Wednesday, November 27, 2019
Chester's push for preserving its land may have been derailed by the governor, but the town supervisor and others in favor of land preservation said they will try again next year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill on Monday that would have allowed the Town of Chester to collect a 0.75 percent real-estate transfer tax and use those funds to purchase land or the development rights of land within the town. The neighboring Town of Warwick has had a similar purchase-of-development-rights (PDR) law since 2000.
Chester town Supervisor Robert Valentine said he was not surprised by the veto, adding that special-interest groups such as the real-estate lobby are against such legislation.
"We have a preservation plan, but we now have no way of funding it," Valentine said. "But as far as I'm concerned, I'll try every year to get this passed."
In his veto message, Cuomo said he could not approve the PDR legislation because it is mentioned in legislation pending against the town: "There has been well-documented tension in the Town of Chester between local elected officials and a specific population of Hasidic people in the community, which has resulted in ongoing litigation. Given that this legislation is specifically cited in the litigation, it would be inappropriate to sign at this juncture, while the facts are still being gathered. Therefore, I am constrained to veto this bill."
Developers of The Greens at Chester, a 431-home development being built on more than 100 acres off Conklingtown Road, filed a 101-page federal complaint on July 19, accusing Chester town officials, Orange County, and County Executive Steven Neuhaus of blocking its development in what attorneys argue is an attempt to prevent an influx of Hasidic residents.
On Twitter Tuesday, the Williamsburg-based Satmar Headquarters lauded the veto and said the bill "was designed by bigots and haters to discriminate against Orthodox Hasidic families trying to live in the Town of Chester in Orange County, NY. #StopTheHate."
Stephen Keahon, co-founder with Kristi Greco of the local activist group Preserve Chester, said Tuesday that he'd heard last week that a veto was likely. In response, Preserve Chester started a petition, which gathered 500 signatures, and a social-media campaign to convince Cuomo to approve the bill.
Keahon disliked how Cuomo linked his decision to the Greens at Chester litigation.
"I don't see how one goes with the other, because we've been working on this (land preservation) since 2013," Keahon said. "The preservation fund and plan were about protecting our residents now and in the future."
Livy Schwartz, one of the developers of The Greens at Chester, applauded the veto in an email that included hyperlinks to an April 25, 2018 Town Board meeting led by then-Supervisor Alex Jamieson. Jamieson said at the meeting, "I don't want to be the person who loses this town."
"The Greens at Chester favors sensible planning that preserves open space and local traditions," Schwartz said in the email. "Unfortunately, the Chester PDR bill was a highly flawed instrument for achieving those worthy goals. The PDR was promoted by Town officials as an instrument of exclusion. ... The Greens will support other preservation initiatives that are not tainted by exclusionary aims."
Later, by phone, Schwartz added that the legislation was one in a series of tactics aimed at Hasidim.
"If you take the law by itself, it looks like a good law. But take them all together, and it's very clear the intention is to keep the Hasidic out. We can't accept 'go away.' "
The bill was sponsored by state Sen. James Skoufis, D-Cornwall, and Assemblyman Colin Schmitt, R-New Windsor.
The proposal would have required the town to hold a referendum to get voter approval before imposing the tax.
"While the veto is disappointing, it is incumbent upon everyone involved to regroup and find an alternative way forward so that open space and farmland can be protected in Chester," Skoufis said on Tuesday.
"I am greatly disappointed that the Governor has vetoed Chester's preservation legislation," Schmitt said in a statement on Tuesday. "The PDR legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support locally and in the state legislature along with robust support from local, regional and statewide conservation and preservation groups. ... I will not yield or relent in my efforts to continue to advocate for preservation for my district and our entire state in the Assembly."
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