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Defending her store: Berne Food Store owner Jean Conklin.

photo:John Whipple

Minding the Store

Citizens of Berne struggle to be heard as Stewart’s plans to move into the middle of the hamlet


Every road leading into Berne is uphill; the town motto is: “It’s all downhill from here.” Currently, many residents are facing an uphill battle in getting attention for what they see as a downhill move for the town.

Due to a new mixed-use zoning law, businesses will be allowed to sit smack in the center of the hamlet. Although this might be a typical and even desirable state of affairs in most towns, Berne is atypical. Berne’s tall Victorian, Federalist and Greek revival-style houses sit perched together as if a block of Troy’s historic district had been scooped up in a hurricane and plopped down in the middle of the hills. The businesses Berne does have sit at either end. Coming from the south, you pass by the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School; from the east you pass Berne’s Agway and the Berne Food Store.

The first and most notable new business that has announced interest in moving into the center of Berne is Stewart’s Shops. Many residents are worried that the Stewart’s shop will look like it was dropped out of the sky by some terrible storm. The property that Stewart’s has expressed interest in purchasing is an empty lot that sits between a Victorian and a Federal-style house. “Stewart’s hasn’t purchased anything yet,” said Kevin Crosier, Berne town supervisor, “but the lot they are interested in has produced no tax revenue for 18 years, and this is about stabilizing the tax base and producing jobs that are desperately needed.”

Town Justice Ken Bunzey’s home borders the proposed Stewart’s lot. Bunzey, who had tried his best to keep out of the Stewart’s debate because of his position in the town, broke his silence after being visited by Stewart’s real-estate representative Tom Lewis just minutes before the town board meeting where Stewart’s revealed its first concrete plans for the site. “They told me the gas tanks will be right next to my well. The compressors that run all night will be under my bedroom window. My family founded this town. My house was built in 1897. My life is invested in it, and now they are telling me it will be worth more if I bulldoze it and sell it to a developer because it will be located next to a business,” Bunzey despaired after the meeting.

Other residents are not so grim. John Conklin, who lives directly across from the lot in question, looks forward to having the shop as a neighbor. “That lot has been a mess for a number of years,” he said. “It will be nice to have someone in there keeping it up.”

According to Crosier, the purpose of the mixed-use zoning is to simultaneously return Berne to a more prosperous time reminiscent of its past, when there were more small businesses throughout the town, and preserve the Berne of today by keeping out what he calls the “Albany sprawl and box stores.” The new zoning prohibits businesses from building on open land and ensures they can be built only in the center of the hamlet. “We don’t want gas stations cropping up in cornfields, but we do want to promote small business,” said Crosier.

Squeezing in: the proposed Stewart’s lot.

photo:John Whipple

“I support small business. Berne needs more small business,” said Jean Conklin, owner of the Berne Food Store, which has been open for only about a year. “But Stewart’s is not a small business.” (Stewart’s has 300 locations in New York and Vermont, is partially employee-owned, and produces the majority of the products it sells. It also uses milk from local farms near its dairy.) Besides being concerned about how Stewart’s will affect the town character, Conklin also worries how she will compete. “They took away the state lottery after we moved in here. They said there wasn’t enough traffic, but I bet you anything Stewart’s will have it when they move in.”

Supervisor Crosier sees things very differently: “You look at the strip down there on 9W in Glenmont with the Wal-Mart, Loews and chain restaurants, and the local businesses like Casa Mia are thriving right along with them. Businesses do well when they are grouped together.”

Conklin insists that Crosier is missing the point. “Kevin told me that I could focus more on meals now [instead of groceries] like I always had wanted to. Like I needed someone to tell me what I want.”

Some residents, like Peggy Smith, who is a member of the Berne Hamlet Association (an organization started to fight the proposed Stewart’s), point out that Crosier’s support for Stewart’s is a sudden about-face: “Four years ago, when Stewart’s was sniffing around town and thinking about moving into the location across from the school, Kevin was one of the most outspoken opponents of it,” she said.

In fact, the May 25, 2000, issue of The Altamont Enterprise featured a letter to the editor from Crosier in which he made it clear he thought Stewart’s had no business being in Berne. According to Crosier, his opposition to Stewart’s at the time had to do with the then-supervisor’s lack of a zoning plan and design standards. “If they had built back then, it could have looked like anything,” he said.

Emily Wright and Peggy Smith disagree with Crosier’s explanation. “If that is what he was concerned about, why did he go in front of the PTA and yell and scream that Stewart’s would sell porn to our children?” Smith wondered. “He told the supervisor at the time that if a child died crossing the street to Stewart’s it would be on his head,” added Wright.

Lewis does stress that Berne’s new code has been hard to adhere to. “We wanted to be further off the road than we are but the code does not permit it. We had to reduce our sign to six feet, the smallest sign we have anywhere. The lights we are using are downlit. If people don’t want bright lights, why have them?”

Nonetheless, after residents saw the proposed plans, they expressed concerns that the standards weren’t strict enough. “They want to put 17 parking spots in there!” said Smith. “There are Stewart’s in some places that fit right in. If they want to fit in here then they need to build a Victorian-style Stewart’s!”

One of the greatest concerns of some residents might not be as obvious as lights and signage. “They are proposing to set up a gas station in a town where we are all on wells,” Smith exclaimed. “It sounds like an environmental disaster in the making.”

“Berne has the highest standards for gas stations in the county,” Crosier responded. “There will be an environmental review.” He also points to small gas pumps at the town garage, the bus garage and at the local Agway as evidence that gas stations can exist without interfering with the water supply.

Concerned community members say what is causing them the most alarm is that they feel they are being ignored. “It’s not that we are against Stewart’s; we used to shop at Stewart’s,” said Emily Wright. “The problem is no one is listening to us.”

Prior to the vote on the town’s zoning changes, the hamlet association wanted to present its concerns to the Albany County Planning Board, which had to approve the plans before the January vote. According to Smith, the group arrived at the October meeting after it had ended, only to find that town officials had not told the county that anyone in the town had any concerns about the zoning changes.

According to Smith, two nights before the January 2005 vote to approve the zoning changes, the citizens who were concerned about having gas in the town were told by town officials that according to the old 1974 zoning charter, to have the vote stopped they needed to present a petition with the signatures of 20 percent of the taxpaying, property-owning Berne residents on it. With only one day to collect signatures, they claim to have come up with 48 in support of removing gas stations from the zoning plan. “Some people were away, and we all work,” said Smith about their efforts. But the vote went on. Seeing that the hamlet of Berne is made up of 90 homes, Smith wonders why 48 signatures were not good enough. “This sort of stuff pretty much proves to us that we are powerless. It seems like the deck has been stacked against us at every turn,” Smith said.

Some residents say they prefer the original proposed location for Stewart’s, which was across from the school at the end of town, away from houses, with easy access to drivers and students. That location was scrapped after a campaign by residents that raised concerns about student safety. That campaign was spearheaded by Crosier before he was elected supervisor.

The new location in the middle of town is a straight shot from the school through neighboring homes’ front yards. “I’m a coach at the school,” says Ken Bunzey. “Having the Stewart’s down the street is not going to stop them from going down there.”

“There has been no sidewalks study,” Crosier said. “The cost of sidewalks is an issue. We can’t get ahead of ourselves. The first thing we need is business.”

On May 19, after finishing his presentation to the planning board and a crowd of 20 residents, Lewis was told that the board needed time to review the plans and that there would be another meeting in a month. “I hope to have this approved by the fall so we can have it built by the end of the year,” Lewis later said. Lewis then asked to hear comments and concerns from the crowd.

John Crosier, planning-board chair and father of town supervisor Kevin Crosier, stepped in. “No, that won’t be happening tonight. In fact, I would definitely advise you against it,” said Crosier in front of a packed house.

“There’s always the parking lot!” shouted an audience member. At that point six or seven of the most vocal members of the crowd moved outside to plead their concerns to Lewis, who nervously but patiently listened. Meanwhile, with most of the more vocal concerned parties safely outside, the planning board changed its mind and decided to take questions.

—David King

What a Week

Don’t Bother With Clean Underwear

New airport screening technology set to be tested at various airports this year won’t leave much to the imagination, say experts familiar with the X-Ray imaging system known as “backscatting.” The new technology will allow airport screeners to see through passengers’ clothing, leaving a detailed image of subjects’ naked bodies. According to DHS officials, the new technology is being tested as an alternative to physical searches and pat-downs of airline passengers, but the agency has not identified which airports will be testing the backscatter systems.

One For the Scrapbook

More than 40 student-musicians from Albany’s Hackett Middle School were invited to play Carnegie Hall on Tuesday (May 24) as part of the famous venue’s LinkUP educational program. After many months of practice, the sixth-grade musicians partnered up with their professional counterparts in the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for a performance in the legendary hall and participated in a variety of music literacy and concept activities.

Patriotism Before Truth

A recent investigation turned up troubling information about footballer-turned-footsoldier Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan. According to military records, Army officials were aware just days later that he was killed by friendly fire, but didn’t reveal this until weeks later, after concocting a story of Tillman dying a hero’s death while engaging terrorists, and after numerous highly publicized memorial services and military-recruitment drives had been held in his honor. Tillman’s uniform and body armor were burned just a day after he died, against standard practice for friendly-fire deaths. “People in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” said Tillman’s father, who initiated the investigation with the rest of his family.

Democracy Starts at Home

United for Peace and Justice has put its foot down after what it says is a longstanding pattern by sister antiwar group ANSWER of announcing event dates and political demands without any consultation with UFPJ—and then expecting “unity” in supporting it. ANSWER has also taken hard-line anti-Israel and anti-military positions that UFPJ say hamper their efforts to build a diverse movement. UFPJ says it will continue planning its own September antiwar mobilization independently.

Loose Ends

Last Friday (May 20), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected a petition calling for all nuclear facilities to be equipped with emergency notification systems independent from the electrical grid [“No Need For Lights When You’re Glowing,” What a Week, April 7]. Currently, New York’s Indian Point nuclear power plant is one of many facilities with no way of notifying the public if a radiological emergency happens during an interruption of the power grid. The NRC did recommend, however, that the request go through the agency’s “petition for rulemaking”—a process that typically takes more than two years of deliberation. . . . Robert Schunk, the Albany Police officer who was arrested for DWI last month [“Who’s Policing the Police,” May 5], had his driving privileges restored Friday (May 20) during a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing. According to state law, anyone who refuses to take a breathalyzer test stands to lose their license. However, although Schunk repeatedly refused the breathalyzer in the presence of multiple police officers, both Schunk’s attorney and the president of the Albany Police Officers Union argued for the restoration of driving privileges because the arresting officer, Lt. Paul Christopher, allegedly didn’t warn Schunk properly of the consequences of refusal. The APD maintains that all of the proper procedures were followed. . . . Anti-choice extremist Dr. David Hager, who has written a book recommending scripture to treat PMS and won’t prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women, has publicly admitted that he was drafted to write a “minority opinion” for the FDA opposing making emergency contraception available over the counter [“OK, So What’s Plan C,” FYI, June 10, 2004]. He also boasted that his memo convinced the FDA to reject the advice of its blue-ribbon scientific panels on the subject, something it almost never does.

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