Two of many hometown heroes

Mark King

Edward Hyde Clarke

Much ink will soon be spilled on the United States presidential election and its fallout. So before that cacophony drowns out the local concerns that more directly impact our lives, I’d like to recognize two leaders of a more apolitical sort — a King and a president — to thank them for their selfless service to our collective hometown.

Now join me in a deep breath, Albanites! No matter what, if you’re reading this column, you’re a critical member of the oft-contentious, oft-colorful family of Enterprise subscribers. And if we pledge to follow the examples of Mark King and Edward Hyde Clarke, we’ll be OK.

Without further ado:

Mark King is no stranger to these pages, which last year reported on his role in establishing the Helderberg Conservation Corridor. As the executive director (and one of the founders) of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Mark is directly responsible for the environmental conservation of over 12,500 acres of natural, agricultural, and cultural landscapes throughout Albany, Schenectady, and Montgomery counties.

For nearly thirty years, MHLC has protected (and erected) wildlife preserves, sustainable recreational spaces, scenic vistas, and educational programs, all the while shoring up the Capital Region’s natural resources, clean water, clean air, and working landscapes for both farming and forestry. “If my dream came true,” Mark told the Enterprise in May 2019, “I’d like to see a protected path from the Catskills to the Adirondacks.”

Just how many thousands are unwittingly advantaged by his vision and initiative? Always eager to keep tabs on his projects, I emailed Mark when I returned from an overseas deployment. Stressing no urgency to respond, I asked if he’d be so kind “as to clue me in as to where efforts stand vis-à-vis the campaign to save/conserve the Picard property, the Heldeberg Workshop property, and the Bender Melon Farm.”  He replied promptly.

“Picard is in its final stages,” he wrote. “We have prevailed in court and now have the exclusive right to purchase the property as [long] as 80% is conserved ... we should have things finalized in the next couple of weeks if things go as planned. Bender is at an exciting point. Right now we need 162k to close, but only have until Oct. 29th.”

In regards to the historic Bender Melon Farm, The Enterprise reported four weeks ago that MHLC was “$90,000 short of its $1.2 million goal” to buy it; an Oct. 19 post on the MHLC website then announced that it was in need of just $57,000 more. By the time this column goes to press, we’ll have a nail-biting verdict on what Mark called a “make or break month.”

Though I rarely impose on a G-d with more pressing concerns, I make exception now to pray that our town has rallied to manifest this unparalleled community asset — comprised of the Hilton Barn, the Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, and the Bender Melon Farm — which intends to “link communities, history, recreation, and conservation.”

(As an aside, it was the proposed commercial development of the Bender Melon Farm a dozen years ago which first triggered my own penchant for community activism. I’m grateful to MHLC for its stewardship of this issue long after life nudged me towards other pursuits.)

No less impressive are Mark’s efforts pertaining to the 87-acre Picard Grove property, which runs along the base of the Helderberg escarpment in the midst of the Helderberg Conservation Corridor.  After intrepid Enterprise reporting and a rousing editorial raised awareness of the Grove’s recklessly hasty impending below-market-value sale to a developer, the public sprang into action; MHLC gave agency to its voice.

“The deal is not yet sealed,” Mark told the Enterprise in its Sept. 23 edition. “It’s a little bit of a cliffhanger beneath the cliff.” Yet Mark’s team is working steadily towards an outcome that will preserve acreage as integral to our hometown’s identity as the name “New Scotland” itself.

And what of that blissfully serene 250-acre Heldeberg (still inexplicably containing no “R”) Workshop wetland forest where I spent so many of my childhood summers? Something about Board Chairman Alvin Breisch’s announcement that Heldeberg Workshop had “entered into a  partnership with MHLC to permanently protect [its] lands from development” permitted a sigh of relief. As in: “Phew! King is on the case.”

Granted, my praise for Mark is shorthand for the eternally grateful compliments due the other MHLC members who work tirelessly on these endeavors, not to mention the legion of Good Samaritans who open their wallets to fund fulfillment of shared dreams. To borrow a sentiment from news anchor Tom Brokaw’s farewell on Dec. 1, 2004, Mark is “simply the most conspicuous part” of an all-encompassing communal ambition. I wish I could personally thank every spoke in that wheel right now, but Enterprise editor Melissa Hale-Spencer gets rather testy when I approach 2,000 words.

Which is why my commendations to E. Hyde Clarke must be interpreted through the lens of broader praise. For as president of the Upper Washington Avenue Neighborhood Association (UWANA) in the City of Albany’s Twelfth Ward, his role is primarily organizational — representing the will of his community by channeling its energy, aptitudes, and demands in a manner that augments its legal power.

Don’t be fooled by Clarke’s unassuming demeanor; beneath a signature smile and soft-spoken timbre is a tenacious community advocate with a strategic grasp of the legal process. I met Hyde in 2012, at the dawn of his career as a local land-use attorney. As with every recent law-school graduate, I asked him how on earth he could’ve been so masochistically stupid as to become a lawyer.

“I wanted to serve my community,” he said, shrugging.

…. Um, what?

The last eight years offer concrete proof that what might’ve been a cliché is in fact his ethos. Hyde sees the law not as a profession, but as a tool — or, better, one of many arrows in the quiver of community muscle. Nowhere is this more evident than in his role in effectuating UWANA’s firm commitment to its character.

Late last year, Stewart’s Shops Inc., proposed to demolish the abandoned former KeyBank on the corner of Washington and Colvin Avenues, along with two existing multi-family homes, so as to construct a two-story convenience store with gas pumps.

Neighbors opposed to suddenly residing next to a gas station — which would sit directly across the street from a rival gas station and just one block down the road from another — were aghast. Others rather liked the prospect of being within walking distance of award-winning ice cream and milk. As UWANA president, Hyde had the unenviable task of identifying, and then reconciling, many competing interests.

When this process ultimately revealed that most neighbors demanded changes in Stewarts’s application — less demolition, implementation of traffic safety precautions, fewer gas pumps, more accessibility from the sidewalk — Hyde leveraged his legal background to engage at the planning-board level, working to secure his neighbors’ desires while concurrently accommodating the commercial objectives of an interested applicant.

As has repeatedly been the case — from Altamont to Voorheesville to, eventually, the remotest regions of the solar system — Stewarts proved unwilling to make any of the requested changes. This compelled Hyde to articulate the fraught decision that a conditional use permit be denied; on Aug. 25, 2020, the planning board voted down Stewarts’s application.

Hyde was able to influence this process only because so many passionate and knowledgeable advocates lent their voices to pushing back on Stewarts’s application; their activism empowered Hyde to argue for solutions agreeable to all parties.

As Hyde told me, change often forces communities into a position of opposition; their gut reaction is to oppose any variation to an existing way of life. But Hyde saw his role as that of a broker — looking at all sides to extract mutual interests, thereby deriving a balance between permitting development and safeguarding a neighborhood ecosystem.

Yet in the face of Stewarts’s unrelenting and serial intransigence, Hyde realized that the community’s opposition would be vulnerable if expressed as merely that: community opposition. He therefore cleverly pivoted to a different tactic, one that would give his neighbors’ voices the authority of law.

In 2017, the city of Albany passed the Unified Sustainable Development Ordinance (USDO), which zoned the said residential apartments on Washington Avenue as “Mixed Use Neighborhood Commercial” (MU-NC). Arguing that these properties (which had always been residences) were zoned incorrectly — and therefore seemingly permitted a use not in accordance with the character of the neighborhood — Hyde drafted a lengthy “zone change” petition to have the properties rezoned residentially (to wit: R-2).

As Hyde stated: “This is not a Stewart’s issue. It’s a land-use issue. The obstacle to [Stewarts’s] commercial imperative shouldn’t be seen as knee-jerk NIMBY [Not-In-My-Backyard] opposition, but rather as a result of a properly-devised law which would never have permitted such a massive operation in the middle of a close-knit community comprised of young families and seniors.”

In short, Hyde went about endowing the community’s voice with legal legitimacy.

“I don’t want developers to feel that they have to pass some litmus test every time construction is proposed,” Hyde explained in an email. “I want them to adhere to a law that defines how to be a good neighbor, and which then grants them commercial predictability and an easier path to approval. If a non-residential structure is proposed, it should comply with a standard that protects existing property owners. That’ll also ensure [the business] is well-received and supported by its intended patrons.”

I noted that his approach recalled 20th-Century Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s concept of a “lawyer for the situation,” and asked if that was how he perceived his role.

“Sort of,” he wrote back. “We all want to see abandoned buildings reused or redeveloped. But that can’t be the objective in and of itself. Commercial progress has to ‘fit,’ has to enhance a community, not degrade it. I’m ready to help any entrepreneur meet that threshold, if they’re ready to join our neighborhood in good faith.”

I told neither Mr. King nor Mr. Clarke that I’d be highlighting them in my monthly column; they’re both likely mortified that I’ve done so. They don’t seek the limelight, and generally slip into the media’s pages, posts, spots, segments, and broadcasts incident only to their organizational missions.

But that’s precisely the point. They selflessly dedicate themselves to advancing communal causes, representing community concerns, and bettering the lives of both their neighbors and future generations that will unknowingly enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Thank you, guys. You’re two of the many reasons that turning off cable news is so refreshing.  Because in that silence, we have space to note that behind all the competing lawn signs are scores of people who advance our common destinies, bind our families together, and ensure that someone is in charge of serving the robust and delicious Thanksgiving feast over which our beloved yet crazy uncles can spout off.

I sign-off by once more adapting Tom Brokaw’s words to honor these hometown heroes whose examples we’d do well to bear in mind on the eve of a tragically polarizing presidential election. Like Mark and Hyde, may we work together to advance that “vital legacy of common effort to find common ground ... on which to solve our most vexing problems.”

For “they did not give up on the idea that we’re all in this together.”

Captain Jesse Sommer is an Army officer and lifelong resident of Albany County.  His father, Dean Sommer, is a senior partner at Young/Sommer LLC, the law firm where Edward Hyde Clarke works.  Jesse welcomes your thoughts at .

Editor’s Note:  The Enterprise reported earlier this week that Picard’s Grove is now successfully under a conservation easement