By Dan Hust
KAUNEONGA LAKE December 19, 2006 Brand new Bethel Town Councilman Andy LaPolt proved to be the swing vote on Bethel’s controversial Comprehensive Plan Thursday night.
LaPolt, a Republican, was elected in November to serve the remaining year on fellow Republican Harold Russell’s term. Russell left his councilman seat in 2005 to make a successful run for supervisor.
Denied appointment a year ago by a four-man town board evenly split along party lines, LaPolt finally began his council tenure Thursday after November’s election results were certified on December 1.
And he became one of three board members to approve the plan, joining Bob Blais, a Democrat, and Russell in saying “yes” to a document that has been in the works for five years.
Councilmen Dick Crumley, a Republican, and Dan Sturm, a Democrat, dissented, agreeing with the bulk of the audience that evening that the allowance of one-acre zoning in the plan was unacceptable.
That 3-2 vote was repeated several times over, as Sturm and Crumley reiterated their opposition when Local Law #5 of 2006 came up for approval, giving the comprehensive plan’s one-acre zoning recommendation the force of law.
The law actually created a new set of zoning districts in the town, particularly along Route 17B, the main corridor. But one-acre vs. two-acre lots remained the focus of disagreement.
Proponents argued that the township’s circa-1960s zoning regulations (which allowed smaller lots) needed to be changed immediately, especially with upwards of two dozen developers planning large-scale housing developments in Bethel.
Town officials and town planning consultant Tom Shepstone repeatedly pointed out that people can’t just simply build on one acre with this new law. It has to be one “buildable” acre, meaning a minimum of 43,560 square feet that cannot include required setbacks, wetlands, public utilities’ rights-of-way, FEMA-designated floodplains, or slopes of more than 25 percent.
They used the same example opponents of the new law utilized, pointing out that a trio of huge houses on the north end of Hurd Road could not have been built so close together had this new law been in effect (though Local Law #5 does allow homes on half an acre in areas already served by municipal sewer).
But the vocal majority of the audience still saw great danger in one-acre zoning, arguing for a minimum of two acres so as to preserve the oft-referenced “rural character” of the township.
“It’s not going to look like the country anymore,” argued 50-year resident Michael Fox. “It will look like the city.”
Long Island’s Levittown was used several times as a negative example (one resident even lived there before moving to Bethel), and during the public hearing prior to the comprehensive plan’s adoption, speaker after speaker after speaker pleaded with the board to drop the one-acre idea.
Even Bethel Planning Board members Susan Brown and Jennifer Teitelbaum not to mention Chair Leon Smith himself asked the board to rethink the matter, explaining that their own group couldn’t come to a consensus when polled about it earlier.
Debate swirled around whether or not one-acre zoning would truly lead to affordable housing for young people, while others argued over the motivations behind this vote.
The 21⁄2-hour meeting turned ultrasensitive when Russell was accused of pushing the one-acre zoning for personal benefit, and Russell spent the better part of 15 minutes denouncing such statements to a point where audience members expressed both insult and embarrassment at the supervisor’s heated remarks.
And in the end, that fueled the debate even further. Many in the crowd wondered aloud why the board majority was not listening to them, and some felt that the issue was already a done deal.
Ultimately, Russell, Blais and LaPolt apparently agreed with Shepstone’s statement that the attempt to craft a “perfect” comprehensive plan remains a work in progress, but in the meantime some sort of plan needed to be adopted.
But the plan will likely be modified, judging on much of the audience’s unhappiness with the result.
In Other Business
Elsewhere in the more than 3-hour meeting, Russell reported that the town paid a $5,000 fine to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for oil spills, incorrect tank labeling and a lack of proper certification for a fuel tank at the highway barn in Kauneonga Lake.
Highway Supt. Bernie Cohen characterized the DEC officer who noted the violations as in need of “a brown shirt with a swastika on it” a comment he made directly to the officer, he said.
“According to the DEC people I talked to, this guy is power-crazy,” Cohen added, saying one oil spill wasn’t even on the town’s property, yet the officer wouldn’t budge.
Cohen said the issues have been resolved save for a to-be-delivered gas tank pump, but Blais asked that town engineer Glenn Smith visit the town barn with Cohen to ensure Bethel has complied and avoids the $37,000-a-day fine the DEC has threatened should the township not comply to its satisfaction.
The town board will next meet at a work session on December 21 at 8 p.m. to discuss a planned unit development of up to 30 houses on Sullivan County Route 115.
Two public hearings on a proposed kennel law and new cul-de-sac regulations will be held on January 25 starting at 7:45 p.m.
All meetings will be held at the senior center in Kauneonga Lake.