Fresh from a similar event sponsored by the Phoenicia Times’
sister publication in the Town of Olive on Saturday, October 22, Christine
Henning, President of the League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson
Region, and veteran debate moderator Emily Johnson of the same organization
came to Shandaken to run a Meet The candidates event at Town Hall.
All Democratic candidates showed up, along with independent candidate
for Highway Superintendent Keith Johnson and several dozen town residents
interested in hearing what the people running for office had to say
for themselves, and how they’d answer questions from the public
they wished to represent.
“It just seems so strange to think a politician wouldn’t
show up when given an opportunity to talk about his or her candidacy,”
said Johnson, after it became clear that no Republican candidates
would show for the event.
The Shandaken GOP had gone on the record the previous week, in the
Ulster County Townsman, by questioning whether the event was real.
GOP Chairman Kenneth Umhey said he was suspicious because he didn’t
receive an invitation from the League, even though Henning pointed
out that the Mid Hudson chapter never sponsors such events themselves.
He also said he had checked on-line schedules for the Shandaken and
Olive events and couldn’t find one. But a check of www.midhudson.ny.lwvnet.org
shows only a calendar of League meetings, not the regular events where
they send moderators and timekeepers.
Invitations went out to all candidates in September, after a series
of phone calls about this paper’s beliefs in the need for such
formalized debates in local politics.
At the time, Republican Club President and town board candidate Gerry
Setchko said he wouldn’t be attending, or urging others to attend,
because “WE don’t really need it.”
But enough of the past. How was the event?
Johnson and Henning drew lots to see whom, within each category of
race, would speak first. Democrat judge candidates spoke about their
experience and reasons for running. Assessor candidate Lynn Davidson
addressed a question about revals, feeling the current real estate
market didn’t bode well for doing one now. Highway Superintendent
candidate Keith Johnson impressed everyone with his gravitas and intricate
knowledge of the ins and outs of the position he was seeking.
Board candidates Doris Bartlett and Peter DiSclafani shared time with
supervisor candidate Pete DiModica to answer questions about economic
development visions for the town, the Belleayre Resort project, cell
towers, open meetings and general philosophies of governance.
DiModica spoke about how he’d prepared a cell tower law that
was aimed at providing service into deep hollows using smaller towers.
He spoke about wanting more incentives for small businesses, about
such grants the town’s missed out on getting.
Everyone decried decisions they felt were being made without public
DiModica spoke about how, even though they were at times loud, he
held “very, very open meetings” where everyone had a chance
to speak, and different opinions were always entertained. He says
a certain civility has been abandoned in town governance.”
Their answers are all outlined in the Voter’s Guide inside.
In the end, all were pleased with the event, though sorry that no
Republicans had deigned to show up.
Henning remembered being at the last such Meet The Candidates debate
in 2003, when the Shandaken Women’s Network called in the League
after experimenting with a Meet The Press format involving all the
local newspapers in 2001.
Johnson said she was considering writing letters to the local newspapers,
decrying the lack of political savvy and pride in our democratic traditions
shown by those who boycott debates and Meet the Public type events.
We vowed to not be deterred and to keep pushing for such events until
they finally take in Shandaken, just as they did, first time around,
in Olive on the Saturday before Shandaken’s own fateful Sunday.
Election Day is Tuesday. Get out and vote! Absentee ballots, should
you need them, must be postmarked by November 1 or handed in by the
The lawsuit, filed by a Phoenicia-based not-for-profit citizen’s
group, claims Shandaken discriminated against a select group of landowners
when it raised their taxes and no one else’s.
“It’s a suit over the method used,” said David Rowley,
the Attorney representing the Association.
Rowley said that simply put, Assessor Rosalie Boland raised the assessed
value of certain properties with 20 acres or more of undeveloped land.
As a result, a select group of taxpayers was singled out, which is
illegal under state and possibly federal law.
Even worse, members of the Association claim the town chose to overlook
several parcels that met the 20 acre criteria, suggesting favoritism
for some individuals and organizations.
Then there are all the other properties that make up the rest of the
town which didn’t get an increase.
“They didn’t raise people with under 20 acres, and they
didn’t raise the State,” Rowley said.
At the website of the New York State Officer of Real Property services,
“selective reassessment “is described as isolating a particular
type of property for reassessment, an action that may create a situation
of discriminatory enforcement of the tax laws.
The association claims that that is precisely what happened in Shandaken
According to the Association’s President, Peter Vinci, so far
18 members of the organization have signed on to the lawsuit, which
claims the town wrongfully increased the assessments of landowners
holding 20 acres or more. Furthermore, Vinci notes the curious timing
of the hike. It occurred just prior to an announcement that the town
had reached a settlement with the State of New York that the taxes
on its land in town would be increased.
Last spring Assessor Rosalie Boland said that the town was embroiled
in a dispute with New York State over the taxable value of the state’s
vast land holdings in Shandaken. The state owns 72% of the town and
Shandaken believes that land, over 53,000 acres, has been under assessed
in recent years.
Looking over the files of properties in town, Boland said she noticed
that private lands were not being valued as high as what Shandaken
wants the State’s land valued at, so anybody with more than
20 acres of land valued under $600 an acre was brought up to that
level this year. Boland said in some cases vacant land was valued
at only $400 an acre.
The Landowners Association, assembled in reaction to what the membership
considers an illegal selective reassessment, plans to prove the town’s
action was unconstitutional.
In August town Supervisor Robert Cross Jr., who is up for re-election,
defended the revaluation. In a campaign newsletter Cross claimed nobody
is being discriminated against.
Outlining his understanding that some landowners with 20 acres or
more had assessments ranging from $300 to $2000 an acre, Cross said
the minimum was raised because those paying on the lower end of the
scale had been “enjoying” the benefits of valuations that
haven’t changed in 30 years.
“The Assessor upped their minimum assessment to $600 to treat
them like everybody else,” Cross said, even though tax records
show the town itself owning 132 acres in Pine Hill assessed at $300
A more detailed explanation from Cross echoes Vinci’s concern
that it was linked to the negotiations with the State. Cross said
that some people paying less “didn’t seem fair or equitable,
particularly when we’re pressing the state to face up to a fair
valuation of its lands in Shandaken. “‘Nuff said.”
To make things worse, Association members claim Cross’s information
is inaccurate. The Association claims 28 properties on the tax rolls,
including several that should have been increased based on the criteria
used, were overlooked by the town and continue to pay less.
At the very least the issue raises serious questions about how the
town handled the matter, especially in light of the incentive to reach
a settlement with the state. Not long after hiking taxes on those
chosen, Cross happily announced he had settled the matter with the
state and netted the town an annual gain of $44,000. The gain comes
from hiking the state’s minimum assessment to $600 and acre,
he said, and insisted the money was flowing immediately. Cross even
announced plans for how he would use some of the windfall, if he were
But Rowley said that this year the state is not paying one dime of
an increase despite Cross’s now famous claim that he “brought
home the bacon.” Proof that the bacon has not arrived yet is
the town’s preliminary budget, which does not show the $44,000
increase in revenues.
“The finalization of the tax roles was on July first (2005).
At that time the State had not been increased, but my clients had,”
The Phoenicia Times contacted the State office of Real Property Services,
which said that there is a tentative settlement reached between the
town and the state but it has not been finalized or signed by a judge.
Until then, the matter is still in litigation.
Hinchey suggested that
opponents of the $250 million proposal would be interested in the
scaled back version, in which he said, in one scenario, the developer
would still be able to build a golf course along with a hotel, residences
and restaurant facilities.
Hinchey called the proposal as it now stands, "an extraordinary
amount of development on the mountain, and one of the most controversial
issues of my lifetime affecting the Catskill region, rivaling the
creation of the Catskill park. The controversy relates to the size
and its impact environmentally, socially, in areas far beyond the
Hinchey called it "much too large, I think potentially disastrous."
Gitter, who was not informed that Hinchey's proposal was forthcoming,
"My first response is surprise," he said in a news conference
at the Holiday Inn in Kingston immediately following Hinchey's. "My
second comment is that there is nothing new here. This exact proposal
was made to us by the Catskill Center five years ago. We said no,
it's not economically viable. It was not viable then and it's not
The resort proposal is in a sort of regulatory limbo currently. After
the developers took several years in the preparation of the project's
Draft Environmental Impact Statement, Richard Wissler, an administrative
law judge for the state Department of Environmental Conservation,
ruled that twelve issues discussed in the document required an adjudicated
settlement, a trial-like process that could take as much as a year
Gitter has sought to rally supporters, including the Coalition of
Watershed Towns, formed in the 1990s to fight property intrusions
by New York City in the city's watershed, and has said that he will
appeal each of Wissler's rulings before the November 23 deadline to
"I would not want to assume because Wissler has issued a policy
that there is anything correct in his policy," Gitter said. "He
ruled against the state DEC in 11 cases. He entirely bought the arguments
of the environmentalists. We don't believe it is accurate and don't
believe it will stand."
In his proposal, Hinchey called for a sale by the developer of 1,242
acres on the eastern portion of the project to the state for incorporation
in the Catskill Forest Preserve, which would then be protected as
"Forever Wild." He said that the impact of paving 85 acres
of forest land and removing hundreds of thousands of trees to build
the resort would "produce storm-water runoff that would severely
threaten the quality of New York City Watershed and increase the potential
for serious flooding. It would also generate a substantial increase
in traffic throughout the Route 28 corridor, strain public services,
burden area taxpayers and threaten the integrity of the Catskill Mountain
Preserve." He said that this would cause New York City to be
required to build a multi-billion dollar filtration plant. "If
the quality of the water in the New York City Watershed declines to
the point where a filtration system is needed, it will unnecessarily
cost taxpayers billions of dollars. We can prevent that from ever
happening if we put our foot down and resist development that endangers
the Watershed. And by protecting New York City's water supply, you
protect Kingston's reservoirs and people's individual wells. Water
is the most precious resource known to humanity. With a development
like this, the issue of filtration takes precedence. If it went through,
there is little doubt the EPA would order filtration. $6 billion and
will go up, plus a half billion a year for operations. Those are very
large sums of money borne by New York City and state taxpayers."
Hinchey outlined three alternatives for the western side of the mountains.
He called the first a "natural resources alternative" that
would focus on outdoor and recreational activities such as an equestrian
center or mountain biking and hiking trails and a hotel. His second
alternative includes clustered housing, a hotel, restaurant and similar
amenities. The third offers a golf course "which would proceed
only after the most careful environmental scrutiny. If that would
go forward we would feel positive economic impacts in an area more
suitable. The western side can accommodate a modified proposal. In
terms of economic development we can move forward in a positive, suitable
He also believes that one benefit of eliminating the eastern side
development of the project would allow the proposed Belleayre Ski
Center expansion to be freed from what he called "developmental
limbo because of the Belleayre Resort." He said a state report
called it "the key to economic prosperity in western Ulster County
and that part of the Central Catskill region. It is an important proposal
to expand Belleayre - and it should be expanded. The alternate proposal,
if adopted, will remove all impediments to the ski center moving forward
and the positive impact could happen much more quickly."
And he said "all 12 issues would dramatically diminish if Mr.
Gitter's proposal would move forward on the western side."
Gitter called the filtration arguments, the "Chicken Little syndrome.
The watershed is 2,000 square miles, we're proposing to build on 250
acres. And I find disingenuous the congressman jumping in to protect
the ski center. This is balderdash. They took dead aim at the ski
And he said that the piece of the plan calling for him to sell the
land to the state "sounds like eminent domain. We fought for
10 years to see that it was never utilized in the Catskills. My associates
and I own this as private land. We have spent millions of dollars
to realize our objectives."
Gitter elaborated on why Hinchey's plan would not be economically
"We have planned for 10 years something which we think is financeable.
Golf is an amenity, without profit, in itself. It increases the utility
of a hotel. Skiing is also an amenity, and they logically compliment
each other." He said that the Catskills, as an attraction, are
stuck with old Borscht Belt notions. "The Catskills are not a
favorable destination. You have to hit the top of the market and the
middle of the market. Wildacres (the Western portion of his proposal)
is the middle. The Big Indian Spa (the eastern side, which Hinchey
wants to eliminate) is an extension of the Emerson. If you build the
top of the line world class facility, the world will respond. The
top of the market is what sets the tone. When you have opinion makers
and news makers, then the middle market follows behind it. It's topographically
impossible to do both in Wildacres. Big Indian is a spectacular site,
and it's private land."
Dan Ruzow, Gitter's counsel in the matter added, "the studies
did the math. You could not achieve the rate of return to be financeable
Hinchey said that he believes environmental organizations will support
his position. "The Catskill Preservation Coalition seems to be
in favor of it. I've had meetings with them. I believe we are on the
same page here."
A late-in-the-day release from the Coalition confirmed Hinchey's belief.
Calling it a "bold proposal that protects open space and promotes
economic development," the coalition wrote, "Although all
of our groups have not yet reviewed it with their memberships, in
concept, we are pleased with the Congressman's proposal, which preserves
the land east of the Belleayre Ski Center to serve as a buffer to
the constitutionally protected forest preserve lands while allowing
for economically sustainable and environmentally sensitive development
to the west of the ski center."
Hinchey said that New York City had not seen his proposal. "But
I have had discussions with new DEP chief Emily Lloyd, she's thoughtful
and intelligent. Although we didn't discuss the specifics of this,
I believe the city will feel positive about it," he said. He
did not speak to any Crossroads representatives before the news conference,
"but they should have been alerted by our positions with the
administrative law judge," Hinchey said. "I've been raising
questions about this within the context of procedure all along. We're
now an integral part of this process. We'll be much more on top of
this, watching every detail."
While rejecting the Hinchey proposal, Gitter signaled that he'd be
willing to talk.
"Our position is not rigid. We have signaled we are flexible.
The other side has not. If under the auspices of the Congressman or
anyone else, we could discuss this. There are compromises available
without financially hurting the project."
Fresh from a morning’s
worth of workshops at Belleayre’s Longhouse Lodge, participants
in this years, the fifth annual Catskills Local Government Day, seemed
to appreciate the train’s leisurely pace. After four hours of
presentations on subjects from SEQRA and planning, and zoning regs,
to main street revitalization and home based businesses, lunch it
seemed, was in order. And while the food on the Rip Van Winkle flier
was by consensus good, it was the elegance of the dining experience
and the magic of the time-capsule train that seemed to lock everyone
on board into a state of semi-enchantment.
“This is a classic streamliner, it’s the American Orient
Express” said Dave Riordan, Executive Director or the railroad
and the Catskill Revitalization Corp which operates it from the Ulster
and Delaware Railroad station in Arkville. “These cars were
railroading’s attempt to beat out the airplane,” said
Riordan. “What they lacked in speed they made up for in style.”
The four 1948 Budd railcars now called the Rip Van Winkle Flier were
purchased last year from a combination of funding sources; monies
generated by the U & D’s annual “Thomas the Tank Engine”
outings, a gift from The O’Connor Fund, and a $210,000 loan
from the Catskill Watershed Corporation. The train, which includes
a both a bar car and a two-tiered, glass-domed observation car, is
one of only a handful of its type left in the world. Although for
now it’s operating on a relatively short excursion loop, the
cars are, according to Riordan, fully Amtrack-certified and built
to last an expected lifetime of 100 years of use. Although revenues
to the U & D have quadrupled on the line since the Flier’s
arrival, its schedule is still limited to tours and charters. Sometime
in the future, they’re hoping to expand operations to include
regularly scheduled trips open to the public.
The morning training sessions, provided largely by New York Department
of State legal staff and organized by the Catskill Watershed Corporation,
were as in previous years, very well received. “I got a great
overview of SEQRA” said John VanBenschoten, a Margaretville
village trustee. “And (DOS attorney) Harry Willis gave me a
much more positive view of state government than I’d ever had.”
In addition to Willis, similar high marks were accorded to sessions
run by DOS attorneys Larry Weintraub and Peter Manning. Manning also
provided running narration during the train ride, along with CWC’s
Dianne Galusha, the world’s leading authority of the history
of New York City’s water system. .
“I gathered a lot of information” said Alicia Terry, Schoharie
County’s Director of Planning. “The grantwriting session
run by Helen Budrock of the Catskill Center provided me a lot of things
to take back to my communities,” a view echoed by Shandaken
town board member Joe Munster, one of five people attending from Shandaken.
Munster said he hoped to use some of Budrock’s advice to try
and obtain grants to help local residents defray some of Phoenicia’s
wastewater hookup costs.
Gilboa Supervisor Anthony Van Glad, a first-time attendee to the conference,
thought the quality of all the presentations were excellent and the
perspectives helpful. Shandaken Supervisor Bob Cross Jr. called the
trip “a fantastic experience, a really nice ride, and spoke
of the “great presentation from Roxbury,” where parks
director Peg Ellis lead a walking and historical tour of the town.
According to Cross it showed “how a community can come together
and preserve the heritage which means so much to so many.”
Asked whether the field trip component may have served to limit the
teaching part of the annual program, Catskill Watershed Corporation
Executive Director Alan Rosa thought not. “I think this is classroom
time too,” he said.
The idea for the train ride and outing it turns out, was Rosa’s.
Unsure what he might do next year to top this, Rosa laughed when asked.
“ We’re going to do something,” he said. “I’ve
got a year to think about it.”