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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2011

2011 in review: Berne
Land-use plan retooled, GOP candidate elected to town board,
library gets a new home, plane crash takes pilot’s life, and Croote charged with rape

BERNE — It was a year of both progress and tragedy in Berne.

The new year will mark the first time in over two decades that a Republican has joined the Democrat-dominated town board. She and others will be sworn into office that day.

A committee of interested citizens completed more than two years’ worth of work revamping the town’s comprehensive land-use plan, and one member of the committee won herself a seat on the town council on Election Day.

The town found a new home for its library in the defunct St. Bernadette’s Church, and Hilltown elders had a chance as part of a library program to share their stories with a younger generation.

This summer, a man flying alone from Ohio to Albany crashed in a Berne field on his way to Albany, which killed him and spurred a federal investigation.

And another man’s violent childhood came full circle when he was arrested for attempting to rape and murder a young girl.

The plan

Berne’s comprehensive plan, written in 1992, had become dated, and a committee was formed to carefully examine the plan and debate which aspects needed to be modified, and what key points were missing. The committee began its work in August 2008.

“We did compromise, and that’s how you get through anything like this,” said James Cooke, who chaired the committee, having served on the original committee that developed the master plan nearly 20 years ago.

“I’m appreciative of the committee members I worked with,” Cooke said of this year’s group. “They volunteered their time, and they came in on these cold winter nights to do their part, and I think that’s commendable.”

Cooke later said that the interconnectedness of the plan’s seven goals is key.

“Agriculture, the third goal, is certainly interrelated to the second goal of keeping the open spaces and the natural habitat for our wildlife and on and on,” he said. “Certainly, the rural character of Berne depends on the farms’ continuing to exist.”

Nan Stolzenburg, a planner who lives in the Hilltowns, was hired by the town as a consultant to help facilitate and develop the plan. Stolzenburg explained that a town’s comprehensive plan is important at nearly all levels of government, and used the town board and planning board as examples.

“Whenever there’s a decision that the town board makes, they can refer to the plan to see whether that decision brings them closer to meeting the goals and vision established in the plan,” she said. “It’s used by the planning board because it’s the planning board’s responsibility to ensure that the things they approve are consistent with the comprehensive plan, so they should be looking at the maps, and the vision, and the goals and strategies to give them the direction behind their decisions. It’s used by government agencies when there’s a capital project like a road or a bridge; it’s used to make sure those plans are consistent with the community’s plans.”

This fall, Stolzenburg was one of 33 people nationwide to become certified as an environmental planner. The certification, new in 2011, is run by the American Planning Association and its professional institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Stolzenberg has developed comprehensive and strategic plans for over 50 communities in the northern Catskills, the Mohawk and Hudson valleys, and central and northern New York, some of which have won national and state-level planning awards. Most of her clients are small, rural communities. Locally, she has worked with Altamont, New Scotland, and Rensselaerville in addition to Berne.

“I try to keep up on all the latest tools and techniques,” Stolzenburg said. She noted that in New York State, unlike some other states, planners are not licensed. Of going for the certification, she said, “I felt it would make the folks in the communities where I work feel comfortable if there were some acknowledgement [that] my skills were recognized.”

Election Day

One member of the comprehensive planning committee, Karen Schimmer, said that her time on the committee, and discussing the community’s input to the plan, made her appreciate all that she had in common with the people of Berne; this, in part, inspired her to run for town board. She went on to win a seat on the board.

“When I started working on the committee,” Schimmer said this fall, “I really gained greater insight into who and what they are, and what they value about Berne. And, as it turned out, it was exactly what I valued about Berne.”

Schimmer, 64, a Democrat, is a former teacher of children in kindergarten through fourth grade, and is now the lower-school librarian at the Albany Academy, where she has been employed for 23 years. Originally from Little Falls, Schimmer has lived in Berne for 29 years.

Her work on the committee led her to oppose hydrofracking in town, at least in the near future. On the other hand, her views on large-scale wind power, another controversial issue in town, are more accepting.

“We did leave room in the plan for if there were an objective, non-industry based evaluation, and a new technology that develops,” said Schimmer.

The underdog in the election was Bonnie Conklin; she prevailed as the first Republican to win a seat on the town board in more than 20 years, in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 3 to 1.

As the highest vote getter, Conklin obtained 31 percent of the vote.

Conklin, 41, is a lifelong Berne resident who works at Berne-Knox-Westerlo as a prevention coordinator for St. Catherine’s Center for Children, and has been doing so for 10 years. Conklin told The Enterprise that her desire to run for office grew out of her experience of working with children.

“I just see a great need up here for more services for children and families,” Conklin said during her campaign. “We need more social services up here — counseling, respite services for children.”

She hopes to one day start a community center up on the Hill, she went on, proposing the old Grange Hall as a possible site.

“There’s nothing really up here on the Hill for kids to do, and there are transportation issues up here,” said Conklin. “I want to have more youth involvement going on, and get more services, mental heath services. I’d like to help out in that way.”

Her mother, Linda Carman, is a member of the Hilltown Seniors, and Conklin stands by her mother in her efforts to bring senior housing to the area.

Conklin also said that she strongly supports the development of the town’s first sewer district.

“I go walking, and you’ve got to hop over the puddles that smell,” she said. “That’s ridiculous. Everyone hates to spend money, but I’d spend it for that cause.”

Conklin and Schimmer defeated Kenneth Crawford, a retired dairy farmer and a Republican who had run for town board in the past, and Dawn Jordan, a Democrat who became more involved with the political landscape in the Hilltowns about three years ago, when Shell WindEnergy came to the area and secretly offered to purchase private property from landowners for the purpose of building a massive, industrial wind farm.

She and her husband formed Helderberg Community Watch, a group that looks to keep Hilltowners informed on the potential threats posed by large-scale wind development.

One of the first decisions the new board members will have to face is who to appoint as town supervisor. In September, George Gebe resigned, just short of making it halfway through his first four-year term. It was too late to get the vacant post on the November ballot. By mid-November, only two town residents have sent in letters of interest: One was Kevin Crosier, the last person to hold a full term in the post; and the other was Gerard Chartier, the planning board chairman.

Crosier, a Democrat who won elections in 2001 and 2005 on the Republican line, decided not to run for re-election in 2009.

The part-time post pays $13,300 in 2012.

Peter Vance, who was approaching the end of his term as councilman on the town board and was going to retire at the end of the year, was appointed as supervisor soon after Gebe’s retirement. The board had originally planned on forming a committee to help find and select a replacement for Vance who would serve through the end of 2012.

But the board then decided not to form a committee to find a replacement for Vance, and will instead advertise the position, and have board members select a replacement from the final pool of candidates.

“What we decided,” said Councilman Joseph Golden in November, “was that we would not go through the process of the committee for time reasons, and the small number of candidates that have expressed interest.”

He also said that the new board, which  will be installed on Jan. 1, will appoint the supervisor. “One of the questions,” said Golden, “was, ‘Who is going to vote on the next supervisor?’ It will be myself; Wayne Emory; Peter Vance, who will still be supervisor; and the two newly elected candidates.”

The other race in Berne was for town assessor. Two of the three assessor posts were up for election, and the incumbent Democrats were victorious by a landslide.

Brian Crawford, who has been a Berne assessor for 20 years and worked for 25 years in the Albany County Department of Public Works, garnered 43 percent of the vote.

Christine Polukort Valachovic garnered 42 percent of the vote. She was appointed last year to fill a vacancy left by Carol Crounse, who retired. Valachovic is a licensed land surveyor and works as a drafting technician for the county’s department of public works.

They defeated Republican challenger William Keal, who got 15 percent of the vote.

Old and new

After years of work to find a new home for the Berne Library, which has long been cramped for space at Town Hall, the town board agreed in June to purchase the recently closed St. Bernadette’s Church to house the library.

The town had been planning an extension onto the Senior Center on Helderberg Trail, which would have served double-duty as the library and a meeting hall for Hilltown elders. The Senior Center had originally been built as a Grange Hall.

The church is also located on Helderberg Trail, right in the hamlet of Berne. In 2009, Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese announced the closing of 33 churches in the 14-county diocese as the numbers of priests, nuns, and Catholics attending mass declined nationwide.

“We took a look at it and decided it would be a viable alternative to building on to the Senior Center,” then-Supervisor George Gebe said, “which actually would have reduced the parking lot, and would cost us twice as much as what St. Bernadette’s would cost.”

Also in June, a contingent of Hilltowners gathered at the Senior Center to learn from their elders about what it was like to grow up in the Helderbergs generations ago.

Judy Petrosillo and Kathy Stempel of the Berne Library, and local storyteller Nancy Marie Payne put on the event, “Growing Up in the Hilltowns.”

“Our original intent,” Petrosillo told the crowd, “was to find 10 lifelong residents, over the age of 75, who were willing to subject their life to our scrutiny.”

What would follow were the stories of eight “willing victims.”

Payne told a story that wove threads from the lives of these Hilltown seniors into a whole cloth: stories of Paul Giebitz’s dreams of being a pilot that eventually led to the creation of Berne’s airstrip, “giving Berne its connection with the world”; and how Patricia Favreau, Berne’s longtime town clerk, once got a bucket of water in her face because she had too much faith in the other kids.

Later in the summer, aeronautics would play another part in Berne’s history.


Steven G. Blackburn of Ohio was flying his plane to Albany when he crashed into a wooded field in Berne one night in July, police said. He died upon impact.

“I saw it was going crooked, and it was down really low,” said Seth Garry, a young boy who lives nearby on Stage Road and said he saw the plane going down from his hot tub that night.

Blackburn, 57, was flying his 1972 Piper Cherokee plane into Albany for three days to attend a business conference, Acting Sheriff Craig Apple of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office told The Enterprise after the crash. No one else was in the plane, and no one else was injured when it crashed in a wooded area. Blackburn had been flying for about seven years, Apple said.

Brian Rayner, a Senior Air-Safety Investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board, described for The Enterprise the slowly forming picture of what happened to Blackburn’s plane that night.

“It came in through the trees, skipped across the ground, and ended up back in the woods, upright, shedding parts as it went,” Rayner said at the crash site. “Both wings and [one of the] horizontal stabilizers were shed from the airplane.”

The top half of the cockpit was torn completely from the aircraft, and twisted chunks of metal remained where the wings once were.

“I think it got caught up in the trees,” Rayner said of the roof. “I don’t think it landed on its roof because, otherwise, you would see the instrument panel more displaced. Plus, you can see the center windshield post sticking up; that’s about the standard angle as installed. And, there were some pieces up above the ground suspended in the trees. I think, as it bounced up through here, it took the roof off and came back down.”

At the time, Rayner was unsure of exactly what caused the crash.

Full circle

Adam Croote, a 23-year-old man who had a violent childhood, was arrested in June for attempting to murder and rape a 10-year-old girl for whom he was babysitting.

Croote was charged by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office with six felony and two misdemeanor counts after, police say, he had taken off his clothes while the girl was in another room, and tried to strangle her and break her neck when she returned. He was already on the New York State sex offender registry for being convicted of a second-degree rape in Massachusetts in 2005, when he was 17. The registry says he raped a 25-year-old “non-stranger” without force. Croote was given five years of probation.

As a child, he had witnessed his father, Michael Croote, shoot and kill his pregnant mother, Wendy Croote. A custody battle between his grandparents ensued. His mother’s mother, Margaret Zibura, and her husband, Frank, took Adam Croote to Kansas; living under assumed names, they raised him as their child. After three years in Kansas, when Adam Croote was 6, the FBI arrested the Ziburas for custodial interference, and Linda Koerner, his father’s mother, who lived in Westerlo, was given custody.

Croote is a distant relative of the girl he was accused of abusing this summer. The girl’s mother, who is a relative of the murdered Wendy Croote, said her family had just recently gotten acquainted with Adam Croote.

She said of the paternal side of the family, “They had told our side of the family, ‘If you want to see Adam, it will be on our conditions,’ and we were never allowed to see him… Up till three months ago was the first time we had contact with him.”

She went on, “I had just come across him on Facebook, and I started messaging him back and forth. I asked him questions to make sure he was the right person, just started talking to him, we started a separate Facebook group for his maternal grandparents and family so they could all talk to him.”

According to the victim’s mother, Croote didn’t even know where his mother was buried.

“He didn’t know the circumstances around his mother’s death, so we’ve been trying to inform him without overwhelming him,” she said. Croote’s father, she said, is still in prison in Georgia.

She went on, “He was in the house when his mom was killed. He was only 2 years old. When he was on a visit with his maternal grandparents, when he was 2-and-a-half or 3, he told them he saw Daddy shoot Mommy. When they asked him in the last few months, he said he had no memory of it.”

After 20 years with no contact, the Berne family was introducing Adam Croote back into the family, she said.

“This was the only time he’s ever babysat for us,” she said. “One day, he was sitting there when we were talking about how we needed someone to baby-sit for an hour after school, and he volunteered. We had no idea about the thing in Massachusetts. We had no reason to distrust him.”

A month after Croote’s arrest, police said the same 11-year-old girl who was nearly raped and murdered had been abused by a closer relative as well.

In July, George Stempel, 30, of 50 Stage Road in Berne, was arrested on three counts of forcible touching, a misdemeanor, because he “fondled the breasts of an 11-year-old female family acquaintance outside of her clothes,” according to the Albany County Sheriff’s Department. “This occurred at least three times over the past month.”

“This had happened prior to the Adam Coote case, and also after the Adam Coote case,” Apple said at the time. He went on, “I had a very at-length discussion with investigators, because I’m concerned about this child’s future. They said, ‘Craig, she’s a remarkable child.’ She’s strong, and they’re going to make sure that people stay in touch with her, and victim advocates work with her, and she gets whatever counseling is necessary.”

There were no physical signs of abuse this time, but Apple said that Stempel cooperated with the investigation, and admitted to the charges he is facing.

“I guess he may have some sort of learning disability, so he was released under supervisory probation,” Apple said of Stempel.

The department became aware of the alleged abuse, Apple said, when “the child was at a friend’s house, and one of the girls happened to stumble, and somebody grabbed her, and the girl said something about, ‘Hey, you hit my boob,’ and the 11-year-old said something to the effect of, ‘That’s nothing; [George Stempel] does that to me all the time.’ And a parent heard it and alerted the child’s parents.”

The Enterprise has a policy of not identifying victims of sexual abuse, and so is not reporting Stempel’s relationship to the girl.

The girl’s mother said that the child has been getting counseling.

“It seems to be helping her a great deal,” the mother said in July. “We’re still reeling from the first incident, and having this on top of it does not help. We’re all in counseling because it affects us all. I’m hoping, by him being arrested, and letting him know this is not tolerated, that it won’t happen to somebody else. It’s hard to say what we’ve learned from it, because he’s somebody we trusted.”

This incident has affected the family differently than the Croote case.

“This is obviously different than the other one, where we didn’t know his background, and he was new to the family,” she said, comparing Croote to Stempel, whom she said has  “been around since the day the kids were born.

She concluded, “There were no red flags.”

— Zach Simeone

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