December 29, 2011 —
As we reviewed the events of 2011 to draw up a list of the things we think deserve celebration or condemnation, we couldn’t help but note a theme emerging: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Although there are exceptions to this rule, it seems that by and large most of the sources of inspiration over the past year could be found in our own backyard. This is a theme we’ve noted before in our year-end editorial, but it seems like this year it was more true than ever.
Heading the list of such developments was the initiative to preserve home rule rights. On the New York side of the river, Tusten’s passage of a local zoning ordinance that included a prohibition of high-impact industrial uses was a historic event, and promises to set a precedent for similar affirmations by other local townships including Lumberland, Highland and Bethel. The interpretation of state law on this point is admittedly controversial, and the courts have yet to rule on the matter, with suits in Dryden and Middlefield still pending. But the protection of our ability to control the quality of life in our own backyards is certainly a battle worth fighting, and the Tusten law marks an encouraging victory along the way.
Pennsylvania is in the midst of a similar battle, with both houses of the state legislature having passed what, at least in its original form, was essentially an extortion bill, making payment of natural gas drilling impact fees contingent on the adoption of a state-designed ordinance that would overwrite local zoning. This land grab by the state transcends the natural gas controversy, and we stand behind the townships all over Pennsylvania, including Damascus and Shohola, that have registered their protests, supported by the Upper Delaware Council. (The protests may be having some effect; see page 1.)
The road-use agreement for heavy industrial road users developed by Sullivan County’s Multi Municipal Task Force (MMTF) is another example of a bottoms-up initiative we can take pride in for setting a precedent. Indeed, the model developed by Delta Engineering for the MMTF was taken as a template by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the section of its SGEIS on mitigating road use damage. Here is a case where we can take credit for initiating leadership for an entire state.
Agriculture is another area where progress seems to come mostly from pulling at our own bootstraps. National legislative efforts are at best mixed: Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania has introduced a bill that would incorporate the farmers’ cost of production into milk pricing, but he confused the matter by also introducing a bill that would eliminate price supports without providing anything new in the way of farmer support. Meanwhile, Calkins Creamery has continued to forge its own way by adding a pasteurizer, developing a market in NYC and adding a farm tour, among other actions. The farmers’ market in Honesdale will now operate year round, providing an outlet for farmers who have expanded their seasons with tools such as unheated greenhouses called “high tunnels” or “hoop houses.” Organizations like the Sullivan County Farm Network, Farmhearts and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture have expanded their efforts to make local farming profitable and sustainable.
There were, to be sure, a few major local goofs, a number of them related to zoning. The expansion of a wood processing plant in Delaware on Swiss Hill Road to a character and size contrary to the spirit of the zoning was an example of the way in which insufficiently clear drafting of an ordinance, combined with enforcement failures, can seriously degrade the quality of life for some residents. Similar fuzziness has been evident in Liberty with regard to expansions of non-conforming uses, especially with regard to Camp Agudah, with more brewing with regard to the zoning for a proposed recycling plant. (See “An error correction or a zoning change?” in last week’s newspaper.)
But by and large it was higher levels of government that seemed to commit the major blunders. The aforementioned “extortion bill,” trading off impact fee relief for local control, is perhaps the biggest example on the Pennsylvania side. And in New York, the placement of a two percent cap on property taxes, without any mandate relief offered, is a fiasco that threatens to bankrupt Sullivan in the next budget, now that the county has run through its capital reserves. A continuing trend toward centralization by the PA Department of Environmental Protection, taking control over environmental concerns from the conservation districts that know the most about them—and have the biggest stake in them—is another discouraging development.
With the national and state governments continuing to fumble, it looks like we will need all the help we can get going into the coming year—and most probably, we will need to get it mostly from each other. Thanks to all who provided inspiration in the past year—and keep up the good work.
[Disclaimer: Fritz Mayer, who serves as editor of The River Reporter, is a resident of Liberty who has registered complaints with the town with regard to the Camp Agudah mentioned above.]