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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, March 27, 2008

Growing farmland concerns heard in court

 By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY — Last Friday, the lawyers for Rensselaerville Farmland Protection and the town of Rensselaerville argued in court.  The citizens group is suing the town to preserve farmland. 

Christopher Langlois of the Albany law firm of Girvin and Ferlazzo represented RFP.  He sought to invalidate Rensselaerville’s new zoning law on three grounds.  The crux of his argument was that the town didn’t follow its own comprehensive plan when drafting new zoning laws.

The plan calls for a lower density requirement — 20-acre lots — in the agricultural district and the zoning law sets the minimum at five acres. 

In January, the farmland protection group filed an Article 78, used by citizens challenging their governments, against the town over its new zoning law adopted in December.  The group is led by Vernon Husek, who chaired the committee that designed the town’s comprehensive plan.

In December, after it had polled residents in the fall on the density requirement in the agricultural district, the Rensselaerville Town Board held its second public hearing in a 20-month planning process.  After the hearing, it adopted new zoning laws, including a density requirement of one house per five acres in the town’s agricultural district. 

Judge John C. Egan Jr. heard the arguments last week in the state’s Supreme Court, the lowest-level court in a three-tiered system.

Preservation of farmland was among the goals in the town’s comprehensive plan, which recommended two districts be formed — a rural residential district and an agricultural district — so that different tools could be used in the districts, Langlois said.  The problem, he said, is that the town followed half of the recommendation only and that the town failed to make different or more restrictive guidelines for the agricultural district.   Langlois said the town wasn’t free to disregard its own comprehensive plan when doing its zoning laws.  “The choice,” he said, “has to be consistent.”

Egan asked if that’s what the law says and if there are prior cases to support it.

Langlois cited a state Supreme Court case — EMB Enterprises versus the town of Riverhead — that said the town wasn’t free to disregard its comprehensive plan.

“Didn’t they just leave it as it was?” Egan asked, referring to Rensselaerville’s keeping the same zoning requirement in the agricultural district.   

Langois said the town created a “separate, stand alone” district and that the town “had to come up with new guidelines for the new district.”  The town’s comprehensive plan, he said, was adopted “only nine months earlier.”

Joseph Catalano, Rensselaerville’s town attorney, told the judge, in New York State, the only requisite for a zoning law is that it must be in accordance with the comprehensive plan — not an exact duplication.  “Here, I think that it is in accordance,” he said.

Catalano cited language in the town’s plan, and said it doesn’t have “shalls” and “musts” but that it has “shoulds” and “recommendations.”  He said the comprehensive plan sets “parameters” and “broad policy goals.”  Catalano called the 20-acre density requirement in the agricultural district “a suggestion” and cited tools other than zoning to protect agriculture — transfer of development rights and conservation subdivisions.  He said of farmers, “Their savings and retirement are in the land itself.”

If the zoning law and comprehensive plan were “mirror images,” there would be no need for two documents, Catalano said.  “It would be one and the same,” he said.

Catalano called the five-acre zoning requirement in the agricultural district “a pretty low density.”  Jon Kosich, the town’s deputy town attorney, said there are a lot of tools for protecting agriculture and asked of a five-acre zoning requirement, “Why is that not considered low density?”

Egan asked how many farms and acres of farmland are in the town.

Kosich said he believes there are 14 individuals in the town with agricultural exemptions. 

Meeting notice

Langlois said three of the petitioners of Rensselaerville Farmland Protection did not know that the board would be voting on new zoning laws the night the December hearing was held. 

Rensselaerville lawyers said sufficient notice was given to the public and three people not knowing of the meeting is “a position that’s untenable.”  Catalano said that state’s Open Meetings Law says officials cannot conduct business “in private or outside of the public eye.”  On the night of the hearing, he said, the board went right on to the meeting following the hearing.  “There was no break in the action at all,” he said. 

Egan asked how the town’s residents are notified of meetings and when the hearing was held. 

Catalano said the regular meetings are on the second Thursday of each month and notice is given for those meetings once a year, at the town’s re-organizational meeting.  When holding hearings and special meetings, the town publishes notices in its official town newspaper seven days in advance.  In December, when Rensselaerville held the public hearing on new zoning laws, its official newspaper was The Greenville Press.

Egan requested lawyers both sides provide him with public notices. 

Decisions are due within 60 days of a hearing, said the court’s clerk. 

BKW fights for Trooper Rothwein

 By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — As Berne-Knox-Westerlo officials have fought a proposal that would send the school’s resource officer to a higher-crime area, BKW’s superintendent was encouraged yesterday.

“We were encouraged that the Senate has indicated that it opposes the redeployments,” said Steven Schrade yesterday.  “That was a hopeful sign for us.” 

For the past five years, BKW has received federal and state funding for State Trooper Steven Rothwein to be stationed permanently at the school. 

When he came to BKW five years ago, Rothwein, who grew up in Kinderhook, saw his role as more than a law enforcement officer.  He said he wanted to be a teacher and mentor and that he’d accepted the position because he wanted to work with children.

If the proposal is passed, Rothwein would be removed from the school and BKW would have to hire its own security or go without.  The deadline for the state budget is April 1, but it is often passed after the date. 

The BKW School District is in the Helderberg Hilltowns, a rural area patrolled by state and county police.  The Albany County Sheriff’s Department’s patrol station is located in the adjacent town of New Scotland. 

Earlier this month, Schrade; BKW’s business administrator, Timothy Holmes; and school board members Maureen Sikule and Helen Lounsbury met with Assemblyman John McEneny and Senator Neil Breslin, state legislators who represent the Hilltowns.  BKW also launched a letter-writing campaign through its e-mail notification system. 

Both McEneny and Breslin were sympathetic, Schrade said.  BKW’s message was that the district wants Rothwein to remain at the school.  Schrade listed the reasons they gave. 

“The presence of Steve helps us to mitigate, certainly, if not avoid, the lengthy response time with Troopers or police,” Schrade said.  “That is a luxury I didn’t have as school principal.”  Schrade was BKW’s high-school principal in the 1990s before being hired as the district’s superintendent. 

With the number of threats, Schrade said, either real or imagined, that are directed at BKW and to schools in general — bomb threats or threats of violence via e-mail — it’s a comfort to have Rothwein at the school to address threats promptly. 

“We don’t have many of them,” Schrade said, adding that, Rothwein assesses whether threats are real and if the school can continue with its daily routine.  “We certainly rely on that advice.” 

The former governor, Eliot Spitzer, said schools could replace school resource officers with officers of local police agencies or hire their own private security, Schrade said.  The sheriff’s department, he said, doesn’t have enough officers to contribute, and BKW cannot afford to hire its own private security. 

Some districts are able to afford their own security, Schrade said, such as Guilderland and Bethlehem, districts that both have a larger tax base.  Guilderland’s school resource officers — one stationed in the middle school and the other in the high school — are both Guilderland Police officers and are paid jointly by the town and school district. 

Schrade said of BKW having a school resource officer, “Here’s pretty much a gift from the state that did not require local funding and one advantage we have.  Senator Breslin understood that.” 

On Tuesday, Schrade said, he and Rothwein attended a safety workshop in Saratoga Springs on bullying and cyber-bullying.  Yesterday, he said, a student admitted to smoking marijuana and Rothwein drove the student home.

“So it’s a great advantage to have him here,” Schrade said. 

Recreation bus rolls towards goal

 By Tyler Schuling

RENSSELAERVILLE — Bob Bolte is still asking for donations for the town’s senior and youth bus. 

“If we made a commitment to our town, and, basically, we had borrowed that money, then it’s our obligation to go through with our commitment and get it back to them,” Bolte said.

Last year, he and a trio of residents — Marion and K.B. Cooke and Stephen Wood — asked the town board to buy the bus on the condition that there would be no additional costs to the taxpayers.  The town approved and bought the bus for $57,000. 

Since, Bolte has led the effort to repay the town by collecting donations.  On Friday, he said he had $600 in his pocket.  Throughout the past year, he has sent letters to businesses and legislators.  To date, over $52,000 has been raised, and just over $4,000 still needs to be collected to meet the goal. 

Many local businesses and residents have given to the cause as well as larger corporations, such as Price Chopper and Stewart’s Shops.  Bolte said over 150 businesses and citizens have donated. 

Last year, an anonymous donor gave $5,000, and then matched donations from the Fourth of July to Labor Day.  The Greenville Rotary donated $3,500 from its bike-athon.

Once, an 8-year-old girl tried to sell Bolte Girl Scout cookies.  He told her about the bus, and she gave him $5.

Four signs have been erected in the town depicting a thermometer to show how much has been raised.  Any extra money, Bolte said, will be used for gas and insurance.

Bolte said he’s not going to take credit for all the money collected because a lot of people have steered him in the right direction. 

“You’ve got to do something for your senior citizens,” Bolte said.  “You’ve got to do something for your youth.” 

The senior citizens in the town have been paying their taxes for 50 or 60 years, said K.B. Cooke.  He added that now it’s his turn to help and he hopes the next generation “will pick up the ball for our behalf.”

Rensselaerville’s bus is accessible to those with handicaps and it carries two wheelchairs.  Each week, volunteers drive elderly residents to doctors’ appointments and to go shopping.  Every Tuesday, the bus goes to Greenville, and on Thursdays it goes to Cobleskill. 

The bus has taken seniors twice to Saratoga Gaming & Raceway in Saratoga Springs and to see Christmas lights at Washington Park in Albany.  It was also used to take elderly residents to a restaurant and to a Christmas party.

“These are trips that a lot of these seniors would never be able to get on [and they] cannot afford the bus fare — to hire a bus at 600 or some dollars — to go,” said Bolte. 

The senior/youth bus has also taken Little League teams and Boy Scouts to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium in New York City.

In Rensselaerville, the town board is divided politically, and many issues are contentious.  The bus is no exception.  Residents have questioned whether funds could be raised to pay back the town, and town council members have disagreed over parking the bus in the town’s highway garage.  This month, at a meeting that was more harmonious than recent meetings, the town board agreed to park the bus indoors, following a resolution passed last year. 

Bolte frequently attends town meetings and updates the town board on how much money has been donated for the bus and its trips.  He has kept records of the businesses and individuals that have donated, the mileage of trips, and the names of the groups and individuals that have ridden on the bus.  When the bus needs an oil change, Bolte donates the oil and filters. 

While Bolte, K.B. Cooke, and Ronald Bates are the primary drivers of the bus, the three volunteers are not the only ones who can drive it. 

Because the bus is registered for 14 passengers, anyone with a New York State license can drive it.  It was originally meant to carry 20 passengers, but four seats have been removed so that a driver is not required to have a commercial license.  Though there are more than 14 seats, Bolte said, only 14 passengers are allowed.  The extra seats, he said, are for larger passengers. 

Groups interested in using the bus first contact Ann Vogel, one of the town’s senior-service coordinators, who coordinates with the town’s clerk, Kathy Hallenbeck.  Those who want to drive the bus first give their drivers’ licenses to Hallenbeck, who sends the licenses to the town’s insurance company, which makes a check with the state’s Department of Transportation.  Before new drivers first drive the bus, Bolte shows them how to use the wheelchair lift.  He also takes them for a short drive.  

Last year, two former Rensselaerville town supervisors — John Geurtze and David Bryan — were arrested for stealing. 

“Did it hurt us?  Yes, it did,” Bolte said.  “It hurt us badly collecting because people lost a lot of faith in people that were going out collecting money.” 

But, he said, everything that is collected for the bus is documented and turned in at least once a week with an official town receipt.

“And anyone can come and ask how much money is in this thing,” Bolte said.  “We did everything above board.”

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