Ever since May of 2022, when the County Legislature gave the go-ahead to the expansion of the Ulster County Veterans’ Cemetery to accommodate an additional 3,000 potential burials, residents of the Plains Road neighborhood in New Paltz have been keeping an eye on the progress of construction. An undeveloped parcel adjoining the existing New Paltz Rural Cemetery on its north side has been transformed by the addition of an entryway with a large grey granite-clad sign with gold raised lettering, mounted atop two grey stone pillars. The entry allée leads westward to a ring road, in the center of which now stands an open-sided pavilion, also perched on stone pillars, that will serve as a “committal shelter”: a place where caskets can be held out of the rain for funeral ceremonies.
Behind this new building stand rows of columbaria, or niches for the storage of urns of cremains. Flanking these structures on either side, once construction and landscaping are complete, will be the burial sites, divided into 12 sections.
On the eastern side of the committal shelter, towards Plains Road, there’s a semicircular patio that doesn’t look like much as yet. It can’t even be seen from the ring road. But set into it are niches meant to accommodate seven flagpoles: one for the American flag and one each for the branches of the US military. And at their feet are installed high-intensity lights, meant to illuminate those flags if flown at night.
Although they chafe at not having been invited to participate in the planning process for this large-scale development, the neighbors on Plains Road, Da Vinci Way, Locust Lane and Shawangunk View Drive were willing to put up with the changes – until those spotlights were turned on, for two nights during the week before Christmas. In the words of one neighbor who attended a meeting at Village Hall on January 24, the bit of sky where the US flag is planned to fly was “lit like a huge beacon,” with the lights “all shining on one spot.”
By the second night of overwhelming illumination, the neighbors were beginning to voice their displeasure. It’s never a good idea to trifle with the residents of Plains Road, who developed a speedy communications network among themselves when the Town of New Paltz announced its intent to create a new Water District #5 about eight years ago to cope with the impending shutdown of the Delaware Aqueduct for repairs. When they need to organize opposition to some government scheme that will impact their quiet rural corner, these folks are quick on their feet.
The point person for this protest is Patty Kane Horrigan, who lives directly across from the cemetery. She swiftly drafted a letter to Dennis Doyle, director of the Ulster County Planning Department, along with Village of New Paltz mayor Tim Rogers, Town of New Paltz supervisor Neil Bettez, County Legislature representative Eve Walter and other involved officials, protesting the intrusive lighting. The lights were soon shut off and have not been back on since, but apprehension still reigns among those who dwell in the dozens of homes within close view of the “beacon.” What will happen once those flagpoles are up, and can anything be done to stop the all-night display, all year long?
Mayor Rogers responded to the protest by inviting Doyle to meet with residents at Village Hall last week, hear their complaints and explain the plans for completion of the expanded Veterans’ Cemetery. Also in attendance besides the aforementioned officials were Village trustee Stana Weisburd and Mark Cozzupoli, director of the Ulster County Veteran Services Agency, which administers the Veterans’ Cemetery complex in partnership with the not-for-profit organization that runs the New Paltz Rural Cemetery (NPRC).
The first part of the meeting was dedicated to a slide presentation by Doyle describing the elements of the cemetery under construction. While most of the major structural components of the facility are already in place, Doyle said that the placement of the flagpoles and the strength of the spotlights were still under discussion with the County’s civil engineering consultants, Pitingaro & Doetsch Consulting Engineers, PC. Ultimately, he said, the decision would be in the hands of the engineers, the Ulster County Planning Board (UCPB) and the Veteran Services Agency.
Not only did he indicate that it was not too late to backtrack on the disposition of the lights, but the chief County planner – who has an established reputation as a Dark Skies advocate – seemed somewhat abashed that he had not foreseen that these high-intensity lights would have a pronounced negative impact on this isolated neighborhood, which has no streetlights. “We’re never happy with uplighting,” Doyle said. “It’s on me for not catching this in the initial designs.”
Many at the meeting questioned how this obvious-seeming issue was overlooked. It was not caught at the local level, Supervisor Bettez explained, because both the Town and Village Planning Boards had deferred lead agency status in the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process to Ulster County, on the advice of their respective attorneys. Asked how the question on lighting impacts had been answered when the UCPB filled out the project’s Environmental Assessment Form and issued a negative declaration, Doyle said that he couldn’t recall the specifics: “Uplighting for flagpoles may or may not have been included.” After the meeting, Kane Horrigan told HV1 that she had submitted formal requests for copies of the SEQR documentation to disclose what determination had in fact been made on lighting impacts.
Meeting attendees made passionate pleas on behalf of maintaining dark skies in their neighborhood. Vincent Variano, who lives “four houses away” on Shawangunk View Drive, read a prepared statement identifying himself as an “amateur astronomer” who “bought my house on a road with no streetlights so I could enjoy the night sky.” He recited a long list of negative effects of light pollution, including disruption of bird migration routes, following up with a letter from his wife Denyse citing the human health impacts of exposure to light at nighttime. The audience applauded, and not for the last time that evening.
“The issue is the lighting. I would like to be able to look out my bedroom window and see the stars,” said retired SUNY New Paltz professor Jaimee Uhlenbrock, who lives right next door to the new section of the cemetery. She called the overall scale of the development “overly pretentious for a rural road,” and noted that it was “irksome that we were not notified. The immediate residents were not brought into this discussion.” Uhlenbrock also took issue with the motion-sensor lights that Doyle had mentioned would be installed around the storage areas of the new cemetery buildings, which she predicted would be “going on and off all night long because of deer.”
It was noted by several participants that the only compelling reason to keep a spotlight on a flag all night long was the US Flag Code, which specifies that an American flag must be illuminated if left up all night. (The Code is advisory, not mandatory.) The answer heavily favored by the neighbors at the meeting was the one articulated by another retired SUNY New Paltz faculty member, Rose Rudnitski: “The solution for the flagpoles is that the flags could be taken down every night and put up again in the morning. The caretaker could do that.”
Several attendees suggested that whatever costs would be incurred to keep an employee on hand to perform this ritual twice daily would be covered by the money saved on electricity by not illuminating the flags, and Kane Horrigan wondered if a veteran might volunteer to do the honors for free. Supervisor Bettez said that he’d even seen advertisements for “an autopole that goes up and down by itself.”
Meanwhile, Doyle promised to stay in close touch with Kane Horrigan and to “look into” the possibility of raising and lowering the flag daily. County Legislator Walter volunteered to monitor the situation closely, serve as liaison between the UCPB and the Plains Road neighbors and make sure that another community meeting occurs within a month. For updates, visit www.villageofnewpaltz.org.