New Paltz Year in Review

i The town and village worked with Fairweather Consultants this year to come up with empirical data that would lead them, hopefully, toward the most efficient form of government for New Paltz. (illustration by Lauren Thomas)

The year 2011 saw some wild weather, political changings-of-the-guard, scandals, survivors and a community that came together during the most devastating floods ever recorded. While December has been dismal, snowless and wet, New Paltz and the region were hit by a massive snowstorm just days before Halloween — with 17.3 inches of frozen precipitation falling on pumpkins in October, making it by far a record-smashing, once-in-a-lifetime event, according to the Mohonk Lake Cooperative Weather Station. Power was lost to hundreds of Paltzonians for days; fallen trees and branches littered lawns and roadways and pounded homes and vehicles.

This storm came just as farmers, first responders and flood victims were beginning to recover from the heavy rain events spurred by Hurricane Irene and then subsequent downpours and the Wallkill River overflowing into fields and homes throughout September, causing President Obama to declare Ulster County a federal disaster area. The September flooding devastated local farms whose fields border the Wallkill River; pumpkins floated down the river; entire crops were lost; and just recently elected mayor Jason West, along with town supervisor Toni Hokanson, leveled a curfew, fearing that the river would crest so high that curious onlookers might be swept away.

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Power outages went on for days if not weeks; homes, rental properties and condominiums were lost; municipal and emergency crews worked around the clock to clean up after the floods. With so much loss and damage, not only did the Federal Emergency Management Agency hit the ground to help New Paltz and Ulster County, but the entire community came out for Flood Aid: a series of events culminating in an all-day concert that helped raise more than $50,000 for farmers and flood victims who suffered incredible losses due to the extensive flooding. This was the wettest year in Mohonk’s 115-year-history, with more than a dozen inches of rain pouring onto the region in September alone.

There was a titanic shift in the local political climate, with 11 candidates throwing their hat into the ring vying for four seats on the Village Board, including three candidates for mayor.

In the end, it was former mayor Jason West who was chosen by the electorate to serve as its leader for a four-year term, along with running mate Ariana Basco, longtime resident and volunteer Sally Rhoads, and Stewart Glenn, who had been part of the One New Paltz ticket. The previous Village Board was ousted, with the exception of Brian Kimbiz, a recent SUNY-New Paltz graduate who still had two years of his term to serve.

Soon after West was elected, New York State governor Andrew Cuomo, along with the State Senate and Assembly, passed and signed a “same-sex marriage equality” bill that allows same-sex couples the same legal rights to marriage as their heterosexual counterparts — something for which West fought in 2004 (and was arrested for solemnizing 25 same-sex marriages), putting New Paltz on the map as a place of “tolerance” for gay couples.

As for town politics, it has been a year of knock-down, drag-out fights among three-term supervisor Toni Hokanson and her deputy supervisor Jane Ann Williams versus councilman Jeff Logan and veteran councilwoman Kitty Brown, with councilman David Lewis serving as the “swing vote” for many a decision. That said, Town politics heated up when former two-term supervisor Susan Zimet — then a county legislator (D-New Paltz) — threw her hat into the ring and teamed up with former deputy mayor Jean Gallucci and property rights advocate Kevin Barry on a ticket for the Town Board elections this past November. Hokanson withdrew her name from the race just weeks before Election Day. Come Jan. 1, it will be Zimet as supervisor, along with newly elected councilpersons Barry and Gallucci, with Brown and Logan.

Throughout the year, local officials and many volunteer residents of the Town and Village worked with Fairweather Consultants to come up with empirical data that would lead them, hopefully, toward the most efficient form of government for New Paltz as part of a joint town/village $50,000 grant awarded by the New York State Department of State. The Steering Committee voted almost unanimously to accept the final recommendations, which calls for a coterminous government, with Mayor West being the only opposing voice. The draft is in; it is approved; now it’s left to the people and their public leaders to decide what to do with it.

As the New Paltz Central School District was and is facing Governor Cuomo’s two-percent tax cap, reduction in State aid, more and more mandates that are unfunded, teacher reviews and crumbling facilities, its now-resigned president of the Board of Education (BOE), Don Kerr, was arrested this November for allegedly accepting and signing off for a package for eight pounds of marijuana with a street value of approximately $32,000, according to the New Paltz Police Department. Kerr pleaded innocent, claiming that he was kindly signing for a package for one of many tenants in the building in which he has a business office. His case has yet to go to court. In the meantime, he resigned so that the remaining BOE members could focus their efforts on the challenges in front of them. This was not Kerr’s first, but his third brush with the law regarding marijuana usage; the other two charges were pled down to a non-narcotic offense.

There have been longtime stewards of both the environment and the economy who have retired this year. Paul Huth, veteran director of the Daniel Smiley Research Center at the Mohonk Preserve, announced his “partial” retirement this year; one of his young apprentices and astute colleagues, John Thompson, was named the new director. Like Huth, the beloved Joyce Minard, director of the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce, also announced her resignation this year. She will be sorely missed, but says that she’s “not going far!”

As the Occupy Wall Street movement made headlines in New York City and then around the country, New Paltz has its own “Occupy Movement” that has set up camp in Hasbrouck Park. Sadly, one of its comrades was reported by Occupiers and arrested by the New Paltz Police Department on two counts of sexual abuse, as he allegedly crawled into tents and made unwanted advances toward men on two different occasions.

There was much to celebrate this year, as the Open Space Institute (OSI) purchased more than 1,000 acres of pristine property, historic farms and buildings west of the Wallkill that had been owned and maintained by the Smiley family of the Mohonk Mountain House resort. OSI also combined financial efforts with the Nyquist Foundation to secure the Harcourt Sanctuary from Historic Huguenot Street ensuring that it remains open to the public and forever wild.

It was a challenging year, but that did not deter people from coming out to support Flood Aid and the annual Family of New Paltz Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot, which had more participants in its 5K Walk/Run then ever before and helped to raise more than $30,000.

As we enter the New Year, the spotlight will be on the School Board, the Town Board and the Village Board to see how they, with the assistance of residents, can help lead New Paltz through a deep recession, a time of increasing foreclosures and job layoffs, and the will of the people to continue to be able to afford to live and work here and be part of this unique community despite all its obstacles. Happy New Year! ++

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