William J. Lee has been a longtime advocate for conservation and the environment in Niskayuna.
He displayed that advocacy for 40 years, as a member of the town's Conservation Advisory Council. He began his service in 1978 as a council member. By 1983, Lee was chairman of the group.
The former transportation planner and policy analyst for the state Department of Transportation, a town resident since 1965, stepped down as chairman of the committee in December. The 81-year-old discussed his time on the council during a recent interview.
Q: How did you begin your association with the council?
A: I was president of the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club, which has the Rice Sanctuary off St. David's Lane in Niskayuna between Consaul Road, Balltown, 107 acres roughly. Art Newkirk, who was a GE scientist and chairman of the council, and John Brown who was the vice chairman, he was a GE specialist, they had several other members of the council and because of the bird club presidency and what they viewed as the importance of Rice to open space in Niskayuna, they asked me if I would join the council. They recommended me to the Town Board and the town board appointed me to what I guess was a vacant position.
Q: What are the duties of the council?
A: They are responsible for advising the Town Board and the Planning Board on the environmental impacts of proposed developments and other actions. The state Environmental Quality Review Act, which was passed in the '70s, gave responsibility to counties, towns and villages to set up environmental advisory councils — Schenectady County has one, for instance — or conservation advisory councils, as most of them were called then, to reviews ... basically environmental assessments, environmental impact statements, and decide whether or not they complied with the state environmental laws and advise the town Planning Board and the Town Board of any issues that might be identified that would impact the environment. The environment is defined pretty broadly, everything from traffic issues, air quality issues, noise issues, impacts on water, sewer, wetlands. All of that is encompassed in the kind of reviews we do.
Q: What memorable cases did you work on during your tenure?
A: You probably remember the ones where you influenced the outcome or you lost completely. The one that sticks out in my mind as being among the most controversial and the most difficult was the Stanford Mansion, which was a very historical building that had been converted into the Ingersoll Home for Elderly Men, it was kind of an old age home for males and it was a very stately mansion with a driveway leading from Balltown Road, it was at Balltown and State Street right where Route 146 joins Route 5.
They proposed, because the building was getting older and they had a variety of things they had to comply with in terms of the state Office for the Aging requirements and Health Department requirements and so on, they just felt they needed to start from scratch with a new building so they basically purchased some land on Consaul Road near the Eddy development and proposed to tear down the mansion basically ... the Ingersoll people really had not pursued any kind of historic designation for that, there had been some efforts. They had gotten partway through the process but the ball was dropped and they never got the approval of the Ingersoll board to seek state designation as an historic landmark and that came out during the process and while a lot of modifications were made, they moved it. I believe it's been incorporated into a bank office. There were proposals that fell through, for a banquet house and a variety of other uses for it.
Q: Why did you stay on the council for so long?
A: I enjoyed it. I felt we made a difference. We improved a lot of projects, the comments and advice we provided to developers and landscape architects and engineers in the course of developing their projects, I think improved them greatly. And of course we made comments when we weren't fully satisfied or there were other concerns to the Planning Board. The Planning Board often took our recommendations and acted on them and took them into account in their decisions, same thing with the Town Board.
Q: Why have you decided now is the time to step down?
A: Aging! I tell people I have a regular Thursday morning birding, I'm a birder as a hobby and I have a group that I've been doing since I retired that gets together every Thursday and we go all over the Capital Region birding, depending on the season. It's tough to get up in the morning to get somewhere at 8 o'clock when you have a late controversial meeting that might run until 10:30. There aren't many of those, but there are some.
Q: Why should people attend council meetings, even just once in a while?
A: We do have people who come, most of the time they want privilege of the floor, they want to make a point and there are concerns that are brought to our attention. We recently had pesticides, lawn pesticides. There was a woman in particular whose pets and children are out playing in grass and a neighbor next door had pesticides applied and they looked into what it was, they were concerned about health impacts. I think it's important for us to hear these kinds of concerns.
In the case of pesticides, we looked into what other communities were doing — the planning staff does this work, not us so much. They'll do some work on ordinances and what other communities have done around the state to control cutting down important trees or scenic trees and the like and pesticide applications and a number of other issues that come up .....we kind of evaluate and see what's been done, how successful its been, then we might develop recommendations to the Town Board.
I think it's important that town people have a way to express these concerns and have them become aware of them without having necessarily going to the Town Board and town supervisor all the time.
Q: What will you miss most about the job?
A: Probably the people. I guess one of the duties of the advisory council is to attend a committee of the town ... which involves the supervisor, a Town Board member, Planning Board chairman, the highway and public works head and the head of the Conservation Advisory Council. You get a very good view of what's going on in the town and what kind of issues are concerns. I think I'll miss that aspect of it.
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]