An interview with supervisor, Jeremy Wilber

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

With a decisive victory, Jeremy Wilber was just elected to his seventh two year term as Woodstock’s town supervisor. Though the tenure has been non-consecutive (Jeff Moran served from 2008-2011) at the end of the term Wilber will qualify as the town’s longest serving chief officer, topping Isaac Elting who did 13 years from 1810-1822.

The job, as seen from the eyes of one who did it (me, for a measly four years), can be roughly divvied up into four parts: Chief financial officer of an approximately $6 million per year venture; Chief executive officer, overseeing the many departments and employees on a daily basis; Head of the local legislature, responsible for writing (or causing to be written) laws, resolutions and other actions of the town council, getting them passed as well as implementing such; and being the political leader of the community, with a vision and the interpersonal skills and savvy to reach for it.

Wilber is an experienced hand at it. We recognize that times are shifting and that new challenges arise constantly.

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There are many perspectives on these issues as we present them. But we are as far from another election season as we can get, so, agree or disagree, here’s the way the guy in the top job sees Woodstock challenges ahead.

 

Q. How’d the election look, from your perspective?

A. The one distressing thing was the ballot (there was a misprint on it, giving a false instruction in the town board balloting.) I don’t think there’s anything more sacred in American life than the vote. It didn’t anger me, it just disheartened me. Its so fundamental and so important, to see is so screwed up was just disheartening.

But as far as the results, it was Row A all the way. I’m happy with that. I think Row A presented the better candidates.

 

Q. Do you think there’ll be a challenge to the town board results?

A. I don’t know, haven’t heard. I think the numbers are wide enough. I think one would have to at least wait for the absentee ballots. I talked to Ken (Panza, the town board candidate who finished 62 votes shy of election) the other day and I don’t think he was hot to trot for a recount. He understood what the numbers said.

And in that conversation I expressed my hope and it’s sincere, that he continue his involvement in public affairs, especially when we kick this comprehensive plan committee into gear. he’d really be an asset.

 

Q. You’ve talked of a Comprehensive Plan for Woodstock. Is it necessary?

A. I think yes, it is necessary. I think we are approaching another crossroads in the history of the town. What we want to avoid, and you see it all over in these Long Island communities, you see what were once these little charming villages that just became overrun with migration. And now you just see the vestiges of the charm and beauty that these places once had. The age of this (points to an iPhone) and the phenomena that we call Airbnb and the other short term rental apps, is changing the face of the town. I think that why we saw so many people in town this summer, taking advantage of short term rentals.

There’s that, and I know 15 years ago in the last Comprehensive Plan that was never formally adopted, although many of its recommendations were, one of the things it called for was so called eco-tourism. At the time, it was, oh, great, sure eco-tourism…and we certainly want to attract enough tourism to keep our businesses vital, keep our restaurants full…however, as you see with the (crowded) parking phenomena atop Meads Mountain and over on Millstream Road, both came from advertising to the world — the scenic view from the mountain and the lovely swimming hole, and people were coming to them and crowding them so much that it really does begin to effect public safety. It’s not an unmitigated advantage, attracting so called eco-tourists. There are limitations.

The thing about Woodstock that people have to remember, especially people new to the area is the relation between geography and destiny. There’s very good reasons why large festivals are held in Saugerties and not Woodstock. It’s not because we’re a bunch of uptight prigs and don’t want fun and festivals, we just don’t have the geography to support a sudden influx of 20 to a hundred thousand people and keep them safe and protected. We’re a series of valleys surrounded by hills, we do not have alluvial plains as they do along the Hudson River. We don’t have easy access to four lane highways. There’s a very good reason why, over the years, Woodstock has kept its event small and contained.

I think that a Comprehensive Plan committee has to pick up the studies again. All that I’ve read, starting with the Brown and Anthony report (1965), it begins with the geography. That’s where a Comp Plan begins, knowing what an area can support and what it can’t. What areas are more advantageous for growth and what are not.

 

Q. What do you see as its function?

A. The function of it is to take the community’s pulse, how it sees the future of the town.

Here’s some interesting questions, going back to Airbnb — there are two kinds of lodging we are seeing. The one is where the couple owns a house, have a spare bedroom and they advertise it on Airbnb and they let it out as a short term rental. The primary owners are there during this whole transaction.

There’s the other kind where the homeowner moves out of the premises entirely and rents out the entire house. This to me is less bed and breakfast and more hotel. The zoning law, as we currently have it, permits hotels only in the commercial districts, nowhere else. When we have complaints about bnb — and in this case I think it’s more hotel — it’s usually where the homeowner is not there to tell the renters to please turn the music down, etc., etc.

That would be answered in the Comp Plan…as far as regulation goes, what does the community want? Maybe the community thinks that hotels, as I’m describing them, should be allowed in more than the commercial districts. Or maybe they think that there should be strict enforcement to prevent them from going out into other districts. I think the Comp Plan is a conversation the community has with itself. It can’t be top down. I certainly have my opinions, but I don’t think it’s my position or the town board’s position to make these kinds of decisions. There may be people out there who feel that it’s very important that people have these means to pay their taxes, save their properties, stay in the area, and if they can make a few bucks renting the house out for a weekend, or a room, all the power to them. And they may be right.

 

How do you conduct the conversation?

Well that’s for the next town board to discuss. As a suggestion I would say we reach out to the different bodies that exist in the town — the library board, the fire commissioners, the planning board, various boards that the town has; somebody from the senior rec committee. Somebody connected with the youth center, Family of Woodstock, the Chamber of Commerce, all would promote a representative, and sort of make a steering committee and begin there.

And I would ask that everyone read the land use documents we have, the Brown and Anthony Report, read the Saratoga Report from 15 years ago, the University of Pennsylvania study from the late 1970s, and also I would offer the so called inventory that I’ve prepared for this conversation, so they’d know where we are.

 

Q. Will it make specific recommendations?

A. Certainly with the Brown and Anthony report and the Saratoga study there were specific recommendations, but other things, too. For instance, the Saratoga report recommended a Jitney…I don’t know why they didn’t call it a bus…a Jitney…but yes recommendations can be very specific.

 

Q. There is a package of proposed changes to the zoning law coming from the Planning Board. What is that about?

A. They previewed this last April and to be quite honest with you I don’t remember anything specific about it. But I don’t remember there being anything in it, that was “Oh my God, what is this?” Just tweaks of the law to rid it of some ambiguities. It’s my understanding that they will be presenting us with a finalized document very soon.

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Q. How is the zoning law holding up?

A. Well, rather than answer that myself, I would just ask anybody in the town, how are you experiencing the town? Is the law protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public? Do you feel that it’s being protected?

The interesting thing about the zoning law, is that there was this tremendous agita on the part of some people when it came to its adoption, and I think if you were to look back at the particular interests that were so much against that law, you would find that those interests were the most benefited by it. What they were looking for were property values, and they had a different concept about protecting their property values — they seemed to think that no regulation was going to enhance their values. And no regulation would have, I think, kicked Woodstock off the perch of having the most valuable square inch of property in all of Ulster County. So it’s an irony.

 

Q. You’ve got a proposed budget that increases taxes by less than one percent. How are the town’s finances? Can you fund the government for another year on that?

A. Every time you pick up the newspaper, you see something different about the economy. Today there’s the big October jobs report that says we’re on solid footing. Who the hell knows? What I can say is, the economy and our budget are related right now because we have had so much of a decrease in revenues primarily due to mortgage tax short fall. I believe for next year we budgeted somewhere near $180,000…last year (for this year) we budgeted something like $220,000 or $230,000, which we fell short of. We came closer to the $180,000 mark.