By Nathan Mayberg
WURTSBORO August 26, 2005 Even five casinos and a large mushroom factory cannot incite the emotions of the people of the Town of Mamakating the way the future of the Wurtsboro Airport has.
Roughly 300 people packed the Town of Mamakating Hall Tuesday, with many standing inside and others standing outside to take part in a public hearing over the towns plans to take the 400+ acre airport property through eminent domain.
The town attempted to purchase the land from the owner, the Barone Estate, but was unsuccessful. Mamakating Supervisor Charles Penna said he offered $4.7 million to the familys executrix of the late Theresa Barones estate but was rebuffed.
Long Island developer Shalom Lamm made a smaller offer of $4.5 million and has laid down a $25,000 option on the property. By September 21, he must decide whether he is willing to spend another $100,000 on land which could become the subject of an extensive legal battle.
The town board has voted unanimously in the past to investigate buying the property and then taking it through eminent domain. A public hearing will resume October 5.
Based on the many speakers and the amount of applause, about 65-70 percent of those in the crowd appeared to approve of the towns decision to move forward with eminent domain. Those against it were wary of its precedent or skeptical of the funds available to the town.
Penna has provided letters from the Federal Aviation Administration which detail its commitment to providing 95 percent of the funding for the acquisition of the land. Penna said that the state has promised 2.5 percent. The Wurtsboro Airport Preservation Society, a group of pilots who use the airport, has pledged the remaining 2.5 percent.
The airport is best known for the gliders which soar over the Shawangunk Ridge. It is also home to many airplanes and is open for most general aviation purposes.
The airport must remain in use for another 11 years, based on an agreement with the FAA. The Barones accepted federal funds nine years ago to improve its facilities, and in turn, the FAA mandated that it stay open for 20 years.
Lamm has conceptual plans which would keep the airport open while constructing two lakes and placing homes around the lakes. In addition, he would build a 30-room bed and breakfast, horseback riding, drag racing, log cabins and retail outlets. There are approximately 100 acres of wetlands around the airport.
The town presented its plans for the airport through town planner Alan Sorensen, former county commissioner of planning. Sorensen called the airport a unique community resource for the better part of 75 years. He said the town has been interested in acquiring the property as far back as 2002, when it met with the FAA.
According to the plan he outlined, the town would preserve the airport while using part of the land for a shovel-ready business park similar to the one in Rock Hill, turning it into a planned unit development. Some open space would be preserved, though it wasnt detailed how much. There would also be a site for recreational facilities.
Sorensen said the airport is connected to the towns heritage in the same way as several of the towns other cultural and recreational resources, including the nearby state wildlife area, county linear park and D&H Canal. He said the land could become part of a future scenic byway.
Some of those who spoke in favor of the town taking the property did not necessarily trust government. But they believed they had more control over the destiny of the airport through town ownership rather than an outside developer.
At the same time, some said they were skeptical of the towns dedication to preserving the scenic beauty of the area based on the towns actions over the last few years in allowing the development of Kohls and the proposed mushroom factory. As one gentleman put it, how does a scenic byway and business park go together?
Representing Lamm, James Sweeney, along with Michael Mazzariello of the Chester law firm of Oster, Benjamin and Associates, said the town and developers plans were similar in nature. He said the developer would only be able to do what the towns zoning laws allowed.
Sweeney attempted to raise doubts over the towns ability to raise the funds necessary to purchase the land or pay for the possible legal battles. He said that eminent domain should only be used in extreme circumstances.
Gary Greenwald, a town resident who operates a law firm in Chester, spoke at length at how much the towns project will cost the taxpayers.
As for the public, those against eminent domain included Melissa Lanza, who owns a local real estate business. She focused on the property rights of individuals.
Those in favor of the towns plan included Basha Kill Area Association President Paula Medley, who said she wanted to preserve the ridgeview. She opposed the developers plans to mine large gravel pits in order to build the two lakes.
Others in favor of eminent domain said this case differed from others, in that the Barones are willing sellers just not to the town.
Local resident Justina Burton researched Canon Development, which Lamm operates. She said the average time the company holds on to land is four years and therefore did not believe they would own this one for very long.
A number of people said the town was under extraordinary development pressure, and this was one of the last large tracts of land that could be preserved.
James Arnott, a local pilot, questioned the funding of the FAA. he said he doesnt know whether their trust fund will exist after 2007.
Tish Moore said that Lamms plans were similar to that of the Yukiguni Maitake Mushroom Factory. First, she said, Lamm wanted to build 400 homes, but now he is noncommittal just as Yukiguni has changed its projections for water usage several times.
Jodi Rubenstein, who is running for a position on the town board, said the town would lose its identity without the airport. She objected to the developers plans to excavate along the ridge.
A number of people against eminent domain were worried about their taxes rising as a result. Ken Morgan of Phillipsport said the town would only be losing about $30,000 in taxes a year based on the deal the Barones reached with the town in the past to lower its assessment. Morgan said that would only cost each taxpayer about $5 a year.
Thats a bargain, he said.
The towns planning board attorney, Ira Cohen, was a surprise speaker. He crossed his name off the speaker list but then decided to voice his opinion anyway. A town resident, he said the town should not act hastily. Eminent domain is not the only way to proceed, he said.
The towns master plan review committee (and planning board chairman John Piazza) have called for a temporary moratorium on building in the town, he said. That has not been addressed by the town yet. A moratorium on any construction at the airport would satisfy the towns goals, he advised.
Afterwards, Lamm called the four-hour public hearing exhausting.
A lot of very good people have been fed a lot of misinformation, he said, but added, I understand their passion.
He said he intends to keep meeting with people publicly, ones which he will advertise.