a recent event to benefit two of our neighbors who lost their
home to fire, a public official from Hunter quietly said something
interesting. “There’s a great community here,”
he said. “It’s just that a lot of it lives somewhere
else.” He was talking about the part-timers, the second
homeowners whose emotional ties to what’s happening here
are often as solid as the rest of ours. He was right, and they
were out in force that day when over $15,000 was raised to help
Wendy and Carl Cappello of Pine Hill make a new start for themselves.
Impressive, we thought, but more typical than atypical of how
our communities respond when we need each other. And we do need
each other and part of our strength is knowing it.
We need each other and yet we’re never going to always
agree. We’re never going to see everything the same way
nor interpret the same data or circumstances even similarly.
It doesn’t mean that some of us are right or others wrong.
It just means honest differences exist when it comes to trying
to make sense of what the future holds and how best to plan
for it. That’s a job we all share insofar as the future’s
almost definitely coming, and most of us are almost as definitely
not going anywhere. So we’re going to talk about that
future a little, beginning with a conclusion we’ve often
shared here. That is, that we see the future of our towns as
enormously promising and positive for just about everyone.
Nearly every indicator we look at tells us this is true. Our
regional economy is diversified and solid and its growth potential
looks better all the time. Personal income of our full-time
residents is growing faster than in other towns in Ulster County…
except for the six hundred and some people in Denning. Similarly
rising is the growth rate in educational attainment of our full-time
residents. But this kind of info from the census data doesn’t
begin to track the full picture of what’s happening locally
because it only takes into account 55% of the housing units
and households that pay taxes here. The rest comes from our
part-time community, which pays, excluding City and State contributions,
well over half of all local property taxes while requiring very
little by way of services. It also supports a hefty portion
of the rest of our local economy, as every contractor knows.
It’s an equation that’s been stable enough for two
generations to have become our status quo. The only downside
is that with so much housing owned by non-residents, the number
of school age children’s declining, leaving us obviously
some tough choices ahead.
But on balance our schools are a very strong positive factor
for our future. Onteora is clearly the best school district
in the Catskills, one of the best in our region and essentially
on par with many more affluent districts downstate and elsewhere.
It both draws people here and supports everyone’s property
values. So does the fact that we’re one of the last ‘frontiers
of the metro NYC housing market, where we’re still undervalued
but unlikely to stay that way long term. Like every rural district
and most suburban ones, tax affordability is a problem, but
we also see a solution on the horizon. We think between the
state courts and our new Governor, the coming years will see
a long overdue shift from property-based to income-based school
funding...a nd that the ultimate solution will benefit us enormously.
We’re also beginning to see some benefits from our county’s
change in political leadership, particularly in terms of a new
accountability to its taxpayers. We’re even going to have
a modern county government soon, run by people we can elect
and un-elect, and actually hold responsible for what they do.
There are of course, many more factors that figure in, including
the prospect of future 9-11 type events downstate which could
change our region overnight. But regardless — and over
time — what secures our future is our quality of life
and the quality of our environment here. By those measures we
are some of the richest communities in our region, measured
in things people want and don’t want in their lives and
are happy to pay either to have or to avoid. But if we don’t
start planning better for our rising fortunes, all the change
in the world may not help us much, or it may come with costs
we don’t want.
Our one historical weakness in the 28 corridor is planning.
Zoning we’ve actually. done fine with. But when one looks
at the quality of planning in Shandaken and Olive in recent
years, we’ve a long way to go in both towns. Our other
weakness, not quite as severe and certainly not as historical,
is infrastructure. In Olive, our attempts at a careful process
seemed to work well. But then larger forces pushed us into a
system that’s resulted in no service. Talk about good
intentions run awry....
The other big infrastructure issue in both towns is wastewater
treatment. Phoenicia will shortly hold its sewer referendum;
we’re reminding people it’s a vote on the future
of Phoenicia and not on the current Town Board’s handling
of the issues involved. But it’s an issue Olive should
pay attention to, what with its own offer of a different system
fast coming down the pike and needing resolution.
We believe in infrastructure because we believe in the future.
We believe in the future because, in tandem with the present
and the past, it’s what matters.