Anthony “TJ” Dirago and Kenny Rodriguez used to wave hello as friendly Plattekill neighbors do. They share a driveway and when it snowed, Dirago often plowed a path to Rodriguez’s garage without being asked. No more. Now, says Rodriguez, TJ is more likely to honk, spin his tires in the gravel or angrily rev his engine. Stuff Rodriguez calls childish but, these days, emotions are running high.
Two years ago, Rodriguez noticed that Dirago, his neighbor at 153 Freetown Road, was clearing trees on the 46 acres he’d recently bought adjacent to his property. Dirago had never told Kenny what he was doing there so Rodriguez called the Plattekill Building Department. What Rodriguez learned surprised him but in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have. Dirago and his wife Tina Bucci are the proprietors of Modena Collision, an auto body repair shop, and T & T Auto Sales, a used car dealership. They love cars and own two souped-up racecars. They were building a drag strip.
Rodriguez was stunned. Dirago and Bucci’s application called for a 1/8-mile racing track to operate from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. from April to November. They would build a straight 30’-x-1300’ paved road, allowing 1/8 mile for cars to slow down, as well as 246 parking spaces, contestant stages, viewing and concession areas. At that time, Kenny, a hospital supervisor, and his wife Emily had a ten-year-old daughter and year-old twin boys. They wondered if they’d have to raise their kids next to a lot of noise and pollution. They loved hosting summer birthday parties in their backyard. But they lived less than 400 feet from the envisioned drag strip; would they have to sell their home and move?
As TJ and Tina describe their idea, they’d be providing a fairgrounds-style venue where their community can safely and legally indulge their passion for racing. This would be a place for “street legal” cars. Unlike the racing vehicles, these would all have their exhaust pipes intact and wouldn’t be particularly noisy. The drag strip property is next to the New York State Thruway and near the Old Orchard Airport, their supporters say, so what’s a little extra noise from a series of short races that last no more than a few seconds?
What would the impact be?
In the spring of 2019, Dirago and Rodriguez were no longer talking to each other. The town of Plattekill cited Dirago for not having a stormwater pollution prevention plan but he kept on clearing his land. Rodriguez then called the Department of Environmental Conservation to alert them that TJ was clearing wetlands without a permit. The DEC fined TJ $7000 and the work stopped. “I Support the Modena Drag Strip” lawn signs sprouted around town.
Over the next two years, both sides drew avid supporters to their dueling Facebook and GoFundMe sites, petitions and websites.
The “STOP The Drag Strip” group has about 150 local members, a cross-section of Plattekill’s 10,000 residents. Andy Peck, a freshwater ecologist, joined the leadership team this past February. With two young children, he says he’s concerned about not only the ear-damaging effects of noise on children but also harm to their mental and emotional stability. He’s not sure the bridge over the Thruway can withstand the extra traffic, is worried that property values will drop, risk of forest fire will rise and he calls the argument that there would be an economic windfall to Plattekill “a farce.” He says fighting the drag strip has been stressful and exhausting.
The Stop the Drag Strip group raised $20,000 to fund a lawyer and a noise study by Acoustics Distinctions. Their engineer measured sound levels from the Thruway overpass at Plattekill (the drag strip property is 500 feet from the highway) and compared it to the sound during races at the South Mountain Raceway in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, which is the same length as the proposed venue and allows only street legal cars. The engineer concluded that the noise from the drag strip would be as loud as 94 decibels, sixteen times louder than traffic sounds from the thruway, and far above the Plattekill town code of 65 decibels.
Neil Zimbaldi, a graphic artist and drag strip enthusiast from Marlboro, disputes those findings. He has been volunteering with Bucci and Dirago for the past year. He’s a third-generation automotive enthusiast; his grandfather started the Road Knights Club in Peekskill in 1954 and his parents met at Raceway Park in New Jersey. Zimbaldi says there’s nothing more fun than hanging out with like-minded men and women. And it’s exhilarating to rev your motor for two test runs and then the contest, even for the few seconds it takes to race 1/8 mile.
If this were a strictly numbers game, the pro-drag strip side would definitely win. Their petition is approaching its goal of 2500 signatures, while the other side is at about one -fifth that number. Their 8000-strong Facebook group of car-lovers hails from all over the tri-state area and their excitement is palpable. Almost everyone posts pictures or videos of souped up cars, logoed cars, antique cars and they’re yearning to be together. “The smell of race fuel and rubber makes you feel at home. The scream of engines are music to your ears. The racing family is your family.”
Bucci and Dirago say their neighbors spread a “false narrative” about them. The cars at their drag strip will be quieter than your neighbor’s lawn mower. “If only your neighbor could mow his lawn in the 7 seconds it takes for a race to occur.” They say there will be no noisy cars like open headers, dragsters, funny cars or altereds. Although the hours of operation will be long, they won’t wake anyone up with drag races at 8 a.m. They also plan other events like car shows, food truck festivals and charity events, which may start at early hours.
Of course, the future of the drag strip won’t be decided by enthusiasm alone and may be uncertain for some time to come. On July 9, the town of Plattekill Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) considered the project’s request for a variance, permission for the northern end to be 35 feet from the property line, much closer than the 150 feet stipulated in the code because so much of the terrain is wetlands the owners can’t build on much of it. The ZBA turned down the variance.
Ken Stenger, the attorney for the proposed drag strip, says Bucci and Dirago are considering their options. On July 22 at 8 p.m., there’s a ZBA meeting at the Plattekill Town Hall on the zoning for the property, which now allows the drag strip on the property if all other criteria are satisfied. Rodriguez wants that overturned. If he fails, Stenger may appeal the ZBA’s variance decision. A victory there won’t be the end of the fight. The project’s sound and ecological issues will then be reviewed by the Plattekill Planning Board, a SEQRA process that could take years.
Both sides are dug in for a long fight, both convinced they have the good of their town at heart. The S.T.O.P. the Drag Strip Group wants to preserve the peaceful, quiet of Plattekill in the face of noisy cars and excited motorheads, while area racing lovers are convinced they’ve found the perfect spot to enjoy their favorite pastime with minimal public impact.