in Completing the Comprehensive Plan
Report prepared by John Mathiason, Chair, Comprehensive Planning
The playwright and diplomat Claire Booth Luce
once said “in public service, no good deed goes unpunished.”
That may be a fitting epitaph for the Town of Shandaken Comprehensive
Planning Committee. We have now completed one year of substantive
work and I believe it is my obligation as Chair to report to the
Town Board on progress.
The Committee was established to complete the work started by
a previous Committee. We were to take the draft prepared by that
Committee on which there was broad agreement on goals and, taking
into account comments made by the Ulster County Planning Board,
to provide the specificity that had been found lacking if the
plan was to achieve its objective of providing a context in which
the Towns’ zoning and planning boards could make their determinations.
The Committee had a number of factors that should have favored
its work. First, it was larger and had a broader representation
than its predecessor, while including a significant number of
members from the previous committee. Second, among the members
were a number who had had experience with planning. Third, it
had the detailed comments of the County as a guide. And fourth,
it had the detailed results of the 2000 United States Census for
Shandaken that showed clearly the town’s composition and
the changes that had occurred over the past decade.
At the outset, the Committee agreed that it should try to reach
all decisions by consensus. Consensus means that all parties accept
an agreement without necessarily being enthusiastic about all
specific elements. Consensus is a particularly appropriate method
for comprehensive plans, because to be successful, plans have
to have broad support in the community. A consensus form of decision-making
implies a willingness to compromise in the interest of a greater
good. In fact, through all of 2002, the Committee was successful
in making decisions by consensus.
The Committee also set a fairly ambitious timetable as its goal.
It hoped to finish its work by the end of 2002. There were several
reasons for this decision. First, it was assumed that by building
on the previous Committee’s work and essentially providing
more detail where needed and filling gaps, the task was not too
complicated. Second, if the job could be finished during the year
in which there were no municipal elections, the plan could be
somewhat divorced from partisan politics. Third, because all of
the Committee members are volunteers, completing the work expeditiously
would allow the members to return to their other pursuits without
being forced into an unending series of meetings. Fourth, the
Committee could benefit from the work of an intern from Bard College’s
Environmental Planning program, who would work almost on a full
time basis through the fall semester with the Committee.
Over the period from June through November 2002, the Committee
held meetings and began to develop agreed text. The process was
systematic: for each of five areas of the first Committee’s
draft, there would be an exchange of views, often involving an
expert presentation. In advance of the meeting, a background paper
would be prepared that set out important facts, presented the
agreements that had been made by the first Committee and posed
questions that might be addressed. The background papers and analyses
constitute an additional diagnosis of the Town’s real situation
of the town in the areas covered by the plan and provide a factual
basis for sound planning, now and in the future. Then, a subcommittee,
open to any interested member, would prepare proposals that would
be discussed in a meeting, and agreements reached. The Committee
followed a practice of leaving text that was not agreed for further
discussion. This text was placed in square brackets. It was assumed
that a final review of the plan would lead to these texts either
being modified or deleted based on the shape and content of the
On the whole, the process worked for many of the areas covered
by the plan, including the economy, housing and infrastructure.
On review, the original section on “development patterns”
was found to be duplicative and the elements from the first Committee’s
draft were redistributed to other sections of the draft plan.
The Committee also favored a more direct presentation of objectives
than was done in the first Committee’s draft, based on placing
all of the agreed goals at the beginning of the text rather than
after an extensive introductory section. The Committee also agreed
on a format that would more clearly link objectives and actions
to the specific goals that had been agreed by the first Committee.
The exception was the area of the environment, which in many ways
is the most contentious of the sections. After the general discussion,
and after reviewing a first draft presented by a subcommittee,
it was clear that there was considerable work to be done. The
subcommittee itself, despite many hours of work, was unable to
reach agreement on many areas of text.
The Committee having reached the target date that it had set for
preparing a final draft, held a meeting on December 9 to review
the full text. It made considerable progress in removing many
of the brackets from text, but many remained, especially in the
area of the environment where there were disagreements about how
far the plan should go. One alternative would have been to continue
to discuss the issues at further meetings. Many thought that this
would be a slow process. It was recognized that under State law,
the Committee had to have a public hearing on its draft. While
often in local governance public hearings are a final stage when
the purpose is to fulfill a legal obligation but there is little
intention to change things after the hearing (they are often scheduled
to take place just prior to a decision being made), public hearings
can also be used to obtain public input to help a Committee make
its final decisions. The Committee decided to follow the second
approach and submit the draft, which contained large blocks of
text that had not been agreed, to a public hearing in January.
The draft text was widely circulated in the town. Comments were
received in writing from many residents.
It was at this point that the process broke down. A group of residents
organized a campaign to bring people to the public hearing. The
campaign included advertisements in the local newspapers that
characterized the plan as attacking various kinds of rights or
seeking to impose new regulations on landowners. The characterizations
referred to sections of the plan that had not been agreed by the
Committee and in many cases exaggerated their meaning and intent.
The public hearing, when it was eventually held on January 27,
2003 at Belleayre was attended by a large number of residents.
A majority of those who addressed the Committee were clearly hostile
to the draft plan as a whole or in parts, in contrast to those
who sent written comments that, in general, were more supportive.
A clear conclusion was that the community was very divided about
the plan. Those who were critical of the plan tended to express
this by applauding those with whom they agreed and booing those
with whom they did not. While this was unpleasant for many members
of the Committee, it was not unusual for a public hearing.
When the Committee met again on February 10 to continue working
on the draft, I proposed a set of five criteria that could be
applied to the text that had not been agreed as we would move
toward conclusion of the work. These were commonsense criteria
that were based on the idea that the plan should not be duplicative,
that it should be forward looking and should work towards a consensus,
if at all possible. While there seemed to be a consensus on these
criteria, it has become clear subsequently that even this was
not the case. Moreover, the meeting was characterized by open
conflict among the members that eventually led to the resignation
of one of the officers of the Committee. In an effort to apply
the criteria, the Committee reviewed the first substantive section
of the draft, which happened to be in the area of the environment.
The first goal, which was from the draft prepared by the first
Committee, was accepted without change. However, a majority of
the Committee felt that the remaining text did not meet the criteria
and were deleted after a vote.
This meeting was characterized by a very active participation
of a large audience. They would applaud statements they liked
and boo those that they did not. It was difficult for the Committee
to transact its business. One factor in the Committee’s
work was that, as is usually the case when issues are brought
to a vote, Committee members became less willing to compromise.
While the procedure followed demonstrated that voting could eliminate
text, it also showed that it would mostly work to delete text
rather than modifying it. After the meeting, in reviewing the
next texts that would have to be considered it was obvious that
this procedure ran the risk of eliminating positive ideas that,
if they were better formulated, could be found acceptable. It
ran the risk of alienating a significant section of the community,
even if it would satisfy another section.
Since that meeting there has been no substantive progress in the
Committee’s work. We held meetings on March 10, April 14
and May 12. At the March 10 meeting, the Committee was informed
that one of its grant proposals had been accepted that included
the services of a professional planner in the area of transportation
and that there were prospects of obtaining a grant from the Department
of State for a planner to assist in finalizing the plan. The idea
that a professional planner could help facilitate the Committee’s
work had been suggested in the public hearing by a number of speakers
who had been critical of the draft. Based on this and lacking
another agreed option on how to proceed, the Committee decided
to suspend its work until a planner could be obtained using these
funds. While it did not agree on the criteria for the planner,
it agreed that the selection process had to be completely open.
It agreed to meet in a month to review developments about the
The April meeting consisted primarily in a report about the lack
of progress in obtaining the grants, largely because of the State’s
financial and budgetary crisis. Some members were concerned that
if the delay persisted, the Committee should consider other alternatives
to complete its work.
The May meeting, which I called after consultation with the Committee’s
vice chair and secretary, was intended to be an exploratory meeting
to consider alternatives. Even before I formally advised the Town
officials that we would be meeting, an advertisement financed
by the same group that had been critical of the draft plan appeared
in a local newspaper urging people to attend the Committee meeting
“to make your views known.”
That meeting showed the extent of disagreement within the Committee.
More importantly, the audience, largely consisting of the same
people who had been regularly attending, continued the practice
of applauding statements that they liked, booing those that they
did not, but with an added element of making verbal insults to
Committee members. This was widely reported in some of the local
press. As a result, the Committee did not agree on anything, other
than to meet again in June.
As a result of this meeting, I have reluctantly concluded that
even were we to obtain a planner, given the situation in the Committee
and the lack of civility in the meetings, we will not be able
to finish our work. I have shared this appreciation with a number
of committee members some of whom also reluctantly concur. Others
would like to continue to try to work. Many are concerned that
the many hours of work that they have put into the process will
have been wasted.
The major factor impeding us from completing our work is something
that we, as a Committee, tried to avoid: the proposed Belleayre
project. A comprehensive plan is not supposed to be site specific:
it is supposed to reflect a community’s view of where it
is going so that this can provide a context for reviewing development
proposals. There are many in the community who clearly believe
that a plan should favor the Belleayre development project, and
staff of the project developers as well as announced supporters
of the project have been part of the audience throughout our process.
There are many in the community who clearly believe that a plan
should include obstacles to the Belleayre development project.
They have also been present at our meetings, although much less
vocal. For those members of the Committee who are in the middle,
this has meant walking a thin line between favoring either side.
The truth is, however, that much of what we have done, especially
in the draft text that has not been agreed, has been seen in terms
of the Belleayre development project, even if that was not the
intention. The irony is that if we had completed the plan, it
would neither help nor hinder that project, but rather would have
set the context in which the Town bodies would review those aspects
falling within the Town’s competence as with any development
The fact that we tried to avoid doing anything that would imply
a position on the Belleayre project meant that we, like the predecessor
committee, did not ask many of the questions that should be asked
in a comprehensive plan, such as “to which size would we
like to see the town to grow?” If approved, the Belleayre
project would have implications for the size of the town. If not
approved, there would be other implications for economic development.
Until the outcome of the Belleayre project is decided, through
the official process now underway, I do not believe that a comprehensive
plan for Shandaken can be agreed. The community is simply too
polarized to reach an agreement. Once the Belleayre project is
decided one way or another, a comprehensive plan can be completed
and adopted. If the project is approved, the plan will take that
into account. If it is not approved, the plan will take that into
An additional factor to be considered is that there will shortly
be municipal elections. The Committee itself, like its predecessor,
is composed of Republicans, Democrats and non-enrolled members.
Both Republican and Democratic members of the Town Board supported
the Committee’s creation and terms of reference. We have
made an effort to try to keep the plan and the Committee’s
work out of partisan politics. However, the closer that we come
to the election, the more that we run the risk of becoming embroiled
in electoral politics. A plan that is perceived as a partisan
document in a town where party loyalties are so evenly divided,
could not achieve the necessary broad support.
This factor is important because, even if a grant were to be received
for a planner, there would be almost no prospect of selecting
and contracting a planner until the fall, assuming that the Committee
could even agree on who to select.
Since the Town Board created and charged the Committee, it is
for the Town Board to take whatever action it deems necessary
about the future of the Committee.
May 29, 2003