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TOWN OF BETHEL Planning Board Chair Herman Bressler, left, and Supervisor Allan Scott hold the Gerry Foundation’s massive draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed performing arts center at the Woodstock site in Bethel.

Guiding Bethel
To a New Future

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment in a series on the plans for the Woodstock site which began on June 7 with a talk with the Gerry Foundation and continued last Friday, June 14, with an interview with the Woodstock Preservation Alliance.

By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE — June 21, 2002 – “Cooperation is key” goes the cliché.
And by what Allan Scott and Herman Bressler say of the planning and permitting process regarding the proposed $40 million performing arts center near the Woodstock festival site in Bethel, the Town of Bethel could patent it.
“We’re all working together,” says Scott, the supervisor of this 90-square-mile town in the heart of Sullivan County. “The Gerry Foundation [which owns the 37.5-acre site and 1,300 acres around it] has demanded this process be as open and forthright as possible. That openness brings people together.”
Indeed, even the town board and the planning board are acting as joint lead agencies, which “is not a common thing,” says Bressler, the chair of Bethel’s planning board.
“We both work together,” he explains, citing the massive scale of the project as the reason for joint lead agency status. “And all the board members at one time were planning board members.”
And many of them, like Bressler himself, are longtime residents of Bethel. Few, however, can lay claim – as Bressler can – to being on the planning board 33 years ago when what was supposed to be a 40,000-50,000-person festival mushroomed into a “happening” half a million people strong.
With 8 years already under his belt as a planning board member, Bressler was one of many residents who were not just surprised but genuinely shocked by the events of August 15-17, 1969.
“We never expected it to be a mass gathering,” recalls Bressler, who helped supervise the installation of phone lines at the site through his job with New York Telephone. “And when we did, it was too late.”
In the months and years that followed, Bressler was part of the team that drafted new laws to protect the township from such unanticipated events again. And now, three decades later, he’s heading one of the two boards tasked with approving or disapproving the ultimate future of the farmer’s field at the corner of Hurd and West Shore roads.
And this time, he just can’t wait to see it happen.
“It will be different,” he says. “It will be more appealing to the general public.”
Having sat next to him through 20 or so public meetings and even more private ones, Scott is equally optimistic about the prospect of a 17,500-seat performing arts center and related facilities.
“Our experience with Mr. [Alan] Gerry and his staff has been extremely favorable,” he says.
“We’re very, very excited about it. This is a project we hope will have a tremendous economic benefit,” he adds. “Basically, we’re looking to this one thing to solve a lot of issues in the town and county.”
(Unlike casinos, which will shortly be unwelcome in the township if a resolution is passed as planned.)
Scott’s town hall office in White Lake has numerous bits of Woodstock memorabilia on its walls – from an original ticket and poster to a frisbee from the 1998 “Day in the Garden” concerts by the Gerry Foundation to even a recent ad by the Woodstock Preservation Alliance asking the town and the foundation to not build on the festival site itself.
But Scott himself deliberately avoided the famous three-day series of concerts in 1969 – partially because he was working in New York City at the time and Route 17 and the Thruway had a six-hour traffic backup extending from Sullivan County into Rockland County due to the concerts, and partially because he was “not really interested.”
Five years later, he moved from his native Liberty to Smallwood, and 13 years after that he became supervisor of the Town of Bethel. Still, “I really didn’t have too much thought about it,” he recalls.
But in 1989, Woodstock returned to haunt him.
“That was my first involvement,” he says of the 20th anniversary events in August that year. “Initially, I was extremely positive about the recurrence. There was a lot of press about it. But having to deal with it was a very difficult situation.”
Woodstock’s more infamous moments – traffic jams, endless mud, drug use, underage drinking, trespassing complaints and uncontrollable noise – repeated themselves in the years that followed, and it became such a wearying burden on the town that outsiders began to think that Bethel wanted to have nothing to do ever again with “peace, love and music.”
“But we just wanted something planned properly and properly run,” says Scott. “And our prayers were eventually answered.”
In 1996, Liberty billionaire Alan Gerry announced his purchase of the famous field and surrounding acreage, and thus were born the plans for an international musical attraction in the tiny hamlet of Bethel.
The town and planning boards, however, have seen the most action in just the past year, holding several public hearings on the project and its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – a thorough but tedious compilation of virtually everything and anything that could be considered an impact, both positive and negative, on the town and the center itself.
The state-mandated permitting and approval process is nearing its end, though, and public comment will be accepted for only a few weeks more before the boards wrap up their scrutiny of the plans – and likely give the foundation full approval at the end of August.
However, say Scott and Bressler, that potential approval mirrors the approval of local residents, who have been involved every step of the way. Indeed, the final EIS being prepared by the Gerry Foundation incorporates much recent public comment and concerns made about the draft version.
And . . . “these concerns people are bringing up are not concerns to stop it from happening – they’re concerns to help,” says Scott.
Even the Woodstock Preservation Alliance (WPA), a group of about 200 people opposed to the erection of permanent structures on the 37.5 acres which hosted the original festival, is in agreement with the performing arts center concept – although Scott and Bressler point out that they don’t find the WPA’s protests particularly compelling.
“Mr. Gerry owns the property,” explains Bressler. “For those people to say, ‘It’s our land,’ I don’t understand what they mean by that.”
“They are very nice people. I have no difficulty with them,” says Scott, explaining that the WPA’s comments have been as seriously considered as anyone else’s. “Personally, I feel it [the proposed use of the site] is pretty much a mirror image of what was done in 1969. If you take a look at the full picture, it’s an insignificant portion of that site [that will be built upon]. The Gerry Foundation has tried as much as they can to keep the site as is.”
“Even the water tower they’re going to try to camouflage,” says Bressler.
What isn’t camouflaged is Scott’s excitement about the center.
“We can use it as a nucleus to spin out a lot of good growth,” he says, adding that, at 18 percent a year, the town is already the fastest-growing township in the county. “And I think that growth will continue across the board.”
But what if it brings too quick and too massive a change to this fairly rural township?
“We expect a lot of growth in the next 10 years along the Route 17B corridor. Do I have concerns about traffic on 17B? From a quality-of-life standpoint, yes,” he says. “But from a commercial sense, I’d like to see more of it. There’s just got to be long-term planning . . . trying to marriage the concerns of residents with those of merchants on 17B.”
And, he adds, “we expect more residential growth than commercial” due to gambling and other industries in eastern Sullivan County that could make the western end a bedroom community.
“The performing arts center fits beautifully with residential growth,” says Scott. “We perceive it to be something very beneficial to the community, . . . and we’re handling this just as professionally as we can.”
So, if all goes as planned, expect to see both Bressler and Scott at the center in 2004 (when it’s tentatively scheduled to open), listening to the sounds of the New York Philharmonic amidst the bucolic setting.
Actually, says Scott, expect to see a lot of people from both near and far.
“Everyone should be very happy about this,” he remarks matter-of-factly. “This is probably the best thing ever to come to Bethel.”
Next Friday: Do Bethel residents and businesspeople agree? A door-to-door series of interviews with Woodstock neighbors.

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