August 28, 2007


Historic Willet inn burns

About 15 fire departments from 3 counties responded to blaze at Brown Beaver Inn


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
After fighting the fire all night at the Brown Beaver Inn in Willet, Willet firefighters Jake Crane, left, and Assistant Chief Ted Kemak take a break as the building smolders.

Staff Reporter

WILLET— The Cortland County Fire Investigation Team is searching for a cause to a fire that destroyed a historic tavern and restaurant early this morning.
The Brown Beaver Inn on Route 26 caught fire at approximately 2:30 a.m. No one was in the building at the time and fire officials said there were no injuries.
“The building was basically gone when we got the call,” said Assistant Chief Alvin Doty of the Willet Fire Department.
About 15 departments from Cortland, Chenango and Broome counties responded to the fire, including Cortlandville, Virgil and Whitney Point.
Doty said the fire began in the back of the building and the structure was full of smoke.
He added that water was a problem and the fire departments ran hoses nearly a mile to the Otselic River while some tankers made five-mile trips for water.
George and Arlene Merchant bought the building seven years ago and ran the tavern seven days a week.
“It’s an old building. It has a lot of history,” George Merchant, 59, said as he watched firefighters hose down the remains of the building this morning. “We invested a lot of time and labor into the building. Our home is our second home. We were here more hours a day than at our home.”
George Merchant said an irreplaceable collection of Dale Earnhardt memorabilia was destroyed, one-of-a-kind items like a hood of a car and other autographed items. He also had a signed registry book with Clark Gable’s name on display. Gable starred in many movies, including “Gone with the Wind.”
George Merchant said he got a call from a neighbor at approximately 2:45 to alert him to the fire.
“Smoke was coming out of every part of the building,” he said. “Flames were shooting out 40 feet in the air and the windows were all busted out. The only thing I remember is feeling sick to my stomach.”
Harold Zimmer was among the many local residents who talked about the history of the building as they watched firefighters contain the fire.
Zimmer lives down the street from the Brown Beaver Inn and said he had previously lived in Florida for 13 years.
“People there didn’t know where Willet was, but they knew the Brown Beaver Inn,” he said.
Doty said the fire was contained at approximately 5 a.m.
“Right now we are trying to keep hot spots under control until the investigation gets through,” he said. “It’s been a good cooperative effort between the departments. Rarely do this many departments work together for something like this.”
The cause of the fire was still unknown as of this morning.
“I have nothing left,” George Merchant said. “Everything’s gone.”



SUNY Cortland students touch down in Cortlandville field

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — Two SUNY Cortland students were greeted by firefighters and police officers after landing a hot air balloon Monday night in a Cortlandville field.
The Cortlandville Fire Department went to South Cortland-Virgil Road at about 7:15 p.m. after receiving a call that a hot air balloon crashed in a tree in nearby woods owned by Gutchess Lumber.
“We were driving back from Ithaca and I said to my husband, ‘What a pretty balloon,’” said Kelly Schoonover, 24, of McGraw. “Then we saw it drifting down and get caught in a tree, so we got worried and went to look for it.”
Someone other than the Schoonovers called the police, but Cortlandville Fire Capt. Jared Gebel said he was not sure who made the call.
“Everyone was safe. They just stated they made a poor landing, it wasn’t a crash,” Gebel said. “They we’re laying in tall grass, not in a tree.”
Bernard J. Sullivan of Hudson Falls and Trever Tripp of Canandaigua, both 21-year-old seniors at SUNY Cortland, landed the hot air balloon in a field behind the trees.
“We came in, I saw the spot, and I wanted to play it safe so I landed,” said Sullivan, who was piloting the balloon. “It was perfectly safe. No harm to the balloon or anyone.”
Kelly Schoonover said there was already a truck on the road, also looking for the balloon. John Schoonover, 25, helped firefighters find the students.
Sullivan owns the balloon, has a license to fly it and has piloted approximately 43 rides. He and Tripp took off from Suggett Park in the city at 5:50 p.m. and were in the air for about an hour.
A friend, Andrew Larson, also a student at SUNY Cortland, was their chase crew.
Three officers from the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department went to assist the fire department. There were no injuries.
The fire department helped the students retrieve the balloon from the field and then the students toasted with sparkling grape juice to a safe flight.



Second apartment complex proposed

10-unit student housing building would be at corner of Groton Ave. and Woodruff St.

Staff Reporter

A local developer presented preliminary plans Monday for a 10-unit apartment complex on the corner of Groton Avenue and Woodruff Street that he said he hoped would be a “model for student housing” in Cortland.
Developer Jim Reeners presented the plans to the city Planning Commission for a roughly 10,000-square-foot building that would include 10, 900-square-foot apartments.
Of the two houses on the site along Groton Avenue, the one closest to Woodruff Street would be renovated and built in to the overall structure, while the nearby house would be torn down to accommodate the bulk of the building.
A third house on Woodruff Street would be renovated and would house a caretaker and two graduate students, Reeners said.
The apartments, which would be set up as suites, would house three students apiece and by allowing 300 square-feet per tenant, would greatly exceed the average amount of space per student in the city, about 160 square feet, Reeners said.
The project, which Reeners is working on with his son Michael, would be an effort to create high-quality student housing, and students interested in the “home living environment” would also have to adhere to relatively strict rules.
“I honestly think that with mom and dad paying the bill, they’d like to have their child living in an atmosphere similar to what the child came out of,” Reeners said, noting that all utilities will be included in the rent, which will be “marketable.”
“We’re going to have great open areas, generous bedrooms, generous closets … but we’re going to be very rigid in expecting our tenants to follow the rules,” he said.
For instance, Reeners responded to a board concern about parking — the site plan called for 22 parking spots — by noting that each unit would be allowed no more than two parking spots.
He said that that rule would be strictly enforced, eliminating parking concerns that have been raised recently in other parts of the city.
Reeners said his hope was that the city would be able to control overcrowded student housing, making properties like his the standard rather than the exception.
“It comes down to the city and the college getting a handle on occupancy,” he said.
He suggested the college include a provision in its enrollment procedures that students must provide a local address within a week or two after classes start.
The college could then run addresses through a database, and would be aware of instances of overcrowding.




Developer to sue Planning Commission

Board’s decision disputed that W. Court St. project would set a precedent on future development

Staff Reporter

Saying that he has been treated unfairly, a local developer looking to build an apartment complex on West Court Street said Monday he intends to file suit against the city Planning Commission.
John Del Vecchio, who has been going back and forth with the commission over his proposal to build an apartment complex at 19 W. Court St. for a number of months, said after the Planning Commission meeting that he felt his proposal is being deliberately delayed.
“Within the next week I’ll be filing a lawsuit, which will show that this board is both arbitrary and capricious,” Del Vecchio said as he left the meeting. “There’s no satisfying this board … that’s what the courts are for.”
Del Vecchio’s comments came after he appeared before the commission asking it to reconsider its determination that his project would have a positive environmental declaration in its State Environmental Quality Review.
The commission decided at its July 23 meeting to issue the positive declaration, which requires Del Vecchio to prepare a full environmental impact assessment, on the grounds that allowing the development of the apartment complex behind a 1920s era home would set a precedent.
Commissioners at the time said that the development would alter the character of the neighborhood.
The commission asked that Del Vecchio return with scoping documents to answer the concerns found in the SEQR review.
Del Vecchio returned Monday with revised plans — he said after the meeting that he had separated the two proposed buildings and was now proposing a total of nine apartments on the site — however he did not have the required scoping documents, without which the board said it would not reconsider its positive determination under SEQR.
The board offered to allow Del Vecchio’s attorney, Scott Chatfield, who was late to the meeting, to present SEQR documents later during the meeting, but Del Vecchio said he was tired of waiting.
He also expressed uncertainty over what the board was asking for in its SEQR review.
“Their only conclusion of large significance is that this will set a precedent for other developers,” Del Vecchio said. “Basically they’re declaring their own zoning ordinance illegal.”
Chatfield said Del Vecchio had followed city code.