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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 1, 2009

In Westerlo: Incumbent Democrats R. Gregory Zeh and Edward Rash
challenged by Republicans John R. Bylsma and Anderson Smith

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — For the first time in years, Westerlo voters will have two Democrats and two Republicans to choose from for town board.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 3 to 1 in Westerlo, and the board has been dominated by Democrats for decades. The GOP was revitalized last year when Jack Milner won a town board seat on the Republican line.

On the Democratic line for Nov. 3, incumbent councilmen Edward Rash and R. Gregory Zeh hope to keep their seats on the town board. On the Republican ticket, long-time residents Anderson Smith and John R. Bylsma Jr. are looking to get their first taste of town politics.

The candidates answered questions on the following issues:

— Comprehensive plan: The town’s first comprehensive land-use plan has been in development for years now. People have presented different points of view on what should go into this plan, like changes in minimum lot sizes, limiting subdivision, and avoiding spotty commercial locations throughout town. What sorts of things would you like to see in the town’s first comprehensive land-use plan, and what can be done to move the years-long process forward?

— Carriageway Motocross: In August, the Shaver brothers began construction for a motocross track on their property on Route 85 in Westerlo. They have since been ordered to stop work until they get the proper permits, but the project might still happen. Some residents fear that this track will cause noise and air pollution, while others believe it could be useful, providing a safe place to ride, a way to keep kids off the streets, and a boost to the local economy. How do you feel about the prospect of having a motocross track in Westerlo, and why?

— Wind power: Another hot topic in the past year has been the utility of bringing wind power to the Hilltowns. Shell WindEnergy tried to do it, and another company called Rhizome Integrated Energy expressed an interest earlier this year in bringing a commercial wind farm here. What do you think about bringing wind power to the Hilltowns, and why? Also, there is currently no zoning in place that specifically regulates wind turbines. Should Westerlo have zoning for wind utilities, and how should that zoning read?

— Assessment: Westerlo property has not been revalued in decades. As a result, the tax rate in Westerlo — for schools and the county — is much higher than in neighboring municipalities because of the state-set equalization rate. In fact, the tax rolls are so uneven that, according to the Office of Real Property Services, it’s illegal. Should Westerlo be revalued? Why or why not, and when?

Edward Rash

Edward Rash has served on the town board since 1998, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy. Rash works as director of advertising and public relations at Hannay Reels. He will be 67 on Oct. 3.

In his free time, Rash enjoys hunting, fishing, camping, collecting vintage firearms, and riding his Harley Davidson with his wife, Suzanne, he said.

With the town’s comprehensive plan still in the works, Rash feels the latest draft is “pretty much all-encompassing,” he told The Enterprise this week.

“I’d like to see a provision in there to preserve the agricultural and rural aspects of the town, while affording some development that’s within reason,” Rash said. “As far as business expansion and jobs, there’s always going to be changes, which is fine if it’s done to maintain the integrity of the town. I know there’s more of a growth today in home businesses and such, but, if there could be more on the retail end or service industries in town, I think it would be helpful for residents of the town, as well as the other Hilltowns.”

Rash has called current zoning “a little too lax and a little too easy.” His 2006 proposal, which he said he had worked on for over 10 months, learning from zoning in nearby towns, called for changes in minimum lot size, from three to five acres for a single-family home, and from five to seven acres for a two-family home. Rash also proposed then that subdivision not exceed 10 units.

The planning process has hit a few bumps in the road. The town board had dissolved an earlier planning board, following complaints from developers that the review process was too cumbersome.

The planning board was eventually reformed, but has been in flux since last year, when former chairman, Leonard Laub, was removed from the board because of disagreements over civil service papers, and current town Councilman Jack Milner left soon after. Andrew Brick served as planning board chairman until the opportunity to serve as town judge presented itself, and planning board member Tony Sherman stepped in as the new chairman.

Still, Rash feels that the planning board has done its due diligence and taken the appropriate amount of time.

“I know we’ve had some setbacks, but I think it’s going to be worth while to do it right the first time,” Rash said. “We’re trying to get in as much input as we can, and I don’t think we’re behind any of the other towns that have put forth their first comprehensive plan. It does take a long time, but I’d rather be safe than sorry and make sure that what we’re going to present to people is what they’re looking for. Otherwise, you’ve got to go back to the drawing board and start over.”

Further, he sees the possibility of a commercial motocross track in town as a reason for the town to take its time developing the comprehensive plan.

“Everything has its pros and cons,” Rash said.

The town has to be careful where this kind of facility is located and how it’s operated, he went on. But, because the town has not received a formal application, it cannot begin researching the appropriateness of the Shaver property on Route 85 for a motocross track.

“Through special-use permits, there can be limitations and mandates put on the operation of the track, which is a good thing,” Rash said. “There’s a lot to look into. I think it’s unfortunate, the way it came out in the beginning without them putting it in front of the town first. So far, we haven’t received anything yet to proceed, but this is another good reason to take our time with the comprehensive plan, to see if there are areas that should be permissive of that kind of use.”

Wind power is another subject that should be detailed in the comprehensive plan, he went on.

“Here’s another example of where people have looked into it, but nothing’s been presented to the town,” Rash said. “There’re a lot of complexities in commercial wind power. When you talk about a wind farm, your talking about larger areas, more disruption to scenic beauty, noise pollution and such, flight patters and migratory patterns of fowl — it takes a long environmental study before that should be thought of. It’s a complex thing because there aren’t very many of them up in hilly areas, they’re in flat lands, so until we get an actual presentation from one of these companies, it’s hard to really say.”

Also important to consider is how the benefits of such a project weigh against the potential effects on the aesthetics of this rural town.

“I think it has to be built around the comprehensive plan, and I think that, when wind comes up, that will automatically go in, and our zoning laws will be revised around the points within the comprehensive plan to make it enforceable and protect it so the plan carries weight,” Rash said.

With regard to assessments in Westerlo, a revaluation “is going to have to be done within a certain amount of time,” Rash said.

“Right now, I know the tax rates are the highest, but the assessments are not, so, I think Westerlo enjoys some of the lower taxes in the Hilltowns, but there will have to be a large investment made to reassess the town,” he said. “It’s something that’s coming that hasn’t been done yet, but I don’t think our people are suffering from it.”

R. Gregory Zeh

Outside of his work on the town board, R. Gregory Zeh is vice president of information systems at Golub Corporation, the company that owns Price Chopper supermarkets, and devotes much of his time to the Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company, of which he has been a member for more than a decade, and was the chief last year. He is 37 years old.

On the comprehensive land-use plan, Zeh sticks to what he has said since 2006: While he agreed it was important to preserve Westerlo’s rural heritage, he didn’t support Councilman Rash’s stopgap approach. Zeh advocated the town create a comprehensive land-use plan, involving citizens in public hearings. He said later that, in addition to lot size, a master plan could address “spotty commercial locations throughout the town.”

Further, he feels that the planning process is moving at a good pace.

“Realistically, if there weren’t some administrative issues that took place along the way, it may have been further along by now, and, if you look at the changes in staffing on the planning board, I don’t think it has really taken that long,” he said. “And I think we have a phenomenal chair of the planning board using his resources well.”

The propriety of a commercial motocross track, Zeh went on, depends on the details of the project.

“There’s been a private motocross track in the town of Westerlo for quite a while now,” Zeh said, though he would not reveal the location of this other track. “It’s been no disruption to the people living around it, but it wasn’t a commercial enterprise like this one wants to be. But, without understanding the size and scope of this proposal, it’s hard for me to really give an answer on this.”

He added that the noise produced by the vehicles that would be riding on a motocross track would likely not be much different than that of the snowmobiles in the winter, “depending on the hours of operation of the motocross track,” he said.

“I think there’s a place for motocross in Westerlo; I’m not sure where that place is,” said Zeh. “I understand it’s a 93-acre parcel, so I’d imagine there’s some place on that property that would be good for this.”

Zeh and Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp attended a meeting a few years back, Zeh said, held by Helderberg Community Energy, a Knox-based group that has spent close to three years studying the feasibility of wind power in the Hilltowns. At that meeting, Zeh and Rapp heard discussions of a meteorological tower, built to collect data that would help determine the feasibility of bringing wind-power to the Hilltowns. Westerlo, he said, was not mentioned as a practical option, but should be considered if there is potential for a financial benefit to the residents of the town.

“I think it’s more of a general Hilltown question, so I’m not sure how to frame my answer in a way that could really provide the voters with an opinion on that,” Zeh said.

He does feel, however, that Westerlo is protected by the fact that a turbine could not be erected in town without a special-use permit and a public hearing process, but the comprehensive plan should speak to the placement of these windmills as well.

“I think the comprehensive plan should cover these things on a macro level,” he said.

Additionally, the benefits of a revaluation may not outweigh the cost, he said.

“If you look at the costs of doing a full-value assessment, you’re looking at a six-digit project,” Zeh said. “The other side of that is, what’s the benefit? It doesn’t seem to me that residents are unhappy with the property taxes, and, at this point, it doesn’t make sense to me…And if there are people who feel there are issues with their assessment, we have an assessment review board that meets annually. So why would I change the town’s assessment process and spend the money when I haven’t seen a reason to do so?”

Anderson Smith

Anderson Smith, 69, grew up in Slingerlands, and moved to his home on Route 85 in Westerlo in 1981. While he has never run for political office before, he was inspired to take a stab at town politics when the Shavers’ motocross track appeared on the horizon.

“That was more of an irritation than anything — an itch that got me going,” Smith said earlier this month. “It became obvious to me that the town board, and probably town government, lacks transparency. I observed at the town board meeting that everyone was dancing around the issue of responsibility of doing something.”

Town board members had expressed their difficulty with making any judgment on the matter since a formal application has not yet been made to the town for the proposed motocross project, though the property owners had been ordered to cease and desist by both the town and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as they were in violation of the DEC’s stormwater regulations.

Earlier in life, Smith served in the United States Army, where he eventually became a captain and managed field artillery units. He worked in various jobs later, some in retail, and is now retired.

“My last job was as an owner and operator, which is basically a truck driver that owns his own tractor and usually leases to a carrier and pulls their trailers in whatever format the arrangement exists,” he said.

Smith leased his truck to Truck One, a company based in Newark, Ohio, with a terminal in Feura Bush. The terminal closed about a year ago, he said.

“I pulled mostly insulation loads in all the New England states except Maine, and some to New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” he said.

In his free time, Smith is an avid photographer.

“I’ve had a long association with single-lens-reflex film cameras, and I recently acquired a single-lens-reflex digital camera, which opens up a whole new world,” Smith said. “It seems like I do a lot of snapshots, but I really enjoy taking pictures of flowers, and portraits.”

He also has an interest long-range rifle marksmanship, he said, and is an active trap shooter.

“I also do some wood working,” he added.

Smith sees the town’s first comprehensive plan as a much-needed guide to the future of the town.

“The comprehensive land-use plan could serve as the page that we all need to be on,” Smith said this week. “And by that, I mean that I’ve seen the draft plan, it was handed out at a previous planning board meeting, and it says nothing. So, first and foremost, what I want to see in the plan is specifics. I want to see what areas are zoned for what, I want to see for each area what is permitted, regulated, or prohibited. I’m not trying to be a stickler, but it’s important that everybody get on the same page.”

Areas for industrial and business development need to be better identified, he went on, and lot sizes in the hamlets need to be addressed, because current zoning says that lots must be a minimum of three acres, and all properties established prior to the zoning law are existing nonconforming properties, according to Westerlo’s code enforcement officer, Ed Lawson.

“Anyone who wants to do anything in the hamlet has a nonconforming lot size, which means they have to apply for a variance, which seems tedious; it wastes everybody’s time, and that’s not what any of us are here for,” Smith said. “Also, agriculture is certainly not the primary business in the town, but I think agricultural areas need to be clearly marked, and I think right-to-farm laws for those areas are appropriate.”

Further, he thinks that a completed comprehensive plan would have been useful when the Shaver brothers began constructing their motocross track on Route 85. He believes that having this kind of commercial facility in town would be “unfortunate.”

“My primary thought there is that it would directly impact the quality of life on the residents that moved here expressly for the things that Westerlo’s known for, which is a rural atmosphere, a bucolic setting, a place where people can quietly go about their lives,” Smith said. “I used to race motorcycles myself and, believe me, I know firsthand how noisy it is and how dusty it can be. And I don’t buy the argument about getting kids off the streets. If you’re talking about kids riding motocross bikes in the streets, that shouldn’t he happening anyways, and that’s a law-enforcement issue. Furthermore, if a kid wants to ride a motocross bike, he should be able to ride it safely, but that’s more of a parental control thing.”

Rather than seeing the track as a safe place for kids to ride, Smith said, he thinks it may lead to more injuries.

“Kids are going to get hurt, and some of them seriously; it’s a violent sport,” he said. “Who’s going to supply an ambulance? Is the town going to supply an ambulance? Who’s going to pay for the services? I don’t really think the town should be involved in that respect. I understand the board’s reluctance to make any statements, but they certainly must appreciate that there’s an undercurrent of concern here.”

Smith went on to say that he is in favor of wind power in the Hilltowns, and sees it as a not-in-my-backyard issue for many people in the Hilltowns. He could not comment specifically on zoning for windmills, he said, as he has not researched the subject enough.

“I think what we need to do is access some data,” he said. “Most people are concerned with noise, so I think we need to find out how noisy these things are. Personally, I’m in favor of it. But just like the motocross track, I think we need to take a look at land-use priorities, and I think a wind farm, or even one or two commercial-sized windmills should be sited in areas where that usage might be appropriate. As far as I’m concerned, they could put windmills in my backyard, it wouldn’t bother me unless they were terribly noisy, or they bothered my neighbors. There are fairly large holdings in other parts of the town where siting windmills may be appropriate — same with motocross; there are a lot of things that are interconnected here.”

While he could not comment on the pros and cons of reassessing the town, he does favor looking into it further.

“I think we need more information because, when you mention reassessment, it scares people to death,” Smith said. “They say, ‘Oh God, my taxes are going to go up, I’m going to get taxed out of my home,’ and that’s not necessarily the case, but we need a lot more information. And what would be the effect of full-value assessment on rural property like mine versus a property in the hamlet? I don’t know, but I think we should find out.”

John “Rick” Bylsma Jr.

Bylsma, 62, moved to Westerlo with his family in 1950. Though he has lived in Westerlo most of his life, he lived in Glens Falls for close to 15 years while running Rozell Industries Inc., he said.

While Bylsma considers himself retired, he still does artistic, ornamental stonework through his company, Bylsma L.L.C.

He described a recent project on Catskill Road.

“I built a 100-foot staircase made out of lime rock,” Bylsma began. “The gentleman who asked me to build it told me to imagine the Indian Ladder Trail. The staircase is about 20 feet wide and meanders up his lawn, up the hill that leads up to his front door. I put a dry streambed in next to it; there’s a little waterfall, and a stream flows underneath part of the staircase, and it’s got all different flowers around it. I picked out the perfect stone for every step,” he said.

Bylsma said that, despite the rotation of planning board chairmen, the amount of time that the comprehensive planning process has taken is “deplorable.”

“We need small-business areas, and we need spot commercial places,” Bylsma said. “I believe along the Route 32 corridor we need to have some larger businesses — some insurance companies, a grocery store, businesses for the people in the town. We need to see more services for people. The town saw a young couple try to put a beauty salon and hair salon in and they wouldn’t let them do that. I don’t believe the town is very pro-business; I’m very pro-business. You see people’s taxes going up, and I think we need to bring more businesses into town.”

He added that the town needs senior housing close to these businesses.

“The other thing I’m looking at is putting out a questionnaire to see what people want to see in it,” Bylsma said.

The planning board has held workshops, and, last year, met with farmers to get their input on the details of the comprehensive plan.

“I’d like it if they brought in farmers right now; they’re not part of it, I feel,” Bylsma said. “If we can get enough business here, the tax base will be a lot better and help farmers with the tax base due to the large amounts of land that they own, and we don’t want to see farmers selling out to developers.”

He went on to say that Westerlo is not the right place for a commercial motocross track.

“Well I’ve been involved in a couple places in New Hampshire where there’s a drag strip, and some friends of mine — they’re five miles away from the drag strip, and when they start up, the windows rattle,” Bylsma said. “That’s just a drag strip. If we have motocross in town, what’s it going to be in 20 years?”

Still, he feels that a specific design needs to be draw up and brought to the town.

“Are there going to be night races?” he asked. “Are there going to be practices during the week for an event on the weekend? I have the same concern with people snowmobiling on Lake Onderdonk. What’s the pollution factor there?”

Bylsma also believes that more research needs to be done on whether or not Westerlo is an appropriate setting for wind-power facilities. He did not, however, comment on how zoning should address these windmills.

“We need to certainly look at alternative energies,” Bylsma said. “I believe there will be an area that we can put in a wind farm that will not interrupt peoples views — it may interrupt a few of them, but we need to look at our lives, and our future, and how much oil we bring into this country.”

Before property in the town can be reassessed, he concluded, “I think we have to get to the base of the taxes first. We have to figure out where the money is being spent. I’ve been trying to find out more and more about where money is being spent. I will do a study and I will look into that, and I think our tax base is too high.”

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