New Town Hall Discussion Wednesday
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
The Orangetown Town Board voted to support Rockland County Parks Commission’s plan to open an existing single-track dirt hiking trail on county land to non-motorized bikers Tuesday evening.
The existing county trail crosses onto town land in two places, hence the County’s solicitation of Town comment. Biking has long been allowed in town parks, whereas it has been prohibited in the County-owned portion of Clausland Mountain, a situation the biking group wants to change. Town residents spoke against and for the resolution, which passed 3-1 with councilman Troy the lone dissenting vote.
Councilman Thomas Diviny of Blauvelt was absent from the meeting because of a death in his family, but his vote either way wouldn’t have changed the results since it was supported by a board majority of Supervisor Andrew Stewart and Council members Paul Valentine and Jerry Bottari. Dennis Troy was the lone vote in dissent.
For over a year, the recently formed Palisades Mountain Bike Club has promoted greater access for biking on Clausland Mountain, having already obtained permission from New York State to build a new trail on Blauvelt State Park. The county trail, the subject of last night’s debate traverses wooded parkland on the western face of Clausland Mountain in Blauvelt, Orangeburg, Sparkill, Upper Grand View and West Nyack.
The trail already exists, but only for hiking, and is a connecting link through Orangetown of the much older and much longer Appalachian Trail, which runs from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. north to Bear Mountain, where it joins the main trail running from Maine to Georgia.
The bike club, created by a group of mountain biking enthusiasts from Orangetown, wants the county to open their trail for biking so as to have a continuous trail through town, county and state land on Clausland Mountain. Accommodation of biking, defined as “passive recreation” by park managers, would not require modificaction of the existing trail, but the bike group has offered to help with any trail maintenance needed. Hiking trails, whether they allow bikes or not, from time to time require clearing of fallen trees and re-routing around wet or eroded areas.
In a separate project, the town recently obtained state funding and permission from the state parks department for a new paved bike path on state parkland to form a “safety bypass” alongside a dangerous section of Rte 303 in Blauvelt where a cyclist was killed by a truck not long ago. This paved trail is under design and slated for construction in 2017, and will enable road bikes to ride on Greenbush Rd in Blauvelt without entering traffic on Rte 303. The new bike path will link two ends of Greenbush Rd left when construction of Rte 303 sliced across a curve in the historic road, just north of Valentine Electric. Councilman Valentine, whose business operates at that location, along with Supervisor Stewart, pushed for this bypass due to safety concerns and the popularity of the Greenbush Rd among bicyclists making a circuit between the river villages and Clausland Mountain. This proposal for a paved bike path through a portion of state parkland has been uncontroversial, in comparison to the ongoing debate over mountain bikes using existing hiking paths, and building a new path on state land.
The new paved bike “safety bypass” will traverse a portion of the state park that had been part of the New York National Guard’s World War I firing range known as Camp Bluefields. That camp was abandoned by the Guard in the 1930’s, and turned over to the state park system, where it became known as Blauvelt State Park. The U.S. Army reclaimed it during World War II to use as a firing range again for troops headquartered at nearby Camp Shanks. After that war, the Army returned the property to the state park system, where it has remained ever since.
The state has classified it as a passive park, in which its several hundred acres is used only for hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, running, and other activities that do not require the clearing of land or construction of any sort.
That park stretches to the very top of Clausland Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River in Grand View. Rockland County owns two other sections of the mountain, which it calls Clausland Mountain County Park and Buttermilk Falls County Park, and Orangetown owns five additional sections of the mountainside, which they call Nike Site North and South Parks, Schuyler Park and Tackamack North and South Parks.
Many neighbors of all of those parks, especially those living along Tweed Boulevard, Greenbush Road, Bradley Hill Road and Schuyler Boulevard, have testified at numerous Town Board hearings over the past year their extreme opposition to the mountain bike club’s proposals, which included building new single track hiking/biking trails on state land, and opening existing hiking trails on county land to biking. Another dozen residents testified Tuesday evening, even submitting a petition signed by 125 neighbors.
The petition urged the board to “protect us and our homes from the existential danger of fire, protect our wells, waterways and environment, and the safety of all concerned from disruption of widespread toxically contaminated soil at both North and South Nike Parks by enacting immediate, failsafe legislation to ban all use and activity of mountain bikes at Nike Park (former Army base).”
“Failure of requested protection will oblige us to hold our town council personally liable for any and all ensuing liability and litigation costs,” the petition asserted.
Confusing the issue somewhat was the different policies the state, county and town have regarding bicycle usage in public parks.
New York State, and the Palisades Interstate Park System which administers Blauvelt State Park, permits bicycling, including mountain biking. Orangetown also allows biking on its parks, including those on Clausland Mountain. Only the county prohibits biking in its parks, but has notified everyone involved that if the surrounding town and state parks do not object, the county will open the particular trail in question to biking, so bikers can get from town, to county to state land. .
The state has already notified the county it approves of and supports such an arrangement. Orangetown’s vote was the final key in the multi-faceted jigsaw puzzle needed to complete the picture.
That vote came at the conclusion of more than an hour of bitter testimony from 8 to 9 p.m. from biking proponents and opponents alike. Both sides unleashed a torrent of displeasure with their protagonists, and often had to be warned by town officials to shorten their speeches and lower the level of antagonism toward their neighbors.
Following the vote Supervisor Stewart said Orangetown would notify the county of its approval of the biking trail proposal within days.
Biking club members and their supporters noted during the hearing that they have been voluntarily improving the existing hiking trails on the mountain, organizing cleanups of trash, and otherwise promoting good stewardship of the parks.
The vote answered the County’s question of whether the town would object to the county exempting a trail from its general prohibition against biking on its land. However, the county and bike group still need to work out an arrangement for how this existing county trail will be maintained. Until this agreement is reached, the county prohibition on biking will remain for this trail.
In the meantime, mountain bikers can continue to use local roads to move between town and state parks where biking is permitted. The town board blessing of the county’s change in policy also included agreement that neither the county nor the town would permit mass biking events to take place on their trails. This prohibition, along with the county restricting future biking to one of many trails, was a concession to opponents of mountain biking.
Bike club members said they agreed with the prohibition on mass events, and never considered holding public events or bike gatherings in the parks or on the trails to begin with.
They were only seeking a place for the safe riding of mountain bikes by enthusiasts, they said, describing typical users as families consisting of three or four members, rather than mobs attending a jamboree.
The club further committed to educating its members and the public on trail etiquette, such as bikes yielding to hikers and runners, and to continuing is volunteer efforts to prevent vandalism, graffiti and litter. The bikers use of trails will not cost the town, county or state any money, club officials said, since biking is a low impact activity consistent with the passive recreation policy of all three park systems, and the club is happy to help out where needed as volunteers. The club is a non-profit organization open to all interested bikers, they claimed, adding that its current membership is mostly from Orangetown and is composed of life-long tax-paying residents who want to contribute to what they view as improving the recreational opportunities for all their neighbors.
New Town Hall
In other business at Tuesday night’s meeting, Stewart announced that the board would hold a special meeting the following evening, Wednesday, starting at 6 p.m., in which several planning and engineering firms will present concepts to the board on how they can improve the physical condition of the current town hall.
Constructed in 1960, that building on Orangeburg Road in Orangeburg is now considered physically and functionally obsolete, and in drastic need of replacement or reconstruction.
The board has already held two such sessions with interested firms, listened to their preliminary concepts, and given them back feedback on what they like and don’t like about those submissions.
Wednesday evening’s session will be a return engagement for the firms, which are expected to show updated proposals and site designs, and get further feedback from the council as well as various department heads whose offices might be affected.
The current town hall is now 66-years old, and is the oldest town hall in Rockland County. It doubled in size over twenty years ago with the addition of a two-story police and court wing. Offices in the original building include the supervisor’s office, council meeting room, finance office, personnel office, tax receiver’s office, town clerk and assessor’s office.
Large departments housed outside of town hall because of their space needs include Highway and Sewer, located off Route 303 in Orangeburg, Building, zoning and code enforcement located in the former Greenbush School in Orangeburg and Parks and Recreation, located in Veterans Memorial Park and at Blue Hill Golf Course.
Among the various concepts the Town Board is currently considering are:
- Demolishing the existing town hall, leaving the police and court building, and constructing a larger new town hall at the same site.
- Demolishing the existing town hall, leaving the police and court building, and constructing a new town hall on other town property, such as at the nearby former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus, most of which the town already owns.
- Selling the current town hall site to a commercial developer and constructing a new town hall, police and court facility elsewhere, such as at RPC.
- If an enlarged town hall is to replace the existing one on the same site, constructing a multi-level parking garage to accommodate the auto needs of both employees and visitors.
- Buying an existing office building elsewhere and making that the new town hall. The town almost went in that direction about 15 years ago, when a three-story complex became available on nearby South Dutch Hill Road. The deal fell through when the then-owner became furious with town officials over an alleged slur against his family and he pulled back the offer to sell the vacant structure.
- Many of the options involve deciding whether town offices can comfortably fit on the current site, which is mostly utilized for buildings and parking, with a small lawn on the east side. Any expansion of building size there would either eliminate the lawn and/or require a multi-level parking garage, officials have estimated.
- Also undecided is whether or not outlying departments should be brought into a new town hall, and if so how much of them. The highway, sewer and parks departments are all quite large, and already have expansive sites of their own elsewhere. The building department is bursting at the seams in its quarters, which are shared with the Orangeburg Library; while its allied code enforcement functions are housed in nearby Army Quonset huts from World War II Camp Shanks days.
- A consensus appears to favor leaving the highway and sewer/engineering departments where they are, but moving the offices located on Greenbush Rd to a new town hall, including the Building Department and Fire Inspectors.
- Storage of town records is a problem the town has yet to address. Rooms full of old town paper records, maps, books and other documents are currently stored in an abandoned Army building at the former Nike Site park on top of Clausland Mountain. The records are difficult to access and the building, under the control of the Town Clerk, is not climate controlled. On Tuesday, the town board voted in support of Stewart’s proposal to fund a document digitizing and electronic storage pilot project, beginning with personnel records, and expanding to include other larger deparments. Since Wednesday night’s meeting to view and discuss possible alternatives was expected to take several hours, Supervisor Stewart said pizza would be ordered, and soda is available in town hall vending machines.
The public is invited to attend the meeting and view the presentations, but is not expected to participate.