What’s in store for New Paltz in 2022?

New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Tim Rogers and Neil Bettez are neighbors, colleagues and close collaborators. The former is mayor, and the latter supervisor, in a community with one name but two governments. The reasons why there is a village within a town here in New Paltz — and why that situation has never been changed despite several attempts over the past half-century — are complex and nuanced. What’s clear is that the lines between the two governments are fuzzy to many residents, and can blur to almost invisibility when the two local leaders communicate well and keep the interests of the community in mind. There are times when the sitting mayor and supervisor have not communicated well, if at all. The particular relationship depends entirely on who the voters choose for each of those offices. In recent years, that’s been Bettez and Rogers.

Looking ahead to 2022, the mayor and supervisor were asked similar questions about what community residents might expect. Some topics are only relevant to the leader of one government or another, but for many others what happens inside the village and what happens outside of the village — all of which is inside the town — is all tied up together, because human culture doesn’t respect boundaries any more than groundwater supplies do. The responses show that the two are in agreement about some topics and have differences of opinions around others. What’s absent is evidence of animosity between them. Unlike some more fiery pairings in the past, Rogers and Bettez are able to see things differently without developing grudges. It’s not nearly as interesting for a reporter to cover, but it does tend to lead to a more harmonious life for the average resident.

Connecting water and sewer on North Putt

Despite the joke that this community could be named “No Paltz,” it’s rare for a development application to be before a planning board for close to a decade here. The length of the review of the North Putt retail project gives it a curious relationship with local history. Both Supervisor Bettez and Mayor Rogers pushed back against early versions of plans to develop the lot at the corner of Route 299 and North Putt Corners Road, which is hemmed in on a third side by the Thruway. Rogers was on the Planning Board when this process began, and pushed back hard against the size and scope of the first proposal. Bettez was working full-time as a scientist, and was one of the many people who brought up concerns during public comment. Both were in a position to bring work on approving those plans to a screeching halt as 2021 drew to a close, by withholding support for extending the water and sewer districts to that part of the street. Instead, they each backed the request and got a majority of their colleagues to do the same.

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“It was double the size,” Rogers recalls from those early days. “Sometimes you have to recognize when you’ve won and made a project better.”

Some town residents who urged denial of that request invoked the new “gateway” zoning that now runs from Ohioville down past the Putt Corners intersection. Rezoning that part of town to be more like the neighborhood-business-residential village district was inspired by what was then typically called the “CVS project,” but town council members took care to avoid looking like they were targeting a single lot with new rules. The applicant’s attorneys seem to think they succeeded on that score, as the only lawsuit filed about the zoning was focused instead on how the environmental review about the law itself was conducted. That suit is still pending.

Bettez sees things differently and uses that new zoning as part of the justification. “We spent tens of thousands of dollars, and hundreds of hours, rezoning to add density from Shop Rite to Ohioville,” the supervisor said, with an eye on minimizing driving by providing places to run errands and shop that are within walking distance of residences. The zoning specifically requires a second story with apartments, from which the applicant pursued and secured a variance. Bettez said that “single-story wouldn’t be my first choice, but [the lot is] bounded by roads,” making the decision to grant that request understandable to the supervisor. Nevertheless, this is “not the old ‘80s-style zoning, big box and a parking lot.” Instead, it’s “smaller stores, facing the roads” rather than a sea of asphalt.

It’s clearly better, Rogers believes. “They got a variance for the second story, but parking for the trail,” 19 spots, plus bathrooms that can be used by anyone.

New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Even at just a single story, Bettez believes that this project will not detract from the goal of increasing the density of population and activity along major roadways, which in turn makes it easier to protect open space from being bulldozed in other parts of the town. “We want development in this area,” even if the particular plans proposed aren’t what Bettez might have suggested if given the chance. “People have to live and work someplace.” The supervisor admits a preference for a more local feel among the tenants — Water Street Market is held up as the standard — but acknowledges, “It’s along the Thruway.” Even if each business is part of a national chain and the development as a whole is more closely identified with that highway than the community itself, Bettez is hopeful that this might change over time. If nothing else, it will be easier to find replacement tenants for these smaller structures than the 13,000 square feet proposed for a CVS.

Increasing density is one of the main reasons Rogers pushed for the passage of NBR zoning along North Chestnut Street. That’s an idea that was first floated during the first West administration and refined by Maurice Weitman while serving as chair of the planning board in the village, and perfected after Weitman’s untimely demise.

The fact that this expansion will be paid for by the developer is not lost by elected officials. Infrastructure is difficult to build with tax dollars alone, and this expansion is likely to help fit other pieces into that puzzle. To secure the blessing of village trustees, the developer agreed to contribute $200,000 to be used for infrastructure projects, which may include connecting some water mains into loops to eliminate some of the dead ends in that system. When water mains peter out at the end of a road, it’s difficult to maintain consistent pressure for those users. There also tends to be more incidents of brown water coming from the tap, the result of harmless sediment that builds up in the pipes being stirred up.

The traffic plan for this project involves routing the Empire State Trail through the site, where users currently travel along a guardrail and turn the corner to follow the state-spanning bicycle path. Signage is used to direct pedestrians to continue down the sidewalk to the downtown Main Street commercial district, and it’s understood that some percentage of cyclists will choose to do the same. Bettez is of the mind that at this point, most riders continue along Route 299. That westward push will also intersect with an entrance to the site, which raises alarm bells for residents who envision a lot more people getting hit by cars as they try to pass this location. “I don’t understand that safety concern,” said Bettez, who prefers to trust state transportation officials, in this case, to come up with a design that will not be dangerous to those who aren’t in cars. What the supervisor instead sees is a “four-mile roadblock” along the Empire State Trail, a long stretch that runs along motor traffic, and which Bettez believes discourages people from riding at all. The supervisor cited statistics from surveys to assert that 51% of respondents only want to ride bicycles where there is “high-quality infrastructure,” and that stretch along 299 and Main Street just doesn’t fit the bill. The trail being routed through the site will be “probably the first project fully integrating bicyclists and pedestrians, with sidewalks, racks and more.”

Rogers feels much the same. “Dumping traffic onto North Putt” by eliminating that entrance “is not a solution. Why would you want to send all the traffic onto a county road?”

With both leaders in favor of the current project as a significant improvement over what was once proposed, their support made it easy to get the district extensions approved by their respective government bodies. In the coming months, members of the town’s planning board will continue to chip away at questions and concerns toward what looks to be a likely approval of this project in some form.

Bringing back Ohioville

If the new governor keeps the cutthroat funding mechanisms in place that the last governor preferred, then Supervisor Neil Bettez wants to apply for one of the $10 million downtown revitalization grants to revitalize Ohioville. Unlike Bonticou, Butterville, Springtown, Jenkinstown, Plutarch and Libertyville, Ohioville is still seen as a hamlet, as it was before the village was incorporated, or the construction of the Thruway disrupted connection with the larger town. Bettez sees the 2019 rezoning as laying the groundwork for this bid, which would include paying to connect the town’s sewer district six to the village system. Sewer and water districts are a gimmick that force the direct recipients of that service to bear the full cost, and this sewer district has too few homes for it to be realistic to raise the rates high enough to bring the treatment plant up to modern standards. It was built before disinfection of sewage was required, and the supervisor imagines the Wallkill River would benefit from the change more than anyone else, because this connection would allow the old plant to be decommissioned.

Bettez said that the application would require full plans designed by an engineer, and that an earlier grant award is paying for that work. Beyond that sewer connection, the supervisor intends on finding out what residents would support before making any final decisions.

Improving local trails

The poor infrastructure for bicycling includes the stretch along Henry W. Dubois Drive, but there’s a plan to change some of that stretch through the construction of shared-use paths. Adjacent homeowners have come out against the planned execution of a number of trees to make this change, but Supervisor Bettez anticipates that work will begin either this winter or the following one. It depends upon how much longer the review by transportation officials takes, as trees may only be killed when bats who may roost in them are hibernating elsewhere.

Work will continue along the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, as well. County workers are resurfacing it down through Gardiner and also fixing up many of the bridges. That cost will be borne by taxpayers throughout the county, rather than just those who live in this town. Some pavement will be added behind Village Pizza to address drainage issues that wash the trail out over time, but nowhere else in New Paltz, according to Supervisor Bettez. One bridge that falls under town purview is the one spanning the Wallkill, and it’s going to need new decking within a few years. The supervisor intends on applying for state grants to fund that project annually until it’s awarded. The rail trail will continue be usable by cross-country skiers, assuming that snow falls in a climate-changed world; that’s different than on the new stretches of Empire State Trail, which will be cleared of snow by town workers.

The Henry path will be connected with the rail trail through the property at 85 South Chestnut Street. Owner Radi Serdah granted an easement for that purpose during approval of a mixed-use building on that site by village planning board members.

Bettez also wants to make it easier to safely get to Duzine Elementary School without using a car. Sunset Ridge is a short road that gets very little traffic, except during arrival and dismissal of classes. For all the environmental efforts supported in New Paltz, many parents prefer to bring their youngsters to school in their own automobiles, rather than putting them on the buses that cost millions a year to maintain and replace, or to get them there on foot or by bicycle. Bettez believes a shared-use path to the school might make non-motorized options more attractive in some families. If connected to the rail trail near BOCES, the supervisor estimates it would serve half the families with children attending that school. A smaller number will benefit by being able to walk or ride to school through the Mill Brook Preserve, but funding that trail between the bridges has yet to be secured.

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Reducing parking problems

Within the village core, parking is a problem, but Rogers has long believed that promoting development that’s easier to walk around could encourage a car-free — or at least, car-less — lifestyle that could reduce that type of congestion. During this period of transition, managing parking needs continues to be a focus for village officials. That’s mostly managed through economics: when parking isn’t free, people don’t leave their cars parked interminably. The mayor repeated what Bakery owner David Santner has previously reported, that when parking enforcement was extended to include Sundays, sales at that local eatery markedly improved on that day of the week. Unfortunately, enforcement is just part of that system. It’s getting more difficult to find parts to maintain the stock of mechanical parking meters, and the mayor would rather move to kiosks. However, kiosks need to be within a reasonable distance of the spots to be useful, and the layout of street parking in the village could make it more costly to get the necessary hardware for such a conversion. The mayor sees parking enforcement as a service to business owners and a way to keep the level of commerce as high as possible in the village.

Creating a fully operational water district

It seems fairly certain that the building of a water district on Plains Road is going to be happening in 2022. The process of getting this water district up and running is tied to weaning the community off expensive aqueduct water, and has been as disruptive as a water hammer at times. This winter, town and village engineers will likely being going over the plans once again to understand the wider impacts once this new water source is brought online.

The entire project is being funded by the people of New York City, because this community’s dependence on the aqueduct that removes regional water to serve mostly downstate metropolitan needs slowed down needed maintenance on that giant water pipe. Once district five is active, future shutdowns will trigger the power to pump 400 gallons a minute into the greater system. Neither Mayor Rogers nor Supervisor Bettez was in office when this district was designed, but seven years into the job Rogers has questions that arise from all the knowledge accumulated over that time. The mayor wants to understand how turning on that connection won’t send waves of pressure through the mains. That’s a known issue in this old and complex system: even subtle changes to the flow and pressure can result in spikes and water hammers, which at times lead to water main breaks days later, in entirely different parts of town.

Bettez isn’t yet convinced that anything needs changing. The supervisor understands that the pressure valves and hardware connecting the new district infrastructure to the older village mains are designed to ensure that there won’t be problems at that location, but it’s not clear if they both see the potential for impacts elsewhere. Village officials are recommending that the DEC permit be amended to allow for a low rate of flow into the village mains all the time, as a way to guard against problems when the valves are turned on full blast for a few days. Both Rogers and Bettez have a track record of trusting hired experts, which suggests that the engineers will have the final say on whether anything needs to be adjusted at this late date.

Lighting up the landfill

Building a solar farm atop the capped town landfill off Clearwater Road is now an idea showing light at the end of the tunnel. Neil Bettez explained the difficulties in finding someone interested in building this project, especially after looking at the site. The supervisor described a “used-car-salesman ‘I’ll talk to my manager’ vibe” during negotiations to finalize those initial proposals, and how the projections were cut to a third of early promises once contractors walked the hilly, rocky terrain. When the pandemic came to town, one of the bidders just stopped responding entirely. A second round of bidding turned up proposals that were more realistic, with the selected plan one that will just utilize the landfill space itself. Earlier bids included clearing acres of surrounding forest of life to make room for more panels.

Bringing local government closer together

Bettez and Rogers have a good working relationship, and have taken steps to try to infuse that into the culture of the two governments. For example, when the town’s planning board secretary position opened up, village planning board secretary Alana Sawchuk was hired in the interest of making the planning process easier for all involved. Another effort along those lines would put town administrative offices on the same Plattekill Avenue municipal campus as the village ones, which could both encourage collaboration and just make things easier for someone looking to solve a problem but unclear which government is involved.

In addition to the empty space once used for court and police, the village section of that complex will eventually be devoid of firefighters. That’s been the plan for several years, but now the new firehouse is being constructed. “I think this year the new firehouse will be built, but I am hedging,” the mayor said. This may have been a joke.

Rogers is thinking bigger, though. The mayor recognizes that water and sewer infrastructure is one of the most important parts of local government, and revealed a plan to bring all of that management under village control as a Hudson Valley One exclusive. “I’ve concerns that we spend a great deal of time without focusing on planning for the future, and the town and village staff don’t work collaboratively enough,” Rogers explained. If all of the town water and sewer districts were managed with village personnel, it could “actually be very impactful in terms of how staff manage their time and how we do budgeting.”

A proposed term sheet that will be brought to both boards after legal review would have town officials contract with their village counterparts to take over every aspect of running those water and sewer districts, “including operation, maintenance, bill collection, planning and grant writing, in exchange for a compensation formula related to the collection of water and sewer fees.” Village officials would also manage the money of those town districts, which would remain separate from general tax funds by virtue of being accounted for in these distinct tax districts. By leaving the property and responsibility legally under town jurisdiction, the nitty-gritty such as attaching liens to properties for unpaid bills would still be possible.

Reforming local police

Town council members have been saddled with the extra job of being police commissioners since the volunteer commission was disbanded during the last Zimet administration. With a boost from a gubernatorial order to review and reconsider how policing is performed at the local level, next year appointed volunteers will again be seated to carry out those oversight duties. Some activists wanted a commission that was more independent, with the members not being subject to a potentially political appointment process, but that would foreclose the interests of the people by shielding commissioners from replacement through the cornerstone of democracy, voting.

The reestablishment of a more independent commission was one of the first recommendations of the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative that was considered, but it’s taken a few months to get the law changed and begin interviewing candidates. This new group also won’t have as many powers as some town residents would like, particularly the power to oversee investigations into alleged wrongdoing by officers. That’s because the hierarchy of discipline, as negotiated in the contract, puts most of that authority with the police chief instead. Supervisor Bettez had speculated last year that in the present climate, considerable changes could be made to the contract, but bowing to advice issued by the town labor attorney, the latest round of negotiations were focused more on financial questions.

“One of the reasons we have no money left” is the need to pay retroactive raises, because the last contract expired in 2017. The supervisor observed that “asking for two changes” during a single negotiation makes the talks much more difficult, and that was without even bringing up the issue of restructuring discipline. The “two things” that were sought by town negotiators were a higher contribution to health insurance, and also a different way of calculating how much each officer pays. Most town employees pay a percentage of the cost of health care, but police instead contribute a percentage of salary. Once the talks were narrowed to increasing the dollar amount, it was easier to come to an arrangement that is different than before, but far different from what happens with other town employees. Bettez said that most employees contribute about 20% of health care costs, but new officers pony about five percent, all told. For future negotiations town officials may sweeten the pot by offering to increase how quickly agreed-upon raises are doled out, which the chief believes could also help with retention.

Shielding vulnerable landlords and tenants

Town officials have adopted a rental-registration law similar to the one that’s been in force for village properties for several years. Registration is required to rent out rooms and units except in some cases when the owner lives in the building, and all registered properties must be inspected annually. Bettez believes that this will reduce the chances of unsafe situations continuing long enough that someone gets hurt, but is worried that implementation will be slowed down by one of the building inspectors leaving for a different job.

In the village, in addition to there being a registry, there’s also a landlord-tenant relations council. It’s been proposed that members of this group be given training in mediation to facilitate the role of communication between those parties. When housing activists came calling to pass the trendy “good-cause eviction” law, trustees paused that process out of concern that adopting a bad law quickly wouldn’t help tenants, but passing solid laws more methodically could do more for landlords and tenants alike. The right to lease renewal that’s in most good-cause laws has yet to be tested in any court, or evaluated by the state’s attorney general. Rogers and the trustees have taken some flak for that, since a statewide moratorium on evictions is due to expire in January, but they have held their ground and proceeded with deliberate precision. Rogers not only wants to avoid having to defend any laws in court, but also wants any laws passed to be easy to understand without having to hire an attorney to explain the language. After pulling unrelated language about bolstering the registration process, the mayor says that the local landlords who initially put up a lot of resistance seem to be more comfortable with the proposed changes.

That includes spinning off one section of the good-cause draft into a law on unconscionable rent increases, which would build on a state rule requiring notification for increases of greater than five percent by requiring landlords to provide explanation for those larger hikes. That, and all of new rules being debated, are based around encouraging the parties to communicate with one another — preferably directly.

Next up on the landlord-tenant docket for town council members will be updating the accessory apartment law, to make it easier to legally convert part of one’s home into a separate living unit. The benefit of this is that it’s believed to help homeowners remain in place as they age, or as a buffer against rising taxes and other costs of home ownership. It would also increase population density, which makes delivering services like water and sewer, as well as plowing and sweeping the part of the streets reserved for cars, less costly per person.

The New Paltz Apartments project is one that local officials are placing great hope in terms of addressing the current housing crisis. The large complex is proposed for the former farmland of the Moriello family along Route 32 south, and the location next to the college and amenities to be included could draw student renters away from converted houses in some parts of the community. One amenity not proposed for the complex is a bar, and it’s not clear how important that sort of night life is when selecting a rental unit. Most SUNY campuses included a bar before the drinking age was increased to 21, but at that time there was no such thing as a university police force, either.

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