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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, January 17, 2008

RFP challenges zoning law

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — After the town board voted unanimously last month for new zoning laws, it was harshly criticized last week by two members of a farmland protection group.

"There was never any give and take between the town board and the citizens on the zoning law...You sat and you listened and you voted immediately...," said Vernon Husek, who founded and leads Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, at the town’s January meeting. Husek served as chairman of the committee that created the town’s comprehensive land-use plan adopted in March of last year. He resigned after the town board adopted the plan; he did not agree with a majority of the committee, which voted for a lower density requirement in the agricultural district than was suggested by experts, who had recommended 20- and 25-acre zoning.

After surveying residents, the board voted for five-acre zoning in the agricultural district; of nearly 1,000 residents who responded, about two-thirds chose five-acre zoning over 20-acre zoning.

At the December hearing, Jeannette Rice, who served on the committee through April of last year and supported the committee’s plan, outlined three density requirements — five-acre, 20-acre, and 20-acre net density. Rice, a member of Husek’s group, said she favored 20-acre net density, a requirement in which four smaller parcels are placed on the edge of a large piece of land and one large tract remains undeveloped. Rice distinguished her viewpoint from 20-acre zoning, in which a 100-acre parcel would be divided equally with five 20-acre lots.

Last week, Rice criticized the survey sent to residents in the fall, saying the survey contained no information about net-density and that residents could submit it after the deadline.

"I just think they’re wrong," Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg told The Enterprise this week of Husek’s group. Nickelsberg said the town "had 20 months of give and take." He cited the number of meetings held by the land-use committee and hours of work on the plan, saying he attended meetings while Husek was the chairman and later when Thomas Mikulka, who replaced Husek, assumed the chair.

"I think we answered sufficiently amongst ourselves and within ourselves," Nickelsberg said. "We can’t expect to go to a final plan and expect acreage issues to be resolved," he said, citing other tools used to protect farmland, such as transfer of development rights, whereby a landowner sells his rights to develop, and placing restrictive covenants on land. Asked if he prefers transfer of development rights and covenants to zoning, Nickelsberg said, "I’m interested in all options...I’m not sure it’s one-size-fits-all."

At a Dec. 19 public hearing on new zoning laws, as the density requirement in the agricultural district stood at one dwelling per five acres, members of Husek’s group gave the town board many letters and lists of questions. They have argued that a lower-density requirement in the agricultural district will lead to the town’s farmland and prime soils being lost and will result in more development, more services, and higher taxes.

"Facts were presented to you and you ignored them," Husek said to the town board last week.

Asked if he felt residents had a good understanding of the five-acre, 20-acre, and 20-acre net zoning requirements, Nickelsberg said he trusts that the citizens of Rensselaerville looked at the options. He cited the land-use committee’s meetings, which were open to the public.

"If you wanted to hear, be heard, you had a chance," he said.

The farmland protection group held a public forum last year before elections and invited candidates for the Albany County Legislature and keynote speaker Katherine Daniels of the New York Planning Federation. After the town sent a survey to residents, who were to choose between five-acre and 20-acre zoning, it sent a bulletin to residents, encouraging them to vote for 20-acre zoning. RFP met with the Albany County Planning Board in December, and the group’s attorney cited the inconsistency between the town’s comprehensive land-use plan and the town’s zoning law, adopted in December.

The town’s master plan calls for 20-acre zoning in the agricultural district. The zoning law adopted in December calls for five-acre zoning.

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — Land-use planning is underway in rural Westerlo.

"If we can’t keep agriculture sustainable in Westerlo, we’ve got a fundamental problem," said Leonard Laub, the chairman of the planning board, which was given the task of creating the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan.

Westerlo has over 30 working farms.

At a special workshop session last week, members of the town’s planning board and a small group of residents discussed current economic, environmental, and traffic conditions in Westerlo and considered what residents want for their future.

Laub said some residents "very readily say" they like the town as it is and that the town doesn’t need to become something else.

A comprehensive land-use plan is used as a template to draft zoning laws and subdivision regulations. While the planning board creates the master plan, the town board has the ultimate say on which laws are enacted. In conjunction with creating a master plan, a moratorium was enacted by the town board in July, halting major subdivisions in Westerlo for 18 months.

Westerlo has never had a comprehensive land-use plan, Laub told The Enterprise this week. He called the town’s zoning law, adopted in the 1980s, "very complex."

Last week, members of the board discussed Route 32 as a corridor for development. They also talked about added sewer and water systems and their effects should higher-density development come to the town or infrastructure be added to current systems. Westerlo recently completed its first municipal water system, which serves about 80 properties in the Westerlo hamlet; when designing the system, residents could opt out, and only those who are connected pay for it.

Agreeing on a vision for the future

Planning board member Andy Brick, who said he has been involved with comprehensive land-use plans in the past, recommended the board start with guidelines.

"Whatever we come up with at the end of the day — recommend to the town board — it has to not only protect our existing family farms, but, at the same time, it can’t restrict it," said Brick. "Because everybody loves the bucolic setting that we’re in...and we’ve got to make sure that the agricultural interests are at the forefront because that’s what everybody’s talking about when they talk about the bucolic setting," he said.

"But at the same time," said Brick, "we don’t want to tell the farmer, ‘You know what, you can’t sell your land now because we like looking at it so you’re stuck farming it.’ We can’t go to that extreme either."

Current zoning requirements allow one dwelling per three acres outside the hamlets; Westerlo has a one-cut rule, which means a landowner may subdivide his land one parcel at a time without a planning-board review.

"You don’t look at what the town looks like now," said Brick of land-use planning. "You envision what you want the town to look like in 20 years," he said, adding that the community may want the town to look exactly the same in 20 years.

"Once you have a vision of how you want it to look, the rest is just details," said Brick.

"We have to do this in a way that the community is part of the process," said Laub. "You don’t want to spring things on this town," he said, citing a recent kennel law drafted by the town that was met with widespread opposition and St. Peter’s Hospital of Albany recently announcing that it will close Westerlo’s Anna W. Perkins Helderberg Health Center, one of its charity clinics.

Roland Tozer, who chaired Westerlo’s planning board before it was disbanded by the town board in the early 1990s, recommended that the planning board think regionally and not duplicate services provided nearby.

"We do live in a rural place," said Tozer, adding that residents should expect they’re going to have to travel for services.

Getting input

To gather information and address needs of individual communities in Westerlo, the planning board decided to meet with residents from different parts of the town, including Dormansville, Lake Onderdonk, and the hamlets of Westerlo and South Westerlo. It will also meet with farmers and business owners.

The planning board scheduled a workshop meeting for farmers and members of the agricultural community at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall on Feb. 21, Laub told The Enterprise yesterday.

The planning board also discussed sending a survey to town residents, asking questions such as: Do you want senior housing"

Laub told The Enterprise the planning board will complete the plan within 2008, and it hopes to meet with groups throughout the winter, spring, and summer; draft the plan in the fall; and present it to the town board in the winter of 2008.

No explicit budget has been allotted for the plan, said Laub. While no consultants have been retained, Laub said the planning board expects to hire consultants as needed, possibly Buckman and Whitbeck of East Berne, Ingalls and Associates of Schenectady, and Nan Stolzenburg of Berne. Stolzenburg has worked with other Hilltowns as well as Altamont and New Scotland on their comprehensive plans.

At a meeting in June, Aline Galgay, the town’s attorney, was concerned about the planning board having dual roles. She said applicants will come before the planning board while its members draft new subdivision regulations and zoning laws. If the planning board members also perform the role of a committee that forms the comprehensive land-use plan, they cannot hold meetings for both on the same night, she said.

"You have to be very careful that those roles are kept separate," she said.

Farming in Westerlo and nearby

Throughout last week’s meeting, members of the planning board and residents discussed farming. Two of the board’s five members — Jack Milner and Gerald Boone — are farmers.

Westerlo is traditionally a farming town. Members of the board considered viewpoints of farmers, saying they do not want to place too much of a burden on farmers, such as Councilman Robert Snyder, who have lived in the town their whole lives. Board members were uncertain where most of the farms are located and, because of a recent law, who is considered a farmer.

According to Thomas Della Rocco, the executive director of the Farm Service Agency’s Albany County office, there are over 30 major farming operations in Westerlo — about 10 beef and cattle farms, a couple of farms where dairy heifers are raised, at least three or four horse farms, several sheep and goat farms, one community-supported agricultural farm, and the rest cutting and selling hay.

Last week, members of the planning board and residents cited the adjacent town of Rensselaerville, which adopted new zoning laws last month and kept the same zoning requirement — one dwelling per five acres — in its agricultural district.

Brick cited Rensselaerville’s considering a 10-acre zoning requirement. He said a 10-acre minimum is "not financially feasible for a large segment of the population."

Engineer Francis Bossolini, a partner with Ingalls and Associates, outlined projects on which he has worked — one in Guilderland and another in Columbia County. Bossolini called transfer of development rights, whereby a landowner sells his development rights to a developer, "a good technique" that will temper the public’s reaction.

"In the end," said Bossolini, "your farmland will get preserved...Farmland is going to become more valuable at some point, I believe, economically, because of some energy that we’re going to derive from crops...."

Members of the planning board cited the county’s right-to-farm law enacted last year. The law was created to support and protect farmland and foster good relationships between farmers and non-farmers. The law defines a farming enterprise as a business that generates $2,000 or more in gross sales. Farm products, as defined by the law, include: field crops, fruits, vegetables, horticultural crops, livestock, maple sap and syrup, Christmas trees, fish, fish products, woody crops, apiary products, and compost products.

Resident Edwin Stevens said he is most concerned about farmland remaining affordable and farmers being able to sell their land to their children.

"There’s hardly any farmers making a profit," said Milner, adding that he has been farming since 1982 and hasn’t seen "a penny of profit."

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Acting on the advice of the town’s new attorney, the town board last week voted unanimously to repeal a position created on New Year’s Day and the appointment that followed.

At the town’s reorganizational meeting on Jan. 1, Democratic board members, who had won the majority in the fall election, created the position of town comptroller and appointed resident Brenda Wood to the post. Republicans voted against it. Republican Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg is the town’s chief financial officer.

"The town board had to do what it had to do," said Wood yesterday of the board’s repealing her appointment. Wood is a Democrat.

As identified in the state’s Town Law, a town comptroller’s duties include: assisting the supervisor in preparing the town’s budget and overseeing the financial policies of the town as set forth by the town board. A town comptroller is responsible for the town’s payroll, paying employee benefits, updating the town’s investment policy, and performing internal audits of various town departments.

Democratic Councilman Gary Chase, who won a third term in this fall’s election, had said at the reorganizational meeting he had discussed the position with Joseph Catalano, Rensselaerville’s newly-appointed attorney. Catalano, who had provided legal counsel to the town prior to 2006 and was reinstated on New Year’s day, did not attend the meeting.

Nickelsberg and Councilman Robert Lansing, the two Republicans, did not vote for Catalano’s appointment and fought the measure to create a town comptroller, saying the issue was not on the agenda and legal counsel was not present to advise the board.

On New Year’s Day, Democrats said they want assurance that the town’s insurance is paid and employee’s checks are honored.

In May of last year, due to an unpaid insurance bill, the town’s employees and retirees were not receiving medical services. Nickelsberg said in May, "The bookkeeper pays the bills, but, ultimately, the responsibility is mine."

In October, Nickelsberg said there were two separate instances in two weeks with town payroll checks — once when the bank sent misnumbered checks and another when a fax transferring funds to the bank did not go through.

Nickelsberg said that, after a reminder from the comptroller’s office, the bookkeeper paid owed funds of $400 to $500 to the retirement system.

On Jan. 1, Chase insisted on a vote after it had been seconded and said he would not withdraw his motion.

"I don’t want to call for a vote," said Nickelsberg on New Year’s Day. "I want to table this until the town board meeting on [Jan. 10]. I need to talk to counsel. I need to find out whether this is something that is correct. And I’m going to rely on counsel."

"This motion did come from counsel," said newly-appointed Democratic Councilwoman Marie Dermody.

"It did come from counsel," said Chase.

"I haven’t heard from counsel," said Nickelsberg.

Catalano said last week that the position of town comptroller is only allowable for towns of the first class and towns of the second class with a population of greater than 40,000 residents. Rensselaerville is defined as a town of the second class and has just over 2,000 residents.

Because the position would take some authority away from elected officials, a town-wide vote would be required, Catalano said. A local law would have to be drafted, a public hearing would need to be held, and, if approved by the town board, the law would have to be put up for a referendum, he said. The position would not be effective until approved by a majority of the voters.

Nickelsberg said Chase assured the board "several times" that the position of comptroller had Catalano’s "blessing."

"I was not appointed as town attorney until Jan. 1. I did not bless anything," said Catalano at the Jan. 10 meeting.

Nickelsberg said Chase was "making a representation that is simply illegal."

"I was misinformed by the Association of Towns," said Chase.

The Association of Towns could not be reached for comment.

Catalano said the town board could appoint someone to an advisory position to do financial reporting, or appoint a director of purchasing to collect bids and estimates. The town board could also combine the positions, Catalano said.

Asked if she would be interested in either position or a combined post, Wood said, "I don’t know at this point. I don’t know what is involved."

Soehnel taps mind, sweet poetry flows to paper

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — After writing poetry for many years, H. Steven Soehnel believes he doesn’t have anything others don’t have, and he doesn’t measure his success or happiness by publications or prizes.

"Writers just have ideas — are people with ideas. I don’t think that I have a talent that other people don’t have. I really believe everybody’s got it," Soehnel said. "That’s why I like poetry...Everybody’s got something to say."

Soehnel, 57, has been writing poetry since he was 11 years old, exploring many topics, ranging from nature and his immediate surroundings to issues that have stirred the nation and world. He’s written about maple syrup and hitting a squirrel with his car. And he’s written about the Loma Prieta Earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989 and the Los Angeles race riots in 1992.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Soehnel works at Atria Guilderland, a local center for the elderly, and is currently working on a master’s degree in liberal arts.

His love for nature and poetry began when he was a boy. Many of his friends vacationed at the Jersey shore, he said, and he went north, to Vermont, to visit his grandmother’s farm, where he learned to love nature. When he returned to school in Bergenfield, N.J., he said, he would look out the window and daydream about Vermont. His first poem was about birds.

"I just needed something to fill a void, I guess," Soehnel said. "I just started writing stuff, and it’s pretty much continued from there."

In the 1970s, when he was married, he tried to get away from writing poetry.

"I put it all in the closet," said Soehnel. "I said, ‘What am I doing" What’s with this poetry stuff"’...But things would always bring it back to life."

It came back when his sister-in-law and husband visited. Soehnel and his wife brought out a book of poems and showed the couple one about their wedding. His brother-in-law asked, "You wrote this poem about us, Steve""

Soehnel then thought he should start writing again.

"And I just finally said, ‘You know, I guess that’s who I am, like it or not, for better or worse,’ like a marriage."

His inspiration for his poems just comes to him, he said, and he has to work hard to stop himself from writing. Sometimes, Soehnel said, he thinks his inspiration comes from a higher power. After writing some of his poems, he asks himself where they came from.

"I didn’t even think intellectually. It wasn’t premeditated. It would just come out complete and it would make sense and I would say, ‘Wow, where’d that come from"’" he said. "I didn’t really give myself credit. I thought something else, God or some higher power, is just inspiring me."

"Maple Syrup"

In the 1970s, Soehnel wrote "Maple Syrup," a poem about the authenticity of nature. It was published in 1981 in Mountain Times, an independent weekly newspaper in Vermont. Senator Gilbert Godnick of Rutland then tried to have the poem adopted as the state’s poem.

In 1996, Soehnel sent his poem to Albany County Executive Michael Breslin, which launched a contest for an official Albany County poem.

"I kind of like the idea of laying low and having a low-key little career," Soehnel said. "I kind of like being a part of it," he said of the contests. "I don’t have to be the prize winner."

He also likes to regale listeners with tales of his encounters with the famous — including Allen Ginsberg and Jean-Claude Van Damme. While living in California, Soehnel drove a taxi cab and worked as an extra. He can be seen in a prison scene in Death Warrant, a 1990 film starring Van Damme.

Honoring a soldier killed in war

In 2003, George Wood, fighting in Iraq, died after stepping on a roadside bomb. Wood is the brother-in-law of Soehnel’s daughter. A Cornell graduate, Wood had joined the Army in the mid-1990s and wanted to teach at West Point. Soehnel was sitting in his Ketcham Road home in Knox when he heard the news, and his immediate reaction, he said, was to write a poem about it. He wanted to heal his daughter’s pain and the pain of those in Wood’s family.

"You don’t know how to handle grief," said Soehnel. "There’s no answers."

At Wood’s funeral in Utica, the whole town attended, and, afterward, Soehnel handed Wood’s mother the poem.

Four years later, after watching news coverage of the ensuing war on the television, Soehnel revisited his poem because, he said, he felt he needed to explain it. He recalled Wood’s brother, a large man, sitting alone at the funeral and the war’s similarities to the Vietnam War. He renamed the poem "The Gift" and wrote about the circumstances surrounding the poem, the war, and Wood’s death.

Soehnel’s letter and poem were published as a letter to the Enterprise editor for Veteran’s Day on Nov. 15, 2007. He sent the paper to Wood’s mother. She replied with a letter thanking him.

"That letter probably made me happier than any publication," said Soehnel. "What better thing than to heal somebody’s sorrow" And I’d rather have that than an Oscar. I think it was Bob Dylan was saying, ‘All I do is write songs and these doctors save lives.’ And I was thinking, ‘Yeah, That’s true. What the heck do we do"’ But I felt I did something that was worthwhile with that poem," Soehnel said. "I felt, here’s somebody who feels like their son is remembered."

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