Thursday, October 30, 2008

Burnt Brownie

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, October 23 edition

Years ago my brother lived among a farming community and came home one Christmas with this joke, which I will tell you now is not nearly so funny as it is instructive.

Farmer Smith came down to a breakfast prepared by his bride of one day. Delighted with the flapjacks, bacon and eggs, he was then disappointed to see that the brownie was burnt, and set it aside. The following morning he came down to a breakfast as fine as the first, but again had to set aside a burnt brownie. On the third morning he sat down for a breakfast as fine as its predecessors, except that once again the brownie was burnt.

"Emma," he said to his bride of now three days, "A burnt brownie is no brownie at all."

I warned you it wasn't a knee slapper. And yes, we now live in a time when Emma would probably respond, "Make your own darn brownie if you don't like it." But setting aside this modern nuance, how should we respond to a prodigious effort that ends up a poor result? With children who gift us with a potholder they had spent a week making in school and which immediately begins to unravel in our hands it's a no-brainer; "Darling, how wonderful!" But for the more mature seekers of gratitude the bar is higher. You may score some points for pulling out the ladder and washing the second floor windows, but you lose them if the windows are left streaked with soap. How nice of you to drive all the way to Kingston to buy someone a special shirt, how useless if it's the wrong size. Get it? A burnt brownie is no brownie at all.

Which brings us to the Woodstock town board's land-use sub committee consisting of councilpersons Liz Simonson and Chris Collins, and its incredible just-out-of-the-oven effort, a glazed twenty-six page, single spaced amendment to the zoning law proposing to regulate development near wetlands and watercourses.

Let there be no misunderstanding; protecting wetlands and watercourses is our obligation. Try to imagine a world without any.

But for a regulation to be effective it must be clear and concise. For instance, "Speed Limit, 35 MPH" is clear and concise. If instead the sign reads, "Speed Limit, 35 MPH except in those instances where may lurk potential hazards, including but not limited to; 1) migrating wild life, 2) fallen limbs, 3) ice, 4) blind driveways, 5) other potential hazards as determined by a police officer or his agent, in which case the speed limit shall be reduced to 20 MPH, or to the most practicable speed limit as listed in the New York State Vehicular Traffic Law, Section 754, subsection vii 7 (d) …" well, you get the picture.

The land use subcommittee's proposed regulation is chewy and buttery, but oddly has no calories. It contains the assertion, "Considerable acreage of these important natural resources [wetlands and watercourses] has been lost or impaired…" and yet at the recent public hearing neither Simonson nor Collins was able to cite even ONE such instance of loss or impairment. This is not to say none has occurred - somewhere out there I'm sure a vernal pool lies buried under a tennis court -- but you'd think that the producers of a twenty-six page single-spaced document could at least think of ONE.

The proposed regulation applies to "any person proposing to conduct or causing to be conducted a potentially regulated activity…" I'm sorry, that's not any person, that's every person since every one, whether erecting so much as a doghouse or not, is potentially a wetland and watercourse destroyer.

The proposed regulation mandates a permitting process that by comparison makes the Labyrinth of Crete look like a walk through a park, requires a detailed site map of a standard even Vermeer would find difficult to satisfy, necessitates the expensive services of engineers, hydrologists and, let's not forget, mapmakers that would empty the treasury of Midas, and after all this the applicant can be DENIED his permit if the planning board should find, among other things, that "the proposed regulated activity will cause nuisance to neighboring property(s)…"

The proposed regulation might be appropriate if Woodstock were besieged with applications for airports, ski resorts and nuclear power plants. A look at the record, however, indicates that almost all the new construction over the last several decades has been single-family homes. The proposed regulation would guarantee that the only people to build a house in Woodstock are Donald Trump and his kids and his ex-wives.

Sorry, this is a burnt brownie.

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