The Town of Olive has only one contest on Election Day, as Mitchell Langbert, running on the Republican and Conservative lines, challenges Supervisor Jim Sofranko, a Democrat, who is seeking his second term. Democrats Victoria Read and Scott Kelder are running unopposed to keep their town board seats. Brian Burns will remain highway superintendent, Dawn Giuditta will continue as town clerk, and Timothy Cox will keep his position as town justice.
Mitchell Langbert’s business background includes an MBA from UCLA, a PhD in industrial and labor relations, and studies at the former College of Insurance. He has worked in the insurance field in corporate world, in human resources at Johnson and Johnson, and as a senior budget analyst for the New York State assembly. He has also taught business at Brooklyn College and the NYU business school. “The supervisor deals with budget, labor, and insurance issues,” said Langbert, “stuff I’ve mastered over the years. I like to work with people, and I have managerial experience.”
He feels the major issues facing Olive are a need for “better management of the land in town and watershed policy.” He said flooded property in Boiceville that was taken over by the town after the buyout by New York City [see sidebar box] has not only been taken off the tax rolls but can no longer generate revenue from new businesses. “The town needs to be more judicious with negotiating with the city to use land optimally. We’ve been too quick to give up on healthy development of restaurants and tourist attractions. The failure to build a berm along the Esopus [to reduce the impact of flooding] was a mistake. It goes back a long time, but it could still be done.”
Regarding the plan to turn the town-owned Boiceville properties into a park, Langbert said, “We need more vigor in our thinking. We could talk about enhancing our relationship to the arts, especially outdoor sculpture that could attract tourism. We’ve got statues at the Indian Trading Post, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It could be a leverage point. We could add arts around that and turn that vacant area into more of an arts center. More could be done with that land. You can eventually find things that work. Taking land out of commission, the way city wants to, is unfair to the town. We need to negotiate smarter with the city.”
With the influx of population since the pandemic, the affordable housing crisis has become even more acute than before. To address this problem, Langbert would consider instituting differential tax rates, giving a tax credit to homeowners who have lived in the area for a long time. “The town should retain its character and allow people who are elderly to remain here. I have no problem with elites moving in, but if it’s imposing higher costs on the town, they should pay those costs.”
Among other issues, Langbert feels the town needs better cell service. “We can negotiate better with Verizon,” he remarked. “We also have to be more supportive of our emergency services. I’d like to get better funding for the volunteer fire department so it can function well. We have to treat town employees with respect. The people actually doing the work know how to do the job best. The manager is there to support and provide resources, to make sure there aren’t abuses, and to solve systemic failures. I would like to improve the professionalism of the management of the town.”
He also feels the sewage treatment plant slated for Shokan requires more discussion. It may be a positive development, but he finds it’s being carried through without people knowing what the true costs will be in terms of sewer fees.
About the election, Langbert added, “I hope everyone comes out and votes, and we all remain on good terms.”
Jim Sofranko served on the Olive town board for six years and has been supervisor for the past two years. “I see a lot of challenges in the town,” he said. “Because of my experience on the board and as supervisor, I can recognize those challenges, bring them to people’s attention, and deal with them in an equitable way.”
Sofranko defended the DEP buyout program (see sidebar), which went into action in Olive after one property owner lost his business to the bank, largely due to his inability to pay the hike in flood insurance after Hurricane Irene. “People were pleading with us to get out from under the financial duress by participating in the buyout program.”
Since the sale, Sofranko explained, the town has worked with a grant-funded planner to look at the buyout properties and reach out to the community to decide how to use the land. Students at Onteora High School are participating in the process of seeking a vision of how Boiceville will look when a new bridge is opened on Route 28A. New York State’s construction of the bridge will begin next year. A pathway from the Ashokan Rail Trail will enable hikers to cross the bridge and walk into town. As for the land that will be turned into a park, he said, “We’re consulting with businesses to find community uses for those parcels to bring people into the hamlet.”
Despite the loss of some businesses from the buyouts, Sofranko pointed out that new businesses have opened up across from the high school, and there’s a new guitar maker in Boiceville. Just down the highway, Bread Alone is renovating its bakery, which will become completely solar-powered and will have more employees than before.
Sofranko feels the berm issue should be put to rest as impractical. “Taxes in Olive would probably skyrocket. A berm just doesn’t make economic sense.” In addition to the cost of construction and maintenance of a berm, the existing wastewater plant would have to be renovated, a burden for the 130-plus property owners in the Boiceville Sewer District.
To address the lack of affordable housing, last year the town started a committee to assess the zoning code written in 1975 and consider changes to reflect current conditions, possibly recognizing the accessory dwellings many people have on their properties that have never been made legal. Combined with the short-term rental regulations in the works, which may limit STRs in the town, newly recognized accessory dwellings might serve as long-term rentals if they meet the conditions of the code. In Shokan, where homes can’t be expanded without, in many cases, increasing the size of the septic tank and field, Sofranko expects the forthcoming wastewater treatment facility will open up more possibilities for affordable rentals.
Among accomplishments during his tenure as supervisor, Sofranko noted that Olive had approved participating in the Ulster County Sheriff’s program for increasing resources to combat opioid abuse. The town conducted a natural resource inventory to help the planning board, and the region saw an increase in broadband buildout, with dozens of homes in rural areas getting Internet access after years of persistent lobbying.
“Earlier this year, when there was a proposal for a hydroelectric plant that would dramatically change the landscape of the Town of Olive,” said Sofranko, “I led the opposition, with a few other people. We saw people of all kinds coming together, old, young, Democrats, Republicans, newcomers, long-time residents, all focusing on opposing this plant successfully, in a short amount of time. It’s given me hope that the problems we face can be solved together with input from the community, recognizing everyone.”
The Boiceville buyout controversy
As both supervisor candidates spoke in some detail about the disposition of flood-ravaged properties in the hamlet of Boiceville, we present here a brief summary of the situation, which has generated controversy in Olive over the past few years.
In 2011, Hurricane Irene flooded a number of residential and business parcels, prompting FEMA, and more recently, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to offer to buy out the properties. In a buyout, the money goes from the DEP to the property owner, with the town’s approval, and the town then has the option to take over ownership (at no cost to the town) or leave the city to take responsibility for the property. In all cases, the city stipulates that taking a buyout means no building can be constructed on the land henceforth. If property owners refuse a buyout and maintain a building or construct a new building, they will have to contend with flood insurance rates that are rising precipitously due to the expectation of more frequent flooding.
The Town of Olive has chosen to take on ownership of several parcels and turn them into a public park. These properties include the sites of the former log home company and florist shop, as well as land offering streamside access behind the Boiceville Market.
A dike or berm for prevention of flooding in Boiceville has been under discussion since 1995, when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded a berm would be too costly to build. In 2014 an engineering firm for a Local Flood Analysis reported that a berm would cost millions of dollars to build and maintain, and the cost-benefit analysis did not make it worthwhile. An Association of American Engineers report recommended that professional engineers not certify a berm for floodplain control, as it’s not considered as reliable means of preventing flooding. A group of town residents, however, feel such challenges are surmountable and a berm should be further investigated.