By Matt Youngfrau
SULLIVAN COUNTY January 25, 2002 One of the hottest towns for development in Sullivan County has been Mamakating. Many interested groups have looked at the town as a possible site for businesses big and small. One of the county's largest projects, Kohl's Distribution Center, is just about ready to open on Route 209 near Wurtsboro, eventually employing nearly 1,000 people.
Due to the townships location closest in the county to the New York City metropolitan area, situated along Routes 17 and 209 and not far from Interstate 84 and the NYS Thruway other large projects, like casinos, hotels and more distribution centers, are the subject of much discussion.
With such progress on the horizon, the town adopted a Master Plan last year, which outlined what kind of businesses should come in and where. However, not everyone was pleased with plan, and it was challenged in court.
While the lawsuit went forward, then-Supervisor Mary Barbuti, an outspoken proponent of the plan, lost the November election by a narrow margin to Fred Harding. Harding happened to be one of those who challenged the Master Plan in the lawsuit (he and his group have since withdrawn from the lawsuit). Harding ran on a campaign of "Smart Growth."
Along those lines, at the reorganizational meeting on January 2, the town board passed a resolution stating, "Resolved, that the Town Board authorize the Town Supervisor to notify county officials and the Town Planning Board that, while we are in favor of controlled and smart growth, we are opposed to any additional distribution centers on Route 209 north of the Village of Wurtsboro until such time as we can evaluate the impact of Kohl's on the environment and the quality of life in our Town of Mamakating." The resolution passed 4-1 (John O'Rourke voted against it).
The resolution was drafted in response to rumors that Wal-Mart wanted to open a distribution center in the same area as Kohl's. Since the resolution was passed, the company (not confirmed as Wal-Mart) pulled out and is looking at Orange and Ulster counties to build their distribution center.
Although Harding and other members of the board have stated they are interested in the aforementioned smart growth (vaguely defined by them with such terms as light industry and technology), several county leaders reacted with dismay to Mamakating's resolution.
"The resolution passed by the town sent out a poor message," Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development President Mike Sullivan commented. "I understand the intent, but it was executed poorly. It sends the wrong message. Nobody is arguing over the right of the town over their own future, but that cannot be done on a whim. It just confuses the issue and sends a horrible message."
"From a school perspective, I am disappointed in the decision of no further distribution centers," remarked BOCES Superintendent Dr. Martin Handler. "I am disappointed that they are not taking an economically friendly approach. I understand it is their town, [but] the rest of us have the right to be disappointed."
"Their heart is in the right place," stated Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Jacquie Leventoff. "But it sends a bad message. It should have been worded more positively. It came off as negative. They just want what is best for their residents."
"I am concerned that the message conveyed has been distorted," County Manager Dan Briggs said. "We will abide by [the resolution], but we do express concern that it is not taken out of context."
The resolution is not a law. It cannot be legally enforced. However, it does carry a great deal of weight with potential developers, who are looking for as few difficulties from local municipalities as possible.
However, the resolution has its fair share of supporters as well.
"I am 100 percent behind it," District 2 Legislator Kathleen LaBuda commented (District 2 encompasses a portion of the Town of Mamakating). "It is very important to see what impact Kohl's will have. The Village of Wurtsboro is among the nicest in the county. We want to be careful what businesses come in. I dont want to see Sullivan Street turn into 42nd Street.
"[Kohl's] is like no other project ever in the county," District 4 Legislator Jonathan Rouis said (District 4 encompasses the bulk of Mamakating). "We need to see the impacts. Let them open up and settle in. We need to have an economic balance."
Even the countys foremost development strategist seems comfortable with Mamakatings stance.
"I understand their position," remarked Sullivan County Planning and Economic Development Commissioner Alan Sorensen. "I don't share other's concern [over the resolution]. Economic development takes many forms. They will move forward."
"I am a supporter of what they are doing," added New York State Assemblyman Jake Gunther. "There has been much controversy over this, and I don't find it controversial at all. I find it appropriate. Fred [Harding] is not anti-jobs and anti-growth. Rather than have things just happen, the town wants to be in control. I find it completely appropriate."
Others have a more middle-of-the-road mindset.
"Mamakating is the hot town for development," commented Sullivan County Legislature Chair and District 3 Legislator Rusty Pomeroy. "I was disappointed when they told us no development until further notice. But they have the right to determine the extent to which they grow. I respect the wishes of the Mamakating Town Board. It is not the end of the world just the end of a project."
"From what I've read, they want to sit back and evaluate it. I can respect that," noted District 8 Legislator Bob Kunis, who recently formed an organization which helps all county economic agencies work together for the best interests of the county. "But if the distribution center relocates to Ulster County, they [Mamakating] will get the negative impacts without the positive impacts.
They should not have made a public statement, he continued. It sent a negative message. I have said it before: they don't know if they want to be the last town in Orange County or the first town in Sullivan County."
The issue was still being discussed as the Mamakating board met for their regular meeting on Tuesday. After hearing county reaction to their resolution, board members shared their own thoughts.
"I want to live and do live in a nice community," commented Harding. "These are quality-of-life issues. We do not want a community full of distribution centers. I think it [the resolution] sends a positive message. We preserve the quality of life and provide better opportunities for our residents."
"We will see how it goes," remarked board member Nicholas Salomone. "We need to see the impacts. We want diversity, not five of one thing."
"We need to take a regional approach," Harding added. "Each town in the county is unique and different. They fit together like a quilt. It turns into a viable entity to keep all of us warm. It is healthy to be different."
At the board meeting, member Marcia Hamill issued a statement she read into the record. After more thought, she wished to rescind her affirmative vote on the resolution. She stated, "My personal views overpowered my better judgement that evening. I regret that we did not have more time to discuss and debate this very important issue before the supervisor asked for a vote. I agree with Councilman John O'Rourke that we could very well be pushing developers to the Town of Wawarsing. If that happens, we will have to endure the traffic coming south on Route 209 while forfeiting the benefits of a considerable addition to our tax base."
Town Attorney Richard Stoloff informed Hamill that she could not change her vote. However, her statement was recorded and will be reflected in the minutes. Harding then stated debate was healthy and would continue.
Naturally, Michael Sullivan applauded her stance.
"It is very rare to see a public official put herself out on a limb like Marcia did," Sullivan commented. "Her coming back and changing her vote like that shows her sterling commitment to the job."
None of the board members stated exactly how long they would study the issue. Salomone would like to wait at least a year to see what each season brings, but no other board member would offer a timetable.