A tangled tale

“Laws are like sausages,” Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked. “It is better not to see them being made.” Even among sausage factories, New York State’s legislature is notoriously dysfunctional.
— Tales from the Sausage Factory, by Daniel Feldman and Gerald Benjamin, 2010

On November 25, New York governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill that would have authorized the Town of Chester in Orange County to establish, after public town referendum, a community preservation fund. The fund’s purpose was to protect unique town resources and further conservation and development efforts vital to future economic success and quality of life. The broadly written Community Preservation Act would allow Chester to tax the transfer of real property “to assure the enjoyment and survivability [of community assets] for current and future generations.” 

The governor’s veto of the local Community Preservation Act was based on his finding that the bill’s true purpose was to block housing developments for Hasidic families. 

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He cited the litigation involving a project called The Greens at Chester which seeks to build 432 large houses on 117 acres.

Last Friday, The New York Times story ran under the headline, “A Town in Hot Water As State Accuses It Of Blocking Jews.” Also last week, state attorney general Letitia James joined a lawsuit accusing Chester of violating fair-housing laws in discriminating against the Hasidic community.  

In a YouTube posting, a previous town supervisor had talked about the town doing what it could “to alleviate 432 Hasidic houses” in the town. But ex-supervisor Alexander Jamieson denied intent of housing discrimination. “We are not full of bigots, we are not anti-Semites,” he said to Times reporter Sharon Otterman. “This is just about the size of the houses. The other stuff is just smoke and mirrors. It’s just a distraction.”

A Hasidic newspaper quoted Jamieson as telling a reporter the purpose of the property transfer tax was “to keep the Hasidic out.” Though the proposal may have appeared innocuous, the paper said, “it was in fact designed to fund purchase of local land in order to keep development rights away from private parties, in particular Orthodox Jews.”

GOP assemblymember Colin Schmidt of New Windsor said he was “greatly discouraged and angered” by the Cuomo veto. He would not yield or relent in his efforts to advocate for preservation, he said.

As often, Democratic state senator James Skoufis straddled a middle ground. Though he was disappointed by the governor’s veto, he said it was “incumbent upon everyone involved to regroup and find an alternative way forward so that open space and farmland can be protected in Chester.”   

Hudson Valley politics is not absent from this discourse. Though the bipartisan, home-rule, opt-in legislation was pioneered under GOP governor George Pataki in 2007, it has since developed an intensely partisan flavor. Democrats are by and large supporters of community preservation legislation, and Republicans find it just another dose of governmental regulation. The gap between the two sides appears to grow as each defends its own worthy perspective and decries the mischievous mischaracterizations of the other.

The amount of the new tax is set by the local jurisdiction, which must hold a referendum to ratify it. The Town of Red Hook in Dutchess County, for instance, collects three-quarters of one percent on the amount above $100,000 and uses the proceeds for farmland protection. 

Proponents call the tax addition “modest.” Unsurprisingly, most local real-estate people start out adamantly opposed to a new tax that impacts only its industry.

Eleven days after his Chester veto, governor Cuomo announced that he had signed a bill, sponsored by local state senator Jen Metzger (S 6235) and assemblyperson Kevin Cahill (A 0129), giving every town and village in Ulster County the exact same authority which Chester had requested.  

Earlier in the year, various community preservation and development groups supporting the legislation had seen little difference between the Chester request and the Ulster County request. On September 20, for instance, the Preservation League of New York State wrote the governor a single letter asking him to sign both into law.

The Ulster County legislature’s Economic Development Committee did recently pass a measure memorializing community preservation legislation, but the resolution was withdrawn prior to a vote of the full legislature. One of the sponsors, Democratic legislator Jim Delaune, said he wasn’t sure whether it had the votes to pass.

County action is now unnecessary. With the governor’s signature, the law the governor did sign for Ulster County does the job. It’s up to the towns and villages to take the next step, if they wish to.

Not many localities have decided to take the plunge. The original permissive 2007 state legislation in which Ulster County is now included has not attracted a large number of governmental participants. 

Of town-level Ulster County political leaders, New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez may be the most immediately enthusiastic about the Community Preservation Act’s potential. “This legislation gives local municipalities the ability to protect things like farmland, open space and historic buildings, all of which preserve these communities’ unique character,” he was quoted as saying after the governor’s signing. Look for New Paltz to take the first steps to adopting the Community Preservation Act.

Assemblymember Cahill said the new legislation had been a long time coming. His congratulatory statement noted that the funds could be used to support affordable housing if that was a community priority. 

“The enactment of the Community Preservation Act into law for Ulster County is an important step forward in helping our local governments preserve open space, develop the tools needed to make housing more affordable and to responsibly plan for a sustainable future,” he wrote. “This is yet another example of the partnership between senator Jen Metzger, governor Cuomo and our office, which moved the needle a positive direction after it has been stuck for so long.”

Those who feel that the character of Ulster County is uniquely in need of protection are enthusiastic. “Ulster County is fortunate to possess remarkable natural, agricultural, and historic resources that define the identity of communities and are an asset to our economy,” said Andy Bicking of Scenic Hudson. “The Community Preservation Act enables local government to take proactive steps to keep these resources intact and protect them for the benefits they provide.”

This particular sausage factory at least finally produced a product, despite the robust evidence of political dysfunction in the process.

Tales from the Sausage Factory co-author Gerald Benjamin provided guidance and inspiration for a 2011 position paper on mid-Hudson agriculture which advocated for a law providing municipal funding streams to protect agricultural land. “A general law extending the right to create such funds and/or to implement them at a county or regional level,” researchers Brian Obach and KT Tobin wrote, “would greatly enhance the ability of municipalities to protect and preserve local agriculture and other open space.”

Ulster County municipalities now have the right to adopt that law.