By Cady Kuzmich
CLIFTON PARK — Bill Casey thought it would take a miracle to gather enough signatures to demand a public referendum on the fate of the 34 undeveloped acres behind Shenendehowa’s Shatekon Elementary school.
Casey and other green-space advocates had just 30 days to gather more than 5,100 signatures to call for a public referendum on the issue.
He was pleasantly surprised when it took only three weeks to reach 5,100 signatures. Casey, one of three Shenendehowa Board of Education members who voted not to sell the land, emphasized he’s advocating for the land as a private citizen and his opinion does not represent that of the board as a whole.
Those interested in preserving the land gathered at an open house at the Clifton Park Halfmoon Public Library on Dec. 29.
“When it comes down to it, $1 million is $20 a person. They want to get rid of the open land. … What difference is $20 a person?” asked Ginny Parsons, who has called Clifton Park home for 17 years and whose grandchildren now attend Shenendehowa schools. Parsons noted further development would only add to the already congested traffic in central Clifton Park.
“A lot of people said they won’t vote to pass school budgets if this goes through. This is not a win-win,” added Parsons.
Despite impassioned pleas from community members urging the board to keep the undeveloped land in the public domain to be used as a park, board members voted 4-3 to sell the land to developer BBL Development of Albany.
Gary DiLallo, Robert Pressly, Todd Gilbert and Mary Blaauboer voted in favor of the BBL proposal. Gilbert cited the importance of securing funds to buy land that’s more developable in the future. Deanna Stephenson, William Casey and Christina Rajotte voted against the decision to accept the BBL bid.
BBL offered $2,050,001 and agreed to donate between 17.5 to 19 acres of the land to the town of Clifton Park to be used as a park, while the remaining acreage will be developed as retail or office space.
The town’s bid was $1,000,000 and would have been paid over the course of a year after closing. According to the school district’s attorney, David Rowley, the request for proposals forbade payment over time.
Green space advocates had until Jan. 5 to submit their petitions to the board. “This was one of those really strong community efforts. It really galvanized people,” said Casey. He spoke of an elderly woman who collected 40 signatures from community members on her own. “These people have come out of the woodwork. It’s quite an effort.”
“If the sale is voted down in a public referendum, we will urge a municipal-to-municipal transfer,” he added.
Based on the 2011 to 2015 American Community Survey, there are 50,352 qualified voters living within the boundaries of the Shenendehowa Central School District. “They are telling us that an appropriate number of 10 percent of the qualified voters would be 5,100 to 5,500,” said Susan Burton, vice president of the Friends of Clifton Park Open Space.
“We are relying on those numbers, although we find it interesting that they don’t have a more accurate number for themselves,” she added. “We are still out actively canvassing for more signatures. I believe we will surpass our goal,” said Burton.
It is still unclear when a public referendum would be held if green space advocates are able to gather an adequate number of signatures. It’s also unclear how the board will proceed if a public referendum shows broad support to keep the land in the public domain.
“We do not know, specifically, what they will do if a public referendum rejects the Board’s resolution to sell the land to BBL. The school board could conceivably start the process over again and even come to the same kind of result, although we believe that would be terribly counterproductive,” said Burton.
Ultimately, the decision is up to the school board, according to Burton. “This legal procedure, outlined in New York State Education Law Section 1804, is the only way to stop the land [from being developed]. Without the public referendum, the land will be lost forever.”