Thursday, June 26, 2008

Town Hall Reprise

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, June 19 2008 edition

I could be wrong, but I sense that members of the Woodstock town board, three in particular, are going to lay down their darts and attend to the business they were elected to conduct. Needs of the people are ever changing, but what remains constant is their wish to see governmental operations executed in effective and efficient manner. With the pointless squabbling about “rules of order” and who gets to set the agenda for public meetings now resolved by the peaceable, if radical solution to simply treat one another with respect, perhaps an environment for constructive dialogue is now for them (and us!) to enjoy.

Among the discussions we can expect is the matter of the town hall. Shortly before the expiration of the term of the last administration the town board was given the authority by referendum to spend approximately 1.6 million dollars to renovate the current town hall building on Tinker Street. The plan would “green” the facility by implementing the most energy efficient building materials and techniques, and heat and cool it using geo-thermal wells. In addition space from the old firehouse portion of the building would be used to increase the floor space of the police department and emergency dispatch. The justice court facility would also get additional space, and the large meeting room would see amenities to make it more suitable for community groups and theater productions.

Sadly, the bids for the project came in higher than the authorized expenditure. This in itself is not an unusual occurrence, and the Town has several options, among them abandoning the project, paring back the scope of the work to stay within the authorized expenditure, or seeking higher expenditure authorization through permissive referendum. Each of these three options alone is worthy of considerable discussion.

There has presented itself, however, an entirely new prospect; the recent availability of the Elna Ferrite facility located almost halfway between the Company Five rescue squad facility and the new Company One firehouse on the Bearsville Flats. Many people still remember the Elna Ferrite building as housing Woodstock’s only bowling alley. In the 1990’s the Town created a special light industrial zoning district, which permitted Elna Ferrite to conduct a manufacturing business. The business is moving and the structure is up for sale for somewhere around a million dollars. The metal building by all accounts is in excellent shape, although this does not mean its consumption of energy to heat and cool it is the most efficient.

The building offers some clear advantages, among them plenty of space for all the Town departments and ample parking. It could be a town hall in every sense of the word, where one can report to the police, pay a fine to the justice court, complain to the town supervisor, get a free parking sticker from the town clerk, yell at the assessor, crab at the building inspector and give another pint of blood to the planning board all on one floor and all in one visit. Among the minuses, it will cost about a million or so to purchase, additional money will have to be spent on some re-modeling and perhaps to implement energy efficient heating and cooling technology, and presumably the zoning would have to be changed from special light industrial, or the zoning law amended to include governmental uses in special light industrial districts.

The thorniest issue may be the final disposition of the existing town hall building, a Greek Revival structure built in the 1930’s for which many have a fond and sentimental regard. Strictly from a taxpayer’s view one may hope the building would be sold and put on the tax rolls to help offset the cost of purchasing Elna Ferrite and seeing it taken off the tax rolls. But we can expect an onslaught of not-for-profits advancing their respective, worthy institution as the proper recipient of the building free, and free of taxes, in return for providing to the community some cultural element or another. Mark my words.

Another issue to consider, if the present town hall is conveyed to a non-governmental entity, is an accommodation with New York State Energy Development Agency (NYSERDA) with regard to the $90,000 it contributed to the $120,000 photo-voltaic installation on the building. Whether it would be a reimbursement to NYSERDA, or re-installation of the system on the Elna Ferrite building is not an escapable or inexpensive decision.

And then there is the potential provocation of moving all the local government offices to one mile west of the “cultural/civic/ceremonial nexus (the Woodstock Hamlet) for all other parts of the community” in contradiction to the (useless although not to everybody) draft comprehensive plan.

All the above questions, of course, are to be debated in front of the Crank Observer, who asks, Why is any of this necessary; things seem to be moving along okay as they are?

My opinion? First, I think it makes Woodstockers sick to own buildings that treat BTUs with the same respect shown employees of the Emperor’s Club. It is just too expensive and disrespectful to the planet. So “hush” I say to the Crank Observer. Second, I think renovating the existing town hall despite its dearth of immediate parking and possible additional expense is still a serious and reasonable proposal. Third, to not thoroughly investigate the possibilities of the Elna Ferrite building, with the concomitant decision of how to dispose of the existing town hall building would be irresponsible.

So I say to the town board, make us proud by conducting an open, reasoned discussion. To expect a total lack of emotion from you is unreasonable, because after all, the old town hall is a sentimental treasure to many of us. But please, no howling, no accusations, no filibustering, no baloney. Come up with a reasonable proposal, and if you need authorization, seek it. Whether the taxpayers give or refuse, they will like having been asked, especially if asked after a measured and respectful discussion.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, June 17 2008

This article appeared in the Townsman, June 19 2008 edition

Woodstock, June 17 2007

George (“Jerry”) Washington, tapped by councilman Jay Wenk along with Craig Barber and Janine Mower to serve on a subcommittee to help prepare and deliver a report on the danger of old underground home fuel oil tanks leaking into the aquifer supplying the municipal water system, abandoned his long held position that the Town appoint a “health safety officer” to order property owners with buried fuel tanks to replace them with above ground tanks, and instead urged the town board to enter into a far more expensive project to install monitoring wells and to dig deeper wells, which would not be as susceptible to oil contamination, he claimed. Washington, who admitted he was not a professional hydrologist, further claimed that property owners have the legal right to maintain old underground tanks, but proposed the town board meet in secret session to “discuss and propose options and plans” to eliminate the tanks. He also thought the town should begin commercial sales of water, claiming the revenue would fund the expense of the improvements. Washington gave no reason for abandoning his less costly approach to addressing the threat, which he had urged repeatedly on the previous administration. Washington identified 16 known underground tanks, omitting two located on Meadow Court, one of which belongs to subcommittee member Janine Mower, since they were “less than twenty-five years old.” Woodstock environmental commission (WEC) chairwoman Mary Burke pointed out that Washington’s data matched almost exactly data gather by the WEC several years ago. At the conclusion of the report Wenk expressed great relief in seeing this long festering problem finally addressed, although the board took no action based on the recommendations. Wenk did announce that local musicians would put on a fundraiser to help homeowners finance tank removal, but no date was given. Further action was not discussed.

In other committee reports, Supervisor Jeff Moran updated the board on the proposed town hall renovation project, which is stalled after bids for the project exceeded the 1.6 million dollars (1.45 million to be bonded) authorized by the December, 2007 referendum. Meetings with the contractors, where paring down the project was discussed, resulted in possible savings of up to $200,000, but the total price tag is still too high. Moran broached the idea of purchasing the soon to be vacated Elna Ferrite building, which some recall as the bowling alley located on the Bearsville Flats about one mile from the town center. The structure, approximately 18,000 square feet, would not only have room to house the police, dispatch and justice court departments, but all the remaining town departments as well. He also cited ample parking and the building’s up to date code compliance (the structure was completely renovated in the late 1990’s) as more reason to seriously consider purchase and remodeling. Feelings on the board were decidedly mixed, with the question of what to do with the town hall and the Comeau town office building if vacated by the governmental agencies apparently the most perplexing. Councilman Chris Collins lamented the lack of a “global” plan for town infrastructure, while councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum maintained that it was the responsibility of the board to meet present needs of the departments. All agreed the existing facilities are inadequate. Two members of the public made brief but passionate pleas to maintain the town hall as a municipal building. The board will discuss the matter more at its scheduled July 8 meeting.

Both the board and the public responded very favorably to the much-anticipated report by the ad hoc Comeau Users Group (CUG) with recommendations to the board for accommodating the increased use by the public of the Comeau property. The eleven-page report encouraged improved signage, coordination of field schedules, volunteer traffic control during busy events, getting dog owners to obey leash laws and to clean up after their pets, more garbage receptacles and better fields and trails maintenance. It also called for some expansion of the upper parking lot. CUG’s membership include dog owners, trail walkers, soccer players and Bird On A Cliff theater company representatives along with two professional mediators to construct the comprehensive document. Woodstock Recreation Commission (WRC) member Gordon Wemp, in charge of overseeing the town’s parks, praised the document and urged CUG members to become part of the WRC. CUG member Michael Platsky expressed his pleasure in seeing such universal agreement with the product, citing David Boyle and Sam Mercer’s approbation as particularly satisfying. Boyle, although mostly in agreement with the report’s conclusions, pointed out that the soccer kids deserved some sort of shelter against sudden inclement weather and also decent bathroom facilities, which were not part of the report’s recommendations. He was also concerned with the lack of an alternate access for emergency vehicles. The town board agreed to look into implementing many of the CUG suggestions with an eye to incorporating some of the expense in the 2009 budget.

The CUG report to some extent dovetailed with Councilwoman Liz Simonson’s report on the parking problem at Comeau, which she constructed with Wenk’s assistance based on their investigation of the premises over the last two months. They found a shortage of parking spaces numbering from an average of 27 to 37, depending on the day of the week and the scheduled event. Simonson recommended installing some additional parking and improved lighting, and also coordinating events, relying on event volunteers to guide traffic, and plan parking in such a manner as to maintain access for emergency vehicles. She did not recommend widening Comeau Drive to provide roadside parking. Wenk offered up suggestions that dog walkers be required to use the lower parking lot, plus measures to encourage car pooling, install removable speed bumps on Comeau drive, and mill lumber from recently felled trees on the property to delineate parking spaces.

Councilman Chris Collins again reported that progress has been made with amendments to the zoning law regulating development in the area of the wells supplying the municipal water system and near wetlands and watercourses, and also on the comprehensive plan. He referred to a document prepared by Kathy Daniels, a planning consultant engaged by the Town, but such document will not be made available to the public. Collins has been working on these projects for two and a half years.

Simonson reported that a glitch in the formatting would necessitate her to re-submit the paper work required for re-imbursement from the New York State Estuary Program for the moneys spent on a study of the Sawkill stream. Simonson secured the grant in 2005 and it expired at the end of 2007. She also reported that she had not heard from planning board attorney Drayton Grant on matters pertaining to the Nextel application to install a personal wireless (cell phone) service on the so-called RNN tower, which most people know as the tower with the red, blinking light on top of Overlook Mountain.

Wenk, town board liaison to the Senior Recreation Program, announced that instructors for the program would probably be seeking a raise in pay for their services.

Rosenblum, town board liaison to the Recreation Commission and the Woodstock Library, reported expanded activities for the Summer Rec program. She also reported that the Library would honor the memory of 30-year trustee Ruth Simpson, and that it was arranging with the cooperation of the Catskill Center for Photography an exhibit. The Library Fair, scheduled to go off on July 26 from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM is in sore need of volunteers to help with the event. Interested parties are urged to contact Michael Perkins. In response to a question from Simonson, Rosenblum said she doubted the Library would include in its 2009 proposed budget the enormous expenditure it had proposed last year to go toward an extensive renovation/expansion of the facility. The proposed 2008 Library budget was resoundingly defeated in September 2007.

It being the monthly business meeting several routine resolutions were adopted, the resolution to pay the bills amounting to $126,154.96 barely squeaking through since neither Simonson nor Wenk had the time to look over the vouchers and therefore abstained from the vote.

The meeting adjourned at approximately 11:30 PM in the presence of the town clerk, videographer and two reporters.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jay Walking

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, June 12 2008 edition

With gasoline prices through the roof, the local real estate in the cellar, school districts contracting but somehow costing more to sustain, food prices higher than Overlook Mountain, dogs ruling the town, zoning regs blowing from the municipal windows, ancient town-owned buildings throwing gobs of BTUs to the heavens, labor contracts with town employees languishing, warfare raging on the planning board and very strange fellows being elevated to prominent standing in the community the Woodstock town board – thank goodness – is going to take up councilman Jay Wenk’s proposal to formally remove from the town supervisor his authority to set the agenda.

Wenk’s idea is everybody should set the agenda.

He invented this marvel with assistance from cell tower – hater - litigant Jay Cohen, he of “the mendacity” fame.

Wenk got up from the table no less than twice to confer privately with Cohen during the May 20 beat up – the – supervisor meeting. Cohen, apparently squeamish about the sight of blood, left the meeting early, but only after delivering a stern lecture to the board on the importance of the agenda being passed around to each of them like a sign-up sheet.

Sad news for Cohen: you are being played. Town boards can over rule the supervisor’s agenda at any time. It works like this:

Supervisor opens the meeting, and proposes to embark on agenda items A, B and C. Any councilperson not happy with A, B or C can make a motion to suspend the supervisor’s agenda and embark on issues X, Y and Z. Another councilperson seconds the motion. It requires three votes to carry the motion. With councilpersons Wenk and Chris Collins roped under the dynamic leadership of councilperson Liz Simonson, is there doubt such a motion would carry?

How do I know Cohen is being played? Remember the court hearing last May 5 where the attorney for the Town, Rod Futerfas, put up a vigorous defense of the Town’s amended master management agreement with JNS Enterprises, the company that built the Town’s municipal communications tower on California Quarry for no charge in return for a share of the revenues from rentals to cell phone companies? The amended agreement deferred some of the Town’s revenue share to JNS to compensate for the more expensive tower mandated by the Woodstock planning board.

At every turn in the cell tower war Collins and Simonson (and Cohen) denounced three members of the previous town board for “lying“ on the required environmental quality review documents and for awarding a “no bid” contract to JNS. All these allegations were tested in state supreme court, by Cohen among others, and thrown out.

So why did the new town board allow the attorney for the Town to put up his vigorous defense of an amended agreement that a majority claims was duplicitous and illegal? Let’s see if the e-mails clear up the matter. [Note: I made no attempt at cleaning up the spelling or grammar.]

April 09 at 3:10 PM from Liz Simonson to town board:
I would like to have an ex session next week to talk about water/sewer and the Cell Tower lawsuit. I would also like to have rod there for the lawsuit discussion.
Jeff, I have been told by Glenn Kreisberg that oral arguments have been requested by the judge and that they possibly may start this week. If that is the case, please let us all know when that became known and how has Rod been given direction without the consent of the TB.

On Apr 10 at 12:52 PM from Jeff Moran to town board:
On May 5, 1 PM, both sides are to present oral arguments before Judge O'Connor. The law is the law, the papers are in, and this is simply for each side to deliver their position. Rod is very surprised that oral arguments are even permitted; it is a very rare occurrence. No direction by the TB is required, and Rod can, at our request, send a letter to the TB explaining the Town's position, which is that this suit, one in a series, raises issues that have already been resolved, i.e., thrown out.

On April 10 at 1:49 PM from Jay Wenk to town board:
Yes, I would like to know, briefly, what the other side claims, and what our response is.

On April 10 at 7:55 PM from Chris Collins to town board:
I dodn't [sic] know if anyone remembers but I motioned last year to withdraw the SEQR appllication [sic] as it was improperly filed i.e. had many inaccuracies in it. While my motion was defeated. [sic] I could not sign off on a letter saying things were resolved when in fact, I don't think the issues have been resolved. The false statements in the SEQR application still remain to be resolved. The application process was poorly executed and should not be repeated in the future. We must protect the town from future law suits [sic] based on a specious application process.

On April 11, 9:18 AM from Liz Simonson to supervisor and town board:
Jeff, I feel I need to remind you and the Town Board that the "Town's
position" to which you refer is indeed a position of the full Town
Board. Rod should make his recommendations to the TB in ex session and then the TB determines the direction he will take in the case. So again, I am asking to have an ex session on tuesday with Rod to review.
Rod, are you available on tuesday at 6:30pm?

April 11, 2008, at 12:19 PM from Rod Futerfas to town board:
I just wanted to let everyone know that I will not be available on Tues. night due to a prior commitment I have made. I have prepared a letter, which I'll send to Jeff outlining what the papers, presently before the Judge, state. The papers are already in the Judge's hands and cannot be changed. The oral argument has been permitted so we can tell the Judge what's already in the papers. Oral argument is rare, but this is a new Judge and in this case she has decided to permit the oral argument.

April 12 7:54 PM from Liz Simonson to attorney and town board:
Rod, I await your letter. However, I would like to know exactly when you received your instruction to proceed, as you say with the "papers", and are you certain that you have a consensus of the Town Board for that direction? I have NEVER had the opportunity to discuss this matter with you and to my knowledge neither have the other TB members. The last time I looked, it takes a majority of the TB to instruct their counsel on direction during litigation.
As we all know this petition questions the legality of the amendment to the JNS contract. That amendment negatively impacted the amount of revenue the Town of Woodstock should have received from the carriers for the first five years.
I believe with three new TB members it is imperative that we meet to review our options and would like to know when you are available.

April 13 10:23 AM from Chris Collins to town board:
Jeff, I would like to have an Exec Session on this topic with Rod to clarify issues regarding the cell tower. It appears that we all feel the need for this. If Rod cannot meet on Tuesday let's schedule another date and time as it is a burning issue.

April 13 10:55 AM from Jay Wenk to town board
Jeff, have you been able to get another date yet with Rod and the TB?

And there the e-mails stop on the cell tower case. There was never an executive session. There was never any public discussion about the lawsuit. Simonson is correct in her April 12 message that “it takes a majority of the TB to instruct their counsel on direction during litigation.” But the three busy e-mailers, with their majority on the town board maybe told Cohen, “Gee whiz, the supervisor made us,” and allowed Mr. Futerfas to make his strong defense of the amended JNS agreement and Cohen got busy drafting new rules for the town board.

The purpose of this is to assure cell tower hater and litigious Jay Cohen that the three members of the town board he worked so hard to help elect will just break their tails for him, but only after they wrestle from the supervisor the agenda that is already in their hands.

Woodstock Town Board Meeting, June 10 2008

This article appeared in the Townsman, June 12 2008 edition

A number of residents came to the June 10 meeting of the Woodstock town board to speak against a resolution written but not offered by councilman Chris Collins to “prohibit any changes, improvements and alterations of any kind to the Comeau property” until such time the conservation easement on the property authorized in a 2003 referendum is upheld by the courts. Collins’s reasoning was “changes, improvements, and alterations may jeopardize the present litigation, generate more litigation or jeopardize any possible agreement with a land conservancy.” Unable to provide any back up for his assertions, in fact a letter from Kevin Smith, president of the Woodstock Land Conservancy, appeared quite contradictory, Collins sat quietly as supervisor Jeff Moran read several letters of protest and opened the floor for comment.

A letter from Damian DeLisio, who is very involved in children’s soccer, expressed the urgent need for expanded parking as the present situation won’t allow access by emergency vehicles in case of accidents on the soccer field. He also cited lack of shelter for children and parents during surprise thunderstorms and the complete lack of sanitary facilities. Tim Rands, speaking from the floor, wondered aloud what “constituency” Collins was talking to, and suggested he “talk to some of the kids who play soccer” before petrifying the property. Kristin Eberhard urged the board to be more receptive to the changing needs of kids and community.

Discussion of the Collins resolution was entwined with two resolutions, written but not offered by Moran, calling for the enlargement of the Comeau upper parking lot and creating parking spaces along the road. On these proposals councilman Jay Wenk expressed his support for the soccer community, but with respect to more parking he commented, “I don’t see why they can’t carpool.” Paul Shultis Jr., member of the planning board, pointed out the inconsistency of councilwoman Liz Simonson’s support last year for the installation of a storage shed for the soccer players, which violated the terms of the draft easement, and her lack of support for enlarged parking which is in keeping with the document.

It was finally decided to await the report from the Comeau Users Group, and ad hoc committee, before making any decision on either of the Moran and Collins resolutions.

Another spirited discussion arose from the supervisor’s decision to charge for parking in the municipal on the days of the Farm Festival, and his offering of a resolution to make his action policy. Simonson criticized his unilateral action, opposed his resolution, and went further to ask, “Why is every thing a cash cow?” She felt the supervisor’s action was directed at the Farm Festival, and claimed that the villages of Saugerties and Rhinebeck offered free parking for their farmers markets. Susan Goldman, a Farm Festival representative, thanked the supervisor for revising his resolution from and earlier draft that stated the costs of the festival to Woodstock taxpayers (stated to be approximately $6000), and went on to oppose the supervisor’s action to collect fees. Moran explained that the Town was headed toward a budget crunch what with the dramatic decline in mortgage tax receipts. He also stated that encouraging visitors to the town incurs costs, and that “anytime we can relieve the taxpayers of an expense it is our obligation to do so.” Councilman Jay Wenk suggested the town charge for parking at the Mountain View parking lot, but several persons pointed out that parking lot receives little traffic. Simonson suggested fees be raised for building permits to offset any shortfall. The matter was tabled.

The villages of Saugerties and Rhinebeck are incorporated, and unlike Woodstock which has no incorporated villages, town wide taxpayers do not pick up the costs for their farmers markets.

Prior to the above discussions the public portion of the meeting had begun at the Community Center at 7:35 PM after the town board met in executive session to interview a candidate for the Commission of Civic Design and to discuss a lawsuit against Leslie and Peter Lane, a Wittenberg family with an alleged zoning violation.

The supervisor asked tennis players and gardeners that use the Andy Lee Field facilities to obtain passes at the town clerk’s office so that they would be allowed on the property during the summer recreation program for young children. He also advertised the availability of free parking stickers for residents, also available at the town clerk’s office.

Town historian Richard Heppner, with Historical Society member Weston Blelock made a brief presentation, announcing that grants from the New York State Council of the Arts enabled strategic planning for the museum on the Comeau property, and resources to prepare the facility for exhibits, the first on which will be “The Changing Face of the Village of Woodstock Over 100 Years, which will open around July 1. They also got a nod from the board supporting their request for funds to offset the costs of a historic marker to be placed in front the Church On The Mount, which celebrates the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church and has been owned by the Town since gifted to it back in the ‘70s. Mr Blelock informed the board that a panel including Jean Young, Micheal Lang, Paul McMohan and former town supervisor Jeremy Wilber will meet at the Colony CafĂ© on August 9 to discuss the “roots of the 1969 Woodstock festival.” Alan Chartock will moderate.

With a very ambitious agenda ahead of them, the room reacted very positively to councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum’s resolution to end the meeting by no later than “around 10:00 PM,” which carried unanimously.

Wenk was given the floor to advance, once again, his nine-point proposal for setting the agenda for town board meetings. He was met with an energetic lecture from resident Greg Stanton, who received loud applause from the room when he compared the deliberative process of many other communities with “your adolescence, your misuse of process,” and declared he was “appalled by the subversion of the role of the supervisor.” Very tepid discussion among the board ensued, finally ending after forty-five minutes in an agreement to try better to respect each other’s wishes with regard to setting the agenda.

A resolution requiring board members and employees of the town to “coordinate with the supervisor before contacting…consultants,” which Moran introduced after citing legal bills run up by board members (Rosenblum excepted). This was tabled after an agreement to make the practice more transparent to other board members.

Jason Neil was appointed to a permanent position as Youth Program Assistant. Barbara Yusko’s resignation from the Commission for Civic Design was accepted, the town board adding its thanks for her service.

The supervisor held a meeting earlier in the day with the task force created by the town board on June 3 comprised of members of the planning board, environmental commission and other individuals, which is looking for funding for a town-wide bio-diversity study estimated to cost approximately $140,000 and also working on a grant with a June 27 deadline for up to $60,000 from the New York State Estuary program to be used toward such cost. He then offered a resolution authorizing the task force to seek funding, which passed unanimously.

Rosenblum reminded people that there is a pesticide notification law, and to be aware of it even if one is going to engage professional services on their property.

Other small bits of business were conducted, and the meeting adjourned at approximately 10:15.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ode To Hugh Reynolds

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, June 5 edition

Some have said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and to honor Hugh Reynolds, former political columnist for a countywide publication, I will fall all over myself in an attempted simulation of his inimitable style.

At the Democratic Party convention held at the Hillside Manor in Kingston on June 2nd I ran into a number of former town supervisors, including Phil Terpening of Rosendale, Ray Rice of Esopus, Mike Shultis of Hurley and James Dollaway of Warwarsing. I discovered that there is a name for a band of former town supervisors: the glee club. It is always polite to say, “Gosh, you never looked better,” but in the case of this reunion the words completely lacked hypocrisy.

Wow, talk about pay back. Dietrich Werner, Ulster County’s Independence Party poo bah, has steered his party’s endorsements toward Republican Party candidates for many if not all of the upcoming county races. Word has it that Werner got miffed when the Democratic legislature didn’t like what they saw in the Environmental Management Council and sacked the principals, including Independence Party faves. Ouch! I thought, “all politics is local,” not “all politics is ego.”

Robin Yess, report to the information desk. You are running for New York State Assembly against Kevin Cahill and nobody has any idea who you are. Bring photo ID.

Wow, what an election cycle can change. Seems like just yesterday when Ulster County legislator and former New Paltz supervisor Sue Zimet was cooing with gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer in television ads in her bid to unseat state senator John Bonacic. Today Ulster County Democrats can’t come up with even a former dogcatcher to take on the long time incumbent. Calling Orange County; got somebody? Anybody? Please, no one with pix of him or her cooing with Eliot. Creepy.

Let’s give a big hand of applause to Ulster County legislature chairman Dave Donaldson and Ellenville village manager Elliot Auerbach for staging the only competition at the convention. The buffet would have disappeared in a minute if the delegates didn’t have to put down their forks and vote. Hint to both: shorter speeches, pleeeze. Congrats to Auerbach for getting the nod. Suggested campaign promise; change the title from “comptroller” to “controller.” It’s been done in other places, and frankly “comp” and elective office should stay miles apart.

Message to Michael Hein: Get out of politics and into show business. It’s guys like you that make fat, old buzzards like me sick. So does Assemblyman Marc Molinaro. Every Kennedy. Gee whiz, youth, looks and brains and now you want power? Is there a God, I ask?

County executive Republican candidate Len Bernardo: see message above to Robin Yess.

Ditto county comptroller Republican candidate James Quigley.

Not that I expected to bump into either one of you in this environment.

Woodstockers have accepted, or at least gotten used to councilman Jay Wenk refusing to stand during the pledge of allegiance, but what are they going to say when they find out he sat down through the standing ovation for congressman Maurice Hinchey? I know Jay got his nose out of joint when Hinchey wouldn’t ride in the impeach president George Bush cavalcade. Maybe councilwoman Liz Simonson feels the same way. It’s not like either one of them had a tray of food on their lap.

Is it just me, or does Kingston mayor Jim Sottile always dress like he’s about to do a Saturday Night Live skit? At least when he’s away from the office he does. Just a little discombobulating considering this is the guy with a reputation for carrying brass knuckles into the Kingston Common Council chamber.

For a guy with the knives out for him, Ulster County Democratic Party Chairman John Parete couldn’t be more chipper. People who think it’s the proper thing to demonize the chairman should actually meet him. Then they might understand how the county’s Democratic conventions grew from get-togethers you could fit into a Prius into the massive, guzzling event this one was. The September primary ought to be interesting, to say the least. Bring gauze.

Finally, what we’ve all been waiting for: the South Dakota and Montana primaries. Until this year I thought South Dakota and Montana were parts of Canada. With any luck the Democratic Party’s convention in Denver won’t know who it’s presidential candidate will be until the Wyoming (or is Wyoming part of Canada?) delegation casts its vote. Isn’t it just a little weird that the contest for the land’s highest office starts in Iowa cornfields and ends in South Dakota wheat fields? I know New York had a primary, shucks I voted in it, but for the life of me I can’t remember who won it. But this I know; Barack Obama carried Iowa, and Hillary Clinton carried South Dakota. It’s forever printed in my brain. Weird.

Okay, so now I got Hugh Reynolds laughing his head off. Hey, I tried.

To those of you who miss Hugh I predict he’ll be back on the scene soon. Damn it.

Bio Diversity

This article appeared in the Townsman, June 5 edition

Woodstock, June 3 2008

Operating under a June 27 deadline the Woodstock town board agreed unanimously to the formation of a task force to write a grant seeking up to $60,000 from the Hudson River Estuary program sponsored by New York State to be used for a bio-diversity study and mapping of the town with a total cost approaching an estimated $140,000.

The action came immediately subsequent a presentation to the board by Gretchen Stevens, a botanist from Hudsonia, a non profit organization that gathers and disseminates biological information and which has worked with the town previously on a much smaller bio-diversity study.

The proposed project, which could take up to fourteen months to complete, would lead to the creation of a map of the town showing each type of ecologically significant habitats, including wetlands, different forest types, water bodies, meadows and other distinct botanical and biological features. The mapping can be used as a tool to guide zoning laws and comprehensive planning. It can also, according to Ms Stevens, “facilitate development” by providing applicants and planning boards with readily accessible information to implement better subdivisions or site development.

Grace Bowne, member of the Woodstock environmental commission (WEC) but “wearing my hat as a realtor” pointed out that some real estate buyers look for distinct or rare habitats when considering where to purchase land and that such mapping would be an asset. Mary Burke, WEC chairwoman, said the mapping would help her board when considering recommendations concerning land acquisitions by the City of New York, and also perhaps help pressure entities such as the cities of New York and Kingston to implement best management practices on their lands.

Voices representing the Woodstock planning board and the Woodstock Land Conservancy also spoke favorably on the proposed study.

In answer to questions from supervisor Jeff Moran Ms Stevens indicated the study and mapping includes tools for planning, and that although excluding lands owned by the state and other municipalities (areas not targeted for development) may be a sensible way to hold down costs, it is still best to know and see how habitats interact.

Ms Stevens, who offered to help write the narrative for the grant application, will work with members of the planning board, the WEC, the Land Conservancy and private citizens to help meet the June 27 deadline. The supervisor set June 10 for a meeting in his office to assess the progress and determine what Town resources can be used to help.

Bio diversity maps have a shelf life of approximately ten years, according to Ms Stevens.

Councilwoman Simonson secured a $15,000 grant from the Hudson River Estuary program in 2005 for a Sawkill Stream assessment. Simonson reported as late as April 15 of this year, as she had since January, that she still did not convert the data from the Sawkill study into electronic format, nor has she submitted the paperwork to the state for reimbursement. The $15,000 grant has so far cost the Town $15,225, minus a partial reimbursement of $2596 received in June 2007. The townships of Ulster and Kingston have backed out of their previous commitments to pay a share toward the grant, which expired at the end of '07.

The town board meeting had begun at the unusual hour of 5:00 pm at the Town Offices with Cassia Berman urging the board to extend a formal welcome to Amma Sri Karunamayi, a teacher who will be providing a free lecture at the Bearsville Theater on June 10 at 6:30 pm. No motion was made. There was also an announcement for the annual Company Four firehouse bazaar to be held on June 7 from 4:00 pm “to the end” at the Zena Firehouse.

The only bid for drilling the geo-thermal wells for the proposed Town Hall renovation project came in at $75,665.60. The Town Hall project, with bids exceeding estimates by almost four hundred thousand dollars, is in abeyance until town officials finish investigating the feasibility and practicality of buying and renovating the building on the Bearsville Flats that had once been a bowling alley and more recently the Elna Ferrite light industrial facility.

The supervisor was successful in persuading the Open Space Institute to accept the Town’s proposal to redraw the California Quarry subdivision to allow the Town continued access to quarry rubble, which can be used for emergency road repairs. The approximately 190 acre parcel, minus the Town’s portion, is slated for sale to the Institute, which will then convey the parcel to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. The supervisor was given unanimous consent to sign an option extension agreement with the Institute so that the Town can re-draw the sub-division lines.

The Town will sponsor the annual blood drive to be conducted at the Woodstock Rescue Squad facility on June 18 from noon to 7:00 pm.

The town board unanimously adopted a fourteen point “rules of order” that for all the discussion over them the past several meetings look suspiciously similar to the rules they replaced. All the suggestions offered by former Document Coordinator Joan Schwartzberg made their way into the final document.

The highway superintendent Mike Reynolds got the go-ahead to purchase a truck cab and chassis for $34,871.70 from low bidder Johnson Ford.

There raged a forty- minute argument over councilman Jay Wenk’s proposal for a process of setting town board meeting agendas. Wenk’s proposal in essence dilutes the supervisor’s authority to set the agenda, and Moran wasn’t buying it. Resisting councilwoman Liz Simonson’s attempt to read through the proposal line by line, Moran said the board was attempting to “micromanage the supervisor.” Councilman Collins called the supervisor “disrespectful and unprofessional.” Simonson called upon the supervisor to “not be an obstructionist,” and complained of being interrupted. Her often used address to “you guys” was met with a sharp rebuke from councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum, who interrupted to say, “’you guys’ doesn’t work with me.” During the squabble Wenk meandered onto other topics.

But then it was near 6:00, and the town board sat up, finished other business and behaved for Ms Stevens’ scheduled presentation on bio-diversity.

The meeting adjourned at 7:30.

Ulster County Democratic Convention

This article appeared in the Townsman, June 5 edition

Kingston, June 2 2008

With only the Ulster County comptroller’s race for the Democratic nod providing drama, there were still well over 200 attendees of the Ulster County Democratic Convention held at the Hillside Manor. Ellenville village manager and former mayor Elliot Auerbach edged out Ulster County Legislature chairman David Donaldson 12,653 to 10,427 weighted votes cast by Democratic Party committee members representing all Ulster County municipalities. Donaldson after the tally was announced informed the convention he would decide within a couple of days whether to challenge Auerbach in a September primary.

Before the comptroller contest Maurice Hinchey was unanimously endorsed to run again for New York’s 22nd Congressional District. After serving sixteen years as congressman and before that almost two decades as the area’s assemblyman in the New York State legislature Hinchey’s popularity among Democrats appeared undiminished as he received an enthusiastic standing ovation after delivering a stem-winding acceptance speech. “I see more real Democrats in this room than I see in Washington,” cracked the congressman. Hinchey also criticized the New York Independence Party in Ulster County for its apparent blanket support of Republican candidates as he stressed the importance of this year’s Ulster County races for county executive and comptroller. Woodstock councilpersons Liz Simonson and Jay Wenk were among the very few to remain seated during the room’s wild approval of his speech (Wenk, as is his custom at Woodstock town board meetings, also remained seated for the pledge of allegiance to the flag). At this point Hinchey does not have a Republican opponent.

Kevin Cahill, unanimously endorsed to retain his seat in the 101st Assembly District, also received a warm reception after an amusing nominating speech by long time Democrat Max Feingold followed by a charming seconding speech by the youthful Allison Wilbur. Cahill cited numerous accomplishments including reform of the criminal justice system, keeping both Kingston hospitals open during severe statewide cutbacks and helping to entice the not-for-profit TSAC Solar Energy Consortium to the area. Cahill was recently appointed to create policy for the Assembly with regard to energy conservation. He expressed very deep concern for the price of home heating fuel and the looming crises facing the area next winter and promised to work hard to avert it. Kevin will face off against Esopus Republican Robin Yess in November.

Frank Skartados was endorsed to run against incumbent Thomas Kirwin for the 100th Assembly District, and Larry Delarose was tapped to try to unseat long time incumbent William Larkin from the 39th Senatorial District. No Democrats came forward to challenge incumbent assemblymen Clifford Crouch and Peter Lopez, respectively from the 107th and 127th Assembly Districts, nor did one stand to challenge incumbent John Bonacic from the 42nd Senatorial District.

The room seemed to sense a moment of history when it came time to endorse Michael Hein, current county administrator, to run for the newly created position of county executive. Ulster County Democratic legislators Dave Donaldson, Sue Zimet and Michael Berardi had announced their intentions to seek the endorsement, but their candidacies faded long before the time of the convention. Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum nominated Hein, stressing his experience and accomplishments, followed by Sara McGinty, wife of family court judge Anthony McGinty, who praised Hein as a “good communicator” able to explain to the people the difficult, complex issues facing the county. After his unanimous endorsement Mr Hein made a passionate speech that got the crowd to its feet with his promise to make Ulster County a “model county in New York State” and “the best place to raise a family.” Hein commented after his speech, “It is exciting to see the Democratic Party come together for the sake of Ulster County’s future. I feel I am uniquely qualified to be the first county executive.” Hein will face Independence Party member Len Bernardo, a Town of Lloyd businessman also endorsed by the Republicans, in the November election.

Then came the showdown between Donaldson and Auerbach. Each candidate took liberties with the time limit on speeches, Donaldson concentrating more on the details of the comptroller’s position and Auerbach hewing pretty much to broad generalities. To Donaldson’s self-description as a “liberal Democrat” Auerbach came back with his folksy “visits to the county’s barns, backrooms and bistros.” Both candidates spoke of their qualifications, Donaldson of his intimate knowledge of the county’s governmental apparatus and Auerbach of his “thirty years of management experience.” When the speeches were over there was no sense of how the room would go, and the matter wasn’t settled until after almost forty-five minutes of balloting and counting.

After hearing Donaldson suggest the possibility of a September primary, Auerbach told the convention “we must continue working together, side by side… to show what the Ulster County Democrats can do.” Bringing Michael Hein to his side at the podium, Auerbach continued, “Let’s go knock the living heck out of the Republicans.” He later commented, “It’s been a tough three weeks, but I believe my message was heard by Ulster County Democrats.”

Asked how he felt about the looming contest in November, Ulster County Democratic Party Chairman John Parete said, “The Republicans have to stop their bleeding,” referring the county Republican setbacks in recent elections. “They are going to work very hard for these positions. It will be a full bore campaign, and we better be ready.”

The convention, which had started at 7:10, adjourned a little after 10:00 pm.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Food for thought

This opinion appeared in the Townsman, May 29 2008 edition

I was speaking with a woman who I like and for whom I have a lot of respect who is involved with the "Farm Festival." She is somewhat taken aback by what she perceives to be undue resistance and objection on the part of some to the festival. After a superficial chat we left off with the oft-heard and oft-said observation that getting anything to happen in Woodstock is a battle. As I walked home I did have more thoughts about it, which I share with you.

The scheme was originally proposed as a "farmers market." Who could object to a few vans showing up to sell tomatoes for four hours and then packing up and going back to their little green patches? Not me, and I’m sure not you. We were all gulled into silence and acquiescence by the prospect of nice farmer selling us nice people nice fresh vegetables. There was something very sweet and nice about it.

But then as the proposal advanced it turned into a "Farm Festival," sponsored by the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Arts, (COCA). The Farm Festival will not only have approximately fifteen produce venders in the Houst parking lot, it will also host three outdoor restaurants, children’s entertainments, "amplified" acoustic music and other attractions on Mower’s Field from the hours of 4:00 to 8:00 PM on each Wednesday from May 28 to September 24. Maple Lane, a very quiet street, which nestles several residences, will be closed from 2:00 to 10:00 pm so that the trucks and barriers can settle in and then shuttle off when the day is done. There is no assurance the venders in Houst’s parking lot will only sell produce.

The ZBA, under enormous pressure from people who should know better, is giving Ned Houst a variance from the zoning law, which will make Festival Inc. possible.

For reasons that baffle some Town officials concerned with planning, Festival Inc has never been submitted for site plan approval.

Tax money will support Festival Inc by paying for an extra police officer to monitor the intersection of Maple Lane and Mill Hill Road for eight hours per event. Tax money will be used to pick up the garbage. The Town will loan to Festival Inc highway department barriers to close Maple Lane and the Houst parking lot. All this in spite of the fact that Festival Inc is funded by a $46,000 grant and has paid personnel.

Now that the precedent has been set, what is to prevent taxpayer supported “festivals” from popping up by you? This whole event seems to have landed on the residents of Maple Lane like a meteor.

So am I against it? No. I like fresh vegetables, and I like some of the sincere people who are involved with Festival Inc. I agree with Festival Inc representatives when they say it is extremely unlikely that death and mayhem will ensue from closing Maple Lane and blocking off the Maple Lane egress from the Tannery Brook parking lot. I think it is likely that lots of people will have a very nice time lolling about Mower’s Field, no longer just a weekend flea market, sampling condiments and taking in “amplified” acoustic music. Perhaps I will be among them. We may enjoy it so much that Festival Inc will happen more often. Twice a week. Three times.

No planning. No review.

I’m not resisting or objecting. I’m wondering – maybe you are too – what is the magic word that makes the Town suspend its usual regulation, open its coffers and close roads for a commercial entity?

The Tomatoes Fly

This article appeared in the Townsman, May 29 2008 edition.

Woodstock, May 22, 2008

Just when it began to look like the proposed “Farm Festival” slated to go off on May 28 would require no more than a pro forma inspection of a traffic and safety plan by the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to be followed immediately with the issuance of a variance from Section 5Y in the Woodstock zoning law that prohibits the display of merchandise between a structure and the sidewalk or curb, the ZBA balked and instead recessed the public hearing “until a proper protocol is in place to ensure the safety of attendees of the festival, and is presented to this board and certified by Creighton Manning Engineers or a similar licensed engineer.”

The ZBA’s jitters came after the town board’s May 20 public hearing on the closure of Maple Lane from 2:00 to 10:00 pm on days of the event, when they got some heat from residents of Maple Lane, with one family’s interests being represented by attorney Eric Schneider. Mr Schneider’s requests for clarification of what “authorized” vehicles would be permitted to pass through the barrier stopping traffic from Mill Hill Road from turning onto Maple Lane apparently elicited a response from the town board that raised more questions than it answered, as far as the ZBA was concerned. The ZBA members were in doubt as to the meaning of “authorized;” did it mean only traffic going toward Houst’s parking lot, or, as Goldman insisted, “Anybody who has business on Maple Lane.” Also the placement, function and type of barriers used to guide traffic and protect pedestrians were not described enough for ZBA members.

The Town has agreed to provide a specially detailed police officer to monitor traffic and the barrier to Maple Lane, but there were doubts about its efficacy. ZBA chairman Howard Harris, a retired police officer, noted “It would be expecting too much of one police officer to open and close the barrier for vehicles, make sure they are not driving into pedestrians on Maple Lane, monitor the traffic on Mill Hill Road and keep and eye on the pedestrian cross walk across Mill Hill Road” located at that same intersection.

Goldman, offering numerous stipulations in an attempt to ease the ZBA’s concern with safety, interjected that there will be a “point person” for the public to direct all problems to. “This [the event] is so simple and clear,” said Goldman. He pointed out that there is no traffic control for the weekend flea markets that draw many people. “But that [the flea market] doesn’t require a variance from the ZBA,” ZBA member Joanne Anthony was quick to note, “If anybody gets hurt at this festival, whom are they going to sue? The Town.” Goldman stressed that only very few vehicles would need egress into Maple Lane, but ZBA member Tony Padalino was quick to note, “If cars come in infrequently it will only increase the danger to children” since the whole street may appear to be an open pedestrian mall. Mr Goldman tried to brush the concern off, only to be firmly reminded by Anthony, “Come on; there are going to be children.” With that the ZBA hearing ended.

Since the next regularly scheduled meeting of the ZBA is not until June 12 it appeared the May 28 kick-off for the Festival would be in jeopardy.

This did not sit well with Goldman, who the following day e-mailed Harris, members of the town board and the town supervisor Jeff Moran a message that included the statement, “We will proceed with this event without the variance if we must and the only repercussion is that you can ask the ZEO [zoning enforcement officer Paul Shultis] to cite us for violation 5Y.”

Asked about Goldman’s threat to “proceed” with the event, councilwoman Liz Simonson responded, “The TB agreed during our 5/6 meeting that Section 5Y is broken as there are many businesses in violation now and the ZEO says he doesn't have the time to enforce. I volunteered to draft up some suggested changes.
“I need to point out that the original traffic safety plan allowed for limited vehicular access, particularly to Ned Houst's rentals and Maple Lane residents. Why the ZBA says things have changed with the street closure is a total mystery to me. I can only assume they were not really paying attention. “

Councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum responded, “As a previous member of the Planning Board I have experienced the kind of pressure that Town Board members can and do place on a volunteer board to fast track a project. I objected to it when I was on the Planning Board because the PB and the ZBA boards are legally autonomous. Now that I am on the Town Board, I will not participate or endorse any attempts to put pressure on any board to do what they do not feel is right.”

A source close to the discussions predicted that Goldman would back down since the Festival is depending on Woodstock taxpayers to pay for traffic control, garbage pick-up and also the Town is providing the barriers to be used by the festival to help with vehicle and pedestrian traffic control. Also, it was unclear whether the event could be properly insured if the promoters willfully broke the law.

Apparently as a result of intense discussions over the weekend it was decided that the ZBA would re-open the hearing at a special meeting on May 28 at 3:00 pm and give the Festival another chance at resolving the issue legally.

The “Farm Festival,” sponsored by the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Arts, is to have approximately fifteen produce venders in the Houst parking lot, and three outdoor restaurants, children’s entertainments, “amplified” acoustic music and other attractions on Mower’s Field (site of the popular weekend flea market) from the hours of 4:00 to 8:00 PM on each Wednesday from May 28 to September 24. According the Goldman the Festival has received a $46,000 grant to defray costs over a period of 18 months, enough for two seasons. The Festival will have paid staff, although it is unclear how many and how much they are being paid.