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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 25, 2006

Smooth Grievance Day for board well versed in the art of assessment

By Holly Grosch

NEW SCOTLAND — Grievance Day at Town Hall ran very smoothly in New Scotland on Tuesday, while other nearby communities faced with town-wide re-assessment, like New Scotland, had people lining up for hours throughout the day.

The New Scotland assessor had suggested and organized meeting beforehand, "which especially helped," said Roselyn Robinson, a member of the board of assessment review. Appointments had been scheduled, and, over the last week-and-a-half, in three-full-day and two-half-day sessions, the board of assessment review heard about 190 cases ahead of time, Assessor Julie Nooney said.

The board serves as a safety-valve for residents who don’t think the assessor’s appraisal of their property is fair. The board reviews the evidence and can change the assessment. Board members receive a three hour training course from the state when they are first appointed to their post by the town board, and have to attend training again, each time their term is renewed.

A visit to Town Hall in mid-afternoon on the state-set Grievance Day, May 23, found the parking lot bare and nobody waiting for a hearing. Nooney was standing outside, grabbing some sun and a breath of fresh air with the board of assessment review chairman, Paul Nichols.

The days have begun to run together, Nooney said.

Other board of assessment review members were lingering around the meeting hall, and a few had gone home, leaving a quorum behind in case a resident straggled in, otherwise the board remained on an extended break. The afternoon saw only a very slow trickle of property owners with grievances. Over the course of an hour, only one person came in with a grievance request.

The biggest rush was in the morning. The doors opened at 8:30 a.m. and by10:30 a.m. about 40 cases had been heard, and the number of people waiting had dwindled significantly, Nichols said.

"A lot of credit goes to the people themselves," Nichols said. They came very well prepared for their hearings, so things moved quickly. People are more informed than they have ever been, Nichols said; they used their computers, found their own comparables on-line, and prepared Excel speared sheets.

Ten years ago, during the last town-wide reassessment, people were much less prepared, Nichols said; they often came in with just a few handwritten notes.

The Enterprise made a return visit to Town Hall after 6 p.m. for the anticipated after-work rush, but that yielded only eight residents with grievances through 8:30 p. m. The full board was in attendance for the evening session.

"There has been less than I expected," Nichols said.

By the end of the night, about 73 residents had came to Town Hall on Grievance Day. Adding that to the number of people who appeared at earlier hearings, a total of about 264 grievance applications were submitted.

People used to rely more on professional appraisers to make their case before the board, Nichols said; he is a 10 year veteran of the board. Nowadays, people know more about the process, and have the technical capabilities to do their own work, he said.

Board members

Nichols is a retired real-estate broker, which is a common field for members of the New Scotland Board of Assessment Review. The board’s newest member as of this year, Janna Shillinglaw, is a Realtor in Voorheesville. Roselyn Robinson is a real-estate attorney.

Shillinglaw, who has five years’ experience as a Realtor, said her profession helps her to attest to the "curb appeal" of a home, the subjective things that affect the value of a house, she said. Also she has a good sense of the market, as well, she said.

John McKenzie, of Cass Hill Road, just outside of Clarksville, has been on the board of review for 30 years, except for a three-year gap when he took a break. He is a lawyer, retired from working for the state. He started on the board in the 1970’s, he said, because as a resident, he was confused by the formulas. He wanted to be on the board because the whole system of waiting so many years between re-valuations was flawed, something that he agrees is still a problem today. Over time, he has come to learn that there is often not a black or white computation, and that there are a considerable number of factors, he said.

"This town has done exceptionally well communicating to people this is a human process," which comes with some flaw, and the residents have been well informed of their ample opportunities to correct those flaws, he said.

Nooney’s attempts to reach out to the public in preliminary hearings has given the board of assessment review a more meaningful position in the process now, McKenzie said.

With 30 years of experience, McKenzie said, he can tell by the numbers — such as total acres or amount of living space, or the number of bed rooms or baths — the value of a property. He has a better sense of what the numbers means, than someone with less experience, he said. After time, he said, "You can appreciate, too,"when someone presents a good case."

When someone comes in with a commercial appraisal, that is the best evidence, he can have to support his case, McKenzie said. The second best piece of evidence is an actual sale price of the home from within the last year or two, he said.

A more difficult scenario to judge is when someone comes in with what he believes to be comparables. "This is really a matter of an art rather than science," he said.

"People select so-called comparables that are favorable to them," he said and it’s his job as a board member to determine whether or not they really are comparables.

"Determining comparables is really one of the more complicated challenges we have had," McKenzie said.

"I’m often impressed with young people and their knowledge," he went on; they are more informed about the real-estate market than he ever was at that age.

Robinson said she reminds herself as she reviews each case that the law says, "The burden of proof is on the citizen." The assessment board of review has to believe that the assessor’s value is accurate until convinced otherwise.

People can have a very sympathetic case, Robinson said, such as they are suffering from an illness or can’t afford to pay more in taxes, but those kinds of things have to be disregarded when deciding on a person's property value, which at times can be hard to do.

Robinson and Andrew Barothy-Langer are both long-time New Scotland Republican Committee members. "We’re the only Republicans on the board," Barothy-Langer said. Robinson has been on the board for about eight years and Barothy-Langer for 15 years. This is his last, he said; he is 88 years old with a sharp mind.

Tuesday, he had brought with him to the board table a picture of his son in an Air Force uniform, and books illustrating the elite hotel, his other son manages. Barothy-Langer is celebrating is 50th anniversary of being an American citizen this year. He came to the United States 56 year ago after serving in the Soviet army doing World War II, he said. He now wears a small American flag pin on the lapel of his suit coat.

A native of Hungary, Barothy-Langer is retired from New York State’s Department of Transportation, where for years he did mapping.

Barothy-Langer and McKenzie reminisced together how the atmosphere in assessment board of review hearings has changed over time. There are more women on the board now, McKenzie said, and more women representing themselves in hearings as well, he said. Virtually half of the residents with grievances are women, which is a lot different from how it used to be, McKenzie said; in the ‘70’s it was rare for a case to be presented by a woman.

And often now, when a husband and wife come in together, it is the wife who speaks for the couple, Barothy-Langer said.

Property values have drastically changed over the years, too. Anything over $100,000 was a mansion when he first started on the board, McKenzie said. Now, he said, he can see why people are complaining about their numbers; there are so many houses that are valued at $300,000 and $400,000. There were definitely no million-dollar homes in New Scotland in the ‘70’s as there are now, he said.

A few hearings

Three hearings give a sampling of what residents were complaining about and using to prove their cases.

A man who owns a two-family home brought in sale prices of 18 other two- family homes as comparables to bring his assessment down to $201,033. The average value of the 18 similar houses, he said, was $226,033. But then, he was also subtracting $25,000 because of water issues; he has a very low yielding well, he said.

A single woman who lives on New Scotland Road discussed with the board how her building is in disrepair. The outside has never been painted, and the wood is starting to rot; no gutters were ever put on, so the water falls right off the roof and creates problem, and she needs to put a drainage system in her land to divert large puddles; and the dirt and gravel driveway needs $5,000 worth of repairs. Also, she pointed out, while she does have public water, her water pressure is very low.

A couple who live on Clipp Road, began their hearing by first pointing out that their inventory sheet listed incorrectly the number of baths they had — they have one-and-a-half baths, not two, they said. They had a hard time finding comparables for their residence since it’s a log cabin, so they compared it to a more luxurious log house and talked about why theirs was worth less. After they left the meeting hall, board member Robinson asked Nooney to pull up on the computer other log cabins in New Scotland, for the board to compare.

"We have quite a few log cabins in town, but they are set back from the road," Nooney said so people are not familiar with them. Nooney showed Robinson the pictures and inventory sheets.

Residents who submitted a grievance application will receive a letter in the mail from the board of assessment review with their determination by July 1, Nichols said.

Grown up V’ville Scout wins forest ranger award

By Holly Grosch

INDIAN LAKE — His childhood days as a Voorheesville Boy Scout made Greg George want to become a state forest ranger. After 29 years in the field, he was recognized this year with the annual Hodgson Award for his region — the Central Adirondacks. George was honored for his leadership, heroism, and commitment to public service as a ranger.

A major part of his job is search and rescue. Seventy to 80 percent of the land in Indian Lake is state owned, George said. His territory, which is the whole township, transverses 93 square miles that he "knows the ins and outs" of, he said. He has undertaken white-water, rock-climbing, and forest rescues.

Most of the time, rescues involve finding people who are lost, he said. Half the people who enter the wilderness do so unprepared, George said. "Most of them get out with dumb luck," he said.

Search and rescue

The biggest danger to nature-adventure-seekers can be themselves. Hikers regularly head out without watching the weather or the time, and lose track of where they are going, or wander off a trail, he said. They think they will only be gone for a few hours and they have no safety-prevention kit, no way to build a fire, no extra provision of food or water, and no flashlight, he said. And, usually, the people who get lost are the ones who don’t even sign in at a trailhead registry, so it takes a couple of days, before George is notified someone is missing. It can be many days before a person is found, he said.

Just last week, George was scouring the Adirondacks for a man from Stillwater. He went missing on Friday and was reported missing on Tuesday. A friend found his parked empty truck and searchers started looking from there. It is believed that he had gone fishing — they never found him.

On average, in Indian Lake township, there are 10 search-and-rescue missions a year, but there are about 250 searches per year in the whole Central Adirondack region, which rangers join in to help each other. Searches are very intensive, George said.

Rangers prefer searching for lost hunters at night, he said. While calls about missing hunters are often received as darkness falls, the night actually helps in the search, George said. The forest its quieter at night with animals asleep so calling out and waiting for a yell back is more practical. Also, no other people are in the woods, and the missing person is most likely not moving in the dark and will remain in one spot. And fires or flares are more visible.

Jack of all trade

George is trained as a wilderness first responder, which is one step below an emergency medical technician, he said. Rangers are not necessarily experts at rock-climbing or white-water boating, George said, but they know the best access points, the best ways to reach and rescue.

"We don’t normally climb up to rescue someone" on a cliff’s edge, George said. Instead a ranger is lowered from the top, down to the subject, which is much easier and safer, he said.

Being a ranger, George said, is a jack of all trades. He is an educator on such matters as fire prevention. He also does trail clearing and maintenance, trail marking and lean-to-repair. And, he monitors remote campers, those who hike four or five miles into isolation and then set up a private camp.

State Forest Rangers, hold "peace-officer status," so they have the ability to enforce environmental laws, such as logging and fire regulations. There’s a lot of public relations in being a forest ranger, he said.

George also works to educate and prevent bear and human interaction.

While black bears in Canada have attacked humans, the black bear in the Adirondacks for some reason have been docile in nature, George said. He has been at Indian Lake with his wife and two children for 23 years; their son is 26 and their daughter is 21. Bear attacks are so rare that he can only remember one incident where a woman was scratched by a bear. She got in the middle of a fight between a bear and her dog, George said.

Moratorium on the horizon for the Northeast "

By Holly Grosch

NEW SCOTLAND — After two public hearings and two citizens’ petitions, none of New Scotland’s town board members want to proceed with re-zoning the northeast quadrant to two acres or larger. Some members are now calling for a moratorium on large subdivisions in the northeast so the town can consider and implement different planning and zoning strategies.

Re-zoning to two acres had been the request of about 107 residents in October under the leadership of the Northeast Neighborhood Association, which submitted a petition to the town board. In reaction, the board then drafted a law for consideration; where the medium-density residential zone above the old D&H Railroad bed would be changed to R-2, meaning lots must be 2 acre parcels or larger instead of the 22,000 square feet per parcel that is currently permitted where there is public water and sewer.

The citizens’ re-zone request was in response to a proposal for a 282-unit residential development called Kennsington Woods around Hilton Road.

The Enterprise interviewed all five of the town board members — two Republicans and three Democrats individually to learn what direction they want to go in planning for the northeast quadrant. The re-zone bill was not placed on the town’s agenda this month.

Last week, Robert Griffin, the president of the neighborhood association, said that his organization was still hopeful that their re-zone request would be granted, and that they had not wavered on their position. "We’re attempting to maintain the character of New Scotland," he said. He believes that permitting only larger lots would maintain rural character. The concern is density, he said.

Supervisor Ed Clark, a Republican, was the least decided of all the board members. He said he is still not sure how he wants to pursue the issue.

"I haven’t made up my mind yet," he said of the zoning. Clark is in no hurry to make a decision either, he said, because he wants to wait and watch the direction of Kensington Woods, which could take a long time. Any town board member could make the recommendation for the proposed law to be placed on the town-board agenda, Clark pointed out.

Richard Reilly, a Democratic councilman told The Enterprise he is going to suggest a moratorium on large subdivisions in the northeast quadrant, while plans are drafted.

"Just on the face of it, it sounds attractive," Clark said on Wednesday of Reilly’s recommendation for a moratorium after hearing about it from The Enterprise. He said he would like to think about it some more.

Town board member Douglas LaGrange, a Republican told The Enterprise that he’s ready to vote "no" on the proposed re-zone. "I still don’t feel an inordinate amount of reason to do it," he said of re-zoning. Additionally, he said, switching to two-acre zoning wouldn’t necessarily affect Kensington Woods as people hope. That development is proposed to be a planned unit development (PUD), a re-zone that needs to be approved by the town board and would supercede the zoning in the area, he said.

LaGrange wants to put the proposed law on the town-board agenda in June, and give the courtesy to all parties involved a definitive "yea" or "nay."

Large landowners located within the medium-density residential zone in question also organized a petition and submitted it to the town last month. They’re in opposition to re-zoning to two acres.

There are about 36 lines of signatures on this petition; many of the signers are Donatos and residents along Front Grove Road. The Donatos own the land where Kennsington Woods is proposed. Some full names repeat, but the petition is organized to count each individual parcel, rather than people, so that individuals who own much of land are counted more than once. Since the signers of the petition own at least 20 percent of the land that would be affected by the re-zone, the petition forces a supermajority for the local law to pass, meaning four out of five town board members must support it.

LaGrange said he hears resident’s concerns about quality-of-life issues such as increased traffic, but all these things will be addressed during the environmental-quality review and planning board site-plan review. Re-zoning to two acres "is not the tool that should be used," he said. He went on to say that he’s glad the residents organized petitions because it stimulated thought and facilitated discussion that needed to happen.

Call for moratorium

"Simply re-zoning MDR to R-2 won’t be effective in dealing with the concerns" residents have, Councilmen Reilly said. "It’s replacing one form of sprawl"with another form of sprawl;" two-acre lots just create bigger yards, he said. His recommendation is to either table the proposed law or vote it down.

He told The Enterprise he’d like to take a more comprehensive approach.

Reilly is calling for a short moratorium for large subdivisions of 10 or more homes in the northeast quadrant. This would apply only to new applications so as not to undercut any pending projects, including Kennsington Woods, which would still proceed on schedule, Reilly said.

Over the course of a limited nine-month moratorium, town officials can work to draft zoning changes, that will accomplish goals that are best for the town, Reilly said. The 1994 comprehensive plan and all the engineering studies show that this area zoned MDR, is appropriate for residential development, he said. Reilly envisions a small group of town officials coming up with recommendations that would be more fair than a blanket 2-R, he said.

He’s looking to combine increased average minimum lot size with increased flexibility for the planning board.

For example, Reilly said, if the existing R-2 in the northeast quadrant were bumped up to become a 3-acre lot size minimum, and a landowner wants to subdivided a parcel that is nine acres in total, there could be the traditional three lots of three acres each, or 2 two-acre lots and one five-acre lot, so that the average would be no more than three acres each.

There could also be an increase in average lot size for the MDR area, Reilly said, but then he would like to give the planning board the flexibility and authority to decrease the density back to MDR levels if the proposal incorporates certain desirable factors, such as development toward the rear of the property, preservation of open space or vistas, or incorporating affordable housing in the mix.

Developers could give the town "big bonuses to bring them back to current MDR levels, " Reilly said.

Trust in the planning board process

Councilwoman Deborah Baron, who grew up on a farm, said she is sympathetic to large-property owners, since that’s her parents. There are two separate issues going on here, Baron said: Kennsington Woods as a proposed development is one, and re-zoning is another.

"I’m not ready to rush right now into big changes," she said of re-zoning.

She watched a change in people, Baron said, over the course of the two public hearings — one in January and one the first week in May. While a lot of the same things were said at both, and there are still clearly two distinct sides, she thinks each side now has a better understanding of the other. She left the May session more at ease, she said.

There is more of a desire for a compromise now, she said, a "meeting of the minds."

Baron sees public opinion as evenly split now. While the majority at public hearings have spoken in favor of re-zoning to less density. Many of the large landowners in the area to be rezoned oppose it, she said. Factoring in how much property each side of opinion has, she sees it as an equal split, about 50/50 for and against.

Baron, a Democrat, said, if a vote came up at the next meeting, she would vote against changes right now.

Like Clark, Baron said she just wants to wait and first follow through with Kennsington Woods "bit by bit." She trusts in the planning board process, she said.

Baron said, since planning isn’t her expertise, she’ll follow the lead of some of the other board members. After The Enterprise brought up Reilly’s desire for a moratorium, Baron said, "I wouldn’t be opposed to that."

It would be good to stop and take a breath, she said.

"I listened very closely at the hearings — I think people who spoke had heartfelt concerns," said Councilwoman Margaret (Peg) Neri, a Democrat. The great concern is where the town is going in terms of sprawl and density, she said.

"I’m not convinced moving MDR to R-2 is a solution," Neri said. "I don’t understand how that possibly could solve the problem." Larger lot sizes create another kind of sprawl, Neri said.

Rather than going with two-acre zoning, she said, "I’d like to take a fresh look at the entire area."

There are two additional pieces of MDR in the mostly R-2 Northeast quadrant, both touch the Guilderland border, one is in the top east corner of town on Krumkill, and the other is along Route 155.

Neri is in favor of a short-term moratorium so a small committee well-versed in the planning process can make recommendations for the town board to enact. She would like to see Bob Stapf, the planning board’s chairman, and Paul Cantlin, the town’s zoning enforcer, to be on the committee, she said.

Both are already on the current comprehensive planning committee, which is reviewing the 1994 master document for the whole town. Neri said this new committee would have, instead, a very specific focus of zoning techniques just for the northeast quadrant.

"Everything we need to do this is already in the comprehensive plan," she said. Neri does not think the town needs to wait on a revised comprehensive plan to move forward with planning for the northeast.

Supervisor Clark said, "I don’t know that we have the people to build two qualified committees at the same time." Also, Clark said, he’d like to consider that the anticipated "amendments to the comprehensive plan might serve that purpose."

Industrial zone

Often lost in the discussion about the current proposed re-zone is the second aspect of the law, the clause that would change the industrial designation on land just above the commercial zone along New Scotland Road.

The proposed law includes a change of some of the industrial land to R-2 (residential two-acre) and of some to commercial. This industrial land currently lies between the MDR zone in question and the commercial zone below. (See map.)

The proposal was for the industrial land north of the D&H rail line, the section that abuts the MDR to be designated R-2 — the idea was that all the land directly above the abandoned railway bed would become R-2 with this law — which board members are not currently in favor of approving — and then the industrial land south of the abandoned rail bed would be changed to commercial, to mix in with that designation.

Board members are still in agreement that the southerly portion, which is the larger portion should be melded into the commercial.

It is, however, up in the air what is to become of the industrial land next to the Kennsington Woods development.

LaGrange said it was inappropriate for the two separate zoning issues — what to do about the MDR and Industrial — to be combined into one proposed law. They are two separate issues that need be addressed separately, he said.

The industrial zone really "got lost in the shuffle," LaGrange said.

Changing industrial to commercial "seems like the smart way to go," LaGrange said. His first response was to move forward with that as soon as possible, which was the sentiment of others, but, after consideration, he hesitates making any zoning changes until the comprehensive -plan review has been completed, he said.

LaGrange chairs the current comprehensive- plan committee. This first committee is reviewing the 1994 document and is to get back to the town board with ideas of what parts of the plan need to be reviewed, or updated, if any.

While the members won’t be finished with their review and report until the summer, LaGrange said its shaping up to look like there are some areas that do need to be reviewed and updated.

The final stage of the comprehensive-plan review is for a final committee (with some repeat members) to then work on how to actually update the master plan, focusing on exact changes that should be made.

"Will this be done in six months" Probably not," LaGrange said, answering his own question.

Reilly said that the comprehensive plan is a guide and that the industrial designation is inconsistent with the current comprehensive plan since the railroad line no longer exists. Within the parameters of the existing "well-considered plan," the change to the commercial zone can be made now, Reilly said.

Baron agrees. "I really don’t think you’ll see industrial there," she said. She, too, is ready to rule on the commercial switch now.

Manager leaves, Mobil Mart to re-open

By Michelle O’Riley

VOORHEESVILLE — The Mobil Mart on 85A closed without notice last Thursday. According to new owners Alta East, the gas station and convenience store were forced to temporarily close when the current management left.

Thomas Haggerty, who was leasing the property from Alta East, decided not to stay; he wanted to get out of the business, said Thomas Dickson, vice president of sales at Alta East.

Haggerty’s abrupt decision to give up management of the Mobil Mart has left local residents wondering if the gas station closed due to current gas-price pressures. Haggerty did not respond to a call from The Enterprise on Tuesday, questioning why he decided to leave the business.

Mobil Mart’s employees were not notified that the store would be closing. When alerted of Haggerty’s decision, Alta East said it tried but was not able to contact employees. Dickson encourages all former employees who are still interested in working at the Mobil Mart to call Mike Martin of Alta East at 845-344-4271 and leave their name and number.

The Mobil Mart will reopen this Thursday, said Dickson. Gas should be accessible at the pumps this week and most store items will be stocked and available by next week.

Alta East does not plan to lease the property again until August, said Dickson, when all remodeling projects are scheduled to be complete. Some of the changes will include updates to the existing canopy, and new gas pumps and tanks.

"It will be bigger and better than it ever was," said Dickson.

Earlier this year, the village was notified of contaminated soil due to gas leaks at the Mobil Mart. According to Village Building Inspector Jerry Gordinier, Alta East is currently working on plans with The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and local contractors to remove the old tanks and the soil surrounding them.

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