Join us as we take a look back at the events which shaped our lives in Chenango County in 2010.
q Here, in no particular order, are The Evening Sun stories which garnered the most attention in the past year. Staff writers Melissa deCordova, Brian Golden, Tyler Murphy and Melissa Stagnaro contributed to this report.
Old Veterans’ Home in Oxford coming down
Demolition work has already begun at the old New York State Veterans’ Home in Oxford, which housed veterans for the better part of four decades.
Over the past two years, a grassroots group consisting of Oxford residents, business owners and local government officials – along with Commerce Chenango and state officials – have repeatedly advocated for reuse of the 30-year-old facility. Staff and residents moved into a brand new, state-of-the-art facility adjacent to the old one on State Rt. 220 in Oxford in the fall of 2009.
According to Susan Barnett, public information officer for the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), Gorick Construction of Binghamton was awarded the approximately $677,000 contract for the demolition.
According to the DASNY spokesperson, completion of the project is expected by summer of 2011.
Commerce Chenango President Maureen Carpenter and other local advocates, including Village of Oxford Mayor Terry Stark and Oxford resident Dave Emerson, spent more than two years lobbying to save the building from the wrecking ball.
Carpenter expressed her frustration with New York State over decision to demolish the structure, rather than find another use for the facility.
The demolition, she said, is “another instance of government departments wasting resources, tossing aside valuable assets that could be used for future development.”
Drill, baby, drill – or not
New York Governor David Paterson sent mixed messages in December by first vetoing a bill that would have banned further vertical drilling of natural gas wells until late spring, but then pushing off release of new permitting regulations for the more controversial high water volume horizontal drilling method until July.
His veto, which was announced first, was initially characterized as pro-business and hailed a job-saver by the Independent Oil and Gas Association, New York Farm Bureau, Southern Tier landowner coalitions and other organizations and individuals who support drilling.
The moratorium would have, effectively, halted existing and potential vertical natural gas and oil exploration in New York, and put the future of thousands of workers and hundreds of employers in jeopardy. The governor’s office, itself, recognized the legislation – which was passed overwhelmingly within the state’s Senate and Assembly – had gone too far.
“...Vertical drilling has been a fact in this state for 40 years without demonstrable environmental damage. Permitting for such drilling will continue unless the Department of Environmental Conservation’s comprehensive review requires it to be stopped,” a press release stated.
The governor subsequently issued an executive order that postponed release of the DEC’s updated permitting regulations for shale formations until July 1, 2011. He had already placed a de-facto moratorium on such permits when directing the DEC back in 2008 to begin a comprehensive review and analysis of high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing in shale formations. The document, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, was anticipated to be completed as early as January or as late as March.
The governor emphasized that high water volume fracturing must be safe without a doubt. “The enormous revenues that could eventuate from such drilling would not be worth the cost of serious environmental harm. All available evidence, including data from other states, will be examined,” he said.
A petition containing more than 3,000 signatures and asking for a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Afton, Coventry and Bainbridge areas was delivered to the Chenango County Board of Supervisors in November.
The petition asked signers to agree that gas drilling should be prohibited primarily due to “the great harm it would cause to our environment, our health and our property,” and to protest gas leases that were allegedly obtained “by the gas companies’ dishonesty, either by telling lies, lies by omission, deceit and/or coercion to get people to sign contracts.”
An advisory committee tasked with tracking the natural gas industry was formed locally in 2008, well before the nation turned its attention to the massive quantities of gas within the Marcellus Shale and the reported environmental damages associated with hydraulic fracturing.
“We are way ahead of the other counties in getting things done,” said Chenango County Natural Gas Industry Consultant Steven Palmatier, who sits on the committee.
Chenango County Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard B. Decker, R-N. Norwich, created the advisory committee after receiving numerous complaints from property owners about landmen’s aggressive leasing tactics and a legal challenge for permitting seismic testing along County Rd. 10A in Preston.
Norse Energy Inc., a Norwegian company that has offices in Buffalo, has 180,000 net acres of mineral rights in New York. In Chenango County, it has pipeline infrastructure that supports 28 active wells in Smyrna, six in Plymouth, and two in Preston. Norse commenced drilling this fall and projects seven more wells by the end of the year and 30 next year.
Much of the Natural Gas Advisory Committee’s focus has been on road usage, seismic testing, pipeline boring and driveway permitting along the county’s 8,000 plus acres of rights-of-way, 184 acres of which it owns outright. Discussions held and information gleaned has helped at least two towns create their own testing laws.
Byrne Dairy to bring gas back to the city
Word of an expanded Byrne Dairy on the northwest corner of Silver and East Main Streets originally surfaced in early March of 2010, when city officials – at a March 2 Finance and Personnel Committee Meeting – approved the use of existing Urban Development Action Grant moneys for removal of debris from the proposed site.
At the time, Mayor Joe Maiurano said that, with no gas stations located within city limits, a newly constructed Byrne Dairy convenience store and self-service gas facility would be a “great convenience to the community.”
In July, the Chenango County Industrial Development Agency voted to deny tax concessions – in the form of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement – to Byrne Dairy parent corporation Sonbyrne Sales, Inc., due to the project’s retail nature.
In early December, Sonbyrne Sales officials and Mayor Maiurano announced the successful sale of four parcels of property located at the proposed site, and construction for the approximately $2 million project is set to begin in mid-February. The new, 7,000 square foot facility will replace the current Byrne Dairy adjacent to the Fire Department and include a 4,000 square foot Byrne Dairy convenience store, a 3,000 square foot, coin-operated laundromat and self-service gas facilities. Construction on the new Byrne Dairy is planned to reach completion sometime in May, according to Sonbyrne Sales officials.
As an incentive to Sonbyrne Sales, Inc., city officials – prior to the sale of the property – approved tax incentives in the form of a 485B business investment exemption. Under the 10-year agreement, Sonbyrne Sales, Inc. will receive a property tax exemption of 50 percent in the first year. Each subsequent year the exemption will decrease by five percent.
City officials are still working to fill the expected vacancy at the current Byrne Dairy location.
Tops Friendly Markets, take 2
The assets of bankrupt Penn Traffic, owners of the P&C chain of grocery stores, were successfully acquired by Tops Friendly Markets for approximately $85 million in late January, sparking a wave of concern as downtown residents, fearing a repeat of Tops’ previous withdrawal from the city, continued to shop at the city’s only grocer.
Those fears proved unnecessary however, as Tops officials, in March, announced it would retain the Norwich facility, following nearly two months of evaluation.
Mayor Joe Maiurano, at the time, said he was excited by decision, adding that city residents, some without the benefit of transportation, could “breathe a little easier” knowing the downtown grocery would remain open.
In May, Tops officials announced the re-branding of its acquired P&C stores back to the Tops name, including the East Main Street location.
A multi-million dollar capital improvement program was scheduled for the large number of P&C Markets acquired by Tops, all in an effort to provide a greater variety and selection of grocery products and services to customers, according to Tops Friendly Markets’ President and CEO Frank Curci.
A grand opening ceremony was held at the newly-minted Tops store on Nov. 5 and Curci, who was on hand for the event, said he was “extremely excited” for Tops Friendly Markets to return to the city.
“We will continue to serve the Norwich community and we’ll do our part to make this a better shopping experience than in the past,” he added at the time.
Budget cuts hit Chenango schools hard
This was a tough year for Chenango County’s nine school districts. Difficult decisions had to be made in response to drastic reductions in state education aid, contractual wage increases, skyrocketing healthcare costs and retirement contributions. Cuts, cuts and more cuts were the name of the game as school leaders tried to develop fiscally responsible spending plans without sacrificing the quality of education provided to students.
Heated debates ensued as this hot-button topic was discussed at board and budget meetings. On one side were taxpayers, who said they couldn’t afford to bear a larger tax burden. On the other, teacher and support staff unions wanting to save jobs. In the middle, the school board members and administrators forced to make the difficult decisions of cutting positions and programs. In Norwich alone, some 24 jobs were eliminated or reduced as a part of the district’s efforts to close a $2.5 million gap between anticipated revenues and expenses for the 2010-2011 academic year.
In the end, all nine districts passed budgets which involved cuts, some deeper than others. All told, close to 100 positions – including teachers, support staff and administrators – were cut across the county. Eight of those budgets also called for tax levy hikes, ranging from 1.9 to 3.9 percent increases. The sole exception was Unadilla Valley, which held it’s levy on local taxpayers flat.
Since May, when district budgets went before voters, some of those positions and programs have been reinstated. But no one is out of the woods yet. The general consensus among education leaders across the state is that schools will face even more fiscal problems this year as expenses continue to climb, state aid is expected to continue its downward trend and district’s hit the funding cliff as the federal stimulus funds which have been their lifeline for the last two years disappear into the sunset.
Agro Farma grows by leaps and bounds
Agro Farma is, without a doubt, one of Chenango County’s greatest economic success stories. Fueled by the increasing market dominance of its all natural Chobani brand Greek-style yogurt, the Town of Columbus-based company continues to grow and expand.
Founder Hamdi Ulukaya started the venture with just 5 employees in 2005 when he acquired the former Kraft facility. When the Chobani brand was launched in 2007, the plant produced a couple of hundred cases a week. Today, the company employs close to 300, churns out more than 500,000 cases per week and is the number one selling brand of yogurt in the Northeast. Demand for the product continues to rise, and multiple expansion projects are in the works.
In August, the company broke ground across the street from their existing South Edmeston facility on a $22 million, 150,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse. At the same time, Agro Farma is undertaking a $64 million renovation to the plant. During a ceremony marking the event, Ulukaya reported that production capacity would increase to approximately 1.4 million cases a week as a result of the projects, upping their milk consumption to 3.5 million pounds of New York State’s number one agricultural product a day.
This year, the company also acquired the former Procter and Gamble plant at Woods Corner in Norwich. It is currently using the facility as its corporate headquarters. Plans to redevelop the 88-acre campus are on hold, however, as the company waits for economic development incentives from New York State to be finalized.
Rogers Center closes its doors in Sherburne
After an 11th-hour meeting Dec. 22, advocates for keeping Rogers Environmental Education Center open in Sherburne conceded that the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s plans to close it were unstoppable.
The non-profit support group Friends of Rogers met with DEC representatives to discuss the agency’s planned closure of the Rogers Center and announced the decision, “appears final and irreversible.”
On Nov. 18, DEC officials confirmed Rogers be among those to close as the governor’s office attempted to save $250 million to help off set the state’s deficit.
Governor David Paterson said 898 state employees across a number of state agencies would be affected, including about 150 DEC employees. Five employees at the Sherburne site were given notice their positions will be eliminated at the end of 2010.
The Friends of Rogers and a massive Facebook-mounted campaign lobbied state officials to restore funding and prevent the center’s closure.
The property was originally dedicated for public use in 1909 and became the first game farm in New York State. In 1966, following an effort by the Sherburne Rotary Club supported by the National Audubon Society, the property became an environmental education center. In 1972 was renamed to its current Rogers Environmental Education Center.
Rogers serves about 70,000 visitors a year; many are part of school groups that make regular educational field trips to the facility. The Friends of Rogers reported a record turnout at the 33rd annual Winter Living Celebration Dec. 19.
“Complete closure and loss of the center is simply untenable,” said Laurie Trotta, president of Friends of Rogers. “The Friends remain hopeful that the new administration in Albany in the coming year will take a fresh look at the decision to close Rogers, but believe that in the interim the center needs to continue offering some level of programming to the public and schools that have come to depend on its resources.”
The state has said it will keep the grounds of the center open to the public but will no longer carry out any maintenance at the facility and will shutter its buildings.
Earlville mayor resigns after arrest
Former Village of Earlville Mayor Toni Campbell submitted her resignation earlier this year after state police investigators arrested her for stealing around $98,000 from her former employer.
New York State Police arrested the 36-year-old Campbell on July 2, claiming she abused her position as finance manager at Chenango Valley Pet Foods in Sherburne to steal the money.
Troopers reported Campbell’s position at the company was eliminated June 21. Police said at the time, the company was not yet aware of “fraudulent activity” on a company credit card.
Originally Campbell was charged with stealing $42,000; prosecutors later revealed the crimes in the case involved more than double that amount.
She is charged with second degree grand larceny, a C class felony and first degree falsifying business records.
Campbell spent a night in the Chenango County Correctional Facility after her arrest and was released the following morning after a third party posted $25,000 bail.
Police said eight days after Campbell lost her job, the company’s bank called the Sherburne business after noticing an address change on one of their corporate credit cards. The company later learned that the address matched Campbell’s residence in Earlville, and contacted police.
Police said Campbell had purchased a pick-up truck, an ATV, cruise tickets and a number of other personal items and gifts with the card.
Campbell was mayor of Earlville for five years and was in her third term at the time of her arrest. She resigned from the office on July 11 through a letter to the village board.
Board members have maintained that Campbell had no access to the municipality’s finances and all funds were accounted for.
She has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is awaiting her next appearance in Chenango County Court.
Babcock sentenced to 15 years for shooting Billy Lee
Richard T. Babcock was sentenced to 15 years in state prison Sept. 27 after admitting a cocaine-induced argument led him to shoot and kill William E. Lee in November of 2008.
Appearing before Acting Chenango County Court Judge Joseph F. Cawley Jr. of Broome County on July 12, Babcock told the court a 72-hour drug binge on cocaine led up to the shooting.
Babcock was living with Lee at his Tanner Hill residence along State Highway 23 in the Town of Norwich when the murder took place.
“I was using drugs for approximately three days, a binge on cocaine,” said Babcock when he pleaded guilty. “We had a brief argument and I shot him in the head and took the narcotics.”
District Attorney Joseph McBride said the 61-year-old victim was shot in the head with a 16-gauge shotgun at point-blank range.
“Mr. Babcock took a bus to North Carolina where he was robbed while attempting to purchase cocaine at a bus station there. He then returned home to get funds from his mother and was picked up in Binghamton by state police investigators,” said the DA.
The DA said Babcock killed Lee on Nov. 9, 2008. State Police discovered his body on Nov. 13 and arrested the defendant on Nov. 14.
McBride said a number of factors had led to the first degree manslaughter plea agreement of 15 years in prison, including the victim’s family’s consent. Babcock had originally been charged with two counts of second degree murder, along with several other felonies.
“Words can not express how sorry I am for what happened. But no words can ever make this all right. No matter how many times I say I am sorry, I have taken something I cannot give back. I am sorry for ruining your families’ lives as well as mine. I just want you to know I would have never done something like this sober minded. And I regret it everyday not because I am in jail, but because of the guilt I feel. I just hope you can forgive me for this terrible thing that I have done. And please do not consider me to be a monster, because I am not,” Babcock said at sentencing.
As part of the agreement, Babcock also surrendered his right to an appeal.