Above: Shandaken supervisor Rob Stanley opens the special meeting of the Shandaken Town Board last night. Photo and videos by Julia Reischel.
The temperature was high at the special meeting of the Shandaken Town Board last night as local residents packed into town hall to air their grievances about a proposal to expand commercial zoning along Route 28 in Mt. Tremper.
The zoning change is an attempt to resolve a longstanding dispute between the town and Hanover Farms, a farmstand located in that stretch of Route 28 that long ago outgrew the 100 square foot space restrictions stipulated in its 2004 zoning permit.
Last night, in letters and in person, dozens of Shandaken residents expressed their opposition to the rezoning plan, which would extend Shandaken's "Highway Business Zone" from Route 28's intersection with Route 212 to just past Alyce and Roger's Fruit Stand.
Calling the proposed change "total madness," James Krueger, the chief financial officer of the Ashokan Foundation, said, "This has nothing to do with the farmstand and everything to do with a radical change in zoning."
"Highway business zones only serve to dilute Main Streets," he said. "The move could be likened to shooting oneself in the foot."
Krueger's comments were typical of the evening. Town supervisor Rob Stanley read aloud 38 letters he and other town board members had received, almost all which were critical of the re-zoning plan. Then 17 people took a turn at the microphone, most of them similarly critical. Multiple commenters worried that re-zoning Route 28 would allow "big box stores" and "7-Elevens" to someday move in.
Al Higley, who owns Hanover Farms with his son Alfie, sat next to his lawyer throughout the two-hour meeting as several of the commenters attacked him personally. He chuckled when one letter-writer called him a "nothing more that a greedy, manipulative businessman" and "the notorious Mr. Higley."
Multiple commenters expressed anger about two letters that were mailed to every household in Shandaken in the weeks before the meeting. One of the letters, which was signed by Al Higley, urged residents to sign a petition to "Say yes to farmstands" and warned that town leaders were considering an action that would "close down a very beneficial asset for this community." (You can read that letter below.)Higley Letter
The other letter, signed by Martie Gailes, the chair of Citizens for a Better Shandaken, urged residents to support the zoning change. "Let's keep valued business in town, not look for excuses to drive them out," Gailes' letter concluded. (Read that letter below.)
One letter read aloud by Stanley called Higley's letter "a blatant lie" and "propaganda."
At the beginning of the meeting, Stanley stressed that no one on the board wants to close down Hanover Farms, and that no such move is being considered.
Another theme in the criticism of the zoning plan was concern that it would jeopardize the region's attempt to have Route 28 named a scenic byway by New York State. But Alan White, the executive director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, which is putting together the application for the Scenic Byway designation, called this an "overstatement."
Calling the potential zoning change a "home rule issue," White said, "I think the town is doing what it needs to do."
"Let's not consider the scenic byway to be an impediment to that conversation," he said.
Stanley told the crowd of about 70 people that the town board was reluctant to take any action on the farmstand issue because of a looming threat of litigation from the Higleys.
Stanley also said that the town had received its first written complaint about Hanover Farms on Monday from neighboring residents. While the town is responding to the complaint, he said, it is likely to take no action.
"We have no intention of making any resolution tonight. Until this current issue is resolved, we are hesitant to move forward on any action at this time. We are simply trying to engage the public in conversation ... and to gauge some sense of direction," Stanley said.
One of the few speakers not to criticize the zoning change was Patricia Ellison, a lawyer who has represented Higley in the past. She noted that despite not being zoned for commercial use, the stretch of Route 28 in question is already home to un-beautiful sights such as a bus storage yard.
Eve Smith, the town social services coordinator for Shandaken, was one of the last to speak.
"I think the [concerns about] big box stores are kind of far-fetched," she said. "I think that we can do both -- that we can preserve our beauty and have a destination with places like farmstands."
Peacocks or pigs could replace farmstand
In a phone interview before the meeting yesterday, Alfie Higley told the Watershed Post that Hanover Farms is considering a move to the town of Olive. He said that Olive's town board has extended a "big open invitation" to the farmstand. Alfie added that if the farmstand moves, noisy or smelly livestock might take its place.
Alfie stated that he wanted to stop the spread of "misinformation and lies" about the farmstand's plans, including a rumor, he said, that the Higleys were planning to build a strip mall on their Route 28 land if the zoning change goes through.
"That is absolutely not true," Alfie said.
The Higleys are interested in purchasing a neighboring parcel of land next to the farmstand, Alfie said -- the 19.5 acre Hudler Farm, which is on the market for a million dollars.
Alfie said that if the farmstand does move to Olive, Michael Higley, who owns the parcel of land on which Hanover Farms is located, will consider using that land for livestock.
"If we move the farmstand, he wants to take this property and put in some agricultural farming for livestock, which is unstoppable by town law," Alfie said. "And we're going to see what the neighbors want. Do they want livestock, or do they want a farmstand?"
When asked what kind of livestock would be located on that stretch of Route 28, Alfie said, "We might put pigs there, and we might put peacocks there. They're very nice and very loud."
At the meeting, Alfie struck a more conciliatory note. "Maybe we've got different ideas," he said, addressing the town board. "But I think if we sit down, we can get this done. It's not a big deal." (You watch his full comments at the meeting below.)
The Board is considering several other possible solutions to Hanover Farms' zoning troubles. One solution would amend the town's "roadside stand" law. Another solution would create a special provision for "Small Retail Food Markets" of up to 1,000 square feet in size.