You may know of Bloomingburg, a village in neighboring Sullivan County, incorporated in 1833. According to the 2010 census, the community has a population of 420. With such a small number of residents, you might think that a land-use proposal that could easily triple that number would attract some attention. Well, such a proposal finally has, although about seven years too late.
In 2006, the Village Board first learned of a proposal for 125 homes. The residential development was pitched as ‘second-home’ townhouses located on a golf course. As outlined in a recent Times Herald-Record article, by February 2008 the project had ‘morphed’ and was presented to the Bloomingburg Planning Board as a proposal for 200 townhouses and 102 single-family homes, with the possibility of senior housing as well. A month later, the project developer added 93 patio homes to the mix, for a total of 395 dwelling units housing anywhere from 800 to 1,000 new residents and likely more. Nothing amiss here; all perfectly legal and the proposal process was conducted during open public meetings.
However, that the ‘Bloomingburg Syndrome’ had befallen this historic village was clearly indicated by the fact that only eleven members of the 400-plus community residents attended the public hearing, three of which were representatives of the developer. That same evening the Planning Board granted final subdivision approval for the project. The vote was 3-2.
The full manifestation of the syndrome finally became evident when, in the fall of this year, as the frames of the hundreds of dwellings began to appear, complaints mounted over the potential environmental, economic and cultural impact of the project, and the beat of public outcry has continued to grow ever louder and more vociferous. Bloomingburg has a real problem on its hands and the root cause was the ‘apathy virus’.
The 2010 census shows that over 14,000 of us reside in New Paltz, with almost half that number living within the boundaries of the village. How many community members do you think have attended a recent town or village Planning Board meeting? How about a Town or Village Board meeting? I’ll tell you. Absent a specific hot-button issue, many such meetings garner far fewer than the eleven individuals who came out for the one at which the Bloomingburg Planning Board granted its final subdivision approval for the 395-unit townhouse development. Beware the Bloomingburg Syndrome.
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good for some! Between work, the PTA, Little League, piano lessons, soccer practice, pediatrician appointments, basketball games…(fill in your own blanks), I barely have any energy left to put a meal on the table and help with homework.” The lives of my own three daughters and their four children show us daily the pressures on the average family in any community, and of course meeting attendance is not the only measure of interest and involvement.
Low attendance may also be explained by the fact that we elect Town, Village and School District officials whom we have vetted and now trust to do the right thing on our behalf. Sadly, the past five years, beginning with the rejected School Board plans for the Middle School, the debacle of the two years and over $100,000 wasted by our Town and Village Boards on the consolidation issue and, most recently, the dubious behavior of SUNY and the Town of New Paltz officials with regard to the Wilmorite/J.A.M. of New Paltz/Park Point tax evasion attempt have shown us that blindly trusting in the decisions made by our government leaders can sometimes lead to consequences we are not happy with. Some politicians actually count on community apathy in order to push forward certain pet projects.
To be fair, I understand that when the only non-governmental person at a public meeting is the videographer, elected officials may perceive that the community doesn’t care about an issue or take its silence and lack of input as a form of passive consent.
So, as we look forward to a new year, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves in the coming year from the Bloomingburg Syndrome? I believe there is. Having just returned from Colorado, it is clear that the citizens of several communities I visited appear quite satisfied with their local governments, their taxes and the services provided for them. People in these communities keep involved by using ‘Community Involvement Groups’ in much the same way that some municipalities use ‘Neighborhood Watch’ groups. It can be as simple as having a single community member commit to following a major event for one month and reporting back at the end of that time on the status of the issue. Citizens can then decide whether attendance at a meeting or making a public comment would be useful in helping to guide the decision-making process of their governmental officials.
Just as we have a “One Book, One Community” event each year, local residents could establish “One Neighborhood, One Issue” monthly get-togethers as a possible antidote to the ‘apathy virus’ and the dreaded Bloomingburg Syndrome.