The lessons we learned over the past year
by Ann Charles

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One day in April 2005, we received a notice from the Clinton Planning Board informing us of a subdivision plan for land that bordered our property. The notice announced the date of a public hearing on the matter, only about one week away.

My initial reaction was that if we were to have any chance of impacting this proposed development, 1) we had to attend the public hearing, and 2) we had to attend the public hearing in force. One thing was clear from the outset, our community needed to be very organized.

I went to the Planning Board clerk at Town Hall. She provided me with a list of all of the property owners in the area of the proposed development site. I did not know any of them, but called and explained the threat to our neighborhood. Everyone I spoke to agreed that we needed to raise awareness well beyond our immediate neighbors. Due to the very short time frame, a few of us split up the local roads and literally went door-to-door seeking people to join us at the public hearing.

We knew from the beginning that we would need time to assess the situation and seek out appropriate counsel, so our primary objective at the first public hearing was to encourage the Planning Board to keep the hearing "open," which would buy us that time. We were successful in attaining that objective for two reasons. First, we had a good turnout and secondly, the community was very vocal.

Subsequent to the public hearing, a core group of neighbors decided to meet to plan what to do next. The group consisted of those of us who would be most directly and adversely affected by the proposed development. There were a lot of opinions and an emotional discussion ensued in the process of seeking consensus. In the end, we decided to form two committees: a legal committee and an engineering committee, whose responsibilities were to interview and select an attorney and an engineer to represent us. It was during that first meeting that it became fairly clear who would be most committed to the effort of stopping the development, who would contribute to finance the fight, who would do the leg work that would be needed, and who would just talk a lot. A small group agreed to contribute an initial amount of money, one person volunteered to act as treasurer, and the name Clinton Hollow Action Association was agreed upon.

The two committees did their work and we soon had selected an engineering firm from New Paltz and a local attorney well versed and known for dealing with land use cases. The next step was to obtain copies of all submittals that the developers had made to date to the Planning Board. This information was closely reviewed by the engineer. Simultaneously, we hired a well-known, respected local environmentalist to conduct a study of the proposed development site and surrounding properties. Although the environmentalist did not find a "smoking gun" that could stop the development in its tracks, his report did identify a number of species (which either existed in the area or could exist there) that are listed in New York State as "endangered," "threatened," or of "special concern." Both experts prepared detailed reports to the Clinton Planning Board, scrutinizing the developers' plans and indicating many issues and concerns.

The strategy in hiring these experts was threefold: 1) to review every detail and step in the developers' plans to insure that they were following the town codes and state laws, 2) to slow down the process, anticipating that a very long, drawn out battle would work in our favor, and 3) to put pressure on the Planning Board and the Town's consultants to be very judicious in their scrutiny and evaluation of the development plan.

Prior to the second public hearing, our core group (a total of 7 people) met with the developers and made a very generous offer to purchase the property. They rejected the offer outright. Given their tone, we knew we had a major battle ahead and the key to our success would be to stay focused, organized, and determined. In order to do this, we agreed on a division of responsibilities among our core group. One would be the liaison with the attorney, another was the liaison with the engineer, I continued as the liaison with the Planning Board and the larger group of community supporters, and the treasurer would also continue as agreed. Our working style also evolved: we communicated primarily by e-mail, we made decisions by consensus, we occasionally disagreed but never argued or had any ruptures in our relationships.

We went through three or four rounds in public hearings with the Planning Board. Each time our engineer, environmentalist, attorney, and/or other local experts presented their findings. Every time they scrutinized and found major problems inherent in the developers' plans. For each hearing the preparation and routine were the same:

  • We stayed in weekly contact with the Planning Board clerk to check for any new submittals from the developers in response to what our experts had presented.
  • Once their submittals were made, we forwarded copies to our team of experts.
  • Simultaneously our core group would meet (often with our experts) to discuss the next Planning Board meeting strategy.
  • Prior to each Planning Board meeting we updated our larger group of supporters and e-mailed or called to rally their support to come to the hearing.

As already announced, the outcome of this tremendous effort is a happy one. One year later, after a contentious and expensive battle, our core financial group came to terms with the developers to buy the 42 acres on Schoolhouse Road. And the land will be placed in a local conservancy to remain ever wild.

From my perspective, our success was the result of so many factors:

  • We always had a strategy and we were 100% committed to our effort.
  • We were organized.
  •   We successfully got our local community mobilized and involved.
  • We found good counsel who shared our vision for the Town of Clinton.
  • We kept tremendous pressure on the Planning Board and its consultants to 1) be very deliberate in their scrutiny and evaluation of the proposed development, 2) follow the Town codes and Master Plan, 3) look long and hard at the long-term impact that the development would have on the surrounding area in terms of the "intangibles" (quality of life, historic and rural character, etc.).
  • We discreetly made it evident to the developers, the Planning Board, and its consultants that we were in this battle for the long haul and that we would take all measures necessary (including legal action) to protect our rights.
  • Last but not least, although there were times it looked bleak, we never stopped believing we would succeed. Perhaps that is the most important lesson.

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