By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
The four candidates for Philipstown Town Board councilor positions last Monday night (Oct. 24) took on each other and contentious issues of zoning, dirt roads, and studies of fire protection and athletic fields, agreeing that the board must act in the town’s best interests but differing on approaches. From distance, the 19th-century Osborn castle entered into the debate, too. Incumbent Town Board members Nancy Montgomery, a Democrat, and Barbara Scuccimarra, a Republican, appeared alongside Democrat candidate Dave Merandy, a veteran of the Haldane school board, and Katie Giachinta DeMarco, a Republican newcomer. Sponsored by the Putnam County News & Recorder newspaper, the event occurred at the Haldane Central School cafeteria before an audience of about 150. The four candidates shared the billing with incumbent Town Supervisor Richard Shea, a Democrat, and challenger Lee Erickson, a Republican. The five-person Town Board consists of the supervisor, who acts as the town’s chief executive, and four “council” members known as councilmen and councilwomen or councilors. A supervisor’s term lasts two years; councilors serve for four years.
In formal statements, the four focused on their qualifications and intentions, if elected Nov. 8. Scuccimarra began, followed by DeMarco, Montgomery, and Merandy. Scuccimarra noted that she has lived and worked in Philipstown for 40 years and raised a family here. “I’m comfortable and confident in my position” and said she wants, if re-elected, “to get back to the many issues that face the town,” including storm-water management, creation of a historic protection zoning overlay, and consolidation of the three local justice courts into one, located at a new inter-governmental complex planned for the old Butterfield Hospital site in Cold Spring, to “would save the taxpayers quite a lot of money. And most important” of all on the to-do list, she added, “is communication and listening to the concerns of our residents of Philipstown.”
Katie Giachinta DeMarco
While she lacks experience on the board, DeMarco said she nonetheless has an education in economics and finance, background in a family-run business, and the desires and energy required. “I am not running because I am on a power trip,” she said. “I’m seeking this position for all the right reasons. I’m worried about the future of Philipstown and think we need a new direction.” She said she was “raised with never being able to utter the words ‘I can’t’ and that’s how I’ve lived my life and will tackle the issues.” Those issues include taxes, jobs, and communication, in particular, she said. “I feel extremely strongly about smart economic growth.” She proposed that Philipstown work with Putnam County to attract business and fill empty buildings. “Not only will this help to create jobs, it will take some of the tax burden off residents,” she said. She termed “communication … the solution to solving all our problems.” [CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO OF DIMARCO’S COMMENTS]
Montgomery said that when she first took office, she set a series of goals “and I have delivered.” As achievements, she mentioned passage this year of a new zoning code to preserve the beauty and character of Philipstown, crafting a “road map to reach our economic and environmental goals,” and trying to ensure “a sustainable, cost-effective and – most of all – safe emergency response network.” She pointed out that she has been an ambulance corps volunteer and dispatcher as well as active in other capacities. “My hand has been on the pulse of the community.”
Merandy discussed his role on the school board for a decade, including five years as president. Despite the difficult economic times, “we’ve seen major programs completed and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “Securing the confidence of the community … is essential to any success.”
Perched on its ridge in Garrison, the old Osborn castle loomed large in the debate, thanks to a set of questions on zoning and whether the candidates “support the Castle Rock project” and favor incorporation of the proposed historic protection overlay (HPO) in the zoning code, “especially regarding this project.” An HPO could encourage adaptive re-use of eligible historic properties, with more options than automatically allowed under zoning rules per se. The castle is owned by Castle Rock LLC, whose representatives told the Town Board in March that they did not envision a mega-spa or something comparable for the castle but wanted the HPO designation to attract investors, before moving ahead.
In answering the question, Scuccimarra emphasized that “it’s not about the castle. It’s about all the other historic properties in our area.” The HPO would “provide flexibility to allow these parcels other ways to bring in revenue. We don’t want to lose these; they are vital to our community. I think that if we can restore these properties, it’s a benefit to our town.” However, she emphasized, “first of all, there’s a process involved. We haven’t even put the HPO in the new zoning” yet and even if an HPO is adopted, “there are definite steps before any of these properties can even be considered to be in the HPO.” She also endorsed the new zoning code.
Montgomery said that the town revised the zoning “so we could protect the natural beauty of our town and put it on the same track with out economic development –- appropriate development in line with protecting our environment. I don’t support the castle project as it stands now. They haven’t told us what they want to do. It feels very predatory to come into a town and ask to be rezoned without a plan” for the property, she said. Montgomery observed that she works in the hospitality business and “would love to have an event-planning job up at the top of the mountain, but not at the expense of ruining our beauty, our environment.” Moreover, she said, possibilities for castle use already exist, without HPO designation. “A great effort could go into many opportunities for them as the zoning stands now.”
DeMarco said “I personally don’t know what was wrong with the zoning we had.” Nevertheless, she added, “I do support the HPO and I do support the castle. I think it is a treasure. I would like to see some type of commercial use come out of that. It’s another way to promote tourism here, which is sometimes looked over.” She also said that the HPO could “preserve our historic sites and also keep them on the tax rolls.”
Merandy backed the new zoning and agreed that the castle “is a treasurer; it’s a landmark in our valley, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to change all the zoning for them.” And if a future plan “is not considered feasible by the neighbors, I don’t think it should be implemented,” he said. “We need to know what they’re planning.”
PCNR Editor Douglas Cunningham, the debate moderator, then interjected another question on why Democrats failed to participate in a Castle Rock LLC tour of the property. “We were not invited, plain and simple,” Montgomery informed him. Merandy told Cunningham that the nature of the question was “totally not proper.” When Cunningham remonstrated, Merandy shot back: “I don’t think people came here to listen to what you have to say about this. I think they came to hear what we have to say.”
Fire Protection Study
The controversial study of fire and emergency services in Philipstown, undertaken by consultant Ron Graner with grant money at the Town Board’s request, also prompted spirited discussion. With Councilor John Van Tassel, Montgomery led the Town Board emergency services initiative and she referred to it in her opening remarks. “The door to each agency is now open a little bit for us, together, to closely examine the most critical service of our town,” she said. “We weren’t alienating them,” she said, addressing ongoing allegations that the review alienated fire fighters. “We were trying to work together. I have an obligation to every citizen and every volunteer to ensure that they are safe. I have an obligation to every taxpayer to show that their dollars are used to provide a safe, cost-effective and efficient service.” Responding to a question about the study, she said that “I never intended for it to be for consolidation. ‘Consolidation’ is just another political word like ‘smart growth.’ It’s going to go away someday. I would just really like to make sure that this service is sustainable and that we can keep our volunteers and our community safe.”
Merandy said that the firefighters’ adverse reaction comes from “small-town politics and pre-conceived notions. It was a study that had major problems from the beginning because of attitudes and then the results were incomplete because of the inability of Mr. Graner to have all the facts brought to him.” Merandy remarked that “one thing that’s always missed in this is that it’s the responsibility of the Town Board,” which funds emergency and fire protection services, “to find out how the $2.1 million is being spent.” As for fire department consolidation, Merandy added: “I don’t believe that’s what the study was intended for in the first place.”
Scuccimarra described the fire companies as distinctive groups and “a family” and blamed much of the ruckus on insufficient communication with them. She and DeMarco both pointed out that in the aftermath of the study the Town Board recruited a mediator to try to smooth things over. “I think if it was communicated better, the whole outcome of this report would’ve had a different scenario,” Scuccimarra said.
“I think that study may’ve went in with the best of intentions for looking out for the safety of the residents and also the volunteers.” But town officials should have met personally with the fire companies and others, DeMarco said. “There was no communication.”
According to Montgomery, “communication was there,” with numerous phone calls, letters, and messages to the fire companies. “They chose not to communicate back. That was unfortunate. The lack of information provided spoke volumes to me and opened the door for the need for us getting together.”
[CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO OF THIS PORTION OF THE DEBATE]
Athletic Fields Study
Another review sparking interest is the town-wide look at athletic fields and needed improvements. Involving school, town, village, and team officials, the project has raised questions about spending of public money in a period of economic constraint. “I think the fields need an upgrade. I don’t think now is the time,” DeMarco said. “People are trying just to get by. Maybe get some smart business growth here” beforehand, she suggested.
Scuccimarra agreed both on the importance of fixing the fields and that the present is not a good time to proceed. Moreover, while the fields serve youth teams, other residents do not use them, she said. “We can’t spend any money on fields,” she concluded. “I really believe we should do this through donations.”
Montgomery described the field-improvement effort as “a great project” and suggested that non-public assistance could be solicited by groups similar to Friends of Philipstown Recreation Department, which raises money for Recreation Department programs, or the corporate sponsors who underwrite Depot Theatre productions.
Merandy, who has been active in the fields study as a school board member, said that it will explore how improvements might be funded and that the overall study will take time. “It’s not a project that is going to be done overnight.”
The candidates were also asked their views on the paving of dirt roads. “I do think it is necessary” in some cases, DeMarco replied. “I don’t think all the dirt roads need to be paved.” Furthermore, “I don’t think it’s necessary to do another field study on the roads,” she said. Instead, she said, the town should rely on the judgment of Highway Superintendent Roger Chirico.
Merandy said he supports Shea’s call for study and discussion of the dirt road situation. “There are roads that need to be attended to and probably paved,” he said. But citizen input, including discussions with dirt-road residents, should be part of the decision-making process, he said.
“I live on a dirt road and love the look of a dirt road,” Scuccimarra said. But she expressed concerns about wash-outs and run-off and the resulting threats to wetlands and water supplies. “It’s important to take into consideration the health and safety of residents,” she said. She too discounted the need for a road study and said the town should defer to Chirico.
“Dirt roads give us our character” and also enhance property values, Montgomery said. She recommended an inclusive process, with Chirico cooperating with the Town Board and town residents to resolve dirt-road issues. And a study can be an important tool, she said, citing other studies the town has used to guide policy-making. “They shouldn’t sit on the shelf, and they don’t.”
Periodically during the debate, some of the candidates also broached the issue of ugly factionalization and partisan acrimony in Philipstown. Responding to the question about the Castle Rock tour, DeMarco said that “I personally didn’t realize it was [a case of] one side or the other.” Merandy echoed her, saying he, too, did not see the castle’s future as a Republican-versus-Democrat matter. In her closing statement, DeMarco said that “there’s been a lot of mud-slinging in this campaign and for a small community of neighbors I think it’s uncalled for. This community – Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Independence, any party – we all need to unite and we all need to work together.”
Quoting from popular-culture maxims read at a recent training session at the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company, Montgomery, too, advocated collegiality. “Share everything. Don’t let the new political buzz word ‘consolidation’ get in the way. We should share everything and we should start now. That’s just common sense.” Moreover, she said, “we all have responsibilities as citizens, as volunteers, as board members. We’re not immune to being examined on how we act as citizens, volunteers, board members” and must try restore civility. “We’re all one great community,” she said.
Merandy commented that “I work collaboratively on the school board with two staunch Republicans” and that doesn’t come into” it. “This small community and these small governments are not about Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “That’s not the way it should be. And there have been some divisive elements entering this town who would like to make that [political fracturing] happen. It’s not going to happen as long as I’m around.”
Photos by Philipstown.info staff. Video by K.E. Foley