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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 21, 2011

Safety concerns lead town to support razing old building

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — In the historic district of the Berne hamlet stands a dilapidated 19th-Century frame house at the corner of routes 156 and 443. The intersection has been a hub for car accidents for decades, according to town officials and the New York State Department of Transportation. But the building may soon be demolished.

Vasilios Lefkaditis, a Knox resident who was recently elected to the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board, was hunting for new office space for his company, Shaw Funding, when he came across this corner property in Berne, 1627 Helderberg Trail.

The deed includes the rundown apartment building on the corner, which limits visibility and turning room, forcing school buses and trucks to make blind turns and sometimes get stuck or collide with other cars; and the blue building across the street, which is still in usable condition. The buildings share water and septic systems, according to Town Clerk Patricia Favreau.

“In a perfect world,” Lefkaditis told The Enterprise, “the upstairs of the blue building would be my office; the downstairs is still up in the air. I adore historical property; that’s why I bought an 18th Century farmhouse,” he said of his home in Westerlo.

The old apartment building, he went on, “is a health hazard; it’s dangerous and it needs to come down,” he said.

Lefkaditis “worked out a deal with the Bank of Richmondville” to buy the property, and came before the town board this spring, offering to demolish the apartment building, and donate the land beneath it to the town.

At last week’s meeting, the Berne Town Board agreed to send a letter to the New York State Department of Transportation, the goal being to alert the DOT to what board members agreed is “a longstanding traffic and pedestrian safety issue.”

Councilman Joseph Golden read the letter aloud to those present at last week’s meeting; occasional laughter came from the audience, sounds of relating to the problems described.

“Been there, done that,” said Dawn Jordan to the women next to her.

Said Golden of when the house was built, “This was before cars were invented, which is the root of the problem.”

Worth saving?

Both Ralph Miller, Berne’s town historian and a former BKW bus driver, and Favreau, Berne’s longtime town clerk, estimated that the decrepit building, which has been split into rental units, was built sometime in the 1800s.

While Miller believes in the preservation of historic properties, he is not opposed to bringing this one down.

“At some point, it becomes so dilapidated and such a pain to the world, that it shouldn’t be there,” Miller said this week. “We have historic buildings that can be saved, and should be saved, but I don’t think this is one of them, personally. It’s been a real eyesore for some time. So, I guess, take her down as far as I’m concerned.”

Favreau shares Miller’s sentiment.

“It was all changed and redone, so it has no historic value,” said Favreau. “The owner did not keep on top of his renters. He let them do whatever they want. It’s a mess in terms of sanitary conditions.”

Making the turn

Routes 156 and 443 lead westward, from Knox and New Scotland respectively, and eventually converge in Berne and become Route 443, just before Town Hall. Vehicles heading west on Route 443 eventually reach the intersection with Route 156, at which point they can turn right, and head east towards Knox and eventually Altamont, or turn left, to continue on 443, towards Berne Town Hall, and then BKW further down the road.

Those turning left to continue west on 443, or coming from the opposite direction and turning right to head east on 443, run into problems — and in some cases, other vehicles — according to accounts by Miller, town board members, the DOT, and town residents.

When asked for comment on the safety issues associated with turning at this intersection, BKW’s transportation director, Denise Towne, deferred to Superintendent Paul Dorward; the district has not responded in the weeks following a request for comment.

But Miller recounted his experience navigating the turn off 443 onto 156 during his time as a bus driver for BKW.

“As you came down the hill from school,” Miller said, “you had to pull over onto the left hand lane, then make a wide corner, and take up the left-hand lane as you went around. If there was somebody there, they either had to go through or back up.”

He went on, “It has hung up just about every tractor-trailer that ever tried to make the corner. The best way around that corner is to come down at the bottom of the hill, turn right and go towards Altamont, and turn around and come up the hill. You can’t get wide enough, and your rear wheels get hung up on there. I have a fifth-wheel trailer that you take the corner wide with, and the school buses are not a whole lot of fun.”

Relatively speaking

Over the past 10 years, there have been 13 accidents at the intersection of 443 and 156, according to Carol Breen, a spokeswoman for the DOT. There were no injuries or fatalities.

“Of those 13 accidents, four involved large trucks,” she said. “In two of those incidents, a truck making the turn hit a stopped vehicle. In the other two incidents, a truck hit the guiderail and building.”

Asked if this was a high frequency of accidents, Breen replied, “Yes, we consider this is a relatively high number of accidents for this type of intersection.”

The record of accidents at this intersection over the past 10 years, according to DOT records, is as follows:

— In 2002, there was one accident;

— In 2003, there were two accidents;

— In 2004, one accident;

— In 2005, no accidents;

— In 2006, two accidents;

— In 2007, no accidents;

— In 2008, three accidents;

— In 2009, three accidents;

— In 2010, one accident; and

— Between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, there were no accidents.

Also, according to Breen, the DOT cannot legally restrict “legal-sized” vehicles from traveling this route.

“In 1995, we installed a guiderail at this location to protect the home from damage,” said Breen. “Any intersection realignment project could have significant impacts on the historic buildings in the vicinity, and could be extremely costly. At this point, we are not considering an intersection reconstruction project based on funding availability and the potential impacts to historic buildings.”

In its letter, the Berne Town Board informed the DOT that Lefkaditis “is willing to make the lot and the building at 1627 Helderberg Trail available for demolition by the state as a potential solution to this dangerous situation.”

Other business

In other business at its July 13 meeting, the town board:

— Approved a bond resolution for the purchase of St. Bernadette’s Church, which will be used as the new library;

— Announced road closures, from 8 to 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 23, for the 5K Fox Creek race: Route 443, from the post office in the Hamlet of Berne, west to the intersection with Switzkill Road; Switzkill Road, from Helderberg Trail south to the intersection with Canaday Hill Road; and Canaday Hill Road, from Switzkill Road east to the intersection with Route 443;

— Voted to hire Tamara Fisher as the temporary summer youth program coordinator as an emergency appointment. She will be paid $15 an hour, for up to 40 hours a week.

Said Supervisor George Gebe last month of the need for this emergency appointment, “Because summer’s coming so close, the board felt they would like to get someone on board right away, rather than spending two to three weeks advertising, and maybe not even finding someone. We will advertise for a youth director to begin working in the New Year”;

— Reminded the audience of its workshop on a residential wind-power law, scheduled for Wednesday, July 27, at 7 p.m.;

— Scheduled the public hearing for its revised comprehensive land-use plan for Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m.; this was scheduled in place of the joint-planning meeting with all town boards, which the town board had originally scheduled to take place at this time; and

— Approved the updating of local laws, provided there is enough money in this year’s budget.

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