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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 20, 2009

Berne sewer district with no treatment plant?

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — As the town works to build its first municipal sewer system, it has yet to secure the property intended for its wastewater treatment plant.

The planned sewer system for the hamlet of Berne would be the first municipal system in town. It was required by the state because sewage from private septic systems was seeping into the Foxenkill.

The town is in private negotiations with the Johnson family, which owns the two-acre lot on Helderberg Trail that is the planned site for the treatment plant. The Johnsons feel they are owed money by the town, which had originally intended to buy the land from the property’s previous owners, the Scraffords.

“They haven’t paid for the land,” said Anita Johnson. “[Town Attorney William] Conboy keeps giving us the runaround, but it’s at a standstill. They want the land, but they won’t pay for it.” Johnson said she did not know the town had plans to build on the property until her family had lived there for “a year or two.”

According to the Albany County Hall of Records, there are standing mortgages on the property, but Johnson denies that the town’s inability to pay her family is due to liens from mortgage companies.

Supervisor Kevin Crosier and Councilman Peter Vance both said this week that, while they could not comment on why the transaction has not yet taken place because of the confidentiality of negotiations, there are bumps in the road to obtaining the proper easements on the property, thus preventing the town from paying the family for the land. Crosier did, however, say that the town has a contract with the Johnsons to close on the property.

“The only thing that’s been done, that they allowed us to do, was the archaeological investigation of the site, so that we could check to see if there was anything archaeologically sensitive; that was plowed up, then disked, and then plowed up to grass,” Crosier said of the required investigation. “But, no work has been done for the construction of the wastewater treatment site.”

But, upon completing the archaeological survey, the plows left foot-deep ruts that stretch across what will soon be the town’s half of the field.

“They plowed it up and left the two acres a total mess,” said Chris Johnson, son of the landowners. “We can’t even get out there to plow it with our tractor it’s so bad. It’s all plowed up, there’re furrows, and there’s a few holes three feet deep. You can’t see them now because the grass is overgrown, so we can’t go out there and mow,” he said.

“They were supposed to replant it,” Anita Johnson said later, “but they just dug it up and left it, and I can’t use the back part of my field. I had to spend $3,000 to fix my son’s four-wheeler because it went into a hole they made back there. They’re supposed to pay us fair market value, and I’m losing money on it because I usually hay the back field, but I can’t really do it anymore because they dug it up, and now they want it for eminent domain.”

Councilman Vance said this week that if the town and the Johnsons cannot overcome the legal obstacles between them, the town might take the land by eminent domain, which involves seizure of private property for public use, with compensation to the owner.

In this case, the use of eminent domain is “not only a possibility, but, in all likelihood, that’s the best way the town can proceed in this matter,” Vance told The Enterprise this week.

“In a situation where there’s the inability to obtain a clear easement, proceeding with eminent domain is the wisest course if we’re going to make any effort to go out to bid sometime this winter,” said Vance. “There are properties in the district that we may not be able to obtain a clear easement on otherwise.”

Vance added that the town will not use the power of eminent domain for unshared lateral piping.

“This is only for main parts of the system,” said Vance. “If somebody doesn’t want us to run a lateral onto his or her property, that’s fine. But if we don’t feel that we have a clear easement or can obtain a clear easement on a main part of the system, then we have to proceed to eminent domain. I truly wish it were otherwise, but the board has a fiduciary responsibility to members of the district — we’re going to build this project.”

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