By Nathan Mayberg
WURTSBORO November 04, 2005 One could argue that no other town supervisor in Sullivan County spends more time in his town hall office than Mamakating Supervisor Charles Penna.
Nearly every day, during any hour of the work day, Penna can be reached there.
It could equally be said that no other supervisor has dealt with so many major issues, with such controversy and as much public input.
From the time he took office in 2004, the Republican and Conservative inherited a major controversy over the attempt to build a mushroom plant in the town. Since then, he has made no political statement over whether he supports the project or not.
More than two years after it was first proposed, the plant appears to be reaching its final stages in the review process, amid a highly tense atmosphere, political jostling, and a lawsuit.
He used the lawsuit as the basis for declining to comment on the heated process.
In addition, he led a move to acquire the Wurtsboro Airport, one of the towns best-known landmarks, alongside the D&H Canal and its Shawangunk Ridge. He made the effort in response to the attempts by the Barone Estate to sell the property eventually to developer Shalom Lamm.
Penna has been speaking with Lamm over a potential joint venture to preserve the airport which would allow Lamm to develop other areas of the land.
The third huge political grapple centered around the town board (through a 3-2 vote) and Pennas support of the five-casino legislation introduced by New York State Governor George Pataki last year. That bill would have allowed for a casino to be built in the town, near Route 17s Exit 112 above Wurtsboro Hills.
Additionally, the hamlet of Westbrookville has been hit with several instances of flooding, including the catastrophic events in August 2004.
Penna has overseen a town with increasing residential development, which has led to calls by some including the master plan review committee and planning board chairman John Piazza for a building moratorium. Numerous others have called for a more stringent steep slope law, which will limit building to 25 percent grades. A proposed steep slope law with conflicting definitions as to whether the limit would be 35 percent, or no limits in certain cases, has stalled after being introduced earlier in the year.
Penna said he agrees that certain areas in the town, such as along the Shawangunk Ridge, should have a density limit of 25 percent. But, he added, we live on a mountain. You cant tell people they cant build a home.
He said that development is not out of control and has been growing at a steady pace.
The residential construction has been just enough to keep town taxes stable, he said.
This is a beautiful community. We are financially stable.
Clearly, Penna sees his work improving the town park (and the events held) as the cornerstone of his achievements so far. He touted his numerous efforts in that arena, particularly this past summers well received Shakespeare in the Park in Bloomingburg.
He considers the Shakespeare performance to be one of the first cultural events in 50 years in the town. He blamed the lapse on the disintegration of the railroad system way back in 1957, which kept the town prosperous.
He has worked with local community groups and individuals such as Recreational Activities Volunteer Effort, Wurtsboro Rotary and New York State Senator John Bonacic, who all contributed to the recent building of a soccer field, ice rink and pavilion at the town park in Bloomingburg.
The soccer league has been an absolute blockbuster so far, signing up about 150 children and filling out to capacity. Penna said he hopes more parents volunteer next year, so that more children can participate.
The ice rink could become the host for a new hockey league next year. Penna is also considering a football league.
But its not all fun-and-games.
Its a very hard job. I take it very seriously. . . . I think anybody who runs and isnt willing to do it full-time, is doing a disservice to the town, he remarked in an apparent jab at his opponent, Carl Bonitz, who has said he would work the job part-time.
Penna said he ran for supervisor to give something back to the community. I worked for the town for [nearly] 30 years at the highway department. It put a roof over my head. It put my kids through college.
His children have left the area, along with many others in the county something he said needs to change. His son graduated from West Point, and his daughter is an attorney.
They all had to leave the area to get good-paying jobs. Its a sin that we only educate our kids to move away and find good jobs so they can support their families.
Penna wants to bring more businesses to the area to keep the next generation in the area, as well as to offset property taxes He said the towns tax base is 98 percent residential, creating a hefty burden on local homeowners.
That breaks every rule in the State of New York for a healthy community. We have to create a balance. If a re-evaluation was done, a majority of seniors would be forced to sell their homes.
He took pride in stating that he wasnt beholden to special-interest groups, who he considers self-serving.
Raised in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, Penna was drafted into the Army and volunteered for the 101st Airborne. He served three years in the military, including 11 months in Vietnam, before receiving an honorable discharge. He worked for an insurance company downstate before making the move to the town over 30 years ago to have a little solace.
The supervisor said his military experience helped him coordinate the response to last years crippling flood. Over three million dollars in state and federal aid has been distributed to the town since last year, he said.
So far, the town, along with private homeowners, has done extensive work on stabilizing the banks along the Pine Kill. The tougher work will be with larger banks, where land has eroded. Penna said the Army Corps of Engineers will need to come in, but he doesnt know when that will happen. Still, the work done so far will get the town through another major storm, he claimed.
Two more years is how long he wants to finish some projects, including programs for youth, a park system in Wurtsboro, a disaster plan for the town (which he introduced Wednesday evening), and finding suitable locations to attract commercial enterprises in order to offset rising school and county taxes.
The emergency management program will turn the town hall into the central evacuation center in case of an emergency. Previously, the county designated the Emma Chase Elementary School as that center, said Penna.
The town hall, however, has an emergency generator, three wells, a chlorination system, six bathrooms, and can hold about 280 people. Outside, there is a 10,000-gallon diesel fuel tank and a 10,000-gallon propane tank. The town would also secure enough cots, meals and clothing for up to 280 people.
The town is also in the process of building a cell tower, which will be used by Cellular One and Verizon through fees which add up to $50,000 a year.
The supervisor would like to set up an AM radio station whereby the town could notify residents of any impending or current emergencies and how best to act.