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Rosendale and Marbletown spent $17,500 on planning, but kept property owners out of meetings

Proposed Rondout Creek Trail Threatens Private Property

Town Board's Promise not to use Eminent Domain Offers no Future Guarantee

By Carol W. LaGrasse
May 30, 2003

Property owners all over New York State routinely meet up with the "executive session" provision in the State's Open Government Law. Kelli and Joe Havranek, who live in the town of Rosendale in Ulster County, are no exception. Their property is along the Rondout Creek, a target for another one of the many waterfront trails that localities are developing around New York in conjunction with other agencies, such as the National Park Service, the State's Hudson River Greenway, and environmental groups.

The Havraneks have been trying for nearly a year to find out exactly what the plans are for the potential incursion into their property. However, in response to Mrs. Havranek's Freedom of Information Law request to see a map of the trail, Rosendale town officials refused to share any useful documents, she said. When she asked when and where meetings would be held where the trail through her property would be discussed, officials told her that they were confining their meetings to "strategy sessions," she said, which were exempt as an "executive meeting" of several officials.

When the Rosendale and Marbletown Town Supervisors Phil Terpening and Thomas Jackson met with Steven Yarabek of the landscape architectural firm of Hudson and Pacific Designs in Saugerties, they repeatedly allowed the pro-trail citizens' group Friends of the Rondout to attend meetings without posting the meetings or inviting others to attend, according an article by Dawn Letus in the Daily Freeman during May.

By leaving property owners out of the meetings while the two towns spent $17,500 in planning the project, which will be reimbursed in part with a matching grant from a Hudson River Valley Greenway Communities Council, the project has advanced without their input, leaving property owners' interests unaddressed, according to Mr. Havranek.

"We were so appalled by the sneakiness of the whole thing," said Mr. Havranek recently. "This is our property, which we've owned since 1988."

If the Havraneks had not found out by chance that the adjacent towns of Rosendale and Marbletown were going to hold a "strategy workshop" about the Rondout Creek Access Trail in July 2002 at the Ulster Community College, they would have been in the dark until plans were well along. The Havraneks went to the meeting without an invitation. "Their jaws dropped when we arrived," remarked Mr. Havranek recently.

The Invitation List

While they said that their own town was not very helpful in replying to their requests for information, the Havraneks were satisfied that they succeeded in obtaining a number of documents related to the trail by also sending Freedom of Information Law requests to the Hudson River Greenway, and to the Town of Marbletown. One of the documents was a draft list of invitees to the meeting last July including the Hudson River Greenway Communities Council, Rick Fitchler of the Environmental Management Council, Debra DuWan of Scenic Hudson, a woman representing the Catskill Center, Manna Jo Green, the Esopus-Rondout Land Conservancy, Glen Hoagland of the Mohonk Preserve, the Rosendale and Marbletown Environmental Conservation Committees, Historic Dennis Doyle Commissions, Peter Carofano of Ulster County Tourism, National Park Service, Cara Lee of The Nature Conservancy, Open Space Institute, Marbletown Community Development Committee, D & H Heritage Corridor Alliance, D & H Historic Society and to Steve Rice of Marbletown Trails Committee. Shigebiss Associates, Inc., a consulting firm based in New Paltz that has been doing the grant writing for the project, later sent invitation letters to a final list.

According to the Daily Freeman, one Councilman, Kenneth Hassett, said that he had not developed a position on the project, but still thought that homeowners should have been polled to see if the project was feasible and that the "next step should be to poll the residents" before expending more funds.

Historic Canal Route is Targeted

Another pattern that is becoming familiar is the aspect of a historic canal route being part of a trail vision. The private Delaware and Hudson Canal from Port Jervis on the Delaware River to Kingston on the Hudson opened the way in 1828 to ship anthracite coal from Pennsylvania to New York City. The 108-mile canal, whose high point was between today's Ellenville and Wurtsboro, ran along the Neversink River and Rondout Creek. The natural flow from these waterways provided the water for the canal. The canal was disbanded in 1899 and the water let out. This historic information was related in Canal Days in America by Harry Sinclair Drago (publ. Clarkson N. Potter/Crown, 1972). Mr. Havranek reported that much of the underlying land was soon sold to the adjacent property owners.

One of the organizations involved in the trail planning is the D & H Heritage Corridor Alliance, which is interested in redeveloping the old route for recreation, according to Mr. Havranek.

Typically, "heritage corridor" organizations are extremely environmental preservation-oriented. It seems ironic that the route of the only major private canal in New York State should be the focus of a plan that presents a threat to private property owners and that a construction achievement requiring thousands of Irish and German laborers according to Drago, and involving the great suspension bridge engineer John Roebling for the monumental Delaware River crossing, should be resurrected for what appears to be a preservation project that would interfere with the future private use and enjoyment of private property.

According to a June 2002 commentary on the project signed by Mr. Jackson, the Marbletown supervisor, the two town boards have common goals with the not-for-profit organization Friends of the Rondout to develop a trail along the Rondout Creek that would link the O&W Rail Trail in Marbletown, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail in Rosendale, and the D&H Canal Five Locks Walk Project. Mr. Jackson stated that the trail would also provide public access to the creek for a wide variety of recreational activities. He stated that grants and technical assistance are provided by the Hudson River Greenway and that all results would be "consistent with the 'Greenway Criteria.'"

Eminent Domain Feared

Homeowners along the creek organized the Rondout Landowners Alliance and are circulating a petition against the trail. Because of the opposition that the Havraneks and others expressed at town board meetings, the Rosendale Town Board unanimously passed a resolution in May that the Town would not use eminent domain to acquire any properties to complete the trail. However, the Daily Freeman reported that Mr. Terpening "conceded the resolution could be ineffective." It could be easily rescinded in the future.

Mrs. Havranek said recently that Karl Beard, a representative of the National Park Service from their trails office in Rhinebeck was at one of the meetings related to the trail. The Town Board's resolution disavowing eminent domain would offer no protection for property owners if the Park Service or the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation elected to complete the trail by condemnation.

Three years ago, the National Park Service got a black eye when it directed the United States Attorney General to start condemnation procedures against the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement to take approximately 20 acres of their Graymoor property in Garrison, New York, to widen a portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the friars' land, according to the Catholic New York, July 27, 2000. Only when the friars' ordeal received national attention, did the Park Service agreed to a compromise that would not hinder future needs related to the ministries of the friars, according to an August 24, 2000 letter by the V. Rev. Arthur M. Johnson, S.A., Graymoor's Minister General. However, the cleric wrote, "My one remaining concern is that the National Park Service can't guarantee that the government won't be seeking additional land in the future."

According to Mr. Havranek, when he telephoned Mr. Beard to follow up his Freedom of Information Law request to the Park Service, Mr. Beard assured him that the Park Service had no information because it had not been invited to become involved after the July 2002 meeting.

Public Meeting Finally Held, Secrecy and Liability Issues Raised

Mr. Havranek said that the Rondout Landowners Alliance forced the town boards to develop a list of property owners along Rondout Creek and to send them invitations to a public meeting on May 22, 2003 at the community college. The map that Kelli and Joe Havranek have been trying to see was held up before the public, but they could not obtain a copy. Mr. Havranek said that the idea presented by the landscape architect was that the trail would promote eco-tourism, which seemed to match some of the specific business interests that he saw represented in the audience, such as a "bed and breakfast," restaurants, and antique stores.

However, the two town boards got an earful from local property owners, even though they tried to restrict speaking time to only two minutes per person, Joe Havranek said recently. When his time was running over and the presiding officer tried to force him to sit down, people from the floor called out, "You can have my two minutes," and he finished without interruption his speech exposing the secrecy of the trail planning process.

The Rondout Landowners Alliance took a video-tape of the public hearing, which should enable them to document the sentiments of the property owners who spoke out in opposition to the trail.

At the meeting, Mr. Havranek heard a landowner named Harry Carlson, whose house is not far from the Rondout Creek, tell a story of liability that could set other landowners' hair on end. Several years ago, Mr. Carlson said, someone had been swimming and climbing on the rocks above the creek and became severely injured. The man became a paraplegic. He sued the Town of Marbletown and the Central Hudson Company, which has a power plant and owns land along the Rondout. In addition, he sued Mr. Carlson and his wife, whose property is on the opposite shore from where the injured man was found.

"One day, right before Thanksgiving, a car drives up and a man hands me two subpoenas. They were for $3 million each, one for my wife and one for me," Mr. Carlson recalled vividly during a recent telephone interview. "It ruined our Thanksgiving. We don't have that kind of money."

Afterwards, in the course of legal maneuvers to recover expenses, the husband and wife were each sued by the Town and Ulster County, which paid for the indigent man's medical care. The couple endured about five years of personal insecurity over the potential liability until the injured man apparently gave up, Mr. Carlson said recently.

"This tainted our whole view of our property, that we bought to enjoy in our old age in peace," said the retired man. "Anytime anyone is down on the creek and we hear an ooh or ah, both my wife and I jump."

"What I was trying to put across at the public meeting is that this is not fantasy, this is not a hypothetical problem," Mr. Carlson explained emphatically. "You have to be concerned."


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