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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 29, 2011

2011 in review: Rensselaerville
After decades, Dems lose majority on town board,
Institue puts land up for sale, Trinity Episcopal celebrates its bicentennial

RENSSELAERVILLE — New Year’s Day will bring a series of shifts in town government, as one Democratic councilman was defeated on Election Day, and an independent candidate will join the town board in January, marking the first time in years that Democrats will not control the board.

Not-for-profit groups in town had both good news and bad in 2011.

The Rensselaerville Institute, a not-for-profit organization with Hilltown roots that date back to 1870, was hard hit by the recession and put up its property for sale this year.

The Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve created a new position, director of conservation education, and the Open Space Institute announced the preservation of the Pal property, originally known as Conkling Farm, which it purchased from the county through its land acquisition affiliate, the Open Space Conservancy.

And, the Rensselaerville Trinity Episcopal Church celebrated its 200th birthday this year.

Power shifts

Democratic Councilman Gary Chase, who had served three terms on the town board, was ousted on Election Day; his running mate, newcomer Anthony Higgins, lost as well. Incumbent Conservative board member, Robert Bolte, and independent challenger Margaret Sedlmeir, a newcomer to politics, garnered nearly twice as many votes as their opponents, so January will mark the first time in years that Democrats have not dominated the town board.

Asked on Election Night what he thought led to his and Sedlmeir’s victory, Bolte replied, “It’s real simple.”

At the town board’s Oct. 3 meeting, after an update on roadwork, and a vote to declare the town board as lead agency in managing the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, Bolte and Conservative Councilwoman Marion Cooke wanted to open the floor to the public, but the motion was defeated by the board’s Democratic majority, made up by council members Chase and Jack Kudlack, and Supervisor Marie Dermody. Residents were not allowed to ask questions or make statements at the meeting.

“When the three Democrats voted against the people from Preston Hollow speaking at that meeting, it hurt them bad,” Bolte told The Enterprise after the election. “When you get into politics, and you’re on the board, and you think that you’re the boss of the people, you are wrong. The people are still your boss. They haven’t worked together as a board since I’ve been on it, or since Marion’s been on it, and the people see this.”

In the race for highway superintendent, Randall Bates, a Republican who is retired from a 30-year career as a paving supervisor for the New York State Department of Transportation, defeated Democrat John Pine, a private construction contractor. Bates, who got 71 percent of the vote, will finish out the last two years of a term that Gary Zeh started in 2010; Zeh resigned this spring, not halfway through his first four-year term, for reasons both financial and political.

“My apologies to the people of the town,” Zeh told The Enterprise then. “I’ll admit, when I took the job, I knew it didn’t pay much, and I thought I could make it work, but it really hasn’t from the beginning.”

His interaction with the town board contributed as well. Zeh, a Conservative, was often at odds with the Democratic majority on the town board, most notably over his purchase of a pressure washer to clean road salt from town trucks.

“It’s not worth the headache or the struggle,” Zeh said of the job.

Zeh said that the decision to resign was a “very tough” one, and that he has no regrets.

“We ditched over 20 miles, and they put down 500,000 pounds of blacktop by hand, patching roads,” he said. “People would go by on the road and tell you you’re doing a good job. That’s what it’s all about.”

In the race for assessor this November, both candidates were convinced that absentee ballots would bring them victory, despite the unofficial tally showing Republican challenger Richard Tollner ahead of Democratic incumbent Jeffry Pine, the father of the defeated candidate for highway supervisor. Some of those ballots are now under investigation by the county’s board of elections, and six people have been removed from the voter rolls in Albany County as a result of the board of elections’ findings.

Rachel Bledi, the new Republican commissioner at the board of elections, said she became suspicious when she realized that there were six voters’ names registered to the same address on South Street in Medusa. Bledi said that, after speaking with the home’s current owner, she discovered that some of these voters were former residents, but hadn’t lived there in years.

These four voters now live in Greene County, said Bledi. Their absentee ballots had been delivered to the board of elections by Joyce Chase, wife of Rensselaerville’s former highway superintendent, G. Jon Chase, a Democrat; and the mother of former town board member Gary Chase.

Those four voters were removed from the voter roll earlier this month, along with two others, whose ballots were delivered by Jeffry Pine.

Additionally, six more voters, all of whose absentee ballots were delivered by Pine, are being investigated because of handwriting discrepancies, and there are plans to consult a handwriting expert, and possibly involve the district attorney’s office, said Bledi, adding that Pine had filled out parts of these ballots himself.

Also on Election Day, Democrat Greg Bischoff defeated Republican Myra Dorman in the race for town judge, with Bischoff getting 439 votes, or 66 percent, and Dorman getting 227 votes, or 34 percent.

Altered establishments

The Rensselaerville Institute was put up for sale for $1.8 million in July. The 90-acre campus had served for nearly half a century as a venue for the meeting of minds on topics both local and global. One such mind was Isaac Asimov’s; the world-famous writer returned to the institute every summer until he died in 1992.

Gillian Williams, president of the institute since last year, told The Enterprise that it is the physical property the institute sits on that is for sale, not the institute as a not-for-profit group.

“It’s been a tough proposition for us to run the meeting center campus,” Williams said when the property went on the market. “These are tough times, and it’s not unusual for not-for-profits to be looking at assets, such as property, and how they might be used in other ways, or sold because they become more of a liability than an asset.”

In 1963, the organization was named the Institute on Man and Science. Experts from all disciplines — space, science, history, philosophy, and medicine — visited, as did ambassadors to the United Nations, and U.N. Secretary General U Thant.

In 1968, the institute added the Ford Residence, its first overnight guesthouse, to the property. It was named in honor of Father George B. Ford, a colleague of one of the institute’s founders, Everett Clinchy.

The Rensselaerville Institute was opened to the public as a conference center in 1970 under the authority of its new program director, Hal Williams. The next year marked the dedication of the Guggenheim Pavilion, which included a program called “The Trial of Technology,” a mock trial investigating the evolution of technology at the dawn of the Computer Age.

In 1972, a program called “Man in the Media” featured three women: journalists Lenore Hershey and Duncan McDonald, and actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. All three of them objected to the use of the word “Man” in the institute’s name, and the name was changed in 1983 to The Rensselaerville Institute.

In recent years, the institute has billed itself as “the think tank with muddy boots,” and has worked on practical projects, ranging from helping struggling schools to providing infrastructure for poor towns.

While the Rensselaerville Institute put its property up for sale this summer, the Open Space was acquiring land; it announced the preservation of the Pal property, originally known as Conkling Farm, which it purchased from the county through its land acquisition affiliate, the Open Space Conservancy. This 18th-Century forest and farmland parcel is one of the town’s first settlements, according to the institute, and has remained intact since its establishment, the only development on the land being the addition of a historic five-acre home site and farm outbuildings, which were added in 1806.

The institute purchased the property from Albany County in June, at its unrestricted full fair-market value of $655,000, which was determined through an appraisal. The county took ownership of it in March 2005, according to the Albany County Executive’s Office.

It will protect the 333-acre property through the acquisition of conservation easements, which is a deed between the institute and a “conservation buyer” that restricts certain uses that can take place on the property.

And, towards the end of the summer, the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve hired environmental biologist Dawn O’Neal as its director of conservation education.

O’Neal, 31, completed her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology last year from Indiana University. Prior to taking the job at the Huyck Preserve, she was finishing her work as a post-doctoral research assistant at the University of Georgia, where she studied the African buffalo. Her thesis was titled Considering the Roles of Climate Change, Winter Habitat, and Immune Function in a Differential Migrant.

“We’re just kind of nerdy geeks who like to be outdoors and want to know why the natural world works the way it does,” said O’Neal of environmental biologists. Of her new job, she went on, “A lot of it has to deal with trying to get the community involved in field biology courses, and more rigorous nature walks and stuff. Getting people to understand, not only ‘this is this kind of tree,’ but also the natural area and the biology of what we’re looking at.”

She will also be looking at the possible formation of a research consortium with local universities, bringing in students to do research at the preserve, and creating field courses for college credit.

Centuries of prayer

The Rensselaerville Trinity Episcopal Church celebrated its bicentennial this year, beginning in February, and lasting through the springtime.

In June, the church was recognized by the Rensselaerville Historic District Association as a significant contributor to the community, and congregants honored their church’s history by dressing the way their predecessors did in 1811, the year the church was founded.

“It was pretty neat,” said Father Jay North, who has been with the church for close to two years. “We used a prayer book from 1789, and we had a Bible that was given to the church in 1815 by Philip Van Rensselaer, and that was only recently rediscovered in the church, when we looked through a pile of old family Bibles this year.”

The entire celebration, which began back in February, had been planned by a group of committees since early 2010.

“On February 20, the actual date the church was incorporated on, we had a special even song festival, but we didn’t want to have too many celebrations in the dead of winter,” North went on. “So, in April, Bishop William Love came and had a procession through the village, and they played the drums, and we stopped at various historically important places, houses where services were held prior to the church being built, said some prayers, and marched up to the church.”

This was followed by a celebratory dinner at the carriage house at the Rensselaerville Institute.

“We built up to this weekend by having a historical service commemorating the sesquicentennial of 1961 by using the prayer books of that period, and then we did one from 1911, and then finally we ended up with the 1811 service, which was the most elaborate,” North said.

Of the church’s longstanding history, North concluded, “I think they’ve had very good leadership, both from the clergy and laypeople. Both have been very devoted to the life of the church and preserving the church building, which was built in 1815. And it’s still in very good shape.”

— Zach Simeone

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