Superintendent of Highways Alan R. Dennis and the Town of Oakfield

Laurie Mercer - PROFILE CORRESPONDENT

Genesee County’s town of Oakfield may be modest in size (almost 24 square miles) and relatively tiny in population (just over 3,000 residents), but there isn’t anything small town about Oakfield's ambitions. Just ask Alan Dennis, the nearly lifelong resident and highway superintendent, who is actively helping to engineer municipal water for the entire town. In addition to being home to a few well-run manufacturing plants, including freezing and canning vegetables, Oakfield is predominantly an agricultural town with large dairy operations occupying prime farmland.

One of the largest private dairy farms in the state, owned by two local families, that milk 5,000 cows, has three facilities in Oakfield and neighboring towns. A prosperous vegetable and freezing factory is still busy following a total makeover and a change in ownership, which is now Canadian held. Sweet peas are still grown in this area, but other vegetables such as rutabagas come from Canada. Alan said seasonal workers who live in their own facilities have been welcome occasional residents and a good source of income for local businesses. He said wages are good for these jobs held by migrants and can include retirement plans and health insurance.

A large, non-tax-paying protected wildlife and conservation area represents 20 percent of the town. The south-central portion of the town is underlain by former gypsum mines, which shut down in the 1990s and were once a very important employer and industry in town.

While Alan’s business card also lists his responsibilities in public works, cemeteries, and parks, it is the water district planning that occupies his time and imagination these days, in addition to caring for a popular park right in the center of town, with hundreds of Little Leaguers from all neighboring communities. He also helps his three-man crew prepare and bury about 20 people each year. Alan even sells the plots in three open cemeteries. He said two burial grounds are most active, while the third one, dating back to the 1770s, was associated with a Lutheran church, which makes identifying a gravesite problematic because all the older records are in German.

A mini-excavator digs the plots even in wintertime. Cemetery duty is something the highway department has done since 1963, but it's still emotional, especially in accidental deaths when young families are left behind. The town also has an aging population matched by a declining enrollment in the schools — for now. To date, the population remained flat for the past 40 years. Alan estimated that about half of the village residents are seniors, which is another reason he has lines painted on many roads for improved visibility. He enjoys a positive outlook, and like all of upstate is still unsure about the effect this long, record-breaking cold winter will have upon his roads. As he drives along roads with a cupped surface he optimistically projects that they will level out come spring.

He and his crew of three plow and salt a little over 20 miles for the town, five and a half for the village of Oakfield, and nearly 20 center lane miles for the county. They use brine from gas wells mixed with 100 percent salt. For about 15 years they have routinely used approxiametly 2,000 tons of salt and 30,000 to 40,000 gallons of salt brine, which is mixed on the truck to activate the salt.

Oakfield’s highway budget is $745,000 with $50,613 coming from CHIPS. As of mid March Alan said he is concerned that the CHIPS money could go away because it is not in the state budget. Alan has gone to Albany to advocate and lobby for CHIPS.

“If the governor does not fund CHIPS it will have a devastating effect, especially in small towns with no money. They are dependent on CHIPS in order to provide the services.”

STAMP Could Change the Landscape

While almost completely devoted to farming and some good-sized manufacturing plants, the town is listening to a distant rumble of what could become something of a building boom here, as both residential and business centers are being proposed that would radiate from the village. The town governing body is getting ready to control positive growth and protect the small town spirit so much in evidence with beautiful vistas, wetlands, and a “can-do” community spirit. Here’s what’s gong on: The neighboring town of Alabama is about to become the first of four STAMP centers in the entire country. STAMP — an acronym for Western New York Science, Technology, and Advanced Manufacturing Park, is devoted to manufacturing cutting-edge electronics, including SEMI- and nanotechnology-based research, development, and manufacturing.

A world-class workforce is part of what this part of upstate has to offer to secure these high-paying jobs.

Ironically, it is the abundance of water just beneath the surface that makes the land valuable for this sophisticated chip manufacturing. Alan said, “Manufacturing these kinds of chips causes a lot of induced vibration and water absorbs that vibration, which is why you don’t see facilities like these in cities. At least, that’s what I’m being told.”

“Right now Alabama is site #1,” said Alan. “At full build-out they are looking at more than 2,000 high level jobs. People will want to live in Oakfield.”

Also in neighboring Alabama is the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, a federally recognized tribe of about 700 residents, most of them in Genesee County.

“That’s what the water is all about,” he said as he spreads the water district planning map prepared by Clark Patterson Lee out on his desk, surrounded by several trophy-size deer heads mounted and hung around his small office. Eventually North Batavia, Alabama, Elba, Stafford, and the town of Barre will share in the delivery of abundant and safe-to-drink water originating from Lake Ontario.

As for Oakfield, he said the town is planning for five housing development sites.

“We anticipated having land standards and construction standards for housing because we didn’t have any. Those are now in place.”

One such standard forbids cul de sacs — often the bane of many a highway person. That won’t happen here. He said meetings were necessary to bring decision makers up to date on why dead-end cul de sacs create a nuisance — not just for highway but also for fire and police.

“The town is very forward-looking,” Alan said. “They are anticipating what it will be like in Oakfield 10, 20 years or more farther down the road. We want to protect what we have here. Our town looks to how we can keep our rural atmosphere and still make it affordable to live here.”

They also worry about fiscal responsibility, which is why they had to cut out recycling for the town beginning this year. The town was losing about $15,000 a year on the operation because of costs, including Dumpster rentals.

Why Water Is

So Important

This part of upstate seems to have plenty of accessible water. Oakfield has many streams that flow year around, many ponds, and lots of marsh. It’s not uncommon to see smaller sinkholes, about three feet deep, popping up through the surface in some pastures. Alan said abundant water was one reason that aboriginal Indians and later the Seneca came to camp here in winter, because the water stayed open, protected in the cedar swamps.

Until recently, many residents got their water from their wells. Alan explained how the situation changed and why — good water has been growing scarce in an increasingly polluted world. Oakfield’s water is now provided by the Monroe County Water Authority and is drawn from Lake Ontario.

“People here have water issues,” said Alan. “Well water is not what it used to be.”

Some wells have tested with coliform, E. coli, and black water with high iron. He said, “This is the first water project here since the 1980s.”

Alan added residents have eagerly embraced the plan for municipal water. Some residents in District 4 even volunteered to pay for the project themselves if the grant money to fund it was not yet available.

Enormous dairy farm operations, still family owned, have not changed here since the settlers. The Lamb Farm, for example, one of the largest dairy operations in the state, has three distinct facilities in the vicinity. In Oakfield they milk 2,500 cows 24/7, every day. All three locations have a combined herd of about 5,000 cows. Dairy is a heavily water-dependent industry.

The quest for more municipal water actually began four years ago when the EPA and the Health Department addressed a farm operation with more than 100 employees and said the farm had to have its own water plan to get onto a municipal system.

Thus, Water District 2 was formed. Working with Rural Development, some grant money was secured.

“We are working heavy on water,” said Alan as the town’s water planning has grown to future districts that will link to neighboring towns of Barre, Alabama, Elba, Stafford, and parts of North Batavia. Alan calls the project “huge” and potentially game changing in Oakfield and neighboring towns.

“We’ve had many public information hearings,” said Alan as they proposed District 2. “Residents here are desperate for water. It didn’t bother them at all when we said this is what it is going to cost you. It also went well because this town is unique in that we have this town team where we all sit down together — the supervisor, assessor, town clerk, and others who are involved. It’s a lot of work. For the water district alone, the paperwork is tremendous.”

To address the paperwork, the town officials are seeking to become a completely paperless office. They all share electronic notebooks at meetings and have tremendous back-up storage in place. Once again forward-thinking, including reducing the need for hard copy storage, is driving Oakfield toward newer technologies to better balance future needs. The town clerk led this initiative, launched six months ago.

Going paperless has not been easy, especially on more mature team members, including an attorney who still likes to be able to see a hard copy safely tucked away in a file drawer, but they have learned from experience. Many early town records were burned in two separate fires, one at the turn of the century, and the second in 1920.

The town has always been marked by good fortune and industriousness. At one point in the 1880s five gypsum manufacturing plants were located in town. Gypsum — used for wallboard — was abundant in the mines below the earth here. The mines closed in the 1990s when less-expensive material was sourced elsewhere and railroads stopped coming here and the tracks were torn up.

Alan, the town supervisor, the assessor, judges, support staff, and several others all share a tight working space in a building built in 1948 that includes a courtroom with a bench outfitted with shackles to hold prisoners. It’s possible that becoming a team was a survival tactic for working in such close quarters, but it works.

Oakfield never has had a water department. Carol Glor, Oakfield’s town supervisor, knows that having a water project being driven by a highway guy is somewhat unusual but, “This is how we get things done here,” said Carol. “Thankfully Alan stepped forward and offered to help us. Five years ago maybe 10 percent of the town had municipal water. We are currently putting in our fourth water district. Within two years, with our plan in place, it looks like we might have 98 percent of our town with town water.”

She said it takes both the town and the village boards to share a vision for Oakfield’s future, which will still keep farming and fields intact while also providing water and sewer to future residents, including businesses.

Alan said Oakfield has had success with moving the water district planning along very quickly. He added, “The town board learned through experience that we need to be shovel ready on these projects. The plan needs to be designed, permitted, and ready to go. When other towns ask us how we got this done, that’s exactly what I tell them about procedures. That, and you have to create a town team.”

It All Goes Back to

the Community

“I consider this town unique in a lot of ways,” said Alan. “Our biggest difference is that we all work together. I have an unbelievable relationship with everybody running this town. Frequently I have noticed in other places that somebody runs for office because they have an agenda. Fortunately that doesn’t happen here.”

He said most of the town leaders grew up here. Alan credits the school district with supplying the moral compass for Oakfield.

He said, “The school has always been the focal point of the town, for example, Little League, which draws teams from towns who share our facilities in the park.”

He said on any given Saturday there could be 300 children taking advantage of the programs in baseball, softball, and other sports. The park, which is his responsibility, is about 15 acres with two pavilions equipped with electricity. “You are mixed together with people from other towns, and that builds relationships.”

“We are always willing to help our neighbors. Through shared services, through the fire department, and through the schools,” he said.

For the village his crew plows the streets and helps organize a growing agenda of special events. He said, “We’ve initiated Christmas in the village. People can purchase trees and decorate them. We light them all up, and when you drive down Route 63 and see it, it’s beautiful. We also give hayrides around the village, stopping at various businesses.”

The trees remain lit 24/7 from roughly Thanksgiving until New Year’s.

“A few years ago the town board generously allowed us to build two hay wagons,” he said. “The town clerk suggested we bring back the Halloween party for kids on the Saturday before Halloween. We give hay wagon rides pulled with a Gator. As that idea took off, the high school kids became involved by creating a haunted house ride. The kids get dressed up and hide in one of the cemeteries. The highway-built hay wagons have also been borrowed by other community groups.”

The good times continue through summer until Labor Day when the town hosts a local festivity in the town park with food booths, live entertainment, and special activities that follows a parade estimated to be over an hour and a half long, which is significant when you consider the town's small population.

“People love it,” said Alan. “There could be 5,000 people watching the parade. The highway department always helps to set things up.”

“The town board, highway department, town clerk, judges, assessor, code enforcer, and others all work together. We are part of one team. I can’t emphasize enough how well it works. Our town has always looked to keep our rural atmosphere while still making it affordable for people to live here.”

Equipment Rotation

Everybody likes new equipment, so the new plow truck that cost $228,000 provides the highest level of service and is state-of-the-art. While Alan said all equipment is acquired through state bid requirements, he swings heavily toward buying the town equipment from the town’s John Deere dealer, a town taxpayer.

“We buy Caterpillar. Our tractors are John Deere.”

This year they also purchased a new piece of equipment they never had before — a steel roller for doing shoulder work and patch jobs. The older snowplow truck that “still had some miles on it” was sold to another town that had a limited budget for serviceable equipment. A neighboring fire department will purchase the older pickup.

“Our board is adamant about helping other communities out whenever they can,” he said.

While there is an equipment replacement plan in place, sometimes it pays to be reasonable. For example, the highway superintendent’s pickup truck was due to be replaced, but the town board asked Alan to drive it one more year. They said, “We have the money to do that, but we just bought two new pieces of equipment, so rather than annoy the taxpayers, can you hold off another year?”

One critical issue on the entire town’s wish list is a much needed addition to the town offices, including the highway garage, which was built in 1948 but looks much younger thanks to a fresh coat of aluminum siding and spotless maintenance. The town has been looking for grant money to expand this space for everyone for the past few years. On the highway end of it, the men would gain a break room. As of today they each have their own chair. Alan warned, “Don’t sit in their spot. When someone retires, we burn their chair. And then they usually go to the dump to get another chair for the new person.”

A Sportsman

While Alan’s office is a little cramped, like the rest of the building, he has made room on the walls for several mounted trophy-size bucks. Even as he checks on the roads, he also is consciously or maybe even subconsciously scanning the fields for deer. In addition to deer hunting, a few years ago he took up serious motorcycle riding on his Honda Gold Wing, often riding together with his wife Deborah, who works as a chiropractic assistant. The couple celebrated their fortieth anniversary this spring. He said, “She hated me in high school. I was this fun-loving guy, but it all fell into place.”

Both children, a daughter and a son, live nearby along with four grandchildren. While Alan was born in nearby Alabama, he attended school in Oakfield. Later at community college he studied mechanical design, thinking he wanted to be a draftsman, a background that has been useful while working on the water districts.

Alan worked as a draftsman for 22 years for Graham Manufacturing, working his way up the ladder to become an engineer geared towards the petrochemical industry. Then he turned 40 years of age and decided it was time for a change. He had already served on the town board, and he joined the highway department part-time. He also worked on a dairy farm, which is something he had done since he was young. He likes farming, which he finds rewarding and relaxing. Mostly what he really likes to do is to run equipment.

“I have always liked being outdoors. Plus I like change, so the highway department was a good fit. Within 18 months a full-time position opened,” said Alan.

Then 11 years ago the superintendent, who was a lifelong friend, said, “We are going for a ride.” Driving around town in the pickup he told Alan he had accepted a position as deputy highway superintendent for Genesee County, a step up. For that first year Alan was appointed superintendent. He has run unopposed for the office ever since. He also is active in the fire department, was fire chief for six and a half years, and still responds to calls.

As he eases into 60 this year, he said he is blessed to be a younger feeling and healthier person than his father and grandfather whom he believes were “winding down” at his age. “How do you know how you are supposed to feel at this age? You don’t.”

People who know Alan don't expect him to be winding down any time soon.

Satisfied to be serving the town he loves and living near his family he says, “The good Lord has a plan. You know how that is.”

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.

Jump to Profile: