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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 03, 2008

Bender Sale Stalled

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND – While the Bender melon farm sits in limbo, the town’s supervisor supports a building moratorium as developers try to close on the 179-acre property.

The property, located at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A in New Scotland, is being purchased by the Sphere Group for commercial development.  The sale was scheduled to close on Monday, but according to Sphere Group lawyer Kathleen Bennett, the process hit a snag due to “title issues” and the closing has been postponed. 

At the town board’s special meeting last Wednesday, many citizens called for a moratorium that would halt commercial development and give the town a chance to review its zoning laws, which currently allow for any kind of commercial development, including big box developments being  considered for the Bender site.  Town Supervisor Thomas Dolin encouraged a moratorium at that meeting. 

This week Dolin repeated his conviction.  “I am personally strongly in favor of a moratorium,” he said.  “I’m suggesting that the proposed moratorium law be for six months and that it prohibit any commercial development in excess of 30,000 square feet, and I am proposing we have a public hearing on April 30.” While the board had not yet seen the proposal, Dolin said it would be posted on the town’s website Friday.   The date was set for the end of the month because both the town’s planning boards for both the town and Albany County were entitled to comment on the proposal.

“We cannot actually adopt a moratorium until we’ve heard back from both of them,” said Dolin, who also said that neither planning board has veto power over such a proposal. 

At Wednesday’s session Dolin mentioned a sketch of a plan for the development had been shown to him and other representatives at an “informal” meeting between the Sphere Group and representatives of the town board on March 13, but that the sketch was small and not professionally done. 

Paul Cantlin, building inspector and chief zoning administrator for the town of New Scotland, was also shown the drawing.

“It was really just some lines on a piece of paper that showed where a parking lot might be, some other lines that showed where a road could go…nothing you would show your mother,” said Cantlin. 

According to Bennett, the sketch isn’t available to the public because the sketch wasn’t technically submitted to the board.  She said that the Sphere Group didn’t meet with the entire board because it would have violated the states Open Meeting Law, which require the public to be notified of any meeting where a quorum of the board is present. 

“In trying to be good developers and in trying to work with the town, they wanted to get some feedback from the town before they submitted an application.  They were looking for some feedback so that, when they did submit an application, it would hopefully be met with a more positive response,” said Bennett; she said. While the meetings were held with individual members of the board, she said it was not an attempt to leave the public out of the process.  The Sphere Group has not disclosed the final purchase price of the farm, nor the specific reason for the delay in closing.

Although the 179-acre farm is assessed at $734,700, the asking price is $4 million, Platform Realty, which is handling the sale, said earlier.  The property is owned by a group of doctors who are listed as MLF Enterprises, said Robert Murphy, vice president of Platform Realty.

Supervisor Dolin said that, while “speaking as a layman”, it would not make sense to have costly engineering done for a development concept that would not be within the legal guidelines of a town, or supported by the infrastructure and roads in place.  He agreed that nothing had been done to intentionally leave the citizens out of the loop.

“This is important, and I want the public involved in this,” said Dolin.  He also said that he had not organized the meeting in March but that he attended because he wanted to be aware of any commercial developments being considered for the town.

Help offered for rural residents

By David S. Lewis

If you are considering buying or building a home in rural New York, now is a great time to do it.  As of March 19, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Agency has increased the adjusted income limits on its guaranteed and direct-loan programs, so now residents can make more money and still qualify for government aid on mortgages for first-time home buyers. 

Interest rates are down on government-held loans through the direct-loan program, and there are more ways now to acquire the necessary capital for a down payment.  All of these programs target moderate- to low-income families, encouraging them to buy homes in rural areas.

Patrick Brennan, the state director for USDA Rural Development in New York, said in a recent release that the new income limits “have been designed to help deserving rural New Yorkers become homeowners.”

But just who is a ‘deserving’ New Yorker?   According to Susan Oliver of the Albany Country Rural Housing Alliance, it means people who have “all their ducks in a row.”

“It’s for people that have good credit, and have paid their taxes and who qualify for a loan but can’t afford the down payment,” she said.

And it’s that down payment that many Americans find to be the prohibiting factor when it comes to purchasing a house.  While many low-income families have worked hard to maintain good credit, few have $5,000 to use for their deposit. 

The USDA offers two types of assistance programs to people who wish to build or buy houses in rural areas:  The Guaranteed Loan Program targets moderate- to low-income families and individuals.  The mortgage is held by a private bank, and the government essentially co-signs, guaranteeing the loan and saving the borrower the cost of Private Mortgage Insurance.

This is insurance taken out by the bank which protects them from default on the loan.  The cost of the insurance is normally passed on to the customer, bundled with the mortgage payment.  The Guaranteed Loan Program eliminates that cost by making the government liable for default, which results in significant monthly savings for the customer. 

The Direct Loan Program is for very-low- to low-income families, which normally mean families making less than 80 percent of the mean income for the area.   The government makes the loan to the individual directly, thereby eliminating the bank altogether.  The current interest rate on a Direct Loan just dropped to 5.375 percent; it was at 6 percent in 2006, making this a more attractive time to take advantage of the program. 

Last year, the adjusted income limit for a single person considered to be in the “very low” income bracket was $23,200; this year, that has increased to $24,700.  The same “very low” bracket limit for a family of eight was $43,750 and increased this year to $46,600.  Every limit in every income bracket has increased, so you can earn more annually and still qualify for the programs.

Tim Jones, special projects coordinator for the New York Division of the USDA Rural Housing Agency, said that the income limit increases were not due to the housing recession that has been plaguing the real-estate market since 2006.  The USDA has been making these loans since the 1930s, when the Rural Development Agency was created to encourage home ownership during the Great Depression.  The income limits also increase (on average) once a year; he said this was to combat inflation. 

The USDA Rural Development Program in New York awarded 6,073 grants and loans in fiscal year 2007 and, according to the USDA Rural Development Agency’s website, most of them are made to families who make less than 80 percent of the median annual income for residents in the area in which they live.

Jones said that prospective buyers are generally encouraged to first consider the Guaranteed Loan Program, as it costs the government less money and therefore goes through the system more quickly.  Less money has to make it through the system, just enough to guarantee the customer’s loan through the bank.  With the Direct Loan Program, the government is backing the entirety of the loan and borrowers will generally find the process takes much longer.

 “Last year, we provided 397 loans through the Guaranteed Program, for a total of about $35 million.  We also provided 193 direct loans, for a total of $18.6 million…so it becomes a matter of people knowing that the service is there,” Jones said. “The biggest challenge for us is telling people about it, so they can come see us and start working with us.”

The USDA can only provide loans for individuals in areas deemed “rural”.  Parties interested in determining their eligibility can do so at the USDA’s eligibility web site, http://eligibility.sc.egov.usda.gove/eligibility/welcomeAction.do.  There you can enter any address and find out whether that location qualifies for financial assistance from the USDA.

Local help

The Albany County Rural Housing Alliance helps ease the way for county residents buying houses.

Laura Fogli purchased her Westerlo three-bedroom home in 2005.  She said she would “highly recommend” the program to anyone interested in living in a rural area.

Without ACRHA, she said “I wouldn’t have been able to do it…not only were they helpful with the process itself, but they provided counseling to teach you how to clean up your credit score, recommended contractors for repairs, and made sure the contractors did what they said they were going to do.  They helped with every step along the way.”

According to Stephanie Galvin, housing counselor for the alliance, there are other hurdles as well.

“You need to have very good credit to qualify for these programs,” said Galvin.  “Not to say that it’s a bad program, but most of my clients don’t qualify in terms of credit, and there isn’t much flexibility available.”

ACRHA is a not-for-profit organization that formed in 1982 to enable and encourage low-income families to buy houses in rural areas.  It offers counseling and seminars to educate first-time homebuyers, as well as people in bad situations who are trying to avoid delinquency or foreclosure. 

The organization also helps people find federal and state monies for repairing or improving their homes.   The program works by eliminating the down payments and also by doing away with the cost of Private Mortgage Insurance.

The cost of the insurance depends upon the amount of the total value of the house and how much of that value is covered by the loan; eliminating the insurance could save the homebuyer up to several hundred dollars each month.

“Old-time banking”

If prospective homeowners have insufficient credit to qualify for the USDA’s programs, there are other ways to acquire the money for the down payment, such as Individual Development Accounts.  Similar to a 401k, these are special accounts designed to enable people with low incomes to save money more rapidly by matching deposited funds.  Unlike the 401k, account holders are not penalized for early withdrawal of funds, so there is no risk for the consumers.

Although not the only bank to offer such programs, the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York was chartered by Congress in the 1930s to address affordable housing at a time when the entire country was in a severe depression, and it continues to serve that function today.  The bank’s version of the IDA is called the “First Home Club.”  Every dollar placed into the account is matched with four dollars by the bank, to a maximum of $7,500.  This allows people with very low incomes to quickly save enough money for the down payment on their first home.  In order to qualify, an individual must be a first-time homebuyer, agree to a 10- to 24-month deposit schedule, and take out a mortgage with the bank matching his funds.

The matched funds come from profits generated by the investments of member banks.  These banks are mostly local banks that are engaged in what Peter King, the bank’s Affordable Housing Officer, calls “old-time banking.” The money the bank uses to match the funds is essentially returned to the community, since participants in the First Home Club are expected to take out their mortgages with the bank from which the funds were matched.

While the Direct Loan Program is disqualified from participation, as the loan is being made directly by the government, it is possible to use both the rapid earning potential of the First Home Club as well as the Guaranteed Loan Program, thereby further reducing not only your monthly payment but also the time required to acquire the down payment.

“I know,” said Galvin, “it seems too good to be true, but it is.”

Popular Science Teacher May Lose Job

By David S. Lewis

NEW SCOTLAND Five parents spoke to voice their support for sixth-grade science teacher John Curran.

“If I told my son [Mr. Curran would not be returning] I think his GPA would suffer,” one mother told the school board last Monday.  All five parents urged the board to keep Curran on staff.  

Neither Superintendent Linda Langevin nor the school board would comment on Curran’s employment status, as it is a “personnel matter.”

In addition to teaching sixth-grade science, Curran is also the advisor to the Builder’s Club, which works with the Kiwanis on community-outreach programs.  Curran has been teaching at Voorheesville Middle School for two years, and school administrators say he will finish out this year. 

New York State law sets a probationary period of several years for teachers, at which point the district may grant the teacher tenure, may release the teacher, or may extend the probationary period.  After a teacher is given tenure, it is very difficult for the district to terminate his employment.

According to Kathy Fiero, president of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association, the law favors the district, and organizations like the teachers’ unions can do little more than ensure the legal number of formal classroom observations have been made by the school’s administrators.  In the Voorheesville district, that number is three.

Fiero also said that not granting a teacher can have serious ramifications for that person when they apply to work at other school districts, as tenure is considered representative of a teacher’s ability in the classroom.   On John Curran, she said that she was “very disappointed he would not be returning,” but declined to comment further. 

Fiero expects parents concerned with Curran’s fate to show up at the school board meeting scheduled for Monday, April 7; that meeting will be held in the cafeteria of the high school.

Linda Langevin, superintendent for the Voorheesville School District, says she is not concerned by a bill pending in the state legislature that would make student test scores part of the criteria for granting tenure because the district currently meets and exceeds the new criteria.  The district’s established standards for tenure were adopted two years ago.

“We began using a process using a consultant,” she said.  “The process is called ‘Cycles for Success’ and was created by an attorney named Wayne Van der Byl,” said Langevin during a phone interview.  The program determines “standards of teacher quality” and dictates what a teacher should know and do in order to best serve the students.  She said the criteria were based on philosophical and conceptual standards determined by the State Education Commissioner’s regulations.

Curran could not be reached for comment. 

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