Community planning in Esopus — from the roots, upward

Town of Esopus supervisor Shannon Harris talks to a resident at a meeting in May held to collect public opinion on the town’s planning priorities. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Sometimes, the best laid municipal plans go awry, or sit on shelves for years.

For many towns, top-down planning, once called “master plans,” produce controversy, angst and alienation. Kingston’s destructive urban renewal experience in the 1960s is but one example.

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Dan Shuster of Daniel Schuster Associates of Stone Ridge, a local planning consultant for half a century, said the modern approach to municipal planning is “dramatically different” than when his firm worked as consultants on Kingston’s now-reviled urban renewal.

“In those days, state law required that [only] planning boards had authority to prepare comprehensive plans,” he said. “There was very little public input. That changed in the 90s when the state required municipal approval. The result was far greater public participation, citizen committees and the like.”

Esopus Town Supervisor Shannon Harris, a global marketing director for PricewaterhouseCooper before running for office for the first time last year, believes concerted public input can produce more positive results and, maybe, state and federal funding.

Harris is a newcomer to Esopus, but an old hand at politics. Her former husband, Julian Schreibman, was once county Democratic chairman and a congressional candidate. Last year he was elected to a 14-year term as a state Supreme Court judge. Democrat Harris, a Marbletown transplant and the mother of three grade-school boys (including a set of twins), was a 101-vote winner (about 52 percent) over well-known Republican Carl Belfiglio a former town board member and a sitting county legislator, last year. She said her door-to-door campaign taught her a lot about Esopus and its residents.

“For one thing,” she said, “nobody from Esopus says they’re from Esopus, unless it’s the hamlet of Esopus. People closely identify from where they live, be it Sleightsburgh, Ulster Park, Port Ewen, St. Remy or any of our quaint hamlets.”

Access to water and water-related tourism, agriculture and recreation were subjects frequently raised by residents within their hamlets, she said. An Esopus Economic Development Committee has been working on those issues for a number of years.

Harris, as supervisor, takes a broader view, that the town is a sum of its many diverse parts.

“First and foremost, we’re a water town,” she said, noting that the Esopus “peninsula”  has the longest riverfront of any town on the Hudson and is also bounded by the Rondout Creek and the Wallkill River. Its roots are on the water; its town symbol the tugboat, an annual artist festival the supervisor hopes to revive.

“I feel it an oxymoron that our people tell me they feel disconnected from water and unable to access it, because it completely surrounds us,” she said. “This is something we hope to address through proper planning.”

Coincidentally, Schuster’s firm was the consultant on the Town of Esopus comprehensive plan some 25 years ago. It remains a work in progress under a comprehensive plan committee that meets regularly.

Harris said the accidental death on June 5 of town planner Myles Putman, a Schuster associate for many years, “a dear friend to Esopus and a talented planner,” will impact our morale, but not our deadlines.”

Schuster said Harris’s approach to “building a new Esopus” is “not unusual,” but apparently “quite intense.”

Other newly-seated town supervisors in Saugerties, Hurley and Marbletown are also advancing plans for municipal improvements, but more on the level of dealing with ongoing issues.

Harris’s grassroots planning began shortly after she took office in January with the mailing of hamlet-specific questionnaires to some 6,000 households in the town and opened a Town of Esopus Facebook page. At the same time, contact was made with the town’s various stakeholders, fire companies, churches, senior citizen groups, business and veterans’ organizations, youth groups, and schools to form focus groups. The county office of economic development was “very helpful,” she said. “We were committed to an open, transparent, interactive process,” she said. “We want people to better understand what they’re getting for the taxes they pay.”

Toward that end, the town will be using the preliminary planning that has taken place over the last few months as a basis to apply for state and federal grants.

In terms of development particularly in the agra-tourism area, Harris said, “We want to roll out the red carpet, let people know we’re open for the kinds of business our residents want,” she said.

Over 150 residents turned out for a meeting at town hall in April where their suggestions and concerns were posted on maps of each hamlet. The supervisor said she was contacted by at least another 150 people who said they couldn’t make the meeting because of work or family obligations. Another meeting on a weekend afternoon drew some 75 residents. “There’s obviously a lot of interest,” she said.

Harris said she and her core working group of about 15, which includes town staffers, understand that change can bring financial commitments which some may resist.

The public is invited to town hall on June 21 from five to seven p.m. for a viewing and discussion of the working group’s plans to date.

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