By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE Seeking “to avoid the appearance of impropriety and, most importantly, the appearance of any delay,” Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm last week promised that the town’s new Zoning Advisory Committee will accept written public comment routed through his office.
Speaking at the regular town board meeting, Sturm explained that the four-member committee will meet in private but will only advise the town board, which will take final action on a proposed zoning ban of gas drilling.
Some, like Smallwood resident Hal Saltzman, are worried that the committee will not go forward with the ban, as Sturm has previously stated that he thinks the draft is too broadly written.
“We seem to be going backwards, rather than forwards,” Saltzman told the board. “... You made a pledge to the people of Bethel ... and what I’m saying to you tonight is, keep that promise now.”
Councilwoman Vicky Vassmer-Simpson, one of the four on the committee, clarified that the proposal is being studied to ensure the only excluded heavy industrial activity is drilling.
She noted that in the first meeting of the committee, members discovered that the existing draft zoning amendment would ban desirable projects like water parks, since it blanket-bans large water uses.
“We’re not trying to stall,” she assured, agreeing with Councilwoman Denise Frangipane that the town needs to have this matter settled and in the zoning code before the state finalizes its rules on drilling.
“Our commitment has not waned one bit since August,” Sturm added. “... It’s going to be one of the best bans it’s going to be legal & binding.”
Councilman Richard Crumley, however, said the August meeting that precipitated this effort featured an audience of 200 he deemed not fully representative of the town, calling the mostly anti-drilling crowd “a rigged deck.”
“I was against that meeting from the beginning, and the supervisor knows that,” Crumley relayed, saying he does not yet have a position on drilling.
“I think there’s a lot of things to look at,” Crumley explained, predicting that if the state wants drilling, it will happen regardless of Bethel’s stance.
As a result, he felt the town’s time and money on the advisory committee which includes two paid consultants are premature, and Bethel should wait to see if drilling companies or landowners sue local towns that enact such bans.
Property owners, he added, “have rights, too. You have to find an equal playing field for everyone.”
White Lake resident Larysa Dyrszka disagreed with Crumley over the August meeting.
“I think it was a representative meeting because everyone who wanted to could be there,” she stated, arguing the “overwhelming majority of the town is against drilling.”
“Private property rights are important,” she continued, “but the right to clean water and clean air supersede those.”
Josh Teitelbaum criticized the secrecy surrounding the committee.
“I don’t see how all sides are being heard,” he remarked.
But White Lake resident Marcia Salton expressed faith that the board will handle the matter correctly, and Sturm promised to introduce a draft zoning ban in December.
That comes with a 30-day public comment period, and based on the state’s expected delay in finalizing its own rules, “we’re pretty comfortable there will be no thought of even permitting drilling” until at least Feb., said Sturm.
About Roy and Jeryl
The town’s attempt to collect a $25,000 fine from Bethel couple Roy Howard and Jeryl Abramson garnered attention at the board meeting, as well.
Teitelbaum and supervisor candidate Judith Maidenbaum accused the board of “bullying” the couple, which prompted Sturm to warn Teitelbaum: “I don’t accept derogatory comments ... because technically, they’re not allowed.”
Teitelbaum persisted, saying the town has already spent $51,000 on litigation involving Howard and Abramson.
“You chose to waste the town’s money,” he accused. “You’re choosing to do it again.”
Sturm replied that the town actually spent just $3,080 on the matter since 2008, the rest being expended when he was not supervisor.
“We’re not picking on anybody,” he insisted, noting the couple advertised an event when they were not supposed to. “I had no choice but to enforce that injunction.”
Crumley believes Howard deliberately ignored the rules.
“What does he think? Bygones are going to be bygones?” Crumley stated vehemently. “... When we get people like Roy Howard who are going to test us, well, guess what? Jump in, the water’s fine!”
Crumley felt only a “retard” would not understand the terms of the injunction, a comment several listeners later thought he had attributed directly to Howard, a charge Crumley denied.
Salton again thanked the board, this time for enforcing the injunction on the couple, but Smallwood’s Jonathan Hyman took issue with Sturm’s “derogatory comments” complaint, saying the board should not silence dissent.
“If you’re going to take public comment, you take public comment,” Hyman stated.