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Duck, duck, goose: George Sarris in front of his beloved duck pond.

photo: Alicia Solsman

Zoning for Trouble

Clifton Park duck pond dispute goes deeper than a neighbor fight

Some people get a thrill out of fighting the system, being the underdog. Their eyes light up, stoked with righteous fury, as they describe the wrongs done to them and their fight for justice.

George Sarris is not one of those people. As he lugs out the plastic filing box of paperwork common to individuals who have been researching a legal issue for years, his expression is resigned. He can still summon up the anger, but his tone tends more toward the weary and exasperated. When he says ·I believe in the system,· it sounds like he means ·believed.·

Sarris· home is tucked out of sight off the entrance road to a housing development in Clifton Park. It predates the development, and also the land-conservation zone that has been, according to the town, overlaid on top of the residential zoning that applies to his lot in order to protect the creek that runs behind his land. On Sarris· two-and-a-half acres, there is a small pond. On a March afternoon, the pond is bustling with over a dozen waterfowl·mallards, domestic ducks (some rare), a pair of mute swans, a few Canada geese. ·Each of those ducks can eat their weight in mosquitoes,· says Sarris proudly.

The geese, the swans, and several of the ducks are injured and can·t live in the wild. They were brought to Sarris, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, who cares for and feeds them. Six of the domestic ducks he purchased because they are a rare breed. A low undercurrent of noise comes from the ducks. It·s not audible inside the house. The ground around the pond is spongy and moist, but covered in less goose poop than the average public park.

Sarris is involved in two entwined sets of legal proceedings over these birds. First there is a lawsuit brought by his neighbors to the east, Robert Newell and Theresa Schillaci, claiming the birds are a nuisance, plus a counterclaim brought against Newell and Schillaci by Sarris for harassment. In the initial suit, the neighbors say, among other things, that noise and excrement from the waterfowl have deprived them of their use of their yard and some of their home. They say that Sarris· feeding of his domestic waterfowl has attracted more wild birds than would usually be there.

Sarris· response points out that all of the non-wild ducks on his property cannot fly, so they are not visiting his neighbors· yard, and that he does not distribute feed beyond what the domestic ducks eat. He also notes that ducks and geese do not generally excrete while flying, making his neighbors· claims of severe damage to their home, cars, and grill from excrement unlikely, especially when the pictures provided with the claim show something on the exterior walls of the house of a splatter pattern that appears to have come at the wall from below, technically impossible for a bird to accomplish.

Sarris· counterclaim alleges a pattern of harassment from his neighbors that includes playing loud music, shooting at the birds, putting mothballs in his pond, blocking the pond·s inlet stream and allegedly poisoning one of his dogs.

A hearing in those suits will be held before Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Ferradino on May 30.

But Sarris doesn·t like to dwell on the interactions with his neighbor. A retired police officer, he said he·s much more interested in questions of law rather than personality, and claims he even discouraged some of his sympathetic neighbors from getting into the fight on his side, saying it should be left to the courts.

The real fight, as Sarris and his wife Joy see it, is with the town of Clifton Park (whose corporation counsel used to work for the firm representing his neighbors, according to the North Country Gazette). In response to the neighbors· complaints, Clifton Park has ruled Sarris in violation of its zoning code, which prohibits the keeping of waterfowl in a residential zone on a plot of land under five acres. Sarris and his attorney, Peter Henner, are arguing that the land-conservation zone supercedes the residential zoning, and that anything allowed in a land-conservation zone, which includes game preserves and nature preserves, should be allowed. (Otherwise, notes Sarris, the land would be ·sterile,· or unusable for anything, which would be considered a property ·taking.·)

·This is a natural area,· said Henner. ·Wild ducks visited it before he bought the property. . . . The problem here is the town coming up with a bizarre interpretation of the statute· that equates to saying that ·LC zones are only LC zones if they·re over 100,000 sq. feet.·


Henner has filed a claim for Sarris in Supreme Court against the town of Clifton Park for its repeated arraigning and fining of Sarris for zoning violations.

·It·s just humiliating for a cop,· said Sarris of the experience.

But he and Henner also point out that this is an unusual and possibly precedent-setting case: Usually zoning fights over protected wetlands have to do with owners who want to get an exception to the restrictions and build there. Rarely if ever does someone go to court to fight for the right to ·use it as a wetland.·


Sarris surmises that a ruling that held land-conservation zoning to trump residential zoning would put a damper on development on wetland properties elsewhere, which may be one reason the town is fighting him so hard.

While some wildlife experts question whether the feeding of domestic waterfowl would fall under the definition of a nature preserve, Henner said that in any case, connection with wildlife in the middle of spreading suburbia is a value that should be protected and encouraged. ·Right in the middle of Velveetaland, we have this duck pond,· he said. ·It·s a beautiful aesthetic resource.·


DEC wildlife expert Ward Stone, who declined comment on the specific situation until he gets a chance to visit the pond personally, noted that in the abstract it does raise some worrisome questions: ·I·m concerned in general, where will people keep things like a small flock of ducks in the future?· he said. ·Where does the 4-H kid keep their flock? . . . People are getting farther and farther from nature, including farming. . . . If it keeps going this way, people will not have any rights to keep animals. That·s a heck of a difference in rural Saratoga County from 30 or 40 years ago.·


·Miriam Axel-Lute


What a Week

Just Writing to Say I Hate You

This week, President George W. Bush received a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the first correspondence between American and Iranian presidents since the 1979 hostage crisis. While some experts hoped the letter would lead to dialogue between the two countries, it seems to have inflamed an already-heated crisis. In the letter Ahmadinejad lambastes Bush for the war in Iraq and anti-American sentiment across the globe. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice told the Associated Press, ·This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort.· However, many still insist that the United States has missed a opportunity for dialogue with Iran.

128 Bits of Terror

According to Reuters, Islamic militants have been modifying popular first-person-shooter video games to use as recruiting tools. The games are posted on Web sites where kids can play the games after registering with the site. The sites that host the games also contain videos of American soldiers being shot and clips of televangelists such as Pat Robertson berating Islam.

Don·t Forget to Vote

On May 2, William Crawford of Castalia, Ohio, was trying to keep his seat on the central committee of the Erie County Democratic Party. He would have done it, too, if his two sons had actually bothered to vote. But they didn·t, and the race came down to a tie, with both candidates receiving 43 votes. The race will now likely be decided by a coin flip.

Gone Fishin·


A German paper, Bild am Sonntag, asked President Bush this week for his best and worst moments as president. His worst moment was 9/11. ·In such a situation it takes a while before one understands what is happening,· Bush said. ·I would say that this was the hardest moment, once I had the real picture before my eyes.· The best moment? ·I would say the best moment of all was when I caught a 7.5-pound perch in my lake,· he replied.



Helping Hands

Center for Independence honors people and organizations who support independent living for people with disabilities·including Metroland

At an annual awards breakfast last Thursday (May 4), the Center for Independence, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities in living independently, honored eight individuals and institutions for work that furthers CFI·s mission.

Marge Kanuk, of Realty USA, was honored with the Barrier Free Housing Award for being the go-to realtor in the region who goes the extra mile to both help people with disabilities to find accessible and affordable housing and qualify for financing to become homeowners.

Bank of America·s Libris Government Operations in Menands received the Employer of the Year award for a recent sustained effort to recruit, train and creatively accommodate employees with disabilities. The effort has been good for business and brought the company qualified and dedicated staff, said Elizabeth Ward who accepted the award.

Frederick Erlich and Don White each received Ed Roberts Advocacy Awards, named after the ·father of the independent living movement.·


Erlich is the founder and CEO of Living Resources, an agency that works with more than 875 people with disabilities. Living Resources recently started the College Experience Program, a collaboration with the College of Saint Rose that gives young people with disabilities the chance to experience life on a college campus.

Don White, an engineer who became paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury 14 years ago and has become an advocate for universal design accessibility, was honored specifically for his work as founder of the Upstate Access Network. UAN trains volunteers with disabilities to investigate and rate the accessibility of entertainment and recreation venues in upstate New York. These ratings are listing on UAN·s Web site upstateaccess.org.

John T. MacDonald III, mayor of Cohoes, was given the Public Official of the Year award for his work improving and streamlining the process of receiving parking access signs and curb cuts.

Brianne Nobis and Mike DiScipio each received a Self Advocacy Award. Nobis, a participant in Living Resource·s College Experience Program, has served on the Down Syndrome Aim High board for more than five years, organized social events for Aim High and written for its newsletter.

DiScipio, a member of the Albany County Sheriff·s department who experienced a spinal cord injury in 1999, was honored for his work promoting stem-cell research, as well as helping others adapt to living with spinal cord injuries.

Metroland·s Miriam Axel-Lute was given a Special Recognition Award for her reporting on a recent policy change in Albany County regarding supplemental needs trusts and Medicaid that would have had a disastrous effect on the ability for many people with disabilities to continue living in the community [·Breaking the Trust,· Jan. 5]. The policy change has since been rescinded [Loose Ends, Jan 19].


In Memoriam

Teri Currie 1962-2006


Metroland contributing photo- grapher Teri Currie died April 15, shortly after receiving a diagnosis of late-stage stomach cancer. She was 43. Metroland staffers and contributers past and present have expressed their shock and sorrow at the untimely passing of this warm, gentle and gifted artist.

Born Dec. 19, 1962, in Oneonta, Teresa L. Currie graduated from Milford Central School, Mohawk Valley Community College and Russell Sage College. She was a regular freelance photographer for Metroland from 1990 until her death; she also had been employed for many years in the advertising art department at the Times Union. Her artwork (photography and mixed media) has been exhibited over the years throughout the Capital Region. Currie also was an avid runner who frequently participated in the Freihofer·s Run for Women.

She leaves her partner, Maggie Finn; two children, Chloe and Jane von Linden; and her mother, Sandra Currie, as well as a sister, brother, grandmother and nephews and nieces.

Friends remember Teri as compassionate, thoughtful and observant, and as a fun-loving and devoted mother who cherished the time she spent with her children. She was also quite modest, and her artistic achievements never seemed to inflate her ego. Friend Leah Golby recalls one time when Currie was grocery shopping at the Pine Hills Price Chopper: ·And she must have paid by check or something, and the cashier recognized her name. She said, ·Are you Teri Currie, the photographer?· Teri was quite flattered and also surprised; I don·t think she thought of herself as being noticed. After that incident, Teri referred to the cashier as her ·angel.· ·


As a freelance photographer, Currie was as reliable as she was talented, often cheerfully taking last-minute assignments and always expressing her willingness to take work regardless of whether the subject matter fit with her personal interests. As several people who worked with her have observed, her photographs of people reflected her own gentle nature. ·I do remember her smile,· recalls Doreen Walsh, a longtime Metroland production manager who now lives in New York City. ·It was filled with warmth. This is reflected back in the faces of those she photographed. She was able to capture her subjects so well because they sensed her warmth, kindness and empathy and were not intimidated.·


To all of Teri Currie·s friends and loved ones, the Metroland family extends its deepest sympathies. Her work and her spirit will be missed.

estion about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends

On April 27, crews from Clough Harbour & Associates, who were hired by the city of Albany, tore through pieces of the Pine Bush Preserve with bulldozers. The crews were doing exploratory work for a proposed landfill expansion [·The Garbage Burden,· April 27, 2006]. Trees were damaged, grass was uprooted, and trails were turned into dirt roads. The Nature Conservancy insists that the lands are protected because they have been dedicated to the preserve. The Nature Conservancy wrote to Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Denise Sheehan, Attorney General Elliot Spitzer and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, demanding that further action in the Pine Bush be halted, and asked for the DEC and the attorney general to launch an investigation into whether the city had, in fact, violated the law. The Nature Conservancy also asked for the damaged Pine Bush to be restored. The city has claimed the action may have been premature, but ·not necessarily illegal.· Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) has said that he feels ·betrayed by the city.· In a letter to local newspapers, Calsolaro said, ·Until the city administration can prove that they can be trusted and that all legal and proper protocols will be followed, I will not support any further action to expand the landfill in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.·



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