|A LAST LETTER AND A WAY FORWARD
Dear Pine Plains,
This is the last letter I will write as Town Supervisor of Pine Plains. I have written recently about all the things the Town Board accomplished in the four years that I was a part of it, but now I want to emphasize the work that still needs to be done to ensure that Pine Plains is a place where your children can grow up, be safe, and prosper as adults should they choose to stay.
I see people on social media once in a while asking folks what businesses they’d like to see in Pine Plains. Every single time someone replies, “a gym” or “general store”. Often, they complain about landlords and the lack of a place to rent here. All of these things are tied to the availability of a wastewater system here. There old Deuel’s is a prime location for a lot of wonderful ideas—but there is no septic system there, and the town has no system of its own. The lots our businesses are built on are too small to allow for systems that comply with the regulations dictated by the County and State Health Departments. Old men sit at Stewart’s in the mornings stoking fears of rising taxes and strange people coming to town should we improve the infrastructure here. They’ve had their lives and fear their bills. But the rest of the town is not over. Far from it. We are on the verge of being a real center, of having a downtown that bustles and yet remains full of rural character and goals as per our Comprehensive Plan. We need the small, innovative central septic system that the engineers we hired have recommended and we need to collaborate with the Catholic Archdiocese on this project because now is the time to get the money from the government, and the archdiocese is ready and willing to work with us. It took yeoman’s effort to get to this point and to have all that wasted would be tragic for the town.
Broadband and the lack thereof is a huge issue for us. Whereas we have a dynamic school superintendent who had the wherewithal to find the money to give every kid in school a device so that they could reach the internet, that does not help the many college students who were sent home to study and who live without access to that essential—dare-I-call-it—utility. In addition, economic development is dependent on access to the internet. That is just the truth about our economy. People are working at home and their businesses can’t begin or thrive without internet. The town committee on Broadband again did heroic work on this and is the first to collaborate with the County but the work is slow and we don’t know what the County will discover about ways to help us. Amenia and Northeast and Stanford are in the same boat. We collaborated with them and our brilliant committee handed their report to the County, but this needs to be pursued with a loud voice and relentlessly.
Town Hall needs to be in the center of town. Every new enterprise—even government—that comes to our downtown helps all the other businesses stay open. A vibrant town center where people come to pay taxes, chat with the Town Clerk over marriage and fishing licenses, and attend Board meetings would re-invigorate our downtown in all the right ways.
And speaking of our downtown—there needs to be a Pre-Plan designed by the Fire Department to protect the very rare and fragile old buildings we have in town. This Plan cannot all be in one person’s head—it must exist for all the volunteers to know and understand and be shared with other departments in our mutual aid system so that they know exactly where to go should there be a fire here. The Knox Box (there’s one on the library—it contains a key so that the PPFD can get inside without breaking all the glass) can be used in buildings like The Stissing Center, where unnecessary damage to the glass and building could be avoided by the availability of a key. This can be arranged by the PPFD for all our vulnerable buildings downtown.
We need to use our American Rescue Plan money wisely and for the greatest return. We still have a water line project to build down Route 82 so that those pipes can be replaced with larger ones with better pressure. That is the kind of infrastructure we can use the money for. We could also dedicate it to the central septic system, should it be in a phase where that seems possible.
We have to protect our own Town Police Department at all costs. Depending on the County system of sheriffs and troopers who don’t necessarily know us and who are not always nearby makes everyone less safe. We have our share of problems—opioid addiction and domestic violence and DUIs are our biggest—but as long as no one steps outside the laws they are entrusted to enforce, our collaboration with these other agencies in a kind of checks-and-balances manner is what keeps the town humane with no shots fired.
There were many projects that I has in mind—and which came up in these last months as priorities—but in a way, I think there is one that stands out more than any of them: the uniting of the disparate groups in our town. The “from heres” versus the “found heres”. You could say townies versus weekenders too, but that’s not really accurate these days, as many people with second homes ended up living here and liking it. But there is a rift, and we need to fix it. To that end, I found a way to bring people together to work on the problem: it is called a Citizens Assembly. Think of it as kind of like jury duty: random representatives from all walks of life here would be asked to be a part of this think tank that meets once a month for a few hours over the course of half a year or a year perhaps to work on the issue, most probably in our case at the Community Center. 5 tables of 6 people each could convene, led by facilitators trained to this, paid for by a grant which I know I can get from someplace. It is a very advanced idea, a way to preserve and in some ways bring to the fore participatory democracy at its best. It would produce recommendations by citizens for action by the Town Board. They are using this method in France to discuss Climate Change and it is catching on around the world as a way to bring opposing factions together to work on vital issues. If they can do it in Paris, why not Pine Plains?
If there is one thing that has really frustrated me these past four years, it is the lack of participation in democracy that has taken hold in our country and most notably in our town. Complaining on Facebook is not participating in democracy: it is not facing people it is hurting people. It is harmful to others. Political signs which are code for expletives, and signs that belittle others just hurt everyone. If someone is frustrated with things they lash out, but we don’t have a mechanism for doing something better than that. A Citizens Assembly could be that mechanism. Facing each other across a table takes courage and I hope we can all summon our inner Harry Potters and Hermiones and make this happen. I have a cape and a wand. (Well, I can borrow one from my kid.) It wouldn’t take magic to do this, but if we succeed, the process could be magical.
Get out your wands, Pine Plains! Make good magic!
Over and out,
PS: Here are photos of the desk I am leaving to the new Supervisor. Here are all our projects!