Reporting on the conflict between the Town of Saugerties Historical Preservation Commission and the Town Board regarding the historic designation of a road on the Winston Farm, we were struck with a case of déjà vu. The daffodils were blooming, the birds were singing, and a group of Saugerties residents serving on a board tasked with preserving the historic character of our community was at odds with the government regarding a big development. Last spring, the mayor attempted to remove all five members of the village Historic Review Board over their plan to make recommendations to the developers of the Partition Street hotel/convention center.
It seems these sort of conflicts are inevitable. Unlike the more high profile planning board, which attracts developers, engineers and environmentalists alike, a historic preservation board almost always attracts one type: the avid history buff.
The history buff looks at things a little differently than most. While most everyone now agrees our Lighthouse is community treasure, a history buff in a community as old as Saugerties sees history everywhere. Isn’t it to be expected that a group of citizens, who love local history so much as to devote a significant amount of their free time to its protection, will see the historic where others see a dilapidated building, vacant lot or unremarkable hill?
While it’s true that in neither recent case have the Saugerties boards attempted to halt development, their very claim that they should have any official oversight in the process has been disputed by our elected officials. It’s assumed that their involvement would gum up the works––discouraging developers from building here by creating another hoop for them to jump through. Politics is the art of the possible, and politicians who want to grow their tax base will work with developers to make it happen. Sure, they will have their differences, but in the end everybody wants the same outcome. But these history buffs––they like things just the way they are. They’re harder to reason with. Maybe we should try Greene County...
One interesting aspect of the two cases is that members of both historic boards warned officials that their behavior put the municipality’s Certified Local Government status in peril––and that could mean a diminished shot at precious grants. Before we continue, a bit about what it means to be Certified Local Government (or CLG), a hopelessly imprecise appellation. It’s a distinction awarded by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, created as a resource for municipalities interested in preserving their historic character, through technical support (helping locals interpret the legalese of land-use law, presumably), “training opportunities that increase the ability of communities to protect their historic resources and integrate them into short- and long-term planning initiatives” (ditto), and the pièce de résistance, grants. In a time when it seems increasingly futile to complain to state or federal representatives about taxes, local officials bear the entire burden of that most eternal of citizen complaints. For them, there can be no sweeter success than playing a part in facilitating the award of hefty sums of grant money for a local project, because such money comes at no cost to the taxpayer.
This is, of course, patently untrue. While this money doesn’t come out of the local coffers, and won’t show up on your tax bill in September, it all comes from your taxes––or maybe, in the case of federal money, it’s coming from loans from foreign creditors, to be repaid later with interest.
There are certainly plenty of cases where these grants are funding worthy causes, but we should not view them as free money. That leads municipalities to apply for every grant available, and to spend every dollar awarded––for fear of not being eligible later if its shown they didn’t use the one they got. And it leads us to celebrate pork-pedaling congressman as heroes when they bring the big bucks to their districts. Our tendency to speak of these representatives as having personally given us millions of dollars contributes to the near 100-percent reelection rate in the House, rewarding them for bringing home the bacon and never questioning the implications these values have on the general fiscal solvency of the country.
And that’s why when the historic boards warned elected officials that their opportunities to receive grant money would be at risk, it must have given them some pause. When the application to become a CLG made the rounds in Saugerties a few years ago, it was no doubt viewed as another opportunity for some grant money for a good cause: “(to) preserve historic buildings while encouraging growth,” reads the CLG mission statement. Sounds like a win-win, right? Just tweak the local ordinance, fill out some paperwork, and add our name to the list.
But that tweaking of the ordinance had consequences. Part of it involved amending a section in the town’s law to specify that the Town Board could not disapprove a designation by the Historic Preservation Commission without “findings.” When the board voted against designating the entire Winston Farm historic in 2006, and again in 2007, this was not part of the ordinance. Now it is, and it seems that that little word puts the onus on the board to give some specific reasons about why it voted against designating the road. Now there are reasons to disagree with the commission’s opinion, but it would take some work to refute the evidence accumulated over the past few years. And it’s unclear who would decide whether these findings would refute the commission’s. Suffice it to say, the majority of the Town Board did not expect this and is not pleased.
But do small towns really have a choice but to apply for every grant out there? Now more than ever, the pressure is on local officials not to increase the taxes they control––property taxes––because the weak housing market has made people’s homes less valuable, meaning they have to pay a higher rate and have less confidence in their home as an investment. The cost of unionized public workers goes up every year by contract, roads need to be repaved, and the highway superintendent has been begging for a new plow truck for five years now... In this environment, what choice is there but to find the best grant writer out there and hope you can out-hustled fellow towns for free money?
But sometimes the burden is on the receiver, as any school superintendent could tell you. You take state or federal money, you abide by their rules. Are economic realities pushing us toward a more centralized government? Will local control be eroded as we let Albany and Washington rewrite our laws to confirm to their vision in return for funding? Some would say that’s not a bad thing––local officials care about their communities and want what’s best for them, but they’re part-time, and lack the expertise needed to decipher the increasingly complex web of municipal rules and regulations. It’s the difference between the impulse to get the smartest guys together in a room to solve a problem, and the impulse to install citizens with real world, on-the-ground experience for limited terms.
Either way, we should consider what strings are attached before signing up for grants or rejoicing when we get one. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.