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Residents air concerns over converting church to town hall


By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Residents came out on both sides of the issue during an informal public hearing to discuss the town purchasing Grace UMC and converting it into a new town hall. File photo

COEYMANS — Town hall was packed with residents looking to air their questions and concerns over a proposal to convert the Grace United Methodist Church building into a new town hall.

Among the top concerns voiced by residents in the neighborhood included increased traffic and the impact of having a police station and court in a quiet residential cul-de-sac with limited ingress and egress.

The informal public hearing was held to gauge community reaction to the town possibly purchasing and renovating the former church building at 16 Hillcrest Drive and turning it into a new municipal building.

“Last year the town board had voted to bond funds to build a brand-new town building here,” Town Supervisor George McHugh said at the start of the hearing. “This building is partially being used and the rest is not being used because of mold. Rather than put money into this building, we looked at bonding money and borrowing some and using some fund balance to build a new building. That was voted down by the people of the town, which you have to respect, and so we are looking at other options.”

Options currently include renovating the present town hall at 18 Russell Ave. or purchasing and renovating an existing building elsewhere in the community. The town board is considering the option of buying the church building at 16 Hillcrest Drive, which formerly housed Grace United Methodist Church and a school, and is now up for sale for an asking price of $549,000, with roughly $4 million in renovations needed.

“It is one of the bigger buildings in the town and village and it is zoned for municipal building purposes,” McHugh said. “We are looking at it as an option. It is not something we have already decided, it’s not something that we made an offer on. We promised to bring options to the people and this is another option.”

Engineer Chris Dooley from the town’s engineering firm, M.J. Engineering, said there is some work needed on the structure but it is foundationally solid.

“There is ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access to the building right from the parking lot, so there is no need for additional ramps or any other ADA accommodations,” Dooley said. “The parking lot was large enough to handle the town business for both town court as well as daily operations. In addition, the framing of the building has good bones and we don’t see any deterioration in any of the foundation or framing.”

Needed repairs would include roof work and new heating and electrical systems.

McHugh pointed out converting the building for a municipal use would be similar to what the village did when it purchased the former school building on Mountain Road years ago and turned it into a village hall, with a police station and later, the school district offices.

But residents in the area voiced several concerns about traffic, safety and changes to the character of the neighborhood.

“You’ve seen how very tranquil it is up there,” said resident Yvonne Shackleton. “People like to walk their babies and their dogs and their families there, and I feel that if we have lots of extra traffic up there it will destroy the aesthetic. We love it up there. It’s a little bit removed from the hustle and bustle of the town and we would be reluctant to see that change.”

Shackleton also expressed concern about what town services would be housed in the building.

“We were concerned because we know there could be a lot of configurations — just the town offices could be there, or the town offices and the court, and possibly also the police,” Shackleton added. “Having the town court and the police station up there would make it super unpalatable for most of the neighbors.”

She also asked for financial comparisons between all of the options the town is currently considering.

Ravena Deputy Mayor Nancy Warner read a letter from Mayor Bill Misuraca addressing the issue. The building is zoned R2, which would permit use as a municipal building, according to Misuraca.

“The village board does not have concerns with the Monday through Friday day-to-day operation of Coeymans Town Hall, be it meetings, the assessor’s office, building department, clerical duties,” Misuraca wrote. “Our concern lies with the court and the police department having headquarters in that location. We feel that the court, with its potentially high traffic, and the police department activities, such as responding to calls in a timely manner, would be hindered by the remote location of this site. The distance from our main thoroughfares, combined with the amount of stop signs, would both hinder police response and be an unnecessary risk and burden to the residents in this and the surrounding area.”

Warner then voiced her own opinion on the matter.

“I’m very in favor of looking at the possible usage of that building,” Warner said. “My suggestion may be if the police department could possibly share space with the Sheriff’s Department — the chief could have an office there; I’m sure he doesn’t get a lot of thoroughfare through his office. Court — that’s a different issue.”

The former Ravena Village Court was sited in the current village hall on Mountain Road before it was disbanded a couple of years ago, and it did not adversely impact the area, Warner said.

“There really wasn’t a lot of disturbance or hoopla over that, so my biggest concern would just be locating the police department in a place with quicker access to the public thoroughfare and possibly sharing space down on Main Street with the Sheriff’s Department,” Warner said.

McHugh responded that relocating patrols to the sheriff’s substation is being considered.

“That is one of the options we are looking at — keeping the patrols together with the sheriff’s and just keeping the administrative offices in the town hall,” McHugh said.

Resident Louise Warner said there are pedestrians in the neighborhood and she had concerns about an increase in traffic and how a town hall would impact property values.

“What will happen when Hillcrest opens up to more traffic?” she asked. “We have a lot of things to consider before there is a final approval on this.”

Sharon Phillips, a member of Grace United Methodist Church, lives near the current town hall and said the traffic generated by the facility is not disruptive.

“We are right around the corner and the only time I see a lot more traffic is when there is court. Otherwise, I really don’t see that much traffic coming by us,” Phillips said.

Resident Michael Klausen, who lives on Hillcrest, said he could see both pros and cons for the proposal.

“The biggest concern for all of us, if there is a number one thing that was going to stick in my back, is having the police department up there,” he said. “It makes zero sense to have them in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Having the building filled with the town hall, I don’t think it would be that much traffic, but it’s certainly going to be very hectic having police vehicles coming in and out of there for a call. That is a big concern.”

But Klausen also saw an upside to siting the town hall at the church.

“No one wants to see a building crumbling in their neighborhood. That would bring the property values down, and it would still be owned by the residents, so you could still walk up there and probably utilize the space in off-hours,” he said. “If someone else buys the property, it won’t be like that. You’ve got to think about that, too.”

Resident Lionel Harris was concerned about safety and his children being able to ride their bikes safely on the street, and also about the parking problems that already exist on the street, with some cars driving across his lawn to avoid double parked and improperly parked cars, particularly around a residential facility on the street for adults with developmental disabilities.

Kathleen Gill also expressed concerns about an increase in traffic in the area.

“I don’t think the people on Hillcrest and in the cul-de-sac want a parade of cars driving through their area after town meetings or court,” Gill said.

She was also concerned about the court drawing people from outside the area.

“Our neighborhood feels very, very safe and I don’t like the fact that strangers will be coming in and seeing our homes when they normally wouldn’t have had an excuse to go there,” Gill said.

Resident David Young wanted to know if there was a possibility the town might one day need a larger footprint and could look to expand and move the parking lot into what is now a woodsy area.

McHugh said that if the sale goes through, the church would retain some of the property, specifically the parsonage and the area north of the parking lot, so the town would not be taking over that portion of the site.

Ken Bliss, chairman of the board of trustees at Grace United Methodist Church, concurred.

“Our hope and plan is to keep the parsonage because we need to supply a home for our pastor,” Bliss said. The church would continue to have a presence in the community, just not in the current church building, he added.

Phyllis Shook, a resident and church member, supported using the church for a new town hall.

“I know all the concerns about the neighborhood are valid, especially for the people that live there,” Shook said. “But we do have a realtor and we may have other bids come in. If someone else buys it there is a loss of control over it. We really were hoping as a church to see our town use the building. It made sense to us and it would be used for a good purpose for our town. If someone else moves in, we don’t know what could happen with another owner and there are bids, so keep that in mind.”

No decision has yet been made as to the future of the town hall or the church.

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