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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, September 13, 2007

Bust in Berne
Found pot leads to cop getting shot

By Saranac Hale Spencer

BERNE — If police hadn’t come across Kevin O’Reilly last Thursday afternoon, they wouldn’t have pursued him, they say.

No one would have known who had been growing pot and an Albany City cop would still have his thumb intact.

Last Thursday, two investigators from the sheriff’s department and an Albany City Police officer went to clear a crop of 108 marijuana plants in Berne, said John Burke, head of the Albany County Sheriff’s drug interdiction unit. Police had been there at least twice before, he said, and they had seen nobody; the property is at the end of a long muddy driveway in a labyrinth of gravel roads through a state wildlife management area.

"That’s what they do all the time, so it can’t come back to them," said Burke of growing marijuana on other people’s land. The property that O’Reilly was using, at 74 Beaver Road, belongs to an out-of-state owner.

"They’ll either grow it on state property or someone else’s property because, if they grew it on their own property, they could be charged and arrested," he said.

O’Reilly, 37, of 9374 Route 81 in Oak Hill, Greene County, was inside the only building on the Beaver Road land, a worn cabin with no water or electricity, when officers arrived at about 2:30 p.m.

"When he realized he was under arrest, he bolted about 10 or 15 feet," said Burke. "He was tackled by two of the officers, then his dog came out."

A roughly 100-pound, mixed-breed dog latched onto the arm of Albany City Police Officer Jeffrey Connery, said Police Chief James Tuffey. Within seconds, Carman Frangella, of the sheriff’s department, took another officer’s 40-caliber handgun and shot twice at the dog, Burke said. One of the bullets passed through the dog and into Connery’s right hand, according to officials.

Connery was flown to Westchester Medical Center to see a hand specialist following the accident, said Tuffey.

"We’re still waiting to see if the surgery takes and the circulation goes back into his thumb," Burke said on Tuesday.

Frangella, a 17-year veteran of the department, was doing most of the grunt work, removing the plants from the ground, Burke said. "If you’re chopping and you’re going through with two machetes, you really don’t want a gun on your hip side," he said of why Frangella wasn’t carrying his own gun.

The officers also weren’t expecting to meet anybody, Burke said. From the time police got a tip from the property owner about a year ago, nobody had been seen at the location, he said. It was for that reason, too, that the officers didn’t bring plastic restraining cuffs with them; they ended up tying O’Reilly with his own shoelaces.

"You have to improvise in the field," said Burke, and they had to act quickly to keep O’Reilly from fleeing.

Albany County Sheriff James Campbell doesn’t foresee any changes to the standard operating procedures for police following this incident.

"It was a justifiable shooting and a tragic ending," said Burke. "But it could have been worse."

Frangella is on leave for the week, Burke said, and he’ll be back next week.

The dog died from the wounds, officials said, and State Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone was set to do an autopsy; Stone didn’t return calls on Wednesday.

The animal wasn’t ordered to attack, Tuffey said, but, rather, "reacted."

Inside the cabin was anti-itch pet shampoo, kibbles, and a $1 coupon for dog treats.

Although police aren’t sure how long O’Reilly had been there, canned soups and Cup Noodles were stacked in a makeshift kitchen and a mattress with a crumpled-up comforter lay on the floor.

O’Reilly was charged with three felonies: Assault with intent to cause physical injury to an officer, third-degree burglary, and first-degree criminal possession of marijuana. He was also charged with two misdemeanors: resisting arrest and unlawfully growing cannabis. He is currently being held in Albany County’s jail without bail.

"He wasn’t given the opportunity for bail because he had a parole hold," said Heather Orth of the District Attorney’s office. If someone has been convicted of a felony and served time in state prison, he will often be on parole, explained Mark Harris, an assistant district attorney. If that person violates his parole, a parole hold will keep him in jail without bail, Harris said.

O’Reilly is on parole until 2008, said Burke; he’s had eight to 10 previous arrests, three to four of which were drug related, Burke said.

"Not only was he on parole for it," Burke said of O’Reilly’s earlier drug charges. "But he had arrests previous to that for growing marijuana and possession of marijuana."

Because of the nature of his prior arrests, Burke thinks O’Reilly was probably acting alone, not as part of a larger scheme. Crops of this nature aren’t uncommon in the Hilltowns, he said; his unit usually clears two or three between the spring and fall every year and a couple of indoor growing operations during the winter.

For raids of outdoor crops on vacant land, like the one last Thursday, police often don’t find the grower. For the 108 plants just cut, with an estimated value between $50,000 and $100,000, Burke said that police wouldn’t have tracked down O’Reilly if he hadn’t been there. It’s considered a medium-sized crop, Burke said, and his unit was clearing it to keep the marijuana off the streets.

"We wouldn’t have time to do it," Burke said of tracking down O’Reilly. "Absolutely not."

Five- or 20-acre zoning"
RFP lambasts citizen survey

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Citizens are being surveyed on how farmland should be developed while a farmland protection group is pointing out flaws in the survey.

The debate has spilled over from a committee charged with developing a comprehensive land-use plan for the town. The original chairman, Vernon Husek, quit over the issue of lot size in the agricultural district; he helped form an ad hoc group of farmers and residents, Rensselaerville Farmland Protection.

Husek favors large-acre zoning in the agricultural district. The planning committee’s new chairman, Thomas Mikulka, favors five-acre zoning.

Surveys were sent out last week by the land-use committee to each resident, who will decide on either one dwelling per five acres or one dwelling per 20 acres in the agricultural districts.

Two days after the committee’s surveys were sent out, the farmland protection group sent out a bulletin, encouraging residents to vote for 20-acre zoning.

Over 2,600 surveys were sent out to residents Sept. 5 to be returned to Town Hall by Sept. 17, said Margaret Saddlemire, a member of the land-use committee.

"It’s not a binding survey," said Thomas Mikulka, the committee’s chairman. Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg has said the town will do whatever the majority wants. Nickelsberg said last month the town’s judges will count the surveys. "We don’t know that the town justices will count them," Mikulka said yesterday, adding that the count should be supervised because it is "such a hot issue."

Mikulka said the survey was sent out by the town board because Husek was threatening to sue the town. Husek has sued the town before.

"We had heard that that was a possibility," said Nickelsberg, adding that the information was by rumor.

"I have not threatened anything yet. I simply resigned without comment," Husek said.

The farmland protection group formed after the town board adopted the comprehensive plan this spring because it was clear the reconstituted committee was going to encourage development in the agricultural districts, said Husek.

"I was not the only person to leave the committee"A number of people decided they’d had enough," said Husek.

The farmland protection group sent bulletins to residents because it was concerned the survey did not describe the effect of the two choices, said Husek.

"When our best soils are used for house lots, the potential for local food production is destroyed; quality of life is irrevocably lost," the group’s bulletin says.

The cost of sending out the bulletin was roughly $1,300, said Husek.

Two views on zoning outcome

Since the town last adopted zoning laws and subdivision regulations in the early 1990s, lot size in the agricultural districts has been five acres. The land-use committee is recommending the zoning in the agricultural district remain at five acres, said Mikulka.

"That just doesn’t make sense," Husek said.

Mikulka has repeatedly said larger lots in the agricultural district could devalue farmland while other property owners who are able to subdivide their land see increases in their land’s value. Mikulka is currently selling his house on Barger Road.

"That’s the scenario that I believe"We have taken the position that it’s unfair," Mikulka said.

The town’s planner, Nan Stolzenburg, disagrees.

"Lower density does not equate to making the land less valuable. There are many studies that show that lower density that is couple with a preserved landscape and preserved character actually is more value, even with lower numbers of lots sold," she has said.

"It is not a straight line and it is not correct to say or imply this as fact. In some cases, depending on the market and the type of subdivision, it might cause a decrease. In other cases — especially where the quality of life is ‘preserved’ — that creates value," Stolzenburg has said.

"Our best agricultural soils are in danger of being developed for housing subdivisions and lost forever," says the RFP bulletin. "More houses mean more people, more roads, more traffic, and more classrooms," it says.

Husek said small lots in the agriculture district will lead to more development and higher taxes. "The most expensive kind of development is residential"It doesn’t pay for itself" he said, adding that cost is distributed across the community and results in more roads, services, and larger municipal facilities.

"All these things go up if development comes into town," Husek said.

Mikulka was critical of the bulletin, which contains one of his emails. He said he doesn’t know who authored the bulletin as it does not contain a name or address.

"Who wrote the survey"" Husek responded through The Enterprise.

According to the American Farmland Trust, a "respected organization," the only town in New York State that has adopted large-acre zoning is the town of Seneca (Ontario County), Mikulka said.

Seneca has a population of about 3,000 and four hamlets; 26,000 of the town’s 32,000 acres are located in the agricultural district, according to Jerry Hoover, Seneca’s building inspector and zoning and code enforcement officer.

"Farming is a very viable part of our industry here," Hoover said.

When Seneca worked on its comprehensive plan in 1999 and 2000, the public showed a strong desire to protect farmland, he said. Its zoning laws restrict subdivisions to properties in the agricultural districts. In order to subdivide, a parcel must be at least five acres, and any parcel between five and 100 acres is only allowed one subdivision, Hoover said.

"They saw the value in doing that," Mikulka said. "There is no agriculture in Rensselaerville," he said, adding that the exception is hay-cutting. Farmland protection, he said, is "a complex issue."

RFP points to surveys sent out to residents last year, which showed 83 percent were concerned with losing farmland.

"Subdividing a large number of house lots in the agricultural zone will only benefit a few landowners who wish to sell and move elsewhere," the group’s bulletin said.

Mikulka cited the Lewises and Kropps, both long-time farming families, and said they aren’t going to leave. Becky and Susan Lewis are members of the land-use committee. The Lewises operate two dairy farms.

"They don’t have any pension plans. The land is their pension," Mikulka said, adding that he doesn’t want to "screw over" farmers, who are the backbone of the community. They want to pass their farms on to their children, he said.

Mikulka said there are ways other than using zoning to preserve farmland, such as conservation easements and clustered development. He has recommended a fund be created for the town to buy farmland. There are many wealthy people in Rensselaerville who would contribute to a private fund, said Mikulka, as they do to the Huyck nature preserve.

The American Farmland Trust and Stolzenburg have recommended 20- and 25-acre zoning, Husek said.

Mikulka is concerned voters who answer the survey will be unable to make an informed decision. "It’s such a complex issue"You almost have to go with a gut feeling," he said. He called agricultural zoning "one of the most divisive issues that’s ever hit this town."

Mikulka recommended holding a debate, where voters could better understand the issue.

The town will soon be applying for a $25,000 grant from the American Farmland Trust to study farmland protection. The town board approved $1,250 for the application; the money will be returned if the town does not receive the grant. A commission other than the land-use committee will study the issue, said Mikulka.

At a public hearing in April, farmers said their land is their retirement and all they have to pass on to their children.

While creating the town’s master plan, used as a template for the town’s zoning laws and subdivision regulations, the committee split the agricultural and rural residential districts to protect the town’s prime soils.

Berne library checks out places to call a new home

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The cramped Berne library has outgrown its space at Town Hall but a new location remains uncertain.

Years into planning, library supporters have considered building a new library at the town park on the west end of the Berne hamlet.

As an alternative, they are now considering the Masonic Lodge, a two-story building located next to Town Hall.

This year, the project was awarded a state grant. The grant money, combined with matching funds set aside by the town board, would have amounted to "well over $200,000," said Joel Willsey, a member of the library’s all-volunteer building committee.

However, upon receiving the grant, a fully-developed plan had not yet been formulated and library supporters returned the money.

"We now know what to do and how to do it," Willsey said. "It was a long shot to get the grant."

No proposal has been made by the town, said Stewart Kidder, a past master of the Masons and the lodge’s secretary. "I have no idea what their plans are," he said.

The Berne Masonic Lodge was started in 1868 and now has about 70 members, said Kidder.

"We’ve had numerous informal sessions," said Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier of meetings with the Masons.

A meeting at Town Hall with the Masons, library trustees, and town officials is scheduled for Sept. 20 at 5:30 p.m., Crosier announced last night.

The Masons have suggested their building could be used; they have also suggested selling the building to the town at a discounted price if they are allowed to use a meeting room on the second floor indefinitely, according to Willsey.

The Berne Library is part of the Upper Hudson Library System, which serves Albany and Rensselaer counties. It is a free library which, unlike a public library, does not have the power to tax.

The town of Berne supports the library. This year, it was budgeted $27,500. The town of Knox, which has no library of its own, uses the Berne library and paid Berne $800 this year for services.

The library employs "three wonderful people," said James O’Shea, the president of the library board.

Town Hall, which was built as a hotel, also houses the town offices, town court, and a meeting room. The Berne History Museum is located on the top floor.

After it was founded in 1962, the library was housed at the Grange Hall and in a small building at the edge of the Fox Creek. It moved to Town Hall in 1969.

To date, the town has set aside $165,000 in its capital projects fund for the library project, with the money earmarked for a new library. Part of the money set aside — $50,000 — was raised from the sale of the fire station across the street from the town hall.

Library trustees, The Friends of the Berne Library, and four committees — grant, finance, interior, and building — have worked on the relocation project. All the work has been performed by volunteers.

"Everybody is doing what they can, when they can," said Willsey, who redesigned the town’s transfer station to match the historic buildings in the hamlet.

To be considered

For a new building at the town park, the library’s interior committee is recommending a 4,000-square-foot building.

Willsey estimated 3,500 square feet would be left for library purposes after restrooms, sinks, hallways, a boiler room, and an entryway are accounted for.

The current library provides about 800 square feet of usable space, he said.

The Masonic building (minus the meeting room on the second floor) could provide approximately 3,000 square feet of usable space if the basement is used and the building is jacked up or a new foundation is put in.

When considering the town park as a building site, library planners became concerned about the high water level, the floodplain, and archaeological sites being disturbed, Willsey said. To save on costs, all studies have been amateur studies, he said.

The building committee has recommended to the town board that library trustees, town council members, and members of the Masons jointly meet to discuss sharing a meeting room and negotiate arrangements for the basement before approving any consulting expenditures, Willsey said.

Contributions for the project are coming in from a variety of sources.

The Tenzin Gyatso Institute for Wisdom and Compassion, a Tibetan Buddhist center in Berne, donated $2,500 to the library.

Residents are also donating.

Former planning board member, Mildred Johansson, donated $2,000; the library has also gotten a $1,000 donation and two residents have given $500 dollars.

"People are donating $1,000 who are driving rusted-out cars," said Willsey.

Throughout September, a book drive fund-raiser for the library is being held on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lutheran church in East Berne.

Two daughters remember
Mary Ellen Gordon, a farmer and a fighter

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

KNOX — Mary Ellen Gordon is remembered by her two daughters as a fighter, a lover of fresh air, a champion of education, and a woman who shared a true-life love story with her husband, Alexander "Sandy" Gordon.

She died on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007 in their home on Beebe Road where she had lived for 23 years. She was 54.

Mrs. Gordon was diagnosed with lung cancer four years ago and her 21-year-old daughter, Margaret, said yesterday that her mother had won the battle.

"She fought with everything she had," said Maggie Gordon. "In my eyes, she won. She could have quit at any time and no one would have blamed her. She felt a lot of pain. But my mother wasn’t a quitter. She wanted to set a good example for Sarah and me."

"She cared about people and, in the end, you could see how much people cared about her," said 23-year-old Sarah Gordon. "People just came out of the woodwork to help in the last few weeks."

Mrs. Gordon was born in Delmar, the younger daughter of the late Marjorie and William Murphy. She graduated from Bethlehem High School in 1971 and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the State University of New York College at Brockport in 1975.

Three years later, she was out with friends, including one Sandy Gordon and his dog, Happy.

"Happy put his head in my Mom’s lap," said Maggie Gordon. "I don’t know if my Dad had trained him to do that but it got her talking to my Dad."

Happy, who was a "mutt through and through," was Sandy Gordon’s best friend, his daughter said, and became like a member of the Gordon family; he died on their 10th anniversary.

"Just after Mom told us her illness had gotten worse, we went to lunch. She said she had lived a true-life love story and she hoped my sister and I would be as lucky," said Maggie Gordon.

Sandy Gordon proposed to Mary Ellen in California while the couple traveled cross country by motorcycle in the late 1970s.

Traveling was always important to the Gordons, their daughters said.

"They believed it was very important to go to work every day and give it your all, but sometimes you need a break," said Maggie Gordon. "The four of us would do it together, sometimes with family friends."

They took ski vacations up north and beach vacations in the Carolinas.

Maggie Gordon recalled a trip before Sarah’s last year of high school, which their mother dramatically proclaimed might be their last as the daughters took wing. "We drove 38 hours straight to Wyoming. Sarah and Dad hiked. Mom and I told them we were hiking and we took a boat ride and read some good books," Maggie Gordon said with a laugh.

Then, in a more serious tone, she went on, "Mom really wanted Sarah and I to get a broader perspective of what our country had to offer."

Mrs. Gordon also traveled with her sister, Judith. They visited Jamaica, Alaska, and the United Kingdom together and returned with stories that "brought smiles to the faces of all who listened," said Maggie Gordon.

Mrs. Gordon’s daughter said she had a love for fresh air and enjoyed the world’s natural beauty.

"I grew up on a Ford tractor," said Maggie Gordon. "I used to sit on her knee as she drove through Dad’s hay fields."

"My Mom and Dad have always been avid farmers and try to live in connection with the land," said Sarah Gordon.

Her mother’s interest in the environment led Sarah to her current studies, she said. After graduating from Marist College with a double major in political science and environmental science, she is now pursing a master’s degree at the University of Vermont in natural resource management.

"I got interested in politics from my Dad," said Sarah; her father had been on the Knox Town Board and is currently a county legislator.

"My Mom thought I should see what about politics drove me and came up with the idea of environmental policy," she said.

She is concentrating on the way communities can manage their resources, rather than follow "cookie-cutter" plans, said Sarah Gordon.

"You have to focus," she said, "on connecting the community, getting people to look at what surrounds them" — something her mother always did.

"She was a Brownie leader when we were kids. She’d drive kids to nursery school. She’d volunteer for field trips. She worked on the BKW budget committee and on the library committee"She always believed in public service," said Sarah Gordon.

The family ran two different businesses and both parents were equally involved, said Sarah Gordon. Mrs. Gordon was vice president of Gordon Hay & Straw while Mr. Gordon was president; that business was sold in 1995 after 20 years. Mrs. Gordon was president of Gordon Farms and Mr. Gordon was vice president.

Mrs. Gordon held a master’s degree in accounting, which she earned in 1984 from the University at Albany. She was an accountant for the family business and also worked as an auditor for the Office of the State Comptroller for the past six years.

She helped put her husband through college and then the two of them put her through her master’s degree, said Sarah Gordon.

"She really believed in the value of education," she went on. "She made very clear that, no matter what happened this year, we should finish our degrees on time."

"A woman going back for a graduate degree was unusual in her generation," said Maggie Gordon. "She was really intense about learning as much as you can to make an impact in the world. Both of our parents were educated through the SUNY system, which they loved. They wanted to offer us a little more. It was important to them we went to the best schools we could."

Maggie Gordon is currently a senior at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she is majoring in journalism and women’s studies with a minor in psychology.

"The value system in our house," Maggie Gordon went on, "was never about how much money you made or climbing the power ladder but what was important was how happy you were, doing what you love."

She said her mother was a constant at her daughters’ volleyball games all through high school and was known to cheer louder than any other parent. She always hung her children’s report cards on the refrigerator. "Our dean’s lists certificates are there right now," said Maggie Gordon.

Mary Ellen Gordon was never shy to say, "I love you," said her daughter, and she never gave up hope, inspiring those around her to persevere through their own struggles.

She had insisted her daughters enroll for classes this semester and Maggie Gordon was back at Syracuse Tuesday when she got the call telling her she should come home right away.

"When my Mom’s mother died, she was away at college. She didn’t make it home on time and she never really forgave herself," said Maggie Gordon. "Sarah told Mom on Tuesday that I’d be home in a little while and she held on for me. I sat with her and I held her hand. I was with her for 10 or 15 minutes," she said, her voice breaking with emotion.

"We were everything to her. She wanted to make sure I didn’t feel the guilt she had felt. I’m so glad I had a chance to tell her what she meant to me. I think she heard me. She waited for me, to let go. That meant everything."


Calling hours will be at Fredendall Funeral Home in Altamont on Saturday, Sept. 15, from 1 to 5 p.m., followed directly by a service at the funeral home.

Memorial contributions may be made to the American Lung Association of New York State, 155 Washington Ave., Suite 220, Albany, NY 12210.

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