Hitmans Towing pleads guilty to ticket, sues town

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

With white hot flames painted on its grill, a Hitmans Towing flatbed drives along Route 7 in Schenectady in October. Despite its owner being ticketed in January 2014, the business's trucks have been a frequent sight on local roads.

KNOX — The owner of Hitmans Towing pleaded guilty to operating a business in a residential area and paid a $300 fine on Jan. 21, ending a legal challenge to the town five days before a trial was scheduled to start.

A week earlier, Nicole Strippoli, of Young, Fenton, Kelsey & Brown, representing the business’s owner, Kristen Reynders, filed a petition in Albany County Supreme Court, seeking temporary restraining orders on the town’s prosecution of the case, as well as a permanent order stopping proceedings against Reynders in Knox Town Court.

The town’s attorney, John Dorfman, said Wednesday that the temporary restraining orders were dismissed by a Supreme Court judge shortly before Reynders pleaded guilty. The Supreme Court is the lowest in the state’s three-tiered system.

“It’s my belief that it’s moot,” Dorfman said of the Supreme Court petition, which anticipates a judgement from the court on Feb. 13 and remains an open case in the court’s online schedule.

Reynders’s suit against Knox is an Article 78 proceeding, an appeal of a government decision, in Reynders’s case, to stop the town from considering her charge a misdemeanor by arguing that the zoning ordinance didn’t allow for it. Three other Article 78 suits have been brought against the town of Knox in the last 10 years, all of which have been disposed.

Phone calls to Reynders and Strippoli were not returned.

While the Knox Town Board has discussed establishing a business district on Route 146 where Reynders lives and where she has based her business, and the planning board has recommended as much, the area is not currently zoned for business. Reynders’s red flatbed trucks, meanwhile, can still be seen driving on local roads carrying rescued cars. A handful of businesses near her home are largely considered grandfathered in, having been established before the zoning ordinance was adopted.

“I think I made it very clear that, if she operates a business in the town and we become aware of it, and there is a complaint made to us, that we will enforce our zoning,” said Dorfman.

The case in town court reflected a desire for change in the town’s zoning code and comprehensive plan as dozens of residents appeared at town meetings in support of Hitmans, criticizing what they deemed inconsistent enforcement and an unfriendly business environment.

“As far as petitioner is aware, no other businesses in the two mile radius from her home were issued tickets for violating the Town’s Zoning Ordinance,” Strippoli wrote in the petition. “Upon information and belief, Petitioner contends that she has been unfairly targeted.”

As the town’s case against Reynders has been adjourned since the ticket was issued in January 2014, the town’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance have been undergoing revision.

“I think the whole thing is ridiculous, but I think I’m glad she pleaded guilty and got that done because I think Dorfman was thinking of going after a misdemeanor so she’d have a criminal record, and, by pleading guilty to a ticket, that eliminated the risk of having a jury finding her guilty of a misdemeanor,” John Elberfeld, an outspoken supporter of Hitmans who attended Reynders’s recent court appearance, said Wednesday.

Confusion as to whether the charge Reynders was facing was in fact a violation or a higher-level misdemeanor was at the center of her suing the town.

“The consequences of accepting a plea to the charge or even of being convicted of the charge at a trial are unclear because of the ambiguous nature of the ordinance and because of the Town’s own changes in interpretation,” Strippoli wrote in the petition, referring to Dorfman’s correspondence. “The ordinance itself has generated confusion as to whether a violation of the Zoning Law is in fact, a violation, or if it is a misdemeanor for purposes other than jurisdiction. A conviction of a misdemeanor would cause irreparable harm to the Petitioner.”

Dorfman said the town didn’t take a position on the level of the charge, only that Reynders violated the zoning ordinance, which includes language taken from state statutes regarding the nature of an offense.

The language comes from the state’s Town Law: “a violation of any ordinance, rule or regulation adopted by the town board pursuant to this chapter is hereby declared to be a misdemeanor except as otherwise provided by law and except that any such violation of a provision of a town Building code or zoning ordinance shall be deemed an offense against such code or ordinance, and the town board may provide for the punishment thereof by fine or imprisonment or both; provided, however, that for the purpose of conferring jurisdiction upon courts and judicial officers generally, violations of a town building code or zoning ordinance shall be deemed misdemeanors and for such purpose only all provisions of law relating to misdemeanors shall apply to such violations.”

“There is a mix of case law decisions on a local criminal-court basis as to what it is or isn’t, be it a violation or a misdemeanor,” Dorfman said.

Asked whether he indicated the charge could be a misdemeanor, Dorfman said, “I sent an email stating, based on a definition of a misdemeanor, that it could very well be considered a misdemeanor in the state of New York,” said Dorfman.

Troubled history

Reynders first caught the attention of the town when she approached the zoning board hoping to establish an state inspection station in a garage on her property, where, she said, the business would also do minor repairs.

She had started her business while at her father’s house in Altamont, where, in 2009, she received a letter from the village building inspector at the time, Donald Cropsey, saying that he had received complaints about commercial vehicles in the driveway.

“I want to let you know that your property is Zoned R-20, a single family residential zone,” Cropsey wrote. “The use of your property as described above is not allowed in the zone. As such, you are hereby directed to cease and desist such activity immediately.”

She has lived with her family in Knox for several years since then, building a house on the Route 146 property. Strippoli in her petition, as well as Reynders’s uncle, Robert Smith, at public meetings, said that the town’s building inspector, Robert Delaney, had been contacted about the use of the garage and said she would be able to operate a business at the property.

“We’re not saying she’s innocent, but my concern was they let her build her house there, so they must have known she was running a business there,” said Elberfeld. “Why did they let her invest all that money in a house on land where eventually they’re going to tell her you can’t run your business here?”

The town’s planning board eventually voted to recommend that the town board create a business district in the area of Reynders’s home, encompassing other existing businesses. It later reversed its decision and the ticket was issued at the beginning of 2014, after Reynders applied for a special-use permit to do vehicle inspections in her garage.

The planning board changed its vote again, recommending to the town board in February that it create a business district on Route 146. The town board decided to wait until the comprehensive plan is updated.

Comprehensive plan update

The business district that could make Hitmans Towing align with the town’s zoning ordinance was pushed off by the town board until after the comprehensive plan is revised.

On Feb. 10, at the town board’s next regular meeting, Councilwoman Amy Pokorny said she hopes to report on the rough draft of an addendum to the town’s 20-year-old plan. The public won’t be allowed to view the addendum’s roughly 30 pages of core content until after the board reviews and edits the draft, Pokorny said. Later, the board will hold a public hearing on the addendum, which is to include updated maps and survey responses.

“The comprehensive plan will address that,” Pokorny said of a potential business district in the area of Hitmans Towing. “There are specific areas that we asked about in the survey and the responses were positive about those areas, including that one.”

A year ago, the town board voted to create a mixed-use business district in the hamlet, along Route 156, and to wait until after the plan was finalized before developing a second district in the area of the towing business.

“The town board merely said they would look into it,” Dorfman said Wednesday, countering what Strippoli wrote of the board.

Reynders, with the support of neighbors, residents, and customers, submitted a petition to the town board asking for a zoning change that would accommodate her business. The planning board then voted narrowly to recommend that a business district be created for Route 146, while the minority wrote an opinion to express its dissent to the town board.

“I think the participants who came to these workshops, everybody really did make an effort to be objective and keep the controversial discussions separate from the work that we were doing,” Pokorny said Wednesday. “We were really looking at the results of the survey responses.”

Pokorny said 43 different people attended the various workshops for public input that were held in Town Hall, in addition to emails, letters, and phone calls with feedback.

The goals from the original comprehensive plan would remain essentially the same, she said, with the public input gathered throughout the past year attached to it, if adopted by the board. The plan that was adopted in 1995 anticipated business districts, as did the zoning ordinance, first adopted in the 1970s. But no district had been designated until this year, with the boundaries set around the hamlet where no outward signs of commercial activity can be seen.

“What my hope is, and the people who analyze the surveys is, the town will listen to what the people want and establish more business districts, hopefully one of them will be where Kristen is and she’ll actually be able to run her business safely there,” said Elberfeld, who worked on the survey committee.

In order to be incorporated with the town’s comprehensive plan, the addendum will have to be reviewed by state and county planning and environmental boards.

“One of the aspects to the comprehensive planning is that it’s something that it really is most useful if it’s done on a continuous basis,” said Pokorny

With potential new additions in parentheses, the goals in the comprehensive plan are:

— Protect the Town’s groundwater and other natural resources.

— Preserve the rural character of the Town (while promoting an environment conducive to working landscapes, thriving businesses and protected high value natural elements).

— Encourage the continued existence of open and agricultural lands, and agriculture.

— Promote and protect the aesthetic, cultural and historic character of the Town.

— Encourage economic and social vitality (for all Town residents) consistent with the Town’s rural character.

 —  Maintain a continuing planning process to ensure that the goals herein are implemented through appropriate revisions to the zoning ordinance, the subdivision regulations and other appropriate Town action.

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