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Breakin' the law: Chris Battibulli and Nathan Bennett. . Photo by Joe Putrock

Get Your Ollies Somewhere Else

The city of Albany is cracking down on skateboarding in Washington Park

Skateboarding is a crime. At least in the city of Albany’s Washington Park, that is.

An old city code, known as Chapter 255-8, suddenly is being used to single skaters out for persecution. Formerly, Albany Police simply enforced a portion of the code (Section C), which prohibited skateboarding “in, on or upon any publicly owned monument, sculpture or other statuary.” Now, however, skaters in the city say they’ve been stopped, arrested and/or had their boards confiscated by police for engaging in the sport, even when they remain a safe distance from the city’s public monuments.

Just last month, local skater John Marshall had his skateboard confiscated while riding on the blacktop approximately 50 yards away from the veteran’s monument located at the Henry Johnson Boulevard entrance to the park. Another skateboarder, Nathan Bennett, has had more than one run-in with the law. He was arrested two years ago near the monument, he says, but he has noticed recently that people are being arrested who were not skating on or around city statues. He said that the people being arrested lately have simply been using skateboarding as a mode of transportation, “going from point A to B.”

Chris Battibulli’s experience fits Bennett’s description perfectly. Two weeks ago, he was skateboarding from Bomber’s Burrito Bar on Lark Street to his car, which was parked near the veteran’s monument: “I was just on the street when four undercover cops on the monument stopped and harassed me,” he said. “I told them I knew better than to skate on the monument, but they warned me of a new ordinance where there is no skateboarding allowed anywhere in the park. But I’ve been skateboarding here [the park] for 10 years. Now where am I going to go?”

Battibulli defended skateboarding as a “convenient and quick means of transportation,” an alternative to using a car, and even as a form of exercise.

Bennett also pointed out that the ordinance is prejudiced against skateboarding; he noted that there are other activities, such as inline skating and biking, that are not banned but can cause damage to monuments in the park. He said that he disagrees with what he believes is a negative perception of skateboarders by the city’s police—for example, that skateboarders are drug users.

When he was arrested, Bennett said, he was made to remove his shoes and socks to prove he was not hiding any illegal substances: “I was fully searched, and they [police] treated me like a crack dealer,” he said.

Jim Miller, spokesman for the city’s Public Safety Department, explained that the skateboarding ordinance in Albany originated due to neighborhood complaints and the fact that the activity is “detrimental” to the monuments in the city. Monuments may provide a large surface area for skateboarders and ideal infrastructure to jump from, but he said the boards deface the surfaces of the structures—and that the city continually has to pay to repair them. “Once it became apparent there was a problem, it was imperative to actively enforce it [the ordinance],” Miller said. He added that there is no separate or new ordinance being enforced this year; police are simply “putting more of an emphasis” on the already-existing code. “It’s a quality-of-life issue, similar to graffiti,” Miller said.

Marshall conceded that skateboarding is loud and can be “obnoxious” to others.

“If they [the police] consider that an issue, then they have to do something about it,” he admitted. He also said he sees the need to clean up the streets. But he wonders: “Why solely target skateboarders?”

“It is disconcerting that these kids [skateboarders] are not doing anything illegal when there is gang warfare going on,” added Bennett. “We really need to provide the kids with an alternative place to skateboard.”

“We recognize the need for an area [for skateboarding], but [it has to be] in a place where nothing will be damaged,” Miller said.

There are a few skateboarding parks in towns outside the city of Albany, including a brand-new one in Blatnick Park in Niskayuna, which opened in May; at Blatnick Park, photo ID and proof of residency are required for usage. Both Bennett and Battibulli are upset that these affluent suburbs have facilities but that there is nothing in the state capital. And for now, Marshall is resigned to the fact that “you’re rolling the dice every time you want to skate.”

—Tanya Leet


Not in Your Backyard

Danger: Burning refuse on your property may be hazardous to your health

Most people don’t realize how dangerous the makeup is of some of the material that they are burning in their yards,” said Donald Hassig, director of Cancer Action NY. “But there really are some pretty dangerous toxins that they are burning, which are proven to cause cancer.”

Hassig is referring to a common practice that many people in rural areas, particularly on farmlands, use to eliminate waste: burning rubbish in backyards.

While incinerating debris such as leaves, hay and wood doesn’t pose a risk to human health, it is the burning of other garbage, like paper bags, plastic piping, fiberglass and bleached-white paper, that produces toxic fumes that carry dioxins into the air. In June 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report that confirmed a long-held belief that dioxins cause cancer and that open waste burning is responsible for releasing a large amount of these toxins into the environment.

As a result, Hassig and others are fighting for a bill in the state Senate that would prohibit open burning of household solid waste.

“If you have ever smelled those plastic fumes, you automatically get this really strong feeling that the smell is really unhealthy,” said Hassig. “Well that is because it is.”

Sen. George Maziarz (R-C-North Tonawanda) is the sponsor of the bill that many are hoping will make its way to the Senate floor in the dwindling last weeks of the legislative session. The bill has passed in the Democrat-controlled Assembly two years in a row, but has yet to make it to the floor of the Republican-controlled Senate.

“There is no doubt that these dioxins cause health risks, most common being lung cancer,” said Maziarz. “Many years have gone by without the benefit of such a bill.”

But not everyone is convinced that such measures are necessary. Chris LaRoe, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said that people are overreacting to the problem. He said this bill would just place further restriction on farmers and make it very expensive for them to dispose of their waste. LaRoe explained that while the bill provides exemptions for burning yard waste, land-clearing debris and certain agricultural materials, it doesn’t include other materials, such as burlap bags, that would be safe to extinguish.

“These people live out in very rural areas,” said LaRoe. “It is not so easy for them to just have their garbage picked up and removed.”

He added that what farmers need is more education and fewer restrictions.

“We don’t advocate for farmers burning materials that are toxic. We are more in favor of increasing education of farmers,” said LaRoe. “We think that if farmers are educated about what is or is not safe for the environment, they are going to make the right decision. After all, for farmers, the environment is their livelihood.”

But for Mark Ebert, who lives in Columbia County, the proposed bill is a matter of personal freedom.

“It is really expensive for me to have my garbage hauled off my land,” said Ebert. “If I burn the garbage, I am the one who breathes it in. It should be up to me if I want to endanger my own health or not. The government has no right to put restrictions on that.”

But Hassig said that the health concerns of exposure to dioxins is not so much from people inhaling them, although there is some risk in that, but rather through consuming contaminated foods—especially animal fats. Dioxins, he explained, are carried through the air and then settle in the grass, feed and water that is consumed by animals. The toxin accumulates in the fat of livestock, fish and poultry. The danger of allowing farmers to continue open burning, he said, is that it can potentially infect all of their livestock. The toxins can also show up in cow’s milk, which can then appear in a variety of dairy products.

“For agricultural areas, where there is open waste burning in backyard barrels, along with farms burning refuse heaps in their fields, this poses a huge threat to human health,” said Hassig. “People need to realize that when you have a fire burning, and there is this black smoke going out over this cornfield or pasture, those particles don’t stay in the air. Where do people think they land?”

—Nancy Guerin


I got your back: New York state Family Court Judge Karen Burstein and Tom Keefe. Photo by Joe Putrock

Questionable Judgment

Last Thursday, Tom Keefe, who is running for Albany City Court judge in the Democratic primary this September, picked up the endorsement of former senator and New York State Family Court Judge Karen Burstein.

“If you have to come to court, it is a very scary thing, and I would want a judge who recognizes that I am person, and recognizes that I have a right to be there,” said Burstein. “Albany would be very lucky to have Keefe on the bench because this is the kind of judge that he would be.”

Keefe is hoping to win one of the three seats available on the city bench. Last March, when Keefe announced his candidacy, he ruffled the feathers of Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings because the mayor had not yet announced his own third candidate to run with his two other appointees, Cheryl Coleman and William Carter. Jennings said he would not support Keefe and then picked city Corporation Counsel Gary Stiglmeier as his choice the third seat, creating a four-way race for the three positions. Now, for the first time since 1943, there will be a primary for the seat.

Jennings and his supporters have since tried to guarantee their preferred outcome in the primary by pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would alter the way judges are elected in Albany. As it stands, candidates running for a position on the City Court bench do not run for a specific vacant seat; rather, all contenders enter into a general election in which those who receive the most votes win. Jennings and a number of his allies—including city Treasurer Betty Barnette, Councilwomen Sarah Curry Cobb (Ward 4) and Shirley Foskey (Ward 5), among others—have written a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver encouraging the passage of Assembly Bill 11227. The bill would require candidates for City Court judge to specify which seat they are vying for. The bill would make Albany the only city besides New York City in which city judges are not elected in at-large elections.

If the bill were to pass, a candidate such as Keefe would have to determine which specific opponent he is willing to take on. His choices would be Carter, the city’s first and only African-American judge; Coleman, the city’s only female judge; or Stiglmeier, the party-backed candidate.

Jennings has said that he is pushing the law to protect Carter’s seat in the election; but many critics point out that Keefe is a frequent critic of Jennings, and that the administration has a record of trying to stack city offices with its own candidates. And some have taken offense to the fact that the move implies that the administration feels that an African-American would need special help to maintain a seat in the general election.

In the letter to Silver, though, Jennings et al. decried the criticism, saying “We understand that an issue has been raised pertaining to Judge William Carter and we believe this to be a feeble attempt aimed to distract attention from the real issue at hand. The sole purpose and reason why we have petitioned for passage of this bill is to eliminate the pernicious practice of bullet voting in a judicial election.”

“Apparently ‘pernicious’ is the new word,” cracked Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-L-Albany), who said that he is not in favor of the proposed change to the judicial election process. “All of these people are talking about ‘pernicious.’ Certainly the vocabulary in the city has improved in this process.”

McEneny said that the issue of “bullet voting” (when voters only vote for one or two candidates in an at-large election) came from “out of the blue” and was never raised as a serious issue in past elections. Why, he wondered, are city administrators suddenly so concerned that it will become an issue now?

“There’s no precedent in upstate New York for this [bill], and it would only affect one city in upstate New York,” McEneny observed. “Also, I think that any time that a city goes through all this city went through with public hearings on whether we should change the city charter and how we should elect officials to public office—this never came up once. And now I keep hearing this word ‘pernicious.’ ”

As for Burstein, she noted at the endorsement press conference that to force such changes to the city elections process now would be bad public policy.

“I don’t like to come in and see judges already picked,” Burstein said.” It’s like the Soviet Union.”

—Nancy Guerin and Erin Sullivan


My Own Private Queensbury

Warren County residents continue to fight long battle to reopen road closed by politically connected homeowners

For years, Paul Abess enjoyed his commutes to work. Taking Fuller Road up over West Mountain was a shortcut from his home in the town of Queensbury to his job as a guidance counselor at Hadley-Luzerne Central School in Lake Luzerne. But what pleased him most about his ride was the scenic beauty that the road provided.

“It was just a great way to start the day, because the road is unbelievable,” said Abess. “You could hear the waterfall echoing off the mountain and all you can see for miles is the Adirondack National Park.”

But one afternoon in May 1995, when Abess was about to take his usual turn onto Fuller Road, he was surprised to find that it had been closed. At first, he thought it must be a temporary situation, because he had noticed that people were building a house up the way. But he later found out that these new neighbors, Curtis and Marion Rowland, had in fact requested that the road be permanently closed to the public.

“It was baffling,” said Abess. “This has been on the records as a dedicated highway for close to 140 years, and now it has become a private road. It just didn’t make any sense.”

Abess was not alone in his anger, and since that day in 1995 a contentious battle has been brewing in the town of Queensbury as to whether or not the Rowlands ever had the legal right to close the road. A group of 11 community members who call themselves the Fuller Road Eleven have put up a tireless fight to get the road reopened. The issue has been in and out of the state court system for years. In the latest turn of events, a civil court case has been filed in the hope of returning the right of way on Fuller Road to the public.

Abess, a member of the Fuller Road Eleven, said that the Rowlands went to the Queensbury town board in 1995 requesting the road be closed, claiming that Fuller is a “dedicated road,” a private road dedicated to the city for maintenance. The town board has said it gave the public a four-month period in which to make comments or complaints regarding the road closure. But Abess said that the public was never notified of the proposed closure. Further, he adds that the road is not a dedicated road but rather has been on the town records for years as a “road by use,” which is any road that is in continuous use by the public.

“There was never a public meeting or a public announcement to inform us what was about to happen,” said Abess. “Then all of a sudden the road was closed and we were told that we had had all of this time to comment on it. That is just not true. They used the wrong section of the law to get it closed, and they didn’t follow the proper procedures. This was done behind closed doors.”

In 1997, the group filed a lawsuit against the town in the New York State Supreme Court, arguing that the road was closed illegally. But Justice John Dier ruled that the statute of limitations had expired and the town was in the right. The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court upheld Dier’s ruling.

In March 2000, the Queensbury town board voted to reopen the road. However, that decision was met with a lawsuit from the Rowlands, and Supreme Court Justice G. Thomas Moynihan Jr. agreed that the statute of limitations on public commentary had run out, and ruled that the road would remain closed.

Theodore Turner, Queensbury town councilman for the second ward, said the road should remain closed.

“It is closed and it was closed by the court,” said Turner, who is also the town’s deputy supervisor. “We did not have to have a public hearing at the time and at this point the courts have upheld our decision.”

Dennis Brower, the town of Queensbury’s current supervisor, who took office in 2000, disagrees.

“I believe the road should be open for public use,” said Brower. “I would have accepted limited use, like no motorized vehicles, but allow for pedestrian and biking traffic, but we were unable to even get that.”

Many have said that it’s the Rowlands’ political connections that have enabled them to curry favor with local officials.

Marion Rowland worked for Community Title Agency, which is owned by Bartlett, Pontiff, Steward & Rhodes, a Glens Falls Law Firm that represents the Rowlands in this case. One of the firm’s partners is Judge Richard Bartlett, a former state assemblyman who is widely known as one of the most powerful Republicans in the area. Bartlett also worked on Judge Moynihan’s campaign when Moynihan ran for Supreme Court Justice.

In an article published in the Glens Falls Post Star last week, Bartlett said he has had no involvement in the case. But many find that hard to believe.

“This is a political hot potato,” said Michael Perwan, a member of the Fuller Road Eleven.

Members of the Fuller Road Eleven, whose ranks include an 80-year-old woman named Margaret Burrell and Glens Falls Councilman Peter McDevitt, have no intention of giving up the fight any time soon. In fact, all 11 members have been arrested—twice so far—for trespassing.

“It’s outrageous that a group of municipal officials basically gave away the right of access for hundreds, if not thousands, of my fellow citizens,” said McDevitt. “They did not publicly let the public know this was going to occur. Just all of a sudden, one day, the road was closed. Fundamentally, as a citizen, I think it is wrong.”

—N.G.


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