gallons, flooding 50 acres in a thin strip along the jagged shoreline, owned by Watervliet, bringing the total surface area up to roughly 480 acres. The trees on the shore will be cut back to make room for the expansion, Besha said.

The extra water will accommodate the needs of Watervliet and a growing Guilderland with enough left over to sell to other towns, Besha said. Some towns have already expressed interest, he said, but he declined to say which.

As the boat crossed the water last Thursday, it cut a path through a dense mass of floating plants: European water chestnuts. Though too much chestnut growth in the reservoir is bad for water quality, Besha said, the water chestnuts suck up a lot of nutrients, keeping worse invaders, like millfoil, out.

"We try to control it but not eradicate it," he said.

Along the shore, small but steep cliffs of clay and dirt rise out of the water in several spots. At Tuesday’s meeting, a few residents said the reservoir is eroding into the shoreline and they are worried the increase in surface level will make the problem worse.

"In the past 50 years, I’ve lost about 15 feet on the other side of the road in front of my house," said one elderly woman who lives near the reservoir.

John Privitera, an attorney who represents a family that lives along the reservoir, told Besha to be prepared for massive erosion, however uncommon. He mentioned how a section of Delaware Avenue went plummeting towards the Normanskill a few years ago, rerouting traffic between Delmar and Albany for months.

"We really have to think about that 500-year sloping event," Privitera said.

Stabilizing the reservoir may actually slow down erosion, Besha said.

"We believe that increasing the depth of the reservoir may improve the water quality and minimize erosion," Besha said. Later in the meeting, he said, "If the reservoir was taken out entirely, the slopes would still be unstable because of what they are."

To all those who had questions and comments at the meeting, Besha said there is a lot more work to do.

Because a small amount of hydro-power is generated by the water overflowing the dam, the project requires approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Watervliet is applying for an amendment to its license from the commission, and part of that process is a series of studies.

Among other things, Besha said, the city will be completing a water quality and sedimentation study; a historical and archeological survey; a topographic and bathymetric survey, measuring depth; a geotechnical slope-stability study; and a recreational-use survey.

In addition, Besha said, Watervliet will lead a full environmental impact assessment under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), though the state Department of Environmental Conservation does not require it for hydro-electric projects.

Still, residents are cautious. Green’s wife, Susan Green, remembered "fish going through my lower field" during a particularly wet spring.

"I really think that there’s too much of a rush to this project," Mrs. Green said.

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