New master plan envisions the Esopus of the future

For a year, the Town of Esopus has been working on its new comprehensive plan, and now the results are in. On March 6, Town Supervisor Shannon Harris, Jared Geuss, the town councilman who chairs the town’s Comprehensive Plan Committee and Matt Rogers, senior planner from planning consultancy Laberge Group, presented an overview of the plan to an overflow crowd. The public hearing, which represented the culmination of many months of public outreach, will be followed up by the adoption of the plan on April 23.

Commenting on the turnout, Rogers said, “I’ve just been to a community south of Buffalo and you guys blow their socks off! This is just fantastic!”

“We’re in a world where the national deficit is in the trillions of dollars, but we are managing a conservative budget and our services are on the front line,” Harris said at the beginning of her PowerPoint presentation. “We can’t afford to not invest in infrastructure, in economic development centers to bring local jobs back, in community places and gathering places like public parks and the waterfront.”

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Harris said the various constituencies in the room included town employees, religious community leaders, the fire department, law enforcement, and reps from the Ulster County Planning Board, the state Department of Transportation, Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson. Also present was Sheriff Juan Figueroa.

Harris provided an overview of the process as well as the plan’s objectives, collective vision, purpose, key themes, recommended actions and implementation, stressing the importance of community volunteer involvement. “It’s not our plan, but your plan,” Harris said.

She addressed some future trends:

• The population is expected to increase by 2.1 percent, to 9,589 by 2022

• Young families are expected to increase, though population of school-age children will remain stable

• Residents between age 45 and 55 are expected to decrease by 14 percent and seniors are expected to increase by 15 percent.

As well as housing:

• Sixty-five percent of the housing is owner-occupied, and 59 percent of renters and 24 percent of homeowners are “cost-burdened,” paying a third of their income in housing.

• Town of Esopus’ median home value is $211,000, 26 percent lower than the state median value. The median household income is $70,646, which is 16 percent higher than the state median.

Regarding employment, Harris said the largest sector is in government, followed by trade, transportation, utilities and hospitals. Residents travel outside the town to find work, with more than 40 percent working elsewhere in the county.

The town took in $5.3 million of revenues and has $5.2 million in expenses year over year. Esopus is ranked 11th for tax revenue compared to the county’s other towns and ranked 10th for expenditures. The majority of revenues come from taxes, which is spent mostly on “highway and water and sewer, followed by healthcare and personnel, then general administration.”

Water infrastructure is a priority: the town will receive a $2.37 million grant this year from the state Environmental Facilities Corp. for a water storage tank. Other grants will fund studies of the town’s “source water port strategy” and the possible risks from obtaining its drinking water from the Hudson River, along with a waterfront revitalization plan, riverfront access, stormwater drainage plan and zoning.

Floods that occurred from the heavy rainfall in September are prompting new investments in stormwater drainage. A town task force will be deploying a “GIS mapping system to identify culverts and crossing structures and modeling the water flow,” Harris said. “We’ll be assessing them, looking at the conditions and at the remediation, and also identify where funding exists to implement remediation strategies.”

Focus on the waterfront

Esopus has the most river frontage of any Ulster County town, and the waterfront is a priority. “We’re partnering with Scenic Hudson to look at the waterfront frontage they own and what kinds of amenities we can put on the waterfront to encourage tourism and recreation,” Harris said.

The town plans to hire “an emergency preparedness/response leader, for when we have major snow storms or blackouts.” There are plans to repair the decaying crosswalks on Route 9W and “to install new video security surveillance monitors in the parks,” where “there’s been some odd activity.” In addition, new gateway signage and landscaping will be installed, “so people know they’ve arrived at a place which cares about itself.”

The miniature tugboats created by artists will be reinstalled on Main Street, upgraded amenities are planned for the town parks, a new town website and Facebook page have been launched, and the budget has been posted online.

Harris said planning for climate change “and maintaining our environmental quality” is part of the plan’s collective vision. “We can cultivate new businesses and appropriate industrial and manufacturing opportunities in ways that are compatible with the town’s rural and historic character. The hamlets will be revitalized and key roads improved for safety and to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Charting a course for growth

Geuss, the chair of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, explained that the plan would serve as “a road map” for the town “focused on economic development, revitalization of the hamlets and future land use,” which would also help attract grants. He said the town plans to invest in grant writers, which means “we’ll get the money instead of hoping for it. … We want to look for balance, to attract private investment while preserving natural resources and key assets,” he said.

Back in 2017, the process began when town officials conducted a survey, then “rented a bus, so that instead of just looking at maps, we went site to site and touched the ground and looked at places some of us had never been before,” recalled Geuss. “We had stakeholder meetings and community group interviews last April. It’s because of everyone in this room that we were able to make this happen.

“Economic development is at the forefront, since it ultimately enhances every other aspect of the town,” he said. “It’s how you attract, entertain and keep people here.” In addition, “we want each hamlet to continue to have its own identity and hold its historic value. “ Regarding another theme of the plan, infrastructure, Guess said “we don’t want to just get a grant and throw money down the drain” but instead “just do it once in the right way for the least amount of money and the best possible outcome.”

Matt Rogers, a certified planner at Laberge, shared the consultancy’s findings. “You have a lot of great open spaces and some architectural integrity, [compared to] most communities, in which a lot of older significant buildings are long gone,” he said. “You have an opportunity to preserve them and carry on that architectural style in new developments. Your natural resources and parks are clearly unmatched in the area, provided by both the town and Scenic Hudson.”

In pursuing economic development goals, “first and foremost the town is focused on you, the residents and business owners,” Rogers said. “Then you can look at how to attract additional residents, businesses and investors to help the community and stabilize the tax base.”

Repurposing is important

He said the first initiative is compiling a list of sites and needs “to identify and target the types of businesses you want to come in” Rogers noted in the following week the town would be meeting with the state Department of Environmental Conservation about the $10 million remediation for the Hercules/Dyno Nobel state superfund site; once it’s cleaned up, ideally the site would be repurposed for future industrial use. Such repurposing is key to attracting new industry, Rogers said.

A second key initiative is improving the condition and appearance of commercial areas. He said there many recommendations — “not every one will be implemented” — and the plan will be continually revised to reflect new ideas.

Number three is “promoting the town as a destination,” including making sure “up-to-date information on attractions is provided in easily accessible places,” with the town possibly establishing a visitors’ center. The fourth initiative is “to encourage preservation of agriculture and a diversity of related activities,” such as distilleries, wineries and apple orchards. These tend to be clustered along the Route 9W corridor and should be capitalized on,” including grant funding for start-ups and expansions.

Charles Ferri, founder and CEO of Star Vodka, took the floor to provide an update on his distillery project. Ferry said “it’s been a rough road” due to “a lot of state and federal bureaucracy” but assured the audience “we’re on the goal line.” He is planning to open his waterfront distillery, located on a former estate off 9W, in late summer, with a tasting room and stone patio, offer rye and bourbon in addition to vodka, and open a hotel.

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Rogers called the planned distillery “a fantastic gateway to the community.”

Rogers said after the plan is approved the next step is updating the town’s zoning. “Primary residential and commercial areas should be maintained and water/sewer expanded only to those areas where it’s appropriate and those having an issue with wastewater disposal.”

As a climate smart community, the town “should encourage the proliferation of renewal energy … the town will look into how to best regulate this, to allow appropriate types of renewable energy but also protect its character and avoid adverse impacts, ” he said.

Next steps are “getting the draft plan to Ulster County Planning for its review” before the plan is approved on April 23, said Harris. “We’ve gotten dozens of recommendations, and we need to stand behind those and turn them into action. We will not let this plan sit on the shelf. We’re taking steps to realign volunteer boards and committees to match up with taskforces for the plan. We have vacancies on many of these boards and need folks to sign up and volunteer,” she told the crowd.

The public speaks

In the Q&A session, a resident asked about whether the town was concerned with rising waters. “I live on the water and it comes over my seawall,” responded Harris. “It’s a pattern replicated all over town.” New bulkheads and creating an emergency response “in case there is a breach” were possible solutions, she said. Rogers added that the town was looking at ways to increase resilience to flooding and sea level rise.

Another resident said a pedestrian intersection on 9W was unsafe. Harris said the town is commissioning a safety study of two intersections this year and would consider doing “an old-fashioned sting operation with the sheriff.”

Other comments addressed a range of topics: not building large health-care facilities in residential areas, constructing a walkway from Freer Park to a spectacular mountain view, getting regular feedback from the hamlets, and providing accommodations in monasteries and other inexpensive venues so that families and moderate income people would be able to visit.

Heather Blaikie, a planner at Scenic Hudson, said her organization supported the plan and “would like to see further direct goals protecting, enhancing, and restoring environmental resources” such as the town’s “different biological habitats and the unique species they protect … we’d like to see support for the John Burroughs and Black Creek preserves and explore the potential to reconnect them with other trails.”

“It’s in your power to hold the town board accountable,” concluded Harris. “We want you to invest in recreation, infrastructure, to show us how to get there. The plan gives everyone in the community a lot of power to hold us accountable.”

Afterwards, residents spoke positively about the yearlong planning process. “It’s been very interactive, with good communication,” said Lois Dekoskie. “This board jumped on [the comprehensive plan] and got it going to bring money into the town. I don’t think anyone could have a negative response.”

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