Philipstown Board Weighs Greenway Compact; Disputes Claims about Rezoning

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Philipstown’s Town Board last week moved toward membership in the Hudson River Valley Greenway Compact and disputed notions that a reference in rezoning documents to Putnam County’s Greenway program undermines property rights.  At its regular monthly meeting Aug. 6, the board began considering a proposed local law authorizing adoption of Putnam County Pathways, the county version of the Greenway program, and becoming a participating community in the Greenway Compact. “I think it’s a good idea,” Supervisor Richard Shea said. He described the Pathways program and its materials — maps; templates, written data, and “all sorts of things” — as important tools. “Is it a good resource? Yes, it absolutely is. Does it have the force of law in Philipstown? No, it does not.”
       Since 2002, Philipstown has belonged to the Hudson River Valley Greenway, a partnership of state,  counties and towns formed, according to its website,” to facilitate the development of a regional strategy for preserving scenic, natural, historic, cultural and recreational resources while encouraging compatible economic development and maintaining the tradition of home rule for land-use decision-making.” Membership in the Greenway Compact assures a municipality a higher level of participation in voluntary regional planning and confers extra benefits, such as eligibility for increased grant funding and state legal indemnification and insurance to fight lawsuits if the municipality adopts a new zoning code; such insurance also extends to individuals in the municipality who allow public access to their land — for a hiking trail to cross a corner of a property, for example.
       To further Greenway goals, officials in Carmel created “Putnam County Pathways: A Greenway Planning Program Linking Putnam’s Open Space, Historic, Cultural and Economic Resources.” The Pathways mission, explained in 16 pages in a pamphlet, includes “intelligent stewardship of Putnam’s land and water resources through sound planning, development, transportation and conservation policies”; renewal of “‘Main Streets’ and traditional commercial core areas “by focusing on each community’s physical and historic attributes, “`small town’ ambience” and other characteristics; “decisive action “¦ to  preserve the remaining farms and agriculture in Putnam County”; land-use plans featuring appropriately-sited development, affordable housing, open space, recreational and cultural opportunities, and respect for watersheds; and heritage awareness with “preservation of significant historic buildings, landscape features and viewsheds.” As examples of strategies for resource protection, the Pathways document cites the “cooperative program between Putnam County, the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, and the Village of Cold Spring to conduct stream assessment” on creeks in the Hudson River estuary.
       In an 88-word section on “Interpretation of Provisions,” the June version of the town’s planned new zoning code cites town support for Pathways and adds that “in their discretionary actions under this zoning law, reviewing boards should take into consideration said [Pathways] statement of policies, principles and guides.” The section similarly specifies that “all provisions” of the new zoning code “shall be construed to advance the goals and strategies of the Comprehensive Plan” adopted by the town in 2006.
       The rezoning draft’s reference to Pathways prompted an Aug. 4 PCNR headline alleging “hundreds of pages of guidelines quietly attached to 110-page zoning draft.” The article below the headline said the rezoning “includes a rider officially adopting” the Pathways. Shea termed “grossly unfair” any insinuations “that the town Board is silently slipping in 300 additional pages to the zoning code. That could not be farther from the truth.” When reacting to Pathways, “it would be good to take the time to read it, rather than count the pages,” Councilwoman Nancy Montgomery commented, to cheers and applause from the audience. A compact disc with Pathways materials, including old county legislative resolutions, runs to about 250 pages. 
       Shea sought to debunk notions that the Pathways will hold “the force of law within the zoning document.” Rezoning and the Pathways “are two entirely different things,” he said. “The zoning will be the law. There’s no doubt about that. This [Pathways] is a set of guidelines that our boards can go to and look at [and use] to come up with ideas.”  Addressing the board, District 1 County Legislator Vincent “Vinny” Tamagna also defended the program. “Putnam Pathways we believe is a good, county-wide document,” he said. “There is nothing in there that is heavy-handed” or acts “to take any property or property rights away from any of the owners.” He offered to do “whatever I can do to help” bring Pathways to Philipstown. “I wouldn’t be afraid of it. We certainly don’t want to see this be a document that’s looked at in any negative light.”
       The draft law enabling the town to adopt Pathways and become a Greenway Compact community clearly states that the town will retain its autonomy. According to the text, “nothing “¦ is intended or shall be construed to limit the home-rule authority of the town under state law to make local land-use and zoning decisions; to authorize any other entity to supersede the town’s land-use laws and regulations or to impose any requirements on the town; or to prevent the town in its sole discretion from” ever leaving the Compact and Pathways program. Shea also pointed out that before anything becomes final, the Town Board must hold a public hearing on the enabling law and vote on it.
       Michael McKee, who chairs the Philipstown Greenway Committee, encouraged the board to enact the law and join the Greenway Compact. He ticked off some of the benefits, including a reduction in paperwork under state environmental law and a 5 percent bonus in grants awarded by various state agencies. He noted that Greenway support already had helped draft the town Comprehensive Plan, prepare a guide to 22 hikes in Philipstown, and lay the groundwork for a Route 9D hike-and-bike trail from Breakneck Ridge to Bear Mountain Bridge, “which would enhance safety.” “The Greenway believes in home rule,” added Mike Gibbons, a former county representative to the state Greenway council. “They promote tourism. They promote business. And in my view, they’re an excellent organization.”