Casinos, housing, the role of government, and whether a plan created by an unelected committee should shape town policy were among the concerns raised at a public hearing on the town and village Comprehensive Plan.
The Comprehensive Plan is particularly significant because the town’s laws, especially the zoning laws, are required to be in compliance with the goals expressed in the plan. In fact, under New York State law, a town that does not have a comprehensive plan is not allowed to pass laws regarding zoning and land use.
The public hearing on Tuesday, March 12 drew more than 60 people, and 27 made statements.
The plan is divided into 14 goals, each of which is further broken down into a number of recommendations or sub-goals. The goals include quality of life, education, government, recreation and open space; history and small town character; development; land use; development of large parcels; housing; natural resource protection; diversifying the economic base; utilities; energy efficiency; traffic; harbor and waterfront development; tourism; and climate change. The plan was developed over a period of years by the Comprehensive Plan Committee, with help from paid consultants. CPC members include: chair Patrick Fitzsimmons, Jeannine Mayer (Village Board), Leeanne Thornton (Town Board), Jeffrey Helmuth (Village Planning Board), Paul Andreassen (Town Planning Board), Dave Minch (Historic Review Board), Samantha Dederick ( Zoning Board of Appeals/Conservation Advisory Commission), Alexander Wade (village resident) and Gerry Marzec (Conservation Advisory Commission).
Should homeownership be preferred?
Among the most controversial aspects of the plan were the recommendations on housing and zoning.
Goal 7.2 suggests the community “work to provide a broad range of housing throughout the community for all present and future residents, young people, families with children and senior citizens.” Goal 7.4 states: “Support the Saugerties Public Housing Agency and other organizations such as the Senior Housing Project, and Better Community Housing for Saugerties, as they work to maintain housing for qualified low-moderate income residents of the town and village.”
Edward Reisner, referring to the plan’s goal of maintaining the historic, small-town feel of Saugerties, asserted that “traditionally, we’re talking about single-family owner-occupied houses.” Referring to a survey conducted by Ulster County, Reisner said 75 percent of the housing in Saugerties consists of single-family homes. For instance, the plan encourages clustering of houses, and “clustering is a concept that only comes up when you’re talking about large-scale developments,” he asserted. Later in the meeting, Gary Bischoff cited several developments using clustering to offer residents more access to open space, and said this is a sensible way to develop housing.
Gaetana Ciarlante said she had specifically asked that more support for single-family homes be included in the plan, but “there continues to be nothing in place to promote single-family homes and private property ownership, which is the hallmark of a town and society which is economically viable.”
Ciarlante went further than just the housing sections of the plan, saying it contains numerous terms such as support, encourage, regulate, investigate; all terms she said are vague and open to interpretation. She also questioned how much work the volunteer committee had done when “somebody got paid $20,000 to do this, and yet I have heard how everybody was working so hard on it. I don’t get it.” [Ciarlante may have been referring to a $15,000 Hudson River Greenway grant, which covered the cost of consultants to answer technical questions and in some cases put the committee’s proposals into proper legal language.]
Several critics of the plan asserted that creating and following a comprehensive plan amounted to opening the governing process to non-elected individuals, circumventing the democratic process. Ciarlante noted that the plan refers to many regional planning organizations that potentially could override local governments. The plan “sets up a system which governs, not by elected officials; it circumvents the process by which we choose our governing officials and replaces them rather [by] controlling money and controlling appointed officials by having appointed officials and appointing groups that will be making decisions regarding our everyday lives and what’s acceptable and what’s not.” Ciarlante said she will be submitting more detailed information in writing to the committee.
Steve Hubbard, while praising the committee for its good intentions, declared that the plan itself is dangerous. “The reason I say that is that it will take on a life of its own, and it will be subject to interpretation of people in the future, elected officials but more importantly appointed officials who may have their own agenda.” Hubbard suggested that the document should open with the statement, “whereas individual property rights are paramount here,” to make it clear that this is the foundation for the plan.