Friday, April 25, 2008

Woodstock Town Board Meeting April 15, 2008 Part 1

This article appeared in The Townsman, April 17 2008 edition

April 15, 2008

The Woodstock town board heard a presentation by district superintendent Dr. Leslie Ford on the proposed Onteora School District’s annual budget in the amount of $48,215,077, to be decided by the voters on May 20. Because of an unanticipated increase in state aid the tax increase is expected to be only around 1% over last year’s levy, instead of the initial 2.84% projected increase.

Members of the town board and several of the large number of attendees of the meeting, however, expressed more interest with the school board’s yet-to-be accepted master plan for reconfiguring the school district, which may result in closure of the elementary school facility in Woodstock. With little to no contention over the actual proposed budget, attention was mostly focused instead on what most considered to be an unwelcome prospect.

Joining Dr. Ford were members of the school board appointed Budget Advisory Committee, who discussed the conclusions and recommendations in their report on the financial future of the district that faces declining enrolment. Committee members Jim Stoothoff, Paul DeLisio, Sylvia Liedtke-Tinti and Drew Boggess (the fifth member Pam Walkowiak was not in attendance) spoke at length on the financial challenges of maintaining quality education in an environment of shrinking numbers of students. Although not addressing the issue of potential school closures (the elementary school in Phoenicia is also a candidate for closure), it was certainly the elephant in the room.

The budget advisory committee’s recommendations aimed primarily at containing the cost of district personnel and benefits, which together consume approximately 80% of the school district’s budget. Ideas ranged from hiring new teachers at lower starting pay to curtailing if not altogether abolishing lifetime retirement benefits, including health insurance. Increased teachers’ contribution toward their health insurance premiums was also mentioned.

While Dr. Ford was quick to point out that these recommendations were contractual matters to be addressed with the teachers’ union, Mr. DeLisio countered that a more firm approach to reining is costs may be necessary. Mr. Boggess pointed out that there are less property owners in the school district who have children in the system, and therefore future school budgets will become more vulnerable to voters who may feel less vested in the educational needs of local children.

Councilman Wenk asked why were there dwindling numbers of children in the district. He was informed that second-home owners who send their children to school in their primary address communities were buying more and more residences in the district.

Officials in the Ulster County planning department have long cited the area’s “graying,” its lack of job opportunities and affordable housing for younger families as contributing causes for fewer children.

Supervisor Jeff Moran asked that questions from the public concerning Dr. Ford’s presentation and the presentation of the budget advisory committee be submitted in writing. As he read them it became clear almost all, directly or indirectly, addressed the potential closing of the Woodstock elementary school.

Dr. Ford, along with members of the school board also in attendance, repeated several times that the proposed master plan for the district, with its possibilities ranging from closing one elementary school to closing none, was still in discussion and was an entirely separate issue that had nothing to do with the May 20 vote on the annual budget. It was stressed that the master plan proposal and the bond vote required for its approval would continue to be discussed by the school board in public, and it was clearly a future consideration.

“Right now,” concluded Dr. Ford, “the proposed budget meets the educational needs of the children, and it shows great concern and respect for the taxpayer. That is the issue people should be focused on. I’ve seen too many school budgets voted down over extraneous issues. It only hurts the kids.”

After almost two hours of discussion Dr. Ford and other district representatives were thanked for their time.

Earlier in the meeting paying monthly bills amounting to $196,677.14 and accepting transfers to different budget lines took less than a minute. Also, a resolution for a $2000.00 contribution to the Babe Ruth baseball league to help pay for special infield dirt delivered to Davis Park in the Town of Olive was unanimously adopted after little discussion. Fees for enrolling children in Woodstock’s Summer Rec Program were increased, also by unanimous consent after brief discussion.

In other business conducted during a meeting adjourned not until midnight there was an hour and a half devoted to updating the fees for use of town buildings by residents and organizations. There seemed to be no “just right” in this matter. Performing Arts of Woodstock requires a modest fee in order to continue to provide dramatic presentations in the Town Hall, according to PAW member Ann Washington, and individuals such as Cassia Berman claimed the need for cheap rent in order for her classes, for which she charges a fee, to continue. The Woodstock taxpayer, according to councilman Wenk, needs about $28,000 dollars a year, the annual energy and maintenance costs of the buildings, in order to break even. Opinion on the town board ranged from councilman Collin’s desire to offer the buildings for free, to the supervisor Moran’s updated schedule of fees and the requirement for users to provide insurance to protect the Town’s exposure. He cited the example of a person’s (former councilwoman Toby Heilbrunn) suit against the Town and the Woodstock Film Festival after she had sustained an injury at the Community Center facility several years ago. After nearly two hours on the topic, including impassioned speeches from the buildings’ users, a motion to adjust fees was tabled.

The town board scheduled a special meeting for May 6 at 3:00 pm at the Town Offices for the purpose of opening bids for construction related to the Town Hall renovation, and also for a public hearing to commence at 5:00 pm on the closure of Old Forge Road to accommodate music on the Village Green. Proposed closure dates are May 26, June 14 and 28, July 5 and 12 and August 9, 16 and 30.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Annoying Laws

Opinion published in the Townsman April 10, 2008 edition

Oh please, is there anything more annoying than the law? Take Woodstock’s zoning law, for example. The history of this edict dates back a mere 43 years to Woodstock’s 1965 zoning law. Woodstock was among the very first townships in Ulster County to adopt zoning. The town, very Republican in those days, had commissioned earlier that decade what would come to be known as the Brown and Anthony Master Plan. Included in the master plan’s recommendations was creation of a zoning law establishing zoning districts, each with permitted densities and allowable uses compatible with the town’s varying topography and infrastructure. For example, lands with steep slopes and poor percolation were permitted less development than level areas with good percolation (for septic systems). Another big recommendation was to install a sewer system in the village area, something that would not be accomplished for another twenty years. The ink on Brown and Anthony was barely dry before the town board adopted the ’65 zoning law.

One out of two ain’t bad.

At the time, the ’65 zoning law was considered among the more restrictive zoning laws in the region. In the 1980s, when the town got around to sewers, it was decided the old zoning law needed much revision. Based on new studies by Saratoga Associates, and incorporating a soil and water study now commonly referred as the Pennsylvania Report, the ’65 law was repealed, and the 1989 zoning law, which some considered to be far more restrictive than the ’65 law, was adopted.

It’s defenders called it a “living document,” to be changed and amended as time went by and circumstances warranted.

Its detractors, claiming that topography in Woodstock hadn’t changed in ten thousand years, claimed the “living document” would kill the town.

It certainly helped change the town, for better or for worse you can decide. What is not debatable is that over the years some people have cried in frustration over it.

Lately it had been the SAGE people, a group of citizens concerned with the proposed affordable housing project to be accessed by Playhouse Lane. To them it had all rather slipped by that the 1989 zoning law vastly increased the permitted density in the hamlet sewer district. Until 2005, when Rural Ulster Preservation Corporation (RUPCO) made their initial application for 81 (as of this writing down to 63) residential units, no one had any idea that the 1989 zoning law permitted up to a 120 units on the proposed project’s twenty-seven acre site. One very good thing to come out of the RUPCO proposal and the arguments against it is a much better understanding of the status and rights of bog turtles.

But now the big howlers over the ’89 law are some members of the Woodstock town board. Having weathered my own agonies with zoning to build a municipal cell tower, I can sympathize.

Here is the problem.

For years councilwoman Liz Simonson has led the charge for a farmers market in the village. For years she has been advised, “excellent idea. Help find a place for a farmers market.” Chris Collins joined the board in 2006, and now two members of the town board lead the charge.
Several weeks ago in a lovely front-page article in a local paper, happy board members announced their location for a farmers market; it would be in the Houst parking lot facing Maple Lane.

But the annoying zoning law apparently stands in the way.
Section 5Y of the Woodstock zoning law prohibits the “displays of merchandise… between the face of a building or structure and the curb or edge of a public driveway or thoroughfare.” Is there language any more plain than this?

The Ulster County Planning Board, in a letter to the Town dated April 2, 2008, recommended “that an amendment be made to the Zoning Statute to regulate outdoor markets and vending if the Town wishes to distinguish this type of use from other types of outdoor display areas [italics mine].” Until such time, the County recommended, “the proposed use [farmers market] should be denied.”

I guess the language of Section 5Y was plain enough for them.

On April 10 the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals, agreeing with the County planning board, denied a request for a variance from Section 5Y. The ZBA determined that the variance, if granted, would create an “undesirable change in the character of the neighborhood…because it would not comply with the intent of the Zoning Law.” It found “safety issues.” It found that the applicant had created their own difficulty when, presumably, they had to have had “constructive knowledge of the Zoning Law.”

I guess the language of Section 5Y was plain enough for them.

So plain that it begs the question; two members of the town board, who incidentally had constituted the town board’s Land Use Subcommittee (one still does), didn’t see any of this coming when they posed for the front-page article in the local paper several weeks ago, and then sent the credulous applicant into the ZBA? I do recall the same issues that would concern the ZBA and the County planning board had also concerned members of the public when this hasty scheme was hatched at a town board meeting not too long ago.

Fortunately for all of Woodstock’s farmers starving for a market for their goods, the town board can still come to their rescue and do just what the Ulster County Planning Board recommended: amend the zoning law. I’ll be the first to tell you that amending the zoning law is a very bothersome process. It involves work. Not as much work as impeaching presidents, ending wars or weighing in on the domestic issues of the People’s Republic of China. So why should anyone worry?

There’s that old gem from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, “Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law.”

Gosh, how annoying!

April 1, 2008: Town Board Tries

Opinion published in the Townsman's April 3, 2008 edition

Sometime in 2002 the Woodstock town board adopted, with one abstention, a resolution calling upon the Congress of the United States to rescind the Patriot Act. It also called upon Town agencies, in particular the library and the Woodstock Police Department, to NOT obey the Act. Copies of the resolution were sent to congressional representatives and the president. There was no response from any of the entities, and the U.S. still has not rescinded the Patriot Act.

In early 2003 the town board, with one abstention, adopted a resolution calling upon the United States government to NOT invade Iraq. Copies of the resolution were sent to congressional representatives and the president. Not only was there no response from any of the entities, the U.S. invaded Iraq.

In 2004 or 2005 (how the years melt together) the town board, with one abstention, adopted a resolution calling upon the United States government to GET OUT of Iraq. Copies of the resolution were sent to congressional representatives and the president. There was no response from any of the entities, and the U.S. stayed in Iraq.

Not long after, the town board, with two abstentions, adopted a resolution calling upon the United States House of Representatives to impeach President Bush. Copies of the resolution were sent to congressional representatives. The president was spared the embarrassment of opening a copy of a resolution from the Woodstock town board calling for his impeachment, but certainly he heard about it. There was no response from anyone, and an impeachment bill never even got a two- minute discussion in the nation’s capitol.

Not discouraged, after President Bush got re-elected the Woodstock town board, with two abstentions, adopted a resolution calling for the impeachment of Bush and vice president Cheney. Copies of the resolution were sent to House representatives. There was no response from any Representative, and the two-for-one impeachment bill never even got a one-minute discussion in the nation’s capitol.

Then, from shear doggedness, the Woodstock town board, with two abstentions, adopted another resolution calling on the United States Government to GET OUT of Iraq. This resolution, crafted at the table by councilwoman Liz Simonson when the one she grabbed after a three second search on the internet failed to attract a third vote read; “Whereas we are sick and tired of the war in Iraq, and no longer support it, [italics mine] therefore be it resolved…etc.” It just shows you how people think when they get tired. And why shouldn’t councilwoman Simonson be tired? Copies of the resolution were sent to congressional representatives and the president. There was no response from any of the entities, and the U.S. not only stayed in Iraq, it increased its forces.

Maybe you get the picture, but the Woodstock town board will not be denied. As of this writing they entertain a resolution calling upon the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to enter into negotiation with the Dalai Lama concerning the disposition of Tibet. I suppose after getting NO response from its own government it only makes sense for the Woodstock town board to depend on the Chinese for one. The Chinese have certainly been responsive to our requests for substantial loans.

The proposed resolution says in part, “Whereas, the Dalai Lama of Tibet has a bond of kinship with the town of Woodstock…” and then makes its request to the PRC after listing a series of justifications.

Having had the privilege and honor of greeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama on behalf of the people of Woodstock, I could not agree more with the sentiment of the Woodstock Town Board. But I am both surprised and alarmed by its expression.

I am surprised by the pronouncement of three members of the town board, who have in the recent past publicly and strenuously objected to the Tibetan Buddhists’ expansion of their monastery on Meads Mountain in Woodstock. Liz Simonson at a town board meeting not long had stated that she would “never support” any act that would “legitimize” the KTD monastery. Councilman Jay Wenk had posted a sign at the end of his driveway that informed the passers by “KTD IS NOT A GOOD NEIGHBOR.” When Ed Sanders (the famous Fug) warned the town board of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s (then) rumored possible visit to Woodstock (on September 21, 2006), the estimable Sheila Eisenberg, wife to councilman Chris Collins, jumped to her feet and demanded that the town board do something to “stop him,” this suggestion raising no stated objection by her usually ever so attentive husband.

So here, potentially (the vote on the resolution has not occurred by the time of this writing) are three council members calling upon the Chinese government to tolerate a Tibetan autonomous region in their country when these same three members have established a record of opposing a Tibetan monastery in their own town. I'm surprised; aren't you?

What alarms me is that by adopting this resolution, considering the success of previous Woodstock town board resolutions that flew into realms far beyond its responsibility, it dooms the perfectly good sentiment.

I recently wrote to His Holiness. I sympathized with what has to be extremely stressful times for him and his people. I sent a photograph taken the day he visited us that captured the joy of that special moment. I wished him the best and expressed the hope that the picture would, if only for one moment, remind him of the joy he has given others. I am very glad that there is bi-partisan support in the Congress and by President Bush for the Woodstock town board’s proposed resolution calling for dialogue between His Holiness and the PRC. I’ll let you know if he writes back.