Casinos in Saugerties: Don’t even mention it

The town and village boards. (photo by David Gordon)

The town and village boards. (photo by David Gordon)

If there was one thing nearly all the speakers at a public hearing on the Saugerties Comprehensive Plan held by the town and village boards agreed on, it was that they don’t like the reference to casinos in the plan.

The plan lays down a gauntlet of requirements for any casino proposal the town might consider in the future. But residents, still smarting from last decade’s fight against a casino plan at Winston Farm (the site of Woodstock ’94 and a frequent target for development schemes real and imagined), asked that the plan make no reference to casinos, since it might suggest the town is open to one.

Of the 14 speakers at the hearing on Wednesday, June 5, seven specifically mentioned the provision that set out stringent conditions under which casinos could be established. For five, this was their only criticism of the plan, which they said they generally favor. No one spoke in favor of allowing a casino in Saugerties.

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The plan specifies that before any casino could be built in Saugerties, the developers must show that all social, fiscal and environmental effects of casinos in general, plus any site-specific impacts, can be mitigated. It requires public participation in the decision-making process.

Patrick Fitzsimmons, who chaired the committee that wrote the plan, said the provision was necessary because “if you don’t have something in the Comprehensive Plan a developer could come in and talk to the town supervisor or a Town Board and decide there if they want to go forward.”

The committee felt that the people of Saugerties should see that the issue was addressed, he said. “The plan now says to a developer that if you want gaming you have to go through a lot of steps and make sure that we cover all bases before we vote on this.”

For others, the mention of casinos in the plan seems to open the door to possible development. Lanny Walter warned that simply stating that a casino would be considered could lead to a lawsuit should a casino operator want to come to town. Referring to the successful effort to prevent a casino from being sited on Winston Farm several years ago, “it was clear that no one wanted a casino, so it would not be irrational to say in the Comprehensive Plan ‘we don’t want a casino.’”

Supervisor Kelly Myers, who chaired the meeting, said she was pleased with the turnout, the generally courteous tone and the thoughtfulness of many of the speakers. “People with many diverse ideas came out, and they were very well prepared. It is tremendous when people care enough about their community to share their vision and put their heads together to make a plan,” she said. Myers referred to the document as “a really nice game plan.” The plan does not have the force of law, she said, but “what we’re saying is we’re setting out a set of goals.”

Village Mayor William Murphy said he heard a number of good points from the public that may be incorporated into the final plan. “The general reception was pretty positive.” On the specific issue of casinos, Murphy said he is generally against casinos but can see good arguments on both sides of including them in the plan. “I’m against casinos, and I make no bones about it. Maybe we can word [the section on casinos] differently, make it more affirmative.” Referring to the people who questioned the need for a plan, Murphy said the town and village didn’t have a choice. “It’s mandated. We don’t want this extra layer of government any more than anyone else, but we have to have it in order to qualify for zoning and other provisions.”

During the meeting, Alex Wade made the same point, noting that the first plan was also written as a result of the state mandate. That plan would remain the town’s Comprehensive Plan if the new one is not adopted by the town and village, he said. “New York State will not let you pass any zoning law unless you have a Comprehensive Plan in place,” he said.

Nevertheless, the town and village have implemented many of the recommendations in the earlier plan, from integrating the town and village police forces to numerous zoning updates and the creation of new zones, he said.

“Where have the critics been for the last 15 years?” Wade asked. “The original Comprehensive Plan, which if this goes down, we’ll be back to it, has been in effect all this time, and we haven’t done anything dreadful.”

The decision to update the old plan rather than start from scratch resulted partly from the fact that much of the old plan was still usable. The committee also added provisions for new challenges that were not even on the radar 10 years ago, such as climate change.

Many, including those who criticized the language relating to casinos, praised the overall plan as a good outline for Saugerties’s future.

Susan Weeks said the plan is a good road map to the town’s future, and “I urge you [the boards] to support this plan. If we stick our heads in the sand and don’t acknowledge things like global warming, all the new [environmental] research and new knowledge that we’ve gained over the years about water resources and about wetlands, we’re foolish.” She also noted that an overall plan is necessary because “we all breathe the same air, water goes from one property to another and what we do on our property affects the water that flows to all other properties.” Weeks, like most speakers, praised the committee for its work and opposed the provision on casinos.

James “Spider” Barbour suggested that where specific areas were mentioned in the plan, a map should be included. In particular, wetlands and other natural features could be mapped, and “we are developing better maps under a Greenway grant. We have developed comprehensive maps of wetlands, and we are going to do the same for habitats,” he said.

Noting that some of the resistance to environmental discussions may result from a belief that government will tell people exactly what to do, Barbour said, “this is not necessarily what this plan does; it is more like a framework for understanding and guiding the future of the town and village.”

A good understanding of the natural environment and the capacity of land in various areas could actually help developers select projects that would minimize their work and cut their costs, Barbour said.

Elizabeth Shafer, while generally praising the plan, said more emphasis is needed on preserving farms. “As the owner of a small farm, I would like to see the town go more in the direction of protecting farmland,” she said.

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Not everyone was positive about the plan or its possible effects.

Gaetana Ciarlante questioned the premise of the plan, which states that it provides a legal basis for land-use and other government functions. “For me, the legal basis is the United States Constitution,” she said. She also questioned the inclusion of the Complete Streets plan, which envisions pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly roads, as the Town Board has never adopted the plan prepared by Cornell Cooperative Extension. “How did this become part of this document? It’s like another layer of government that we don’t even vote on.”

Paul Jameson said he read the plan several times to be sure he understood all its implications. Referring to the clause Ciarlante had cited regarding the plan’s role as a foundation for town laws, Jameson said, “I thought that’s what our local laws and our zoning laws do.” Citing a section of the law that refers to the need for extra scrutiny of steep slopes, meaning those of 15 percent or greater, Jameson said 15 percent is not steep. (However, the existing zoning law already defines 15 percent as a steep slope.)

Given the time constraints, Jameson said, he could not detail all the provisions of the proposed plan that trouble him. However, in general, “it is a vehicle to create laws outside of the democratic process. It severely limits our ability to utilize our private property.” Jameson also said he had submitted a written critique of sections of the plan.

One critic said she believes the plan is an attempt to force everyone to live in apartments, while another maintained that it is more suitable for poor third-world countries like Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia or Darfur than for the United States.