Orangetown Gives Conditional Sidewalk OK

Palisades residents express strong support

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR,
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

Facing a roomful of strident supporters, the Orangetown Town Board Tuesday granted a conditional OK to proceed with the design phase of constructing a new 1,020-foot sidewalk in “downtown” Palisades.

Residents came out in force for a public discussion on the project, apprehensive because at least two council members had expressed skepticism over the value of the new sidewalk, compared with other fiscal needs the financially strapped town is facing. The board tempered its approval somewhat by warning that it was not agreeing to the “elite” version of the finished product, with granite pavers and curbs, and might still give its final OK to a scaled-down version featuring just blacktop with painted striping.

The sidewalk project was presented to the board at a workshop meeting the week before, and seemed to catch at least three of the five council members by surprise. Following an hour of discussion and debate this week, however, all five councilmen gave the project a thumbs up to proceed to the next phase, which is to prepare the engineering specifics that will outline exactly how the sidewalk will be constructed.

Highway Superintendent James Dean, who is spearheading the effort, said that would be done by the town engineer, using in-house staff, and with no cost to any town departmental budget or the taxpayers.

The sidewalk is to be built along the south shoulder of Oak Tree Road, from Route 9W west to the Palisades Community Center. There, it will join an existing macadam sidewalk and curb that continues westward to Route 340. Dean said his Highway Department installed that sidewalk in 1970 or 1971, and it remains the only town sidewalk in the entire hamlet of Palisades.

Dean’s original proposal for the extension, to be built later this year, was for a granite paver surface five feet in width, with a two-foot “gore strip” of either mulch or lawn, and a half-inch granite curb. The total width of the improvement would be seven feet, six inches, and it would duplicate sidewalks installed throughout downtown Tappan over the past two years by both the Orangetown and Rockland Count Highway Departments.

Some board members had hesitated to approve the project, which brought action from Palisades area residents. Supporters of the project quickly rallied their forces and bombarded council members with letters, telephone calls, e-mails and other forms of protests and entreaties, pleading with them to allow the project to proceed as planned, and without further delay.

They also showed up in force this week, filling the town hall auditorium to overflowing.

Almost all of them cited safety as the primary reason the sidewalk project should proceed, and noted the deaths of two children at Oak Tree Road and Route 9W as evidence that it was an emergency situation which needed to be corrected as quickly as possible. One was the relative of former Palisades Interstate Park Commission director Nash Castro and the other was a well-known hamlet youth named Jordan who was known and loved by virtually everyone in Palisades.

In the end, the 15 speakers apparently convinced the reluctant council, which gave its unanimous approval to Dean to continue to the next phase of the project, actually designing the sidewalk, curb and accompanying drainage improvements to the point where the plans would be ready for public advertisement on which contractors would submit bids to perform the actual work.

Dean explained that the last official action on the project came last year, when Whalen and the council instructed him to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether a sidewalk in Palisades was both logistically feasible and economically possible. He made an informal study using his own staff, and to bolster that went to an outside consultant his department uses for further studies to confirm his initial view that the sidewalk was both appropriate and feasible.

Residents Tuesday cheered Dean’s plans, and pleaded with the board to approve them immediately.

Their fears had been aroused by an article in Tuesday’s Journal-News in which council members had expressed skepticism over the project, particularly because of its financing.

Stewart, for example, was quoted as saying “I, for one, am not ready to spend $300,000 for a new sidewalk. We have to weigh out these other costs. We’re in a time of real fiscal distress.” Valentine also expressed reservations, indicating he could only go along with it if the project were severely scaled back, such as using all blacktop instead of granite and brick, and doing all of the work in-house instead of hiring outside contractors.

Both men, along with Morr, said they had not understood Dean’s financial explanations last week, and were under the impression that the entire projected cost of $328,000 would have to come from Orangetown’s budget, and thus the town’s taxpayers through higher property taxes.

Reassured by Dean that this was not the case Tuesday, the skeptics withdrew their roadblocks and instead threw their support behind the project, authorizing Dean to go the next stage of actually having the engineering plans prepared in detail, so construction could begin this fall, as originally planned.

Dean said that would begin immediately, as he turns over his preliminary work to the town engineer, so his staff can do the necessary surveys and drawings.

When those are completed the plans will come back to the Town Board for a final review, and a decision on whether to go ahead with full project as originally envisioned, scale it back for economy reasons, or scrap it altogether as unaffordable.

For the benefit of the council and the residents present, Dean explained again how the finances would work for the sidewalk project.

In 2010 and 2011 Dean said he included $150,000 in each year’s budget for construction of new sidewalks. That money was placed in an escrow or reserve account, to be used only for that work, as the bills came in, he explained. In reality, because of budget constraints at the start of the economic slowdown, the highway department built no new sidewalks either of those two years, so the total of $300,000 still sits in the reserve fund.

When he began planning for the Palisades sidewalk, at Whalen’s urging, he geared it toward a maximum cost of about $300,000, so that the cost would be fully covered by existing funds, and not require any additional money from the budget or the taxpayers, he explained.

When the planning reached its current stage, the cost estimate had risen to $328,000. And since he had included additional sidewalk money in his 2012 budget, raising that fund to $450,000, Dean said he felt he would be well within his available resources.

At the same time, Dean said he was mindful of the town’s dwindling resources and escalating expenses, so he began doing his own trimming on the project to reduce its cost to make it more palatable.

His current plans show that of the total anticipated cost of $328,000, he could trim that down to just $159,000 as the estimated price a contractor will require to successfully bid on the project, and be awarded the contract.

Another $34,000 was budgeted for the design and engineering work, but that will now all be done in-house by the engineering department, so there will be no cost, Dean said. Likewise, he had budgeted $134,000 for construction of the drainage system on the north side of the road. That too will now be done in-house, he said, by the Highway Department using its own manpower, equipment and supplies, so that cost can also be eliminated.

Because the estimated cost of $159,000 for the outside contractor can be paid for by the $450,000 sitting in his budget for sidewalk construction, there is no additional cost to the town or its taxpayers at all, Dean said again.

Troy demurred somewhat on that concept, saying the council had frozen Dean’s reserve account in 2010, 2011 and 2012 t make sure that money did not get spent. While it may exist on paper, in the budget, it does not actually exist as cash, Troy argued, since it was never raised from property owners through their taxes. If that money is spent for this sidewalk, he argued, it could not be spent on other needs, or simply saved and not spent at all.

In the end he sided with the other board members and the audience, however, and voted to authorize Dean to continue with his planning for the project.

Troy, Valentine and Stewart also added that they were not fully convinced of Dean’s accounting skills, hopeful though they sounded.

Because of that reservation, and their own acknowledgement that they hadn’t understood his financial explanation last week either, they put a stipulation on the approval.

Councilmen said they would probably choose from among four possible alternatives when Dean submits his final proposal this summer. Those choices will include:

· Authorizing the full project, at 1,020 linear feet, with five-foot granite pavers and six-inch curbs; brick, grass or mulch spacing between the pavers and the curbs; installation of a drainage system on the other side of the road and a slightly widened, straightened and repaved roadway itself.

· A slimmed down version of the above, possibly at lesser length or width, less costly materials, or absent the drainage component.

· Construction of a strictly macadam sidewalk and curb, done in-house by highway personnel and equipment, at an estimated cost of $50,000 for material alone.

· Scrapping the project altogether, and not installing a sidewalk where there hasn’t been one in the nearly 300 years of Oak Tree Road’s existence.

Prior to the vote, residents told the board of horror stories along the dangerous road. Teenager Elijah Kruger said he has lived in Palisades for nine months, and must walk to reach the library, the post office, the community center and the bus stops, all of which he uses on a daily basis.

He said he feels he is risking his life trying to walk the non-existent shoulders of that road, especially the north side, where there is a four-to-five-foot ditch in some areas. He said on several occasions he has had to “dive into the bushes” in front of the post office, to avoid getting struck by speeding cars and trucks flying by.

Oak Tree Road resident Paul Papay said he was in front of the post office recently and witnessed a bus flatten the road crossing sign there, where people had just finished crossing the street seconds earlier. And Papay dismissed building a cheaper blacktop sidewalk, saying Palisades deserves the same improvements neighboring Tappan has been getting from the town for the past several years now.

Lifelong resident Alice Gerard said she heads a group of elderly residents called the Palisagers who meet every two months to discuss “life in Palisades.” The lack of a sidewalk is always their primary concern, Gerard said, because they can’t access their three most needed services, the post office, community center and library. Her own mother was struck by a passing car while attempting to walk along the road, she recalled, saying the young and the elderly fear for their lives in that area.

David Wolk of Hey Ho Woods Road said he commutes from Palisades to work in Manhattan daily, via the bus, and watches in horror each morning and evening as residents attempt to access and exit the buses on Route 9W at Oak Tree Road. Cars and trucks fly by in all directions and don’t even slow down for the traffic light or pedestrians, Wolk complained, saying commuters usually try to cross the highway in large groups to be more easily seen and avoid being slaughtered. “It’s really, really dangerous,” he concluded as he pleaded with the board for construction of the new sidewalk as soon as possible “before someone else gets killed there.”

Henry Ottley said he lives at the corner of Oak Tree Road and 9W and has seen two children killed there. He doesn’t want to witness any further deaths at that intersection, he told the board as he too pleaded for their approval of the new sidewalk.

Perhaps the most poignant speaker of the evening was a man who didn’t identify himself but spoke from a wheelchair, shouting across the auditorium. He is a 33-year resident of Palisades, he said, and has been confined to his wheelchair for the past three years. He is a fond user of the post office, the library and the community center, he said, frequenting them on an almost daily basis as his only form of recreation, stimulation, socializing and getting business done.

He said he is almost run over on a daily basis and there is no sidewalk or even a shoulder on which to navigate his travels. If he tries to use the north side, he falls into the ditch and must cross the street several times, he explained, and if he uses the south side, cars and trucks run him off the road into people’s bushes and yards.

“You’ve got a serious safety problem there,” the man asserted, telling the board in no uncertain terms that he was “putting you on notice that if I get struck or killed, it is your fault because you refused to install a sidewalk for my and everyone else’s protection and safety.” He got a standing ovation from the partisan audience.