Water Wars – The Battle for Britt’s Plaza

(Work, college and home repairs have combined to minimize my time on this blog.  For those of you who miss my witty repartee, I apologize.  For those of you relaxing because I’ve finally shut up, well, sorry, not quite)

A little over a month ago, the Leader Herald ran an article entitled, “City Seeks Town Land.” Follow-up articles on the topic left considerable question in the minds of area citizens about what transpired in the three-person get-together that occurred that day in Gloversville’s City Hall.  What was not in question was that, actively or passively, the subject was brought up that Gloversville might seek legal means to annex the land around the former Britt’s Plaza, which now houses stores like Tractor Supply and Grossman’s.  Mayor King’s justification for such an action, as stated in the article, was the existence of a 40 year limitation on a 1971 water agreement with the former owners of the Britt’s Plaza, then known as the “Gloversville Shopping Center, Inc.”

I had some initial thoughts on the wisdom of this move, but before expressing them I felt it was way past time I raided the city’s archives to find out what really happened with the Route 30-A project and the Britt’s Plaza.

Perhaps a few of you have even heard the rumor.  It goes something like this.  Mayor Hood wanted to annex the land that currently holds the Tractor Supply Plaza, but two of his council members sued him to prevent it.  As near as I can tell, that rumor is rubbish.  There isn’t even a hint of anything in the record to support it.  I even asked this question of former Gloversville Mayor Eugene Reppenhagen and former City Attorney, and former attorney for the original “Gloversville Shopping Center, Inc,” Michael Gerraghty, both of whom had no idea what I was talking about.  Both had served during one of Mayor Hood’s terms, and had been alive and working in the area during the other terms, and were the closest thing to eye witnesses of events in that time period I was ever going to find.

What my research showed me is that the 1971 water agreement was actually at least the third utility agreement on the aforementioned property (the other two being sewer agreements), and it should be highly instructive to our Mayor and Common Council what these documents say, and the tone they set for future dealings with the Town of Johnstown from that time period to the present.

In October 1962, the Gloversville Common Council approved its first sewer agreement with the corporation known as “Gloversville Shopping Center, Inc.”  This agreement, like so many that occurred after it, relied on a “hardship” sob story.  It’s a tired formula, really, but apparently very effective.  The party requesting services beats the drum of huge financial losses if hook-up to one or more city services doesn’t occur expeditiously (despite the agreement requiring them to have an alternate plan in case their hook-up is later revoked, which would indicate they could, in theory, get along just fine without it).  They then dangle the carrot of annexation thereby chumming the water and getting enough council members to be hooked by the bait.  The council readily agrees to supply the desired services, but not without the stern warning language of service sever-ability written into the contract.  Everyone signs on the dotted line.  The services are provided.  Then, inexplicably, the much-desired annexation just never quite seems to happen.  In this case, Mr. Gerraghty has stated to me that “Gloversville Shopping Center, Inc” did make the attempt (multiple times) but the Town of Johnstown put the kibosh on the plan.

Curiously, or maybe not, failure to annex didn’t stop Gloversville from continuing to provide the service (as its own businesses were slowly choked off as a consequence).

Our elected officials would do well to heed the prophetic words of former, and recently deceased, Mayor Richard Hood, who took the unusual step of passively allowing the passage of this resolution via the 30 day rule (probably because he knew a veto would be overturned).  Instead of signing to approve the resolution, he wrote a four page letter (which begins on page 7 of the link).  One quote stands out among a document ripe with choice quotes:

We in the City of Gloversville find ourselves in the position of extending our services to competing retail and commercial operations and thus building the taxable properties of the Town of Johnstown but we are not receiving any consideration from the town government in return.

The October 1962 agreement was for 30 months during which period the owners had to agree not to sell the property.  Almost like an obvious script in a B movie, the conclusion of the 30 month period saw the acquisition of the property by new owners who, by golly, wanted to get their own sewer agreement with the City of Gloversville and, sure as can be, they were going to pursue annexation also.  Yes sirree, they definitely were gonna do that.  Uh huh.

Thus was born the November 23, 1965 sewer agreement with essentially similar requirements and an end date of May 23, 1967.  Once again, the end date went past.  This time the record showed no further attempts at extensions, nor any record of the city cutting off sewer services because annexation (what a surprise) never successfully took place.  It was around this time that the new Gloversville Johnstown Joint Wastewater Treatment Facility came online.  It is unclear whether or not the paperwork surrounding the creation of that facility somehow allowed the Britt’s Plaza to bypass the need to gain a new extension, or if the removal of this office from direct city control just caused the matter to be forgotten.  Given that turnover in city elected offices invariably causes issues from the past to be lost, I personally ascribe to the latter theory.  In any event, from there through 1973 (the last year I reviewed) there are no resolutions concerning sewer services and Britts.  The second contract not only had a definitive life span, but it also specified a definitive dollar amount ($9000) which was no doubt faithfully executed to the city.  Thereafter, with the advent of the new plant, sewer bills would have been paid via the water bill which may have further hidden the issue away from the prying eyes of elected officials.

Now, regarding that 1971 Water Agreement, it is possible, given there was no resolution at this time by the Common Council approving the extension of a water main, and given that the request by “Gloversville Shopping Center, Inc” was to extend a line to hook to an existing water main, one can reasonably assume there may have been a previous water agreement in place that extended the water main into that area.  I mention this because Mayor King basing any ability to cut services on the 40 year limitation fails to take into consideration what city entity actually has responsibility for that contract and the authority to make a decision in this matter.  In this case, I can tell you it isn’t the Mayor or the Gloversville Common Council.  No, it is the popularly elected Water Board that has that control, and section C-69 0f the City Charter makes that very clear.

To make a threat to see the property annexed or services cut is really not a good battle plan when one hasn’t secured the agreement of the controlling authority.  As of a month ago, the word from Water Department Director Chris Satterlee is that the Water Board has absolutely no intention of ending services to the former Britt’s Plaza, thus rendering the Mayor’s threat dead on arrival.

Instead, perhaps the research I’ve done would lend credence to the possibility of a sewer shut-off as an avenue of carrying out the Mayor’s threat on the property, but here’s where we have Lance’s words of wisdom on whether or not this is a constructive goal to pursue.

Up until the recent signing of the Revenue Sharing Agreement, I would have happily – avidly – militated for the use of such strong-arm tactics against the Town of Johnstown.  Just the history of the Britt’s Plaza shows the willingness of the Town of Johnstown to bleed the City of Gloversville dry.  They had been successfully doing so for 40+ years!  But that revenue sharing agreement changed everything.  It ushered in a level of cooperation that has never existed before and with it comes an unwritten obligation for both sides to act in a mature manner.

Thus, even an off-hand, low key, or passive use of the word “annexation” serves only to create hate and discontent where it was finally dissipating.  It can only serve to impede relations between the two governments in particular, and their respective citizenry in general.  The fire storm that could be unleashed by pursuing the matter may potentially lead to the revocation of the revenue sharing agreement and a return to the cold war that existed for decades.  For the sake of a single little victory, Gloversville could lose the broader war and set back cooperation (not to mention consolidation) for many years into the future.  Gloversville would do well to consider that in the due course of time it will already be taking over a huge portion of the Town of Johnstown’s sales tax base with the operation of the new Walmart Supercenter.  This change will undoubtedly negatively affect property taxes in the town, and it is only fair and reasonable that town citizens would react negatively to what can only appear to be rampant greed on Gloversville’s part.

In my opinion, this lack of adherence to the spirit of our agreement threatens to send us hurtling down a path of isolation and ruin – a path we have already trod down quite a few times with the hate and discontent fomented against the City of Johnstown with the Politics of Transit Destruction, the union busting tactics played out against the Fire Department that ultimately netted the city less than half the savings it could have achieved, and the even more recent brinkmanship over the Fage land deal that threatened the livelihood of more than 100 families.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time we played nice in the sandbox.

–Lance

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