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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, February 28, 2008

R’ville zoning law disputed
Group sues to protect farmland

By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, a small group of residents, has sued the town over its new zoning ordinance.

"We tried to raise questions and get the town to talk to us — to be able to convince them to do something in addition to the law that they passed," said Vernon Husek, who leads the farmland protection group. "It became pretty clear they were not going to do that."

Husek has been an outspoken proponent of large-acre zoning in the town’s agricultural district; the town board adopted five-acre zoning.

On Jan. 19, one month after the town board held a public hearing and voted unanimously to adopt new zoning laws, the group filed an Article 78 petition — which allows citizens to challenge their governments — with the state’s Supreme Court.

State law requires a suit to be filed within 30 days of the enactment of a law. The Supreme Court is the lowest level court in the state’s three-tiered system.

"I have been authorized, together, with the deputy town attorney [Jon Kosich], to represent the town and submit papers in opposition to the Article 78," Rensselaerville’s town attorney, Joseph Catalano, said this week. Catalano and Kosich did not represent the town when the zoning law was adopted. Both were appointed in January by the Democrats, who now hold a majority on the town board; they replaced the Albany law firm of Tabner, Ryan, and Keniry, which the Republicans had supported.

"We haven’t fully finalized our papers yet. The date for filing and serving a response is next Friday," said Catalano.

Rensselaerville Farmland Protection is starting a membership drive for its organization, and will hold a meeting on March 8 to sign up new members, said Husek.

The group says the Rensselaerville Town Board violated the state’s Open Meetings Law by failing to state in a notice of a December public hearing on the zoning law that a special meeting would also be held. Municipalities are required to publish notices of public hearings in their official newspaper.

In December, after the Rensselaerville Town Board held a public hearing on new zoning laws, it unanimously adopted the law just minutes after it had closed the hearing. It was the second public hearing on new zoning laws during a 20-month process.

Good cause exists, RFP says in its suit, to invalidate the actions taken by the town board at the Dec. 19 special meeting, including the enactment and the adoption of the town’s zoning ordinance.

"The allegation is correct in that, apparently, the public hearing was publicly noticed and published but not the special meeting that followed immediately thereafter," said Catalano. "Again, we’re looking through our records as we speak"That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the actions at the meeting," he said.

Zoning differs from master plan"

Rensselaerville Farmland Protection formed after the town adopted its comprehensive plan in March of last year. Members of the group have questioned a five-acre zoning requirement in the agricultural district, as outlined in the new zoning law, as well as the ability of a five-acre minimum to protect farmland and the town’s prime soils.

"We hope for a zoning law that will do a better job of protecting agricultural land in the town of Rensselaerville from residential development, primarily," said Husek. "We have identified other weaknesses, but that’s our core issue."

Last fall, as the planning process came to a close, the town sent a survey to all residents, who were to choose between one dwelling per five acres in the agricultural district and one dwelling per 20 acres. Nearly two-thirds of about 1,000 residents voted for five acres, the same zoning requirement that had previously been in place. The committee that was then drafting new zoning laws had voted unanimously for the same.

Husek chaired the committee that created the town’s comprehensive plan. He resigned just after the town board unanimously adopted the plan, which calls for a low-density requirement — one house per 20 acres — in the agricultural district. Husek had disagreed with the majority of the committee, which voted for a higher-density requirement in the district than had been recommended by experts.

In its suit, RFP points out the inconsistency between the zoning requirement in the town’s comprehensive plan and the requirement in the zoning ordinance. The town’s master plan recommends 20-acre zoning in the agricultural district; the town’s new zoning ordinance allows a five-acre minimum.

"The town board, by adopting the zoning law, felt that the zoning law was ‘in accordance with the comprehensive plan,’" said Catalano. "That’s the legal test. That’s what the statute requires — that the zoning law be ‘in accordance with the comprehensive plan.’ We feel that it is," he said. "You could cherry-pick language from large documents like these and create inconsistencies that way, but we don’t feel, at this point, that there’s any inconsistency. This will all be put into our papers and we’ll see what the judge says."

In December, the town board unanimously adopted a negative declaration for the zoning laws — meaning the laws would not result in any adverse environmental impacts.

RFP contends high-density residential and commercial development in the town’s hamlets "may include the potential for at least one significant adverse environmental impact."

The group says the town board should have issued a positive declaration and prepared an environmental impact statement.

Catalano said, "One of the things that the Article 78 doesn’t really point out is that any significant commercial or residential development within the hamlet area would be subject to its own [State Environmental Quality Review Act] process, whereby any potential impacts of a specific project that is proposed would have to be addressed."

A SEQRA review is an analysis of a proposed project and its potential impacts to the environment. Reviews are mandated by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

"The zoning law as well as the comp plan doesn’t provide any particular uses or developments that are allowed without any further review," Catalano said. "So just saying in the zoning law that these uses are allowed by special [use] permit or site-plan review — that doesn’t, in itself, create any environmental impacts."

Farmers are first in Westerlo planning process

By Tyler Schuling

WESTERLO — As Westerlo’s planning board works on a plan for the town’s future, farmers came to Town Hall last Thursday to hear from an expert on farmland protection.

"We talk about ‘farmland protection.’ What we really need to be talking about is ‘protecting farming’ — keeping value in that land," said Gary Kleppel, the director of the Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy Program at the University at Albany. "[Getting] money out of that land while still doing what you do and protecting the values and the landscapes that you have that make it worth putting on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt in the morning, getting on a tractor, and thinking, ‘My God, I’m the luckiest person in the world.’"

Kleppel lectured on transfer of development rights for much of the meeting.

"I realize that agriculture is something that’s completely not understood by most people," Kleppel said. "What most of us talk about is ‘preserving open space,’ which I hate, because it’s not ‘open space.’ It’s my home"and it’s going to be my business some day, when I finally start making money."

Nearly 30 Westerlo farmers were contacted by Jack Milner and Gerald Boone, members of Westerlo’s planning board. Both are farmers.

Transfer of development rights is a farmland-protection tool where farmers sell their rights to develop, most often to a developer. A town can set up "receiving zones" where the rights can be used. These may be areas within the town that are more densely populated and where development may be desired, such as a hamlet. A town can also set up "sending zones" — areas where landowners are allowed to sell their rights.

Using transfer of development rights, the rights from a farm in Westerlo could be used to develop within the town or outside the town — in another town, city, county, or state. After selling his rights to develop, a landowner could continue to live on his land and would still pay taxes on the property.

"How are you going to get people to agree to having receiving areas in their backyard"" a resident asked. Kleppel said the development may not be within the town. He gave examples of transfer of development rights being used — when converting a vacant parking lot into a shopping complex and when adding a second story to a building. Leonard Laub, the chairman of the town’s planning board, cited the nearby city of Cohoes, which, he said, is eager to have more development.

The Hilltowns’ zoning ordinances give the community little opportunity to direct its own development, Kleppel said. He said of transfer of development rights, "You [the community] are in control, not a guy from New Jersey."

"I don’t like the community having control of my property," said a resident.

"It’s hard to get two people to agree"," said another resident.

"Especially in New York," said Kleppel. Kleppel, who is originally from New York, lived in California for 20 years before returning to the Empire State in 2000. He lives in the nearby town of Knox and owns a sheep farm.

Planning possibilities

"Is there a point to making some more complicated zoning"" Laub asked a large crowd at Town Hall.

The town’s planning board has been given the task of creating the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan. The plan will be used as a template for the town’s zoning laws and subdivision regulations. While the planning board drafts the plan, the town board is Westerlo’s legislative body and has the final say on which laws are put in place.

"The idea is not to impose something on people. It’s to have the town do something that actually gives people a better alternative," said Laub. "If there is such an alternative, we want to identify and implement it. If there isn’t, we’re wasting our time trying to come up with something just for the sake of having a plan."

Laub said he was excited by transfer of development rights but will be comfortable recommending to the town board that there’s no real benefit to a comprehensive plan if the planning board finds there’s nothing the residents want to do.

Milner gave an example of clustering in a nine-acre field with three houses. He said it’s best to put the houses together "instead of ruining the whole hay field."

"Pretty soon," Milner said, "all these fields are going to be gone."

One woman asked why the town wouldn’t "up" its current zoning of one dwelling per three or five acres to a less dense requirement of 10 or 15 acres.

Laub cited the adjacent town of Rensselaerville, which recently adopted new zoning laws. Laub said the larger lot requirement proposed in Rensselaerville was "violently opposed."

Last fall, the Rensselaerville Town Board sent a survey to residents who were to choose between one house per five acres or one per 20 acres in the town’s agricultural district. Of about 1,000 responses, nearly two-thirds voted for five acres.

Last week’s meeting was the first in a series that Westerlo’s planning board intends to hold with "special-interest groups"; the board has discussed meeting with the town’s business owners, with residents of Lake Onderdonk, and with those who live in the town’s various hamlets. Meeting dates and times have not yet been scheduled for the various groups, Laub told The Enterprise last week.

Laub has repeatedly said that the planning board wants to hear as much input as it can from the town’s residents during the planning process.

Kleppel said he will send to Town Hall: a list of books; the state’s transfer-of-development-rights law; and a book by the Brandywine Conservancy, which includes steps and samples of communities using transfer of development rights.

"We’re going to do this again," Laub told The Enterprise on Tuesday. "People are interested."

Laub said the planning board plans to do "more of the same" and that the meeting last week had given momentum to planning. Not having additional meetings with the town’s farmers, he said, "would be a waste of that momentum."

Where’s the beef"
Recalled meat dumped at BKW

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — While some local media reported that no questionable beef had been distributed to area schools, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District had 32 cases of recalled hamburger.

The meat was disposed of on Monday, said Deb Rosko, BKW’s food service director.

"We took the contaminated cases, opened them"poured bleach on them, and put them in the Dumpster," said Rosko.

The state’s Office of General Services told BKW’s food service department on Feb. 6 that the United States Department of Agriculture put a hold on Westland beef, which had sick cows. This included beef distributed by the Advance Food Company. BKW uses Advance, one of five distributors that delivered the beef in question.

"We complied immediately and have not served any beef from Advance since Feb. 6," BKW said Monday in an e-mail notification.

Hamburgers that were served in January were from lots prior to the recall so none of the possibly contaminated hamburger was served to the students, Rosko said.

The recall has been reported extensively in the media. OGS is trying to determine how far-reaching the problem is and has contacted those who receive beef from the five distributors that delivered the beef, according to Brad Maione, spokesman for the state office.

The state’s Department of Health and OGS have given guidelines for disposing of the 40-pound cases. They include providing proof that the beef was destroyed.

The disposal of the beef had to be witnessed by two people, Rosko said, and BKW had to fill out a Destruction Verification Form.

Asked how long BKW holds beef before serving it, Rosko said it depends on the source.

"[This was] government-donated beef that we had processed into hamburgers"We’re always working several months in advance of using them," she said. "If I were to be purchasing these products from a local food distributor, it would only be a week or two" before the school used them, Rosko said. "So it was actually a fortunate thing that we had them from a distributor that delivered in advance."

Rosko encouraged anyone with questions or concerns to contact her. She can be reached at 872-5131.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer contributed comments from Guilderland and Voorheesville school officials to this story.

Palombo serves one more round, to a fourth generation of Quay

By Tyler Schuling

KNOX — Delia "Barney" Palombo sat in the Township Tavern in Knox last Thursday, remembering when she and her husband ran the restaurant that has been a longtime fixture in the community.

Though she no longer works at the tavern, Palombo stepped behind the bar and served drinks to Renée Quay, who turned 21 this month, and Quay’s cousin, Luke Oliver. The cousins are the fourth generations in their families Palombo has served. Their great-grandfather, Walt Quay, was the first.

"I can remember — this was during ’56, ’57, ’58 — things were hard," Palombo said. She remembered selling bowls of soup for 25 cents and hamburgers and Italian sausage sandwiches, made from pork busts, for 35 cents.

Palombo and her husband, Harry, ran the bar and restaurant in Knox for decades. Harry Palombo died in 1981. Delia Palombo continued running the bar and restaurant for another five or six years.

Palombo, 85, now lives next door to the tavern with her two dogs, two cats, and a cockatoo. She spends her time, she said, doing puzzles and cryptograms. She attends St. Bernadette’s Church in Berne.

She has macular degeneration, which affects her vision, and arthritis and no longer drives a car. She uses a magnifying glass, she said, but still does her job as Knox’s receiver of taxes really well. She walks over to the tavern, she said, "every now and then to see the kids."

She misses her family and friends. "It just kills me," she said.

Before serving Quay and Oliver, Palombo sat at the dimly-lit bar, sipping from a soda and telling tales — of the tavern having once been a way station and a hotel; of her and her husband serving sausage sandwiches, soda, and lots of draft and bottled beer; and of the tavern, with its wood stove and dartboards, being used as a haven for locals during a winter storm in the 1950s, when the Hilltowns saw uncanny amounts of snow. Snowcats, Palombo said, had to be brought in from Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks.

She told of her brother, Francis Barnish, who had served in the Navy and had been on the USS Hornet when it sank. She also told of the Plankroaders, a social club made up of locals that formed after the town’s sesquicentennial and dissolved just over five years ago. She and her husband donated land to the group, and the late Robert Whipple donated wood, she said. Though the group was only supposed to have 10 members, it saw 40 people on its first night, Palombo said.

Palombo also recalled families and neighbors she served and celebrated with. Each year, she and her husband held a New Year’s Eve party, and, on Feb. 19, she held another party, celebrating both her wedding anniversary and the birthday of Henry Quay, whose birthday fell on the same day as her anniversary.

"All my memories up here are good," Palombo said. "They’re all happy memories, which is nice."

She said of her customers, "They respected Harry and I, and I think that’s why we never had any problems. Everybody was real nice."

In recent years, the bar and restaurant has changed ownership and gone by different names — most recently it has been Lucky’s Tavern and The Hilltop Bistro.

Before opening the tavern last summer, its new owner, Paul Centi, had asked Palombo if he could name his bar the Township Tavern.

"You’ll have made my husband and me very, very happy," she told Centi.

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