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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, April 19, 2007

School elections
BKW candidates

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — For the second straight year, Berne-Knox-Westerlo, which often has had unopposed races for its school board, has four candidates running.

The two top vote-getters will take office in July.

Incumbent Edward Ackroyd is running as are PTA President Michelle Fusco; retired teacher and former school board member Helen Lounsbury; and Robert Rue, a BKW graduate making his second run. Janet Finke is not seeking a second term.

At the May 15 election, voters will also decide on a $19.3 million budget. Posts on the five-member board are unpaid.

Edward Ackroyd

Ackroyd, a Knox resident, is currently the vice president of the school board, a post he rotated into. He grew up on Thompson’s Lake Road in East Berne and owns Thor Power Supply, based in Schenectady, which he formed in 1985. Ackroyd said he has one United States patent; he sells industrial batteries and chargers and power back-up systems and supplies.

Ackroyd, a member of the BKW class of 1968 class, ran for the school board unopposed in 2004 after Lynn Countryman stepped down; he is a veteran who left BKW to serve in Cambodia and Vietnam. He served in the United States Army from 1968 to 1971, and spent a year-and-a-half in Germany and one year in Vietnam.

Last year, at BKW’s graduation, Superintendent Steven Schrade, acting on behalf of a program set up by the state to award diplomas to veterans who dropped out of school to serve their country, presented Ackroyd with his high school diploma.

"I enjoy it," Ackroyd said this week of serving on the board. He added that he would like to see board members serve five-year terms rather than the current three-year term. The term was reduced to encourage more candidates to run. "It takes two years to figure out what’s going on," he said.

Michelle Fusco

Fusco, a Berne resident, has been the president of the Parent-Teacher Association for four years. She works at the Colonie Diner as a waitress. With flexible hours at the diner, Fusco said, she is able to be at her home when her children leave for school and when they come home. Fusco has a son is in the third grade, and a daughter in the 10th grade. Her daughter takes college-level Advanced Placement courses, and her son has taken extra classes, she said.

"I have one that’s gifted and one who struggles a little bit," she said.

As PTA president, Fusco said she has less to do now than she did her first two years as president. The PTA’s 18 committees, she said, are "self-sufficient." She attends committee meetings and runs the PTA’s monthly meetings. The PTA has 193 members.

Fusco, who said she is "not college-educated," had once been intimidated by authority figures, and is now on a first-name basis with administrators and teachers. "That was a big deal to me," she said, adding that, prior to serving on the PTA, she hadn’t known how she would handle a position with added responsibilities, and working with those high in the ranks.

"I’ve gotten such pleasure out of the PTA"I’d like to think I could accomplish more with the board of education," she said. Fusco said she is running because she wants to "see our children get the best, most competitive education possible." The district’s students, she said, receive an "exemplary" education, and she would like to see that continue.

Helen Lounsbury

Lounsbury, a Berne resident, was a BKW teacher and served one term on the school board just after she retired from teaching. She taught for 34 years at the district, and spent much of her career in the Berne elementary school teaching fourth and fifth grades. She wrote the grant for the for the Books’ R’ Us program and the storefronts throughout the BKW elementary school.

Lounsbury said she is most proud of her induction as a life-time PTA member. She said her induction was important to her because her mother had also been inducted. "The PTA is such an important thing to me," she said.

When she graduated from Berne-Knox and was college-bound, Lounsbury was on a tight budget and was awarded $200 from the PTA for schoolbooks, she said.

After retiring, Lounsbury said, it has been very difficult to distance herself from the students and the district. Lounsbury began tutoring BKW students two years ago.

"It kind of re-ignites the flames," she said. "I feel very attached to it"I’m a lifer."

Robert Rue

Rue, 44, of Knox, is running for the school board for the second year in a row.

A BKW graduate and a lifetime Hilltown resident, Rue is an active member of the elementary school PTA and the BKW Little League and Softball League. He has a son and daughter in the district.

Rue works for the town of Guilderland, as manager of Keenholts Park.

He could not be reached for comment this week, but he told The Enterprise during last year’s campaign: "I think I have some fresh new ideas that can help better the education of our children and keep the district fiscally responsible," Rue said. "I just want to keep moving the school in the right direction."

"I’m very children oriented."

The best thing about BKW, Rue said, is its size. "It’s a nice small district, and all the kids know each other and all the teachers know all the kids," he said.

Land-use plan causes controversy

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Just days after the town’s new comprehensive plan was adopted last month, Vernon Husek, the chairman of the committee that designed it, resigned.

The sticking point was lot size.

Last night, at the public hearing on new zoning laws and subdivision regulations proposed to implement the plan, many town residents said they want smaller lot sizes. Larger lot sizes, many said, will place burdens on farmers.

Thomas Mikulka, who lives in Rensselaerville and served on the land-use committee, was appointed as the new chairman.

"People on the committee were failing to represent the public interest as generated by the public," Husek told The Enterprise last week.

Nearly a year ago, a moratorium halted subdivisions of over three lots in Rensselaerville. The town’s comprehensive plan was adopted by the town board on March 8.

Using the plan as a guide, the town is now drafting new zoning laws and subdivision regulations. A public hearing on the new laws and regulations was held last night.

The former plan, adopted in 1991, had had a five-acre minimum lot size for agricultural districts.

To collect data, Husek’s committee sent surveys to town residents last spring and visioning workshops were held at the town’s three firehouses. Data showed residents want to keep the town rural and protect its open spaces.

A majority of the 13-member committee voted for 10-acre zoning in the agricultural district. Husek, who owns approximately 130 acres of land, called the committee’s zoning decision "totally ineffective if we’re to believe the experts."

The agricultural district and the rural residential district, which had been combined, were split to protect the town’s prime soils. While forming the plan, the land-use committee used recommendations by the American Farmland Trust and by Pace University, a law school that provides guidance to towns, Husek said.

A planner hired by the town, Nan Stolzenberg, of Community Planning and Environmental Associates, recommended four dwellings per 100 acres, half as dense as what the committee voted for.

The committee, Husek said, changed from "data-driven" to "politically-driven." Unless committee members found flaws with the information provided by experts and planners, he said, it was their duty to follow the experts’ advice.

"There are no farms here," said Becky Lewis, a member of the land-use committee who operates a dairy farm with her father, David Lewis.

The town once had many dairy farms, she told The Enterprise, but now only has few. Her family’s farm is the only working dairy farm in Rensselaerville and one of few in the county, she said. According to the 2000 census, nine Rensselaerville residents have occupations in farming, fishing, and gaming.

Larger lot sizes, of 20 or 25 acres, Lewis said, would devalue her land. Large lot sizes, she said, leave property owners with large parcels and high taxes. Owners of large parcels of land, she said, need to subdivide because they cannot afford to pay high property taxes.

Finding a purchaser for larger parcels of land is more difficult than finding one for a smaller parcel, she said.

Public hearing

Stolzenberg, who worked with the land-use committee, outlined the year-long process at Wednesday night’s hearing. Amendments were made to the town’s existing plan to comply with state laws, she said.

Town residents, she said, gave input into the plan. Their input, she said, showed that the town’s residents want to maintain the town’s rural and historic character, protect open spaces, preserve its environment and water, and preserve natural habitats.

"We want to try and keep Rensselaerville, Rensselaerville," she said. "It takes a lot of work and commitment to keep it the same."

Stolzenberg said information that guided the plan was from the people who participated by attending the visioning workshops at the three hamlets’ firehouses and who filled out surveys sent out to area residents.

Mikulka said the process was "long and hard, but democratic." The committee, he said, didn’t always agree, but made every decision by a majority vote. "It’s a good document and a fair document," he said.

The most controversial issue, he said, was lot size. The recommendation of 20-acre lot sizes, he said, was the most controversial issue.

"We lost the chairman of the group over that issue," he said.

A larger lot size, he said, would result in decreased land value. "That strikes me as unfair," he said.

"It’s un-American," he said. "No way do we, as a group, recommend going up to 20 or 25 acres."

Some members of the land-use committee, who worked long hours on the plan, said it was rushed.

Throughout the hearing, many residents requested the moratorium be extended. Residents said they had not read the lengthy comprehensive plan or the zoning laws and subdivision regulations under consideration.

"Who in God’s heaven would enforce this thing," said a resident.

Both the comprehensive plan and zoning laws and subdivision regulations under consideration are posted on the town’s website at www.rensselaerville.com.

Packed into the town’s highway garage, many residents said last night that farming, once a bustling occupation in Rensselaerville, no longer exists.

Some said a new committee should be formed to review the comprehensive plan and new zoning laws and regulations.

Land-owners said their money is tied up in their property and is all they have to pass on to their children.

"I don’t have a 401K," said David Lewis. "That’s my 401K."

Lewis said farming in the area is "piss-poor." Other residents echoed Lewis.

"If a farmer donates his land to his son, he should go to jail for child abuse," said Robert Bolte.

Ray Welsh, a member of the land-use committee, said the process was "totally democratic." Meetings, he said, were open to the public. The committee, he said, "tried to go by what you told us."

There wasn’t much opposition to the plan when the committee’s public hearing was held, he said. "The town was divided with the moratorium in the first place," he said. "We wanted more time to work on this," he said, adding that the committee needs to take a more detailed look at the plan.

"I have read the plan, and I have read the laws, and I support it," said Jeannette Rice, a member of the land-use committee. "We didn’t write the laws. We’re not lawyers. But we did our best to remain impartial," she said.

Assessor’s view

Jeff Pine, one of the town’s assessor, told The Enterprise that it would be difficult to gauge how many farms are in the town. To receive an agricultural exemption, a farm must make at least $10,000 in profit per year for an average of three years, he said. It is also difficult to estimate the number of farms because many farmers lease their land. Many farmers are hay-balers, and about half of the farmland in the town is leased, he said.

Pine, who was one of the original members of the zoning committee and served on the planning board for six years, said he was "disappointed" in the comprehensive plan and zoning law process.

The rezoning of the agricultural district, meant to protect the town’s prime soils, did not include other parts of the town that also have good farming soil, Pine said. Areas near the Catskill Creek, he said, also have agricultural soils but were not defined as an agricultural district on the new zoning map.

"The whole thing was rushed," he said, adding that, after the town board adopted the plan last month, the zoning and subdivision regulations were rapidly drafted. Pine said more time should have elapsed between adopting the plan and drafting new zoning laws.

Last week, at the town board meeting, trustees were asked by a resident if they had read all the information in the comprehensive plan. None said they had read the plan in full.

Pine said of the comprehensive planning process, "It went completely bizarre."

County investigation expands

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY COUNTY — Following an investigation into abuse of a county employee’s gas card, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department is continuing a raid on area gas stations.

John Geurtze, a former Rensselaerville supervisor, has been a county property manager since 2003. During a routine audit of county vehicles, Ed Lynch, the county’s commissioner of general services noticed "something was off," said Kerri Battle, spokeswoman for Albany County.

The audit of county funds began in October of 2006, said Battle. Lynch, who oversees the county’s vehicles and gas cards, audited Geurtze’s records back to October of 2005, she said.

Following a drunk-driving arrest in March, Geurtze was placed on unpaid leave pending a disciplinary hearing, said Battle. Now Geurtze also faces charges stemming from the investigation of his use of his county gas card.

Geurtze could not be reached for comment.

While investigating Geurtze’s statements, Lynch noticed more than one charge in a day appeared on Geurtze’s bill statements. Lynch, she said, compared the mileage of Guertze’s vehicle with his gas card statements, which showed Geurtze’s county-issued vehicle was only getting three miles per gallon.

In February of this year, Lynch notified Albany County Executive Michael Breslin, who then contacted the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, Battle said.

Working with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, the sheriff’s department is currently involved in a sting of area gas stations, which stemmed from the Geurtze investigation, Albany County Chief Deputy Craig Apple said.

The raid began with Exxon/Mobil stations, which the county uses routinely. The sheriff’s department, he said, then began investigating other stations, including Gettys. The department is continuing a lengthy investigation, Apple said, which is limited to one county employee.

So far, no arrests of station owners have been made, Apple said yesterday. The department, he said, expects to lodge charges against some owners of gas stations.

Geurtze was arrested for driving while intoxicated on March 8 at approximately 4:30 p.m., said Apple.

When arrested on March 8, Geurtze was driving a county-issued vehicle; his blood-alcohol-content was .14-percent, Apple said. There were no other charges, he said.

The vehicle Geurtze was driving was issued to the county’s finance department, Battle said. Gas cards are assigned to each county vehicle, not to specific county employees, she said. The cards say, "For gas and fuel only," she said.

County employees, Battle said, are supposed to retain their credit card receipts. She added, "An electronic copy also comes to the county office."

County vehicles may be shared by several county employees; the vehicle issued to the finance department, Battle said, was used most often by Geurtze.

Girl drowns in Basic Creek

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — A 15-year-old girl drowned Monday night when her canoe capsized in the storm-swollen Basic Creek.

Caitlin J. Henry was canoeing with her brother, Patrick T. Henry, 14, who swam to shore. Their canoe capsized within seconds after they set foot in it, said Chief Deputy Craig Apple of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.

He called the drowning "a tragedy."

The Henrys’ home, which is about 100 yards from the creek, had not flooded, said Apple. "They were experimenting in the rapid waters," he said, adding that the creek "is normally 75-percent smaller than it was Monday."

Route 404 over Basic Creek in Westerlo was among a dozen roads closed Monday in Albany County due to flooding caused by the weekend storm.

Caitlin Henry, a student at Grapeville Christian School in Greene County, was swept away by a strong current while her brother was able to swim to shore, the department says; neither was wearing a life vest.

Following a call to the sheriff’s department at 6:23 p.m., a multi-jurisdiction team — made up of volunteers from Hilltown emergency squads, fire departments, and search-and-rescue teams as well as deputies from the Albany County Sheriff’s Department — responded to the area and searched the creek.

A relative and a volunteer firefighter from Westerlo found Caitlin Henry a quarter of a mile downstream within 20 minutes of the canoe capsizing, said Apple. It then took 20 minutes to bring her to shore; the time was needed to ensure the safety of the rescuers, said Apple. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was unsuccessful, he said.

When asked about the amount of time it normally takes to discover victims of drowning, Apple said, "Except for the loss of life, we got very lucky." Searches for missing persons in water, he said, can last days and hours. Bodies, he said, can become trapped underwater and in culverts. "Unfortunately, we couldn’t save her," he said.

Caitlin Henry was transported to Albany Medical Center Hospital by the Westerlo Rescue Squad, Apple said. She was pronounced dead just after 10 p.m. An autopsy was performed Tuesday.

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