Speech from Proceedings of the Seventh Annual New York Conference
on Private Property Rights
(2003)

The Proposed Rondout Creek Canalway Trail - Defending Property Owners

Joseph Havranek

Thank you, Carol. I would like to thank Carol for inviting us today. Carol has been a great inspiration for us and our group. She has offered so much valuable information and guidance. We just can’t thank her enough.

I am going to start out by telling you our story. Then I am going to give you a closing statement. I am going to just bring out some of the information I have gathered today from other speakers, because every speaker who has spoken today has brought out valuable information, and I just want to collaborate some of this information together in a common goal.

My name is Joe Havranek. My wife and I, my wife Kelly and I are founders of the Rondout Landowners Alliance. We reside in Rosendale, New York, located in the Rondout Valley. If anybody doesn’t know where that is, it is about 150 miles north of New York City in the Mid-Hudson Valley. We live on the Rondout Creek, which is a tributary to the Hudson River. We are excited about today’s “National Property Rights Conference,” and I kind of changed that name around a little bit because I heard that before, today. I see a lot of people from all around the country. This is the New York Property Rights Conference, but I just want to throw a little twist in there because it is excellent to see people from all over with a common goal, and that is property rights.

Property rights is the core reason that our group, the Rondout Landowners Alliance, was formed. The landowners that lived along the Rondout Creek and the abandoned Delaware and Hudson Canal were faced with a clear and present danger. The properties were slated for a joint town project. The Town of Marbletown and the Town of Rosendale proposed the Rondout Creek Access Trail Project. During its inception and its early stages of planning, it was kept quiet. The landowners were not contacted nor invited to the planning meetings. We found out later that those meetings were deemed strategy meetings. The true intent of the project was clear after the Towns applied for a joint grant from the Hudson River Valley Greenway. We then made FOIL requests to the New York State Greenway, the Town of Rosendale, and the Town of Marbletown. We reviewed the documents received from the FOIL requests. FOIL. I’m sure everyone knows, is the Freedom of Information Law, and would be federally, FOIA, the Freedom of Information Act. When we got the FOILs back, they opened our eyes clearly to what the Towns’ intents were. The documents we obtained through FOILs included correspondence from Greenway, the towns, from the grant writers, the special interest groups, the landscape architects; and included contracts, scope of work documents, maps, miscellaneous facsimiles, e-mails. It really opened our eyes and, to say the least, it scared us.

The project was in the works for a year before its true intent was revealed to the landowners. In reality, the proposed Rondout Creek Trail Access Project would be a linear trail linking the two towns, and running along the Rondout Creek following the abandoned D & H Canal or sections of the D & H Canal. It would have multiple creek access points for swimming, fishing, and boating. It would also make linkages to different places in the two towns including the Ulster County Community College, Marbletown Community Center, the Rosendale Rec Center, and the Williams Lake Resort. The trail then would continue to Kingston, New York, following sections of the abandoned D & H Canal.

What we had found out was that the project was going to be a full-scale project. It included our small section of town which made up three and a half or four miles, but in actuality they wanted to re-enact the D & H Canal, which was the Delaware and Hudson Canal — 108 miles of canalway from the Delaware River all the way to Kingston, New York. They already have sections of that, which are open to the public. There are piecemeal sections that are open to the public, and the majority of it is not. They are trying to gain these pieces in between to make this one linear trail.

There was one major ingredient missing from the proposal. It was the land. That’s one of our biggest concerns here tonight. It is the land, — and how we love our land and how we protect our land. Well, they didn’t have the land. Most of all, the land needed to make this a reality was privately owned by approximately a hundred landowners.

My wife and I made up packets of information from the documents that were received from the FOIL requests. We distributed those packets along the creek corridor, just placing them on doorsteps, knocking on doors, and handing them to people. When you first tell them about a project, people are very skeptical. People don’t want to get involved unless it’s on their front yard. I was the same way. I was a very quiet individual, was not an activist at all; now am called many things, not just an activist. We have been called “obstructionists” and that is probably putting it mildly. We took those packets of information and distributed them through the community, through people’s properties that we thought would be targeted. Actually we knew they would be targeted, because we knew the intent of the project after the FOILs. My wife then went around and she went to local meetings, such as the fire companies. We have a lot of fire companies in our area and she talked to the fire companies and said, this is what’s going on in our town. Went to the senior citizens’ meetings, went to the veterans’ meetings, and basically made a lot of noise. Today, I heard the gal, Dana Berliner from Washington, D.C., say that activism is the key to this, and it really is, and it really was what made us successful.

We distributed our packets of information to many landowners along the Rondout Creek corridor. The secret was out of the bag and the RLA quickly formed. The RLA is our acronym for the Rondout Landowners Alliance. We attended town board meetings. We questioned the Town’s decision to embark in such a project without the landowners’ consent. We questioned the possible use of eminent domain because they didn’t have the land. Most people we knew were going to say no. So how would they get this property? Would it be through the use of eminent domain? That’s a real ugly word and, when you use that word, people are compelled to listen. Whether or not it’s in their front yard or not, when people hear eminent domain, they relate it to themselves. Well, I don’t want my property taken for such a trail. Maybe it’s not a trail today. Maybe it is for private interests tomorrow. So that word “eminent domain” sparked a lot of controversy in our town.

We were again labeled as obstructionists and troublemakers and so on and so forth, but whether they were going to use eminent domain to secure the easements for the project was the key question. Both Towns soon passed resolutions not to use eminent domain for this purpose. To us, that was huge. We all know that the resolutions could be rescinded at any time, but at least we got some movement from the Towns to recognize our concerns or our rights. If anything else, it is a flagging mechanism for us now. If the Towns want to embark on eminent domain and that resolution is rescinded, we’ll know, and we are going to have people at those meetings forever now. It is going to happen. I am going to go to every town meeting unless I am sick, you know, so we’ll know if it’s been rescinded, and if it’s rescinded, then we’ll make our move, and we’ll that there are problems. So that was something that was big for us.

Our next concern was that another government agency might step in and finish the project. As we continued our research on the Rondout Creek and the D & H Canal corridor, we found our fears to be legitimate. In fact, what we found is that the corridor had been targeted for the past 35 years for trails and recreational use. We discovered that similar plans that replicated the Rondout Creek Access Trail Project were proposed by past town administrations, the Ulster County Planning Board, the New York State Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, the D & H Canal Society, and the New York Parks and Conservation Association. And that list goes on and on and on. I am not going to bore you with all the names because a lot of them have already been mentioned today. There is a whole list of special interest groups that have been targeting this area for 35 years. They come up with similar projects. They got kicked out for similar reasons.

Our group organized, conducting monthly meetings. At our meetings we offered information to the public, we had guest speakers such as attorneys, insurance agents, pro-property rights individuals, and local politicians. We could then paint a clear picture to the public.

We showed a huge risk of liability to the landowners. If someone were to get hurt on their property, they would be responsible, even if there was a public easement through it. The General Obligations Laws did not cover them, in effect, if someone was hurt or if someone was drowned, because this trail, again, followed the creek. We showed the possible drop of homeowner’s insurance, the decrease in property value, loss of property rights, and overall loss of quality of life that would be associated with the project. The landowners then could make an educated decision about granting an easement through their property.

I heard a couple of people talk tonight about educating their people and educating your community. When these projects come out and they presented them, they only give you the fluff. They only give you the good stuff. They tell you about how much money it’s going to bring to your community. They tell you about all the fun stuff. When you hear about trails and you hear about all this, see this, and save the environment, it sounds good on paper and it looks good. People get excited about it, but they don’t tell you about the negative impacts and the risks that the property owner is going to be facing. Educate the community so the community can make some decisions as well.

Another proactive measure we took was a town-wide sign campaign, and this drove our town politicians wild. We distributed a hundred lawn signs protesting the Rondout Creek Access Trail. Sounds corny, but it worked. We were coming up on an election year. People took positions. Different parties took positions, and, again, we were labeled many things that I won’t repeat today, but the sign campaign was very effective.

We got the media involved as soon as we could and as much as possible. This included the local newspapers, the radio, local television networks. We published informational letters and mailed them to over a hundred people along the targeted corridor. We conducted a landowner’s survey, polling landowners along the creek corridor. The results were overwhelmingly not in favor of the project. Approximately 95 percent would not allow public easements on their property. We conducted a town-wide petition opposing the project. We were able to get 350 signatures in less than month. We wrote letters to both the Town and the New York State DOT making our position very clear. With all of that, again, it goes back to activism and getting the information out to the public, so the public can see it for what it really is.

We will remain vigilant. We will continue to attend town board meetings, continue to write letters, continue our FOIL requests until this matter is put to rest. The biggest advantage that we have now is that we are organized. We have strength in numbers, and we all know numbers talk.

With that I want to just talk about some of the things that some of the other speakers said today, and then I am going to wrap it up.

Don Parmeter said a couple of things that struck me — and I want to use your stuff in the future, Don. “Control the land and you control the people.” I see a lot of terminology used. Our town is underway going through its new master plan, or comprehensive plan, and a lot of our neighboring town are involved in this same project, their master plan or comprehensive plan. When you look at their agenda, their agenda isn’t about infrastructure. It’s about protect and seize. It blows my mind. Don’t care about roads. Don’t care about sewer lines. Don’t care about water. It’s in there, but it’s at the bottom of the list. They care about protect and seize. When I put that out, I say that equals control and regulate.

There are a lot of buzz words that are out in the marketplace or out in the community right now, and they are being used by city planners and special interest groups. I’ll give you some of the buzz words. I’m not going to go into the interpretation of them, because I don’t know what the interpretations of them are because they can be used for whatever their agenda is. But if you see these buzz words in your master plan or if you see your planners or your town officials start to use these buzz words, you better start to wake up in your community. And I am going to give you some of the buzz words:

Open space,
Eco tourism, Viewsheds,
Gateways,
Greenway,
Scenic byways.

Those are some of the buzz words. What they equal or what they could equal is controlling the landowners.

Dana Berliner made it very clear. The key is activism. That’s where the key is to stop eminent domain or stop this control or stop this regulation. You have to get involved and you have to wake your community up. Don Parmeter used “Control the battlefield.” This is very new for me. I have been, believe it or not, a very quiet person. My family was very politically involved, but I was not. But this hit me hard and it hit me on my home front, so now it has become a battle for me, and the way that we’ve been successful is we that have been controlling the battlefield.

My philosophy on that, and I’ll leave you with this, is: “The best defense is a good offense.” You need to be offensive, and commonly what I have heard from today, just because I am new at this game, is we have been defensive. But I think we need to be offensive and we need to go out there and be offensive. I’ll leave you with that. Thank you.

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