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Citizen Involvement A Reality in Bethel

By Dan Hust
BETHEL — March 30, 2007 — “Community involvement” isn’t a cliche in the Town of Bethel.
It’s a bona fide reality.
From Bethel First to the Club at Smallwood to the Bethel Local Development Corporation, residents are stepping up to enhance and even remake their township.
New businesses have emerged in the bright light of publicity created by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, and Route 17B is bustling and vibrant.
Even planning and town board meetings – the kinds of gatherings most people ignore or vigorously avoid – are standing-room-only, including in the dead of winter.
Now residents are taking it a step further, organizing grassroots groups like Keep Bethel Rural and Preserve Smallwood Country Life, and they’ve formed an umbrella organization, Bethel Now!, to coordinate efforts.
To do what?
“We don’t want to wake up one morning and ask, ‘What happened?’” explained Bethel Now! member Denise Frangipane, a lifelong resident of Bethel.
In a township recently at the top of per-capita growth statewide, that means keeping an eye on development.
But it also means working with developers, town officials and residents to achieve common goals.
“We’re not against development,” said Smallwood resident Jonathan Hyman, whose wife Gail Rubenfeld is the public face of Preserve Smallwood Country Life.
“We’re trying to get the town to acknowledge we’re really at a crossroads,” he explained. “We have to understand collectively what our self-image is going to be.”
“It goes beyond what we look like,” added Frangipane. “It’s how we do business here.”
That’s why Bethel Now! met with all five town board members less than a month after it was formed – in a raging snowstorm, no less. They also had a chance to speak with five of the eight people on the planning board.
Members are happy to say it was an encouraging start.
“The conversations we had… were substantive,” said Hyman.
“In a non-confrontational way,” added Frangipane, calling it the implementation of the three “As”: awareness, advocacy and action.
“We’re not witch-hunters or headhunters,” agreed Jeffrey Cohen, a Harris dentist who lives in Kauneonga Lake. “We’re non-political. We want to work with whomever is in office.”
They also want to work with the general public, seeking to galvanize the entire township into talking about a future fraught with promise and peril.
“Even in the best of situations, people need to participate,” said Frangipane. “Our officials need the support and input of the community in ways that are meaningful… The idea that people can participate is healthy for a community.”
So the net Bethel Now! is casting is about as wide as it gets – from Smallwood to Briscoe, Bethel to Swan Lake, Kauneonga Lake to Mongaup Valley.
“We are reaching out to members of our respective communities,” explained Hyman, “and saying, ‘You have a responsibility to speak – and darn it, get involved!’”
To that end, Bethel Now! has already sponsored a community workshop regarding the planning process and is focusing on educating everyone about the nuances of the town’s newly approved comprehensive plan – the document which is intended to guide Bethel for at least the next decade.
The goal, said Frangipane, is “bringing that plan to life.”
Life is, indeed, what this effort is all about.
People like Dawn Ryder, an 8-year resident of Burr Road on the western edge of the township, understand that concept intimately. She’s watched the quietest part of Bethel grow rapidly in just the past decade, and now an 42-home development is being proposed virtually next door.
She moved to Bethel from Fallsburg – and even earlier, from Long Island – to escape being hemmed in, and while she doesn’t mind the new neighbors with a few acres separating one from another, Ryder is worried the peace and quiet she cherishes may disappear if not properly planned for.
“The Burr Road project will surround my house,” she said of the five acres she shares with her family on the old Gabriel homestead.
She found, however, that her neighbors were worried about the same thing.
“I thought I was alone in this,” said the founder of Keep Bethel Rural. “But they were all just as concerned as I was.”
Ryder and fellow members attended a planning board meeting, and it was there they discovered how much impact not only these projects can have, but how much impact an ordinary resident can have.
It’s a crucial lesson many residents have yet to learn, said Hyman.
“I can’t tell you how many people… have said to me, ‘Wow, I didn’t really know what was going on,’” he related.
Hyman and his wife have been Smallwood residents since 1994, having made it their full-time home in 1997 with their 10-year-old daughter, now a student at Duggan Elementary in White Lake.
“We fell in love with this town,” he recalled. “We want to help maintain the rural character of Bethel as we grow.”
Eighteen months ago, Hyman began regularly attending town and planning board meetings, and he’s been a fixture there ever since.
“I think it’s easy to complain,” he observed. “It’s harder to take the physical and mental time to participate. But the way someone gets involved… speaks to the way they think of their community.”
An example can be found elsewhere in the group as well, through Cohen, known as “The Code Man” in the township.
“Jeff has spoken repeatedly and articulately to the [building/zoning] code of Bethel,” Hyman explained. “He’s earned a great deal of respect.”
“I’m not looking to hurt anybody,” said Cohen, anticipating questions about his sometimes strident remarks during town meetings. “I just want it to feel right and be done right.”
Cohen and his family have lived in Kauneonga Lake for nearly three decades, and he shares fellow Bethel Now! members’ concerns about the area’s future.
When he saw trash being thrown on town roads, he organized litterplucks. When he saw new neighbors come in, he introduced himself. And when he saw code violations, he spoke to town officials.
“I started seeing some of the projects going up and said, ‘Something seems wrong to me,’” he recalled.
That’s what got all of them involved, said Frangipane.
“It started because we saw something in our backyard,” she commented.
Even Scott Samuelson, owner of the Bradstan Country Hotel in White Lake and a key salesman for the Chapin Estate luxury home development, saw that “something.”
But like Frangipane said, he realized that Bethel Now! and its sister groups aren’t about NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard).
“For the first time in a long time, I am totally re-energized about our town,” he remarked. “I have been involved in our community issues for a long time on many levels, including as a business owner, but this group of smart, motivated and legitimately concerned citizens are really going to make a difference.”
Frangipane hopes so, and in pro-growth ways that people might not expect.
“We do need economic development. We need jobs. We need services,” she said, pointing out the group’s positive view of the revitalization of downtown Kauneonga Lake.
“We’re open, realistic and hopeful,” offered Hyman.
The real question, Frangipane added, is what kind of development should happen in Bethel – and how it’s done.
“The implementation of these projects is the critical part,” she said.
That’s where Bethel Now!, Keep Bethel Rural and Preserve Smallwood Country Life feel they can play a helpful role, not only in educating people on the comprehensive plan but encouraging the town to form an advisory committee to review housing and commercial development concepts coming before the planning board.
“All of us understand it’s coming to our backyard,” said Hyman, “but we want a rational discussion of what’s coming to our backyard.”
Bethel Now! is a group of Bethel residents who believe in “smart” and thoughtful growth and development for our town. We are private citizens who have committed to becoming actively engaged in the process of deciding our town’s future.
We will advocate for a well-articulated zoning vision for Bethel’s future, which includes a vibrant Main Street and Town Center where commerce and culture coexist.
We believe that Bethel’s rural character and natural resources are special and will strive to pass them on to future generations.
Bethel Now! also includes representatives of Preserve Smallwood Country Life and Keep Bethel Rural.
Our core values are:
• A vision that supports the goals of the comprehensive plan through effective planning, zoning, resources and citizen involvement.
• A town that allows for thoughtful development and slow growth while at the same time maintaining our unique community character of hamlets, open farmland and scenic vistas.
• A town that works carefully to meet the needs of developers while at the same time protects the interests of its residents and respects the vision that was set forth in the comprehensive plan.
• A town center that attracts a variety of small businesses which create a vibrant Main Street that will support our residents and visitors.
• Protection of lakes, streams, wetlands, drinking water, forestry and tree-lined roads which are part of our natural resources.
* * *
Bethel Now! has scheduled a community meeting for April 5 at 7 p.m., to which everyone is invited. For more information (including the to-be-determined location), contact Denise Frangipane at 295-2443.

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