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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, July 27, 2006

Town plans repairs to dam and salt shed

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

RENSSELAERVILLE — The town is planning two structural repairs — one of its salt shed, and the other of a storm-damaged dam.

The town board voted unanimously at its July meeting to remove salt and sand from the back of the shed.

"God forbid it fell down," said Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg.

One hundred tons of salt and sand, Nickelsberg said in a letter to Highway Superintendent G. Jon Chase, needed to be removed immediately. The way it had been stored weakened the beams and it would be "very expensive to rebuild," Nickelsberg said. The building cost $100,000 and to build a new one would be "ridiculous," he said.

Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week that salt and sand had been stored at two to three times the allowable height against the back wall, causing it to bulge out. It will have to be moved, by highway department workers, to the now-vacant center of the shed, he said, so repairs can be made.

He estimated the cost of repairs would be $5,000 to $10,000, which he pointed out is a fraction of the cost of replacing the shed.

Engineers from Lamont Engineers inspected the shed, located near the Rensselaearville’s highway garage and town hall, and noted, in their report, "There were 3 or 4 vertical support columns found to be either broken and/or deflected as well as deflected diagonal supports which appear to be the result of loading the structure beyond the recommended load-limit line (painted yellow line) on the inside of the building."

Dam repairs needed

Jack Long, who is temporarily chairing Rensselaerville’s water board, told the town board in July that the recent heavy rains "brought to a head a lingering situation."

The small dam at the head of the falls that produces the pool that is the inlet for the hamlet’s water supply has been "undermined substantially," he said.

"It’s irresponsible not to address this situation," said Long. "Where are we going to get substitute water without paying a fortune""

On July 14, engineers Frank Vedier and Doug Van Deusen, with Lamont Engineers, inspected "the impoundment structure" at the water-system intake located below Myosotis Lake and also looked at the stone dam located at Lincoln Pond, a contributing water body upstream of Myosotis Lake.

They concluded the severe storms at the end of June had "further weakened the concrete abutments at both ends of the impoundment structure."

The engineers also described, in a July 25 letter to Nickelsberg, a gravel bar that had developed over time and virtually shut off a "relief pathway" that would have directed some high-water flows around the impoundment structure, reducing the stress on the aging structure.

The engineers suggested the town contact the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to get the necessary permits to make repairs and they stressed that they hoped the DEC would recognize "the urgency to make the necessary repairs to protect the hamlet water supply system."

Short-term repairs, to be developed with the DEC, involve fixing concrete abutments and stabilizing the easterly bank, and a long-term plan is to be developed by the town and Lamont Engineers.

At Lincoln Pond, the engineers noted a number of leaks had been observed through the dike system.

"The dam did not indicate signs of deflection or eminent failure at this time," they wrote. "However," they went on, referring to the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve, "the Preserve has requested proposals from Consultants to address the safety and leakage of the aged structure."

Other business

In other business at its July meeting, the board:

— Heard a letter from Gene Smith, stating that a house on Route 352 in Medusa is "a fire hazard" and reduces the value of surrounding property.

William Ryan, the town’s attorney, said the building inspector would look into it;

— Heard a letter from Selective Insurance to Clerk Kathleen Hallenbeck advising that the playground needs surfacing of a proper depth to prevent injury from falls;

— Heard from Donald Gardeski that the dike at Potter Hollow and Catskill creeks, by the intersection of routes 81 and 145 overflowed onto his property.

The dike was built by the Army Corps of Engineers, Gardeski said, and was to be maintained by Rensselaerville; the dike needs to be reinforced, he said;

— Agreed to computerize the town’s records.

Minutes from town-board meetings, from 1976 to 2006, will be put on CD-ROM (Compact Disc — Read Only Memory) and town ordinances, which are now "scattered," said Ryan, will be put in a bound volume and posted on the town’s website.

Ryan called it "a good way to move into this century" and said, "I endorse it from a legal point of view."

It will cost $1,764 for the town minutes, with a fee of $350 for annual maintenance. The cost for organizing the legal documents is $8,800; and copies of the code will cost $60 each.

General Code from Rochester, N.Y. made the sole bid for the work;

— Heard that the Albany County Board of Elections will approve the Preston Hollow firehouse as a polling place if the thresholds are changed; the fire company is getting estimates that will come to the town board;

— Heard, from Nickelsberg, that a furnace that burns waste oil would save the town money. While the town waits for cost estimates on the furnace, Nickelsberg said, Jon Whitbeck, the town’s refuse and recycling officer, is prepared to store waste oil now in barrels.

"Folks, bring your oil to John Whitbeck on Wednesdays and Saturdays," said Nickelsberg. "We will use it next winter";

— Agreed to join the New York State Geographic Information Systems Agency, for no charge. It will allow the town to get free maps to help with its planning process, said Ryan;

— Heard Thomas Mikulka’s report on the beautification committee.

"I have planted all the trees I bought," said Mikulka. "I used up the budget."

The trees, planted near the highway building, are salt-tolerant evergreens, he said. He also said he moved some topsoil and thanked Jon Chase in advance for spreading topsoil by the old pond site that was going to be a fire-department training site;

— Heard a report from Allyn Wright, chair of the town’s planning board, on progress with developing a new comprehensive land-use plan for Rensselaerville.

He said that 250 surveys, similar to ones that were distributed 15 years ago, had been returned. If 30 more were to be turned in, that would be 20 percent of the population, a very good rate of return, he said.

— Heard from Vernon Husek that the land-use committee, which he chairs, is reviewing what other towns in New York State have done. The group was scheduled to hear Gary Kleppel, a University of Albany professor and Knox resident, speak on July 20 about planning in the Hilltowns; and

— Agreed that Chip Decker would fill in for Building Inspector Mark Overbaugh during the two-and-a-half weeks Overbaugh is in Alaska.

Will talk bridge chasm between town’s CEO and highway super"

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

RENSSELAERVILLE — The Rensselaerville supervisor called a special meeting of the town board Tuesday night simply so he could talk to the highway superintendent.

Tensions have been building between the Republican supervisor, Jost Nickelsberg, and the Democratic highway superintendent, G. Jon Chase, in the seven months since Nickelsberg took office.

"We’re not having discussions and had no idea what was going on," said Nickelsberg after the meeting. "You can’t solve things without talking. So we talked tonight. It was a good thing to do."

Asked what caused the schism, Nickelsberg said, "It’s a combination of the social, political, historical, and economic."

Nickelsberg says that Rensselaerville spends about $13,000 per mile each year on its 82 miles of town roads while the neighboring Hilltown of Berne spends $10,000.

Chase summed up the reason for the lack of communication in one word — politics.

"Once you’re elected, they should let you do your job," said Chase.

He sees himself as an experienced leader who oversees an efficient department of 10 workers.

"In the nine years I’ve been here, I’ve brought in one-and-a-half to two million dollars from federal, state, and county programs," he said after the meeting.

Chase said, when he became superintendent, the town had 25 miles of paved roads; now it has 50 paved miles.

He also said, "My dad did this job for 30 years. I’m the fourth or fifth generation in the town doing highways....I know every road. I know ever tree in town," he said, launching into a story of a butternut tree in Medusa that had once held a mailbox for multiple houses back in the days when the postal service traveled by horse.

"I never cut it down, but I got accused of it," said Chase. "I get accused of everything."

This rural Helderberg Hilltown has 43 miles of road for every 1,000 residents — by far the greatest differential in the county.

The supervisor says 60 percent of the town’s budget goes for roads.

"We’ve got a real problem," said Nickelsberg before Tuesday’s meeting. "We’ve spent $9 million on roads in the last eight-and-a-half years. They have to be fixed every 10 months instead of every 10 years."

Accusations and responses

Tuesday’s meeting lasted less than 45 minutes.

Nickelsberg began by commenting on the number of complaints raised at every monthly town board meeting.

At the April meeting, the town’s attorney, William Ryan, said that Chase broke state law by loading salt and sand from the town’s supply into a private citizen’s truck. His accusation was sparked by photos given to the town by resident Vernon Husek, a frequent critic of the highway department.

At that same meeting, Nickelsberg criticized Chase, who was absent, for violating the town’s new procurement policy, instituted by Nickelsberg after he took office in January. When purchasing materials and equipment, town officers must submit at least three bids.

At the July meeting, which Chase did not attend, several letters of complaint from townspeople were read.

Steve Conklin wrote a letter complaining about the "deplorable condition of shale roads in our town." He said he had had 22 flat tires in the last year, with the #2 stone cutting her car’s tires.

He also said that she has to spend $800 to $1,000 yearly for front-end repairs to her car.

Another letter-writer claimed that a rented bulldozer sat idle for one month on Kenyon Road.

Steve Wood, who narrowly lost his 2005 bid for highway superintendent, wrote that highway workers went on a golf outing on April 21 and falsified time cards to be paid for the day.

"Jon is up to his old, wasteful ways," wrote Wood, stating that his roads fall apart.

"He doesn’t seem to understand proper road construction," wrote Wood.

He also alleged that topsoil went to Chase’s son’s property on Arnold Road and he cited Chase’s "belligerence" to the town board and supervisor.

"Jon is a disgrace to the construction industry," wrote Wood.

Paullette Ryder wrote a lyrical letter about the red clay lane in Medusa where she bought a house in 1988 with her husband, Edward Steven Ryder, a Democrat who was defeated in his bid for re-election as a councilman.

Ryder said that the road was maintained until Jon Chase took over and dumped loose, rough gravel on top; cars skid and it’s easy for people to slip on it, making it hard for walkers, cyclists, and people pushing baby strollers.

The townspeople are "furious," Paullette Ryder said, that their beautiful red clay roads are paved and cited a state Department of Transportation man saying paving is not cost-effective.

She concluded by referring to the country hit that topped the charts, "Red Dirt Road," and indicated people wouldn’t celebrate or sing "Gray Gravel Road" or "Black Asphalt Road."

"I really think, as supervisor, you ought to call your dogs off Jon Chase," said Ralph Brant, of Methodist Hill Road, at the July meeting. "He did a lot of good in the town...He helped a lot of people out."

When The Enterprise asked Chase to respond to the allegations, he said the bulldozer was rented for four weeks and used on three roads. "We had it setting for three or four days," he said.

He gave a one-word answer — no — when asked if highway workers had played golf on town-paid time.

When The Enterprise asked Nickelsberg about highway workers playing golf on paid time, he said, "We did look into that. We’ve got to get a legal reading from counsel," he said, before he could answer questions about it.

About the clay roads, Chase said, "Red clay turns to mud. We’ve had a lot of problems with school buses," he said, on those roads and to eliminate the problem he uses "Item 4," which he described as four different stones that "bind together."

"There’s stone dust in it, and it will harden and be like concrete," said Chase.

Engineers’ views

Nickelsberg said at Tuesday’s special meeting, "It has nothing to do with personality. Zero. It has everything to do with where the buck stops....The buck stops here," he said, quoting the slogan that President Harry Truman famously displayed on his desk.

Nickelsberg introduced two engineers — Doug Van Deusen and Francois Vedier — from Lamont Engineers who had looked at three Rensselaerville roads — Cheese Hill, Travis Hill, and Niles, up to the county line.

The engineers, both verbally and in a letter written to Nickelsberg, detailed the town’s road specifications, adopted in 1991, and cited improvements that could be made to the condition of the roads they had looked at.

For example, Niles Road, in places, doesn’t have a crown, the engineers said, which presents drainage problems.

"Moisture is one of the single most detrimental effects," said Van Duesen, leading to potholes.

In other places, the road was soft. "Even under our own body width," said Van Deusen, "there were sections where the road was fairly soft.

Paving would probably not be "very long lived" under such conditions, he said.

The engineers also observed a number of tire-rut tracks where they could see drainage rills going down the tracks, they said.

When it comes to financing, Van Deusen said, it would be wise to pave fewer miles but do it better.

"This meeting is only about how we go forward," said Nickelsberg. "If we can get eight-, nine-, 10-, 11-year roads, we’ll be very happy," he said, and will have spent taxpayers’ money wisely.

Council member Sherri Pine, a Democrat, said she had lived on Cheese Hill Road all her life and praised Chase for the "great improvement" he had made to the road.

She also said, because the road is built on bedrock, there is not much that can be done with ditch depth.

Van Deusen agreed and recommended the use of geo fabric in places where, for years, shale was used and would go "out of sight and out of mind."

"You’ll see a remarkable difference," with the use of geo fabric, he said.

Neither of the Republican council members, Myra Dorman or J. Robert Lansing, had any questions or comments. The fourth council member, Gary J. Chase, a Democrat and the son of the highway superintendent, was absent.

"Daunting task"

"These three roads ain’t anywhere near complete," protested Jon Chase to the engineers on Tuesday. "Who told you to check them"" he asked.

"I did," responded Nickelsberg.

"I’m the superintendent," said Chase.

"I’m the CEO...," said Nickelsberg.

"Come when it’s finished and then look at it," said Chase. He also said, "Take a look at some of the roads I’ve done."

"What is your plan, going forward"" asked Nickelsberg, as he proceeded to closely question Chase about his plans for each of the three roads.

Through a lengthy, and at times testy, series of questions and answers, Chase revealed what portions of which roads he planned to use geo fabric for and why, and also what kind of base and paving materials he planned to use.

At one point in the exchange, as Chase was saying road work takes time, he complained, "I have to come in for $200 every time I buy a load of stone."

"The voucher system is not going away," returned Nickelsberg. "It is the business practice of this town."

"We usually do five to seven miles a year," Chase said of paving town roads. "This year, we’ve done nothing, because of the weather."

"A daunting task and we hope you get it done," replied Nickelsberg.

Chase said later that he was one-and-a-half years behind on a 10-year program. "Oil prices are out of sight," he said. "Fabric is up and down like a yo-yo."

Chase told The Enterprise after the meeting that the recent flooding had caused extensive damage to town roads that took much time and many resources to repair. The flooding washed out many shoulders and culverts, he said.

"One of the biggest holes was on Gulf Road," Chase said. "We lost half of that road. I spent $40,000 just on flood repairs."

He noted that Rensselaerville is located on the edge of Albany County right next to Schoharie County, which was designated to receive federal aid after the June flooding, while Albany County received none.

"Schoharie County had a lot of roads washed out; our roads washed out, too," said Chase.

During Tuesday’s special meeting, Chase also questioned Nickelsberg about the Lamont engineers.

"I do want to know where the money is coming from to pay these guys," he said.

"The town budget," said Nickelsberg.

Chase said afterwards, "I deal with county and state engineers every day of the week. They know they’re stuff and they’re free. Why should we pay these engineers""

Towards the end of the session, Nickelsberg said to Chase, "You give us 10 years, we’ll put a statue up."

One person clapped heartily from the gallery where about two dozen spectators sat; it was Chase’s wife.

Coordinate with other towns"

After the meeting, The Enterprise asked the Lamont engineers how long a paved road should last, "It’s a feasible goal to have roads last 10 years or more," said Vedier.

Asked if, judging from their look at the three Rensselaerville roads, the highway work was competent, Vedier said, "We really don’t know how long roads have lasted in the past. The highway superintendent said he wasn’t done...To pass judgment would not be fair."

He concluded, "The specifications for building roads, as outlined in the town manual, is the way they should be built."

The roads they looked at, he said, were not yet at that point.

Van Deusen said that, in Greene County, where he often works, there are a lot of intermunicipal agreements for working on roads collectively which can cut down dramatically on the per-mile costs.

Road projects are scheduled, he said, "so one leads into the next town." Savings come from shared workers, shared equipment, and bulk purchases of materials.

When The Enterprise asked Nickelsberg if Rensselaerville had considered coordinating work with neighboring towns in this way, he said that he meets monthly with the county executive and also with the other Hilltown supervisors.

Asked if these talks had led to plans for coordinating roadwork, Nickelsberg said, "Not yet, but it has to happen. A separate department for 2,000 people is expensive."

The neighboring town of Berne is considering consolidating its highway department with Albany County’s department of public works. Chase said there is "no way" that could happen.

"They’ve talked about it for 25 years or more," he said. "When it happens, the state will have to do it."

Community agriculture sees growth

By Saranac Hale Spencer

HILLTOWNS — Raymond Luhrman stooped to pluck garlic out of its muddy field despite Saturday’s downpour.

"This stuff has to come out of the ground, you know," said Luhrman in a singsong Dutch accent.

He and his wife, Sara Luhrman, along with a handful of dedicated souls, harvested their garlic crop for Fox Creek Farm, a community-supported agriculture project, in Gallupville. The Luhrmans own Fox Creek Farm, renting the land from Bittersweet Organics. The project is in its third year, and doubling its size every year. Three years ago, the project had 10 members, Mr. Luhrman said. "Last year, we doubled to 20. This year, we doubled again."

The 40 members each pay for a share, which costs $375, and provides them with vegetables for 18 weeks, from June to October.

The idea of community supported agriculture (CSA) is relatively new; it was developed in Europe in the 1960’s and introduced to the United States in the mid 1980’s, according to a report from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The idea originated because there was a market for locally-grown and organically-farmed produce; the practice also gave farmers financial security. Since members of the CSA pay for their share before the season begins, if there is bad weather and crops fail, members shoulder the burden with the farmer. The concept also results in a local farming community because the members have an interest in and knowledge of the farm that produces their food.

The Luhrmans stressed the importance of the local aspect of CSA’s. "The other big pro," in addition to the organically grown produce, Mr. Luhrman said, "is you keep money in the community."

One of their goals is to reinvigorate the local rural economy. The Luhrmans said that they’d consider working with local farmers who produce other goods. Karl Westphal, a CSA member who helped harvest the garlic on Saturday, used to run a dairy farm that he’d consider starting again, he said. "It would be nice to complement each other," said Mr. Luhrman of working with a dairy farmer.

"I think we’re growing slowly but steadily," said Mr. Luhrman of Fox Creek Farm. "The idea is to create a community," he said. "Create a little farm related network."

This is the first year that the couple had a tractor, a 1948 Farmall, to help with the work. "We still have to do a lot by hand, though," said Ms. Luhrman. The couple hopes to make their living off of the farm eventually.

"We’d like to be full time farmers," said Ms. Luhrman, a substitute teacher. She was an African studies major in college, but said that she learned how to farm by doing it. She worked on an agricultural project while she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal; the government was looking for more tolerant crops that could grow in the drought prone area of West Africa.

Mr. Luhrman was also in Senegal at the time, which is how the two met. Ms. Luhrman, a California native, said with a chuckle that they chose to settle in Gallupville because it was half way between Holland and California.

"Accidentally, we met in public transportation," Mr. Luhrman said. "And now we are harvesting garlic in the rain."

Lost covenant leads to dissent

By Saranac Hale Spencer

KNOX — The bucolic landscape stretching along the Berne-Altamont Road is at the center of a development debate again.

"This story started exactly 20 years ago this year," Elizabeth Walk told The Enterprise as she fixed dinner in the kitchen of her old farmhouse. The land known as the Walk property, once a 200-acre farm that flanked Route 156, has been parceled off over the last 20 years.

Frank Muia, of 1451 Berne-Altamont Road, lives on a 9.81-acre plot of land that had been part of that farm. He applied for a minor subdivision in the spring and got approval from the Knox Planning Board on June 8 to divide the land into three plots of roughly three acres each.

But on July 13, the planning board rescinded its approval in a unanimous vote, citing new facts.

"It’s not new evidence," Muia told The Enterprise this week. "It’s 15-year-old evidence."

The land that Muia lives on is under restrictive covenants that read, in part, "There shall be no further subdivision of any lot or parcel of land." This covenant was placed on the map of the subdivision filed in 1992 by Elizabeth Walk and kept in the Knox Town Hall; planning board members said that they didn’t have it before giving approval.

"Is that something we should have had beforehand"" asked planning board member Brett Pulliam at the July 13 meeting.

"Yes," answered planning board Chairman Robert Price.

"Why didn’t we have it"" asked Pullian.

"It wasn’t in the file," replied Price.

The Enterprise found the map with the covenant written on it in a file housed in the building inspector’s office in the Knox Town Hall.

Price and Daniel Driscoll, both long-time planning board members, said that overlooking covenants isn’t a common problem.
"It certainly hasn’t happened while I’ve been on the board," said Price.

The board became aware of its oversight when Joseph and Sharon Zewert, who live on a neighboring plot to Muia’s, brought up the covenant. The couple filed an Article 78, a suit that allows citizens to challenge government actions, on July 5.

The Zewerts said that the reason they bought the property was because of the covenant. "I moved out here so I could be one with the land," said Mr. Zewert, who left Clifton Park for the Helderbergs two years ago.

Muia said that he didn’t know about the covenant. "I bought this property to subdivide," he said.

Muia, a Realtor for Coldwell Banker Prime Properties, said that he had planned to subdivide his property so that there would be three plots of about three acres each; he would build two houses, one each for his parents and in-laws.

"I have an approved subdivision," said Muia this week. "I’m going to go ahead with it."

Although the planning board initially approved the plan, Walk told The Enterprise that there isn’t enough room on the site to accommodate it. Between protecting already-existing wells from contamination from the two new septic tanks, keeping out of the 100-foot buffer zone along a creek that feeds into the Watervliet Reservoir, and steering clear of a portion of the Tennessee Gas pipeline that runs through the property, she said that she doesn’t think there’s sufficient space for two more houses.

"Nobody wants to drill into the gas pipeline," she said. "We’d all be gone."

Covenant then

The covenant that restricts land use on the property was required by the planning board in 1992, said Walk. Before the board would allow her to sell the 40-acre tract of land to the developer, Michael Munro, the board required that she include a covenant, said Walk; "They made me put it in."

Price told The Enterprise that it is common practice for the planning board to require the inclusion of a covenant in a deed before approving a subdivision. "We do that all the time," he said. "Under my watch, we make sure it goes in the deeds."

In the Walk subdivision, the covenant was written on the map rather than entered into the actual deed; it still has the same effect, though, said Driscoll, who was on the board in 1992. "I would not be surprised if it was something we required," he said.

When recounting her history with the planning board, Walk said that Price and Driscoll "have been the dictators of this area." The two planning board members have served on the board, on and off, for over two decades; and Walk ran into restrictions when she began breaking off parts of her property when her husband, George Walk, died in 1986, she said.

"I had the business, I had the farm, and I had the debt," said Walk.

Covenant now

Muia plans to pursue the subdivision, which the planning board rescinded without prejudice so that he can reapply. He said that the covenant is not legal because it was included at the town’s request rather than the property-owner’s. Muia expects to re-apply for the subdivision within 60 days. "My attorneys from New York City don’t think I have a problem in the world," he said.

Professor Patricia Salkin, on staff at the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, said that it is legal for a town to require the addition of a covenant in a deed before granting approval of a subdivision.

Zewert doesn’t plan to back down, he said; he chose to buy the property because of the restriction on development and, like Walk, he said that he is concerned about the possible contamination of nearby water.

"He’s a trailer guy who likes to shoot his gun and drink beer," said Muia of Zewert. "We invested to the tune of $400,000," he said, indicating that the Zewerts didn’t pay as much for their neighboring property.

The Zewerts’ deed, dated July 7, 2004, states that they paid $108,000 for their 8.77-acre piece of property. The deed for the property that Muia is proposing to subdivide, dated Sept. 14, 2005, states that Mary Varbero paid $375,000.

The last item listed on the covenant that governs the properties is: "These restrictions may be amended upon the written consent of a majority of the lot owners and the town of Knox."

The Zewerts, who filed the suit after Muia’s subdivision was approved, and Walk, who said that she does not want Muia to proceed with the subdivision, make up half of the lot owners. Varbero, who owns the parcel that the subdivision was proposed for, and the Malones, who could not be reached for comment, make up the other half.

"I went and sat in people’s living rooms and talked to them," Muia told The Enterprise, regarding his subdivision plan. When he went to Walk’s living room, he told her partner that he would hire him to do the excavation work for the two houses; Walk recalled that Muia "said to Jimmy, ‘I don’t know why you’re so upset about this,’" and then offered him the job.

"He’s used to paying people off," said Zewert of Muia. "It’s just the way you act in real estate."

Of the board’s oversight of the covenant, Robert Gwin, a long-time board member who was chairman in 1992, said, "Apparently Murphy’s Law took precedent." He said that, even though things went wrong, it worked out in the end.

"I’m glad that the neighbor brought it to our attention," said Driscoll, who apologized for the mistake.

"The people who are sitting on the board that gave me the subdivision," said Muia, "are the ones who were sitting on the board when they made Betty Walk put the covenant on."

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