Rob Stanley is looking forward to his upcoming sixth term as Shandaken town supervisor. Factoring in four years as a councilman, Stanley, who grew up in Shandaken, has been in public service since 2006. His time in office has run concurrent with a transformation in his hometown — alterations in demographics, climate, and economics. These factors come into play as he assesses ongoing issues concerning the Phoenicia water system, short-term-rentals, and infrastructure, all increasingly affected by escalating Upstate New York tourism, which he sees as a positive. “We’re attracting new people to the Catskills,” he says proudly.
Shandaken — “land of rapid waters” in native Esopus — encompasses twelve hamlets, among them Phoenicia, Mt. Tremper, Big Indian, and Pine Hill. For tourism-dependent businesses in these communities, Stanley notes revenue is gradually improving. Not quite up to the Catskills heyday of the 1940s-1960s, but getting there. (Stanley himself recently opened Pine Hill bed-and-breakfast The Wheelhouse Inn.) He says the measured nature of the uptick suits his constituents, most of whom are locals: “In Shandaken, people don’t like to see a lot of quick change.” Stanley notes the tourism dollars come, in large part, from New York City dwellers — many of them on the younger side — needing a break from a social media-heavy world.
“They want to get away from tech,” he says. “They’re looking for an experience. They want to get out and enjoy nature, take a bike ride, go for a hike. They don’t need the campy stuff — the hula lessons and comedians, like in the Borscht Belt days. They want to re-connect with nature.”
In addition to filling local resorts, inns, and motels, these visitors often opt for Shandaken Airbnb accommodations. As with neighboring Woodstock, the issue of housing travelers in short-term-rentals has recently come to a head in Shandaken. A December 9, 2019 meeting of the Shandaken Short-Term Rental (STR) Committee saw the newly formed Phoenicia Home Sharing Association emphasizing to the Ulster County Planning Board the benefits of STRs. In Woodstock, regulations now in place feature a cap on STRs and a registration process that includes building code inspections.
“Some of the things Woodstock instilled are good ideas,” Stanley says. “But we’re not going to carbon copy them. We’ve had some things that need to be dealt with, like trespassing and some parking issues, simple things, but right now there’s no way for us to address it. If we have a permitting or regulatory process, we’ll know what’s going on, the neighbors will know what’s going on. It needs to be done respectfully for everybody involved — the renters, the homeowners, the neighbors, the visitors. You’ve got to take it all into account.”
Water is key
Important as it is, the short-term-rental issue is not at the top of Stanley’s priority list. That distinction goes to improving the complicated Phoenicia water system, and finding a way to pay for it all, preferably with as little financial impact to the tax base as possible.
“We’ve jumped through hoops trying to get this done,” Stanley says, referring to applying and re-applying for grants to undertake expansion of the existing network of pipes. Due to time and climate change-induced extreme weather events — among them Irene and other floods — the system is in dire need of an upgrade. At present, the Board is awaiting word on whether it will receive a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Office of Community Renewal for the work. Stanley, who has a playwriting degree from SUNY New Paltz, takes an active role in the grant writing. “They like to see flowery language,” he says. “They want to hear how it’s helping underprivileged people, poor-to-moderate income families. It has to be smart, green development.” If the grant does not come through, Stanley will reluctantly go to his tax base. “We’ve need to get this done, desperately,” he says.
Stanley also wants more activity at Phoenicia’s Parish Field, which has housed the remarkably successful Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice for the last ten years, bringing in thousands of new visitors to the area. He emphasizes Shandaken’s natural resources, like the world-famous trout stream the Esopus, and nearby Belleayre ski resort, are inextricably linked to the economy. “My parents instilled in me the importance of the recreational areas,” he says. “And growing up in this political system, and through planning seminars and such, you learn you want to see the parks tied to your commercial centers. And we’ve done that.”
Dealing with disaster
In his nearly decade-and-a-half of service, Stanley has certainly learned a lot, particularly in his first term as Supervisor, back in 2010. “We had seven natural disasters in the first year of my first term, including Irene,” he says. “It really was trial by fire. I surprised myself. I didn’t think I could handle it.” Stanley credits alliances with Ashokan Watershed Stream Management Program, Shandaken Police, Ulster Country Sheriff’s office, and state government with helping him shepherd his town through those times, both the trauma itself, and the extensive, ecologically mindful rebuilding.
Lately, he’s learned it’s more efficient when traveling to Albany “to beg for money,” to go as “the Catskills,” as opposed to “the Central Catskills” (Shandaken’s distinction), or “the Southern Catskills” or “Northern Catskills.” Unity is key.
“Even in the [Shandaken hamlets],” he says, “we were embattled before — people in Pine Hill complaining about money being spent in Phoenicia, or money being spent in Big Indian. But we work better together. Especially now with our Scenic Byway status, it makes a stronger economy when we say we’ve got more assets as a whole. People from the northern and southern Catskills are on the buses to Albany with us, and together we have a stronger voice.”