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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, December 22, 2005

Historic land put in trust"

By Matt Cook

KNOX—One of the Hilltowns’ original plots of land may be preserved from development forever.

At a town-board meeting last Tuesday, the Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy asked the town to apply to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets for a grant to purchase a conservation easement on 250 acres of land belonging to Mark Scott. Contained entirely in the land is one of the original great lots owned by the Van Rensselaer patroon family.

The land was also the site of the final battle of the Anti-Rent Wars, a conflict between the feudal patroons and the farmers who were forced to pay rent on their property.

"It’s like an antique," Scott told The Enterprise.

When he bought the land 20 years ago, Scott said, he didn’t know about its history, but then a friend recommended he read Tin Horns and Calico: A Decisive Episode in the Emergence of Democracy, Henry Christman’s book about the Anti-Rent Wars.

In the book, Christman describes a standoff on the property, which was then Peter Warner’s farm. In July of 1866, Between 70 and 80 anti-rent farmers gathered at the farm while the army, led by Colonel Walter Church, approached.

"The farmers scattered...but Church’s ‘skirmishers worked well,’ and eight prisoners were taken. Shots were fired at the fleeing farmers, and at least one was wounded," Christman writes.

Warner and his family, however, "maintained the most stoical indifference in the face of the disturbance, even when Colonel Church and his soldiers broke into the house," Christman writes.

Scott has a much more amicable relationship with his tenant. He rents out farmland to his neighbor, Harold Zimmer.

Scott said he had been trying to find a way to preserve his land from development for several years when he learned about the Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy from its president, Daniel Driscoll. Both men are members of the Knox Planning Board.

If Scott were to sell the easement to the conservancy, he would forfeit his development rights on the property.

"The countryside is vanishing," Scott said. He doesn’t want that to happen on his land.

"My thinking is, my legacy will be that I was the one who preserved it," he said.

He compared it to the vintage motorcycles he collects.

"You wouldn’t paint flames on the tank of an Indian motorcycle, and I wouldn’t want to see houses on the top of the hill here," Scott said.

Driscoll and the conservancy’s new executive director, Jill Knapp, addressed the town board Tuesday. They said the Department of Agriculture and Markets allows only governmental organizations to apply for the grant.

First, Driscoll said, the conservancy asked the Albany County Farmland Protection Bureau to apply for the grant, but the bureau declined, offering to send a letter of endorsement instead.

The conservancy owns 12 preserves in Albany County and one in Montgomery County. It also owns one easement, on Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland, which it got through a similar grant, applied for by the town of New Scotland, Driscoll said.

If Knox agreed, Driscoll said, the conservancy would prepare the grant application, hold the easement, and perform the required easement inspections. If the town preferred, Driscoll said, Knox could hold the easement.

When the easement was appraised four years ago, Driscoll said, it was worth $150,000. Scott is willing to sell it at a 25-percent discount, Driscoll said.

Supervisor Michael Hammond asked how such an easement would affect the town’s tax base. Driscoll responded that, in New York, taxes are assessed based on the current use of the property.

"By taking away the development rights and putting the easement on a property, you don’t change the current use," he said.

The town board was generally in favor of applying for the grant.

"I’m a supporter of the idea," said Councilman Nicholas Viscio. "It’s right down the pipe of what the comprehensive plan intends to do."

The town’s attorney, however, was hesitant. John Dorfman said he had not heard about the easement until the town board meeting.

"It sounds fantastic, but I have absolutely no idea how to advise the board on it," Dorfman said.

For example, Dorfman asked if the town could back out of an easement agreement if the grant is received but the easement is unsatisfactory.

Since the grant application is due soon, Jan. 23, the Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy agreed to start work on it while Dorfman researches the legal ramifications for the town. Dorfman said he will talk to New Scotland’s attorney.

Other business:

In other business at the Dec. 13 meeting, the Knox Town Board:

—Held a public hearing on the town’s Section 8 housing program, for residents with low incomes. Section 8 administrator Joe Mastriani told the board people stay in the Section 8 program for an average of four to five years, and seven to 10 years if they are elderly or disabled;

—Scheduled the 2006 reorganizational meeting for Jan. 1 at 9 a.m.;

—Sold used town equipment to the highest bidder: a 1986 Mac RD600 truck, a 1958 FWD snowblower, and a 40-yard roll-off container. Mike Oliver, of Davenport, got the truck for $7,000. Gary Hollenbeck, of Sloansville, got the snowblower for $750 and the container for $1,750;

—Heard a request from Robert Price for a crosswalk in the hamlet of Knox across Route 156 in front of the post office. Although the speed limit there is 45 miles per hour, Price said, he saw a crosswalk in Schoharie where the limit is 40 miles per hour.

"I think it would make the hamlet a little bit more friendly," Price said.

Hammond said he would ask the state about it;

—Discussed advertising for a secretary for the planning board and the zoning board of appeals. Price, the planning board chairman, estimated the job would pay about $600 per year; and

—Recognized Councilman Charles Conklin for his 10 years on the town board. It was his last meeting. Conklin did not run for reelection because he has been ill with cancer.

"Your contributions to the board have been very valuable," Hammond told Conklin. "We hope the best for you."

Conklin said he’s looking forward to coming back to town board meetings and serving on committees once his health improves.

"It’s been very exciting for me," Conklin said. "I’ve learned a lot."

It was also the last meeting for town clerk Deborah Liddle, who lost the fall election to Kimberly Swain.

Preserve or develop" Proposed subdivision in Westerlo

By Matt Cook

WESTERLO — While a developer is seeking to subdivide Westerlo farmland for 14 new homes, a town board member has proposed changes to local laws to prepare for development in the future.

In the northwest corner of town, along Stewart Road, Properties of New York, Inc., of Catskill, has proposed a 14-lot subdivision on 161 acres of land, much of it old farmland. Some of the project’s neighbors aren’t happy about the proposal.

"I just want to see responsible development and that proposal is not responsible development," said Paul Baitsholts, a lifetime Hilltowner who, with his wife, Helene Goldberger, owns over 400 acres just across the town line in Berne and Rensselaerville.

The subdivision proposal is currently before the Westerlo Planning Board, which is made up of town board members since the town board disbanded the planning board. Properties of New York intends to purchase the property—formerly the McCormick farm—from Richard and Mary Lynn Rebusmen, of New Preston, Conn.

Jesse Santo, project manager for Properties of New York, said his company will sell the property, called Emerald Meadows, as vacant lots.

The Rebusmens were unavailable for comment, but Baitsholts said his former neighbors attempted, and failed, to farm the land for one year.

He suspects the soil is too shallow.

No impact"

Baitsholts thinks the site is not suited at all for the type of development proposed. In addition to having soil too shallow for proper foundations and septic systems, the landscape is too hilly for driveways that would allow emergency vehicles, he said.

Urbanites looking to escape to the country might be attracted to the subdivision, but will expect a proper road; Stewart road is near impassable in the winter, Baitsholts said. So, he said, the burden will fall on the town to improve it.

"The developer isn’t here to stay," Baitsholts said. "He’s going to take his money and leave everything else for the town."

Baitsholts claims the water runoff from the development will end up in the Lone Goose Pond; he and his wife own the pond and they rent cottages on its shore in the summer. The couple is asking the planning board to require an environmental impact statement from Properties of New York.

In a letter to the planning board, Joan Leary Matthews, the attorney for Baitsholts and Goldberger, writes, "My clients are...greatly concerned that a subdivision with septic systems for wastewater treatment is inappropriate given the poor soils on the former McCormick property. Specifically, their concern is that runoff will pollute Lone Goose Pond, making it less available for the human visitors and wildlife to enjoy.

"At this point, a very thin file supports this application and my clients are concerned about what appears to be a less-than-thorough review of the potentially significant environmental impacts of this project."

In the subdivision application, Properties of New York claims there are "no significant impacts anticipated."

"We did soil tests in conjunction with the Albany County Department of Health and found that all those lots are capable of supporting on-site sewer disposal systems," Elliot Fischman, the project’s engineer, told The Enterprise.

As for the hills, Fischman said, Emerald Meadows is typical of subdivisions in the area, many of which have lots on much steeper slopes.

"This isn’t hilly as far as I’m concerned," Fischman said.

Baitsholts and Goldberger are also worried about the impact the subdivision would have on the area’s rural character.

"The beauty of the Hilltowns is that we have so much space," Baitsholts said. A lot of people, especially from downstate, want to move to the country for that reason, he said.

However, Baitsholts said, "The ripple effect is large." Too much growth could turn the Hilltowns into just another suburban area, he said.

Baitsholts supports smart development with an eye towards preserving open space. He and his wife use some of their land for making hay and raising horses, but most of it is vacant woodland.

"We’re fortunate we can afford to pay the taxes to keep it," Baitsholts said.

Open space, Baitsholts said, is not only nice scenery, but it doesn’t demand town or school-district services.

"Houses do not generate as much money as they use," he said. "This open space benefits everybody."

Santo pointed out that Westerlo’s minimum lot size is three acres, and the smallest lot in Emerald Meadows is twice that. The average lot size in the subdivision is 12 acres, he said.

If the subdivision is approved, Santo said, further subdivision on the 14 lots won’t be allowed.

"When residents don’t want a lot of houses in their area, you’d think they’d go to the zoning board and ask them for 15-acre zoning," said Fischman, a veteran of several Hilltown subdivision projects. "They never do."

Planning board

Richard Rapp, planning board chairman and town supervisor, said the developers came to a planning board meeting last Wednesday, Dec. 7.

"A lot of the people on the board have a lot of questions for them," Rapp said.

At the meeting, Rapp said, a number of questions were asked by both board members and residents. The planning board has yet to approve or deny the proposal and is waiting for a report from the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps is involved in any proposal for development that involves a federal wetlands.

Rapp said the planning board will decide at its next meeting if the developers need to submit more information.

Fischman and Santo are confident the project will get approved and that the complaints are unwarranted.

"We don’t think it’s an aggressive subdivision by any stretch of the imagination," Fischman said.

Rash’s proposal

Westerlo Councilman Edward Rash is proposing changes that could affect projects similar to Emerald Meadows in the future. Rash said his proposals are not a reaction to anything specific.

"I’ve had this on my computer for 10 months, making changes to it," Rash said. The town board has spent most of its time in the past year forming the new Westerlo Water District, Rash said, but that project is winding down now. He wanted to get his proposals out before the new year, he said.

Rash supports the town’s creating a comprehensive land-use plan, and intends his proposals to address pressing zoning and planning issues until that plan is made, especially since more and more people are moving away from the suburbs and cities.

"I thought that this would be best to act as a stopgap," Rash said.

Westerlo is the fastest growing of the Hilltowns; it is closest to the Catskills, where New York City residents have oftened vacationed.

Among other things, Rash calls for changes in Westerlo’s minimum lot size, from three to five acres for a single-family home, and from five to seven acres for a two-family home. Rash said this lot size provides a more appropriate space for a house, a two-car garage, outbuildings, and a well and septic system that meet health-department regulations.

Rash said he based his numbers on those of neighboring towns.

In his proposal, Rash also sets down a rule for subdivisions. They are not to exceed more than 10 units in any stage of their development, he proposes.

In addition to the more specific items, Rash also suggested some broader actions, such as setting aside green space to be protected, creating a right-to-farm law, and researching light pollution.

"At my house, if I look in one direction, I see an orange glow in the sky," Rash said.

The view of the stars is one reason people like living in the Hilltowns, Rash said, noting too much light can ruin the night view. He pointed out, "There are no more stars up here than you have in Albany."

Rash’s proposed study would investigate how much lighting is necessary and ways to curtail the excess.

On a right-to-farm law and preserving agriculture, Rash said, "That’s an important thing. It’s our heritage."

Besides agriculture, Rash wants to include recreational activities such as hunting, training animals, and operating an all-terrain vehicles on the list of accepted uses for property.

"These things are indigenous to the Hilltowns," Rash writes in his proposal.

Rash’s proposal was given to the town board at its last meeting, Dec. 6, for consideration and discussion next month. Rash believes the board will support his ideas.

"I feel that’s what the people want," he said. "The board always tries to do what the people want."

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