AFFIRM at 25: New Paltz grassroots organizers look back at their victories

Left to right: Judy Mage, Barbara Petersen, Bob Hughes, David Porter, Kitty Brown, Roger Roloff and Ann Rodman. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Grassroots activism has changed the way New Paltz and its surrounding townships look — not so much in what you see, but in what you don’t see: commercial and residential sprawl, elimination of woods, wetlands and the vast array of animals, birds and plant life that rely on those delicate ecosystems to thrive. For the past four decades, local groups like the Association for Intelligent Rural Management (AFFIRM), Save Our Community (SOC), Save the Woods and Wetlands (SWW), Stop Crossroads and more have banded together to wage campaigns against what they considered to be irresponsible development, including two megamall proposals with Wal-Mart as their anchor store, industrial buildings that bordered or intruded on wetlands and various commercial/residential projects that were expected to lead to increased traffic, blight, loss of locally owned businesses and a myriad of negative environmental impacts. The viewsheds that many enjoy now — like the 100-acre Jewett Farm preserved forever off Huguenot Street, or the sweeping vista of the Shawangunk Ridge foothills off Butterville Road, or the now-town-owned rail trail, a heavily trafficked linear park used by walkers, cyclists, runners and horseback riders — would be obscured by sprawl, had these groups not fought for their preservation.

On the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the second Wal-Mart struggle (1993-96), we thought that it was a good time to remember some of these collective engagements and talk to a few of the key movers and shakers.

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“Although it’s hard to believe today, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail was a controversial and sometimes bitterly opposed project,” said Kitty Brown, a longtime local environmental activist as well as a former town and planning board member. “In 1989, shortly after I and a hardy band of locals formed the Wallkill Valley Land Trust, we took a big gulp and sought to acquire the abandoned railway from Conrail.”

David Porter of AFFIRM said that in his estimation, the most successful land-use campaign of which he was a part was the fight against the big-box retail giant Wal-Mart, poised to be the anchor store of a 180,000-square-foot megamall project slated for the Plesser property, east of the Thruway. “Defeating a very powerful corporation like Wal-Mart, with all its damaging local consequences, was a great accomplishment,” he said, but noted that “Equally important was the very wide, generous and voluntary community coalition of opposition that developed in the process. That was truly a community triumph on various fronts, and it left a legacy of self-confidence and environmental awareness for local activism to the present.”

Ann Rodman, former longtime owner of Handmade & More in downtown New Paltz, became involved with SOC and the fight against the megamall, believing, among other things, that it would negatively impact local businesses and increase taxes. “I felt we were doing a service to the health of the whole town, because I saw what happened in other towns like Poughkeepsie when a megamall came…the small-town local businesses gradually close, because the megamalls offer cheaper goods at cheaper prices, and then the downtowns begin to look seedy and uncared-for.”

Inspired by Rodman, Porter, Brown and so many other local activists, Bob Hughes began participating in the Main Street demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns in opposition to the megamall. He provided public input at local Planning Board meetings illuminating the adverse environmental impacts such a development could bring to the town. Then he went on to help spearhead Save the Woods and Wetlands, which served as a watchdog group against the unmitigated commercial and residential development of more than 140 acres owned by then by the Shawangunk Reserve; the development would have impacted Tributary 13 and the vast network of watersheds and wooded animal corridors, much of which are now part of the Mill Brook Preserve. A portion of that land was developed and turned into Woodland Pond, the senior continuing-care residential facility, but with much less impact on the woods and wetland than was originally proposed — due in large measure to the efforts of SWW and AFFIRM.

“The megamall would have adversely impacted traffic patterns and flow, destroyed wetlands, animal habitats…imposed negative visual impacts and created economic hardships to our small businesses that would have negatively impacted the community character of New Paltz that we all hold so dear,” reflected Hughes on what could have happened, had the activists not been successful in their bid to stop the megamall and other unmitigated proposals.

When asked what New Paltz and its surrounding areas could be today, had these citizens not engaged and pushed back against certain proposed developments or championed the protection of cherished community resources, both cultural and environmental, Porter said, “New Paltz faced a large succession of residential and commercial development proposals over the past three decades — from fairly small to huge. The cumulative effect if all projects had been approved would have been, by now, far more traffic congestion, less wetland benefit, many fewer vistas of beautiful open space, increased local taxes and a damaged local small business retail sector.” He added that, “Even when certain proposals went forward [Woodland Pond, Outlook Farm et cetera], almost all modified their size and impact, at least partly because of community critiques and pressure.”

Brown reflected on that question and tried to imagine if the Huguenot Street Condominium proposal would have gone through and the community now agreed to move ahead in purchasing the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail to turn it into a linear public park.  “I can’t think of a better example of how saving land preserves community character, promotes a connection to nature and saves a community millions of dollars in infrastructure. In the late ‘80s, there was a proposal for a 300-unit condominium project at the northern end of Huguenot Street that would have used the railbed as an access road. Think about the current challenges the Village faces in providing clean water, sanitary sewage disposal and the cost of cleanup after the ever-increasing 100-year floods. Then add 300 condos, and no rail trail!”

What was required of these grassroots organizations was not only time, effort and passion, but also educating themselves and each other on the process. They had to learn about zoning laws, the State Quality Environmental Review Act (SEQRA), how to file proper lawsuits if they felt that their concerns were not being adequately addressed by local planning boards, town boards and zoning boards of appeals. They often had to hire lawyers or find pro-bono lawyers to help them file these lawsuits. They had to counteract the deep pockets of the developers’ traffic and environmental studies with their own — again, either pro bono with the likes of Chet Mirsky (an attorney who volunteered his expertise for AFFIRM) or David Gordon, or having to raise their own funds. There were letters to write, facts to prove, public hearings to attend and speak at, research to be done and findings to be presented at every step of the way.

That said, there were incredible moments of joy even in many of these David-and-Goliath fights. Rodman says that she still remembers “the wonderful feeling of a whole town being of one voice to save their community,” in the fight against the first megamall proposal.

Porter said that his “greatest memory is being part of that continually intensive effort against Wal-Mart. Though often discouraging, the long battle was also energizing because of the broad network of local activists that spanned across the ideological spectrum. A wonderful sense of community and grace came to a head at the December 1994 public hearing at the high school auditorium, where virtually everyone opposed the project — and where one local merchant revealed for the first time publicly what the developer had refused to acknowledge: that Wal-Mart would be the anchor store!”

Brown remembered her greatest memory as “our mortgage-burning party at a home on Huguenot Street. When the Town of Gardiner declined to buy its section of the trail [the town since bought it], we had to borrow $40,000 from the Trust for Public Land to complete the purchase. Dedrick’s Pharmacy, Rock and Snow and Gadaleto’s were the first businesses to donate to our fundraiser,” she recalled, along with a legion of local, county and state politicians who saw this diamond-in-the-rough and supported the efforts to secure the rail trail for a public park. “Best of all,” she added, “there were people there who had originally opposed the trail, and not only donated to help us buy it, but showed up later with work gloves and loppers to help us get to work on it.”

Not only did these groups work to oppose developments that they felt would irreparably harm the character of their community economically, socially and environmentally, but they also volunteered endless amounts of time to help better shape future growth by participating in the creation or revision of master plans, zoning and land-use regulations, wetlands protection laws and open-space preservation. Many members of these various campaigns ended up volunteering to be appointed to local planning and zoning boards or running for various government positions. It’s democracy at its core, and the momentum continues.

There is still ongoing community opposition to the proposed CVS/Five Guys project on North Putt Corners Road (2014 to the present).

Asked what their hope is for continued local activism in regard to responsible growth and environmental protection, Porter said, “My hope is that the next generation of local activists will continue to find innovative and effective ways to interact with and motivate community vigilance against mindless development that saps the town’s uniqueness, vitality and beauty to satisfy developers’ greed.”

Hughes believes that “diligence during the planning process, public participation” have been and will continue to be critical to ensuring a vital future for New Paltz. This “requires limitations on traffic, improved wetland and watercourse protections, continuing open-space preservation and smart development that has all of these elements. That is our gold standard.”

Rodman said that her hope is already coming true. “I see it happening already,” she said. “More and more land is being saved and used for people to walk, run, bicycle and get outside. I want to see this trend continue, where our land use protects the beauty and integrity of our natural environment, encourages exercise and healthy lifestyles. Fewer houses and more open space!”

Brown’s hope is that public participation continues, and that “more people will follow David Porter’s example, whose tireless, detailed and meticulous research gives our legislators the tools they need to make wise land-use decisions; and that the ultimate impact of all this wonderful energy is that it inspires people to show up!”

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