Town of Washington focuses on future

MILLBROOK — The Millbrook firehouse was filled on a rainy Friday night, Nov. 13, for the second public visioning session for the town of Washington’s comprehensive plan. More than 80 residents and Washington officials showed up to provide their input and share their opinions on the future of the town.  Tom Beaumont, chairman of the town’s Comprehensive Plan Committee (CPC), opened the evening with an explanation of the plan, calling it a “people’s document†and road map for the future of the community.  

Under New York state law, all towns are required to have a comprehensive plan and to update it periodically.  This new plan will replace the existing plan, which was adopted in 1987 and amended in 1989.  The village of Millbrook will produce its own separate plan. Beaumont explained that any changes to current zoning laws are made only after the plan has been adopted.  

Introducing Margaret Irwin, a principal of River Street, the town’s planning consultant, Beaumont urged all those present to voice their “hopes, concerns and wishes.† Irwin first provided an overview of the planning process, which began earlier this year, with a description of the town.

Several working groups of residents have already drafted a profile of the town focusing on the topics of land use, housing, community services, transportation, historic and community character, local economy, demographics and environmental resources. River Street is now assisting the CPC in determining what residents want for the future of their town. The recent written survey — completed by 628 respondents — and the two public visioning sessions will provide valuable insight in the preparation of the plan. The town profile and survey results are both now available online at the town of Washington Web site, washingtonny.org/master.

The written public survey results overwhelmingly supported maintaining the rural character of the town and protecting its natural resources, whereas there was diversity of opinion on economic development and housing initiatives.

After the overview, Irwin opened the floor to the audience and requested a show of hands on several questions. The majority of the audience has lived in the town for more than 20 years, although raised hands indicated that only two people present were actually born in the town. Seemingly all sections of the town and the village were represented, and there was a good turnout from owners of large properties. By another show of hands, it appeared that about 80 percent of those attending the meeting had also filled out the written survey.  

Irwin then asked what people found unique about Washington.

“What would you chain yourself to in front of the bulldozer?†she asked.  

Irwin prowled through the audience with a microphone, prompting responses that were immediately displayed on a large computer screen. Many of the more than 50 comments from residents referenced the rural nature of the town — from the smell of manure to Wappinger’s Creek, bales of hay in the open fields, horses and views of the Catskills.  A few mentioned local institutions like the Cary Institute, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the library, the volunteer fire department, local churches and the absence of national chain stores.

“What would people like to change or improve?†was the next question. It elicited more varied opinions, especially regarding commerce and retail.  

One person said, “We need a movie house.† Another commented, “You give up some conveniences in order to preserve what is critical. You can go to Millerton for movies and to Poughkeepsie to buy underwear.† 

Everyone agreed that it would be great to bring back the general store. The environment was also a concern — protecting the water supply, village sewer, community gardens and working with environmentally-sensitive consultants and more green concerns by the Town Board members. The future of Bennett College, the old Thorne building, historic preservation and design standards were other themes.  

The last part of the visioning exercise led by Irwin was to imagine how the town of Washington would look and feel in five, 15 and 20 years.  The audience was very active, and a sense of humor was present. Someone said you would be able to buy underwear in Millbrook, and another said it would be like the 1950s. Most comments were about retaining the town of Washington’s natural beauty; however, some foresaw a more vibrant village, a younger population, more artists, more high-paying, high-tech jobs, more diversity and more inclusive politics, including the involvement of second-home owners.

One resident raised a concern that the people who filled out the survey were fully represented in the visioning session, but that two-thirds of residents were not involved, either through the survey or in the visioning sessions. He asked how their views would be included. Irwin said that typically people don’t respond for two reasons — they feel they don’t have anything to add or that their voice does not count.

The assumption is that those who do respond represent the general feelings of the whole community. It will be the responsibility of the Survey Committee to seek out and make certain all opinions are included. Irwin agreed with the suggestion that it might be helpful to speak to local clergy to add additional reference points.

After the session was completed, Stan Morse, trustee of the village of Millbrook, read a three-page letter he had prepared for the record.  He questioned the lack of definition of key concepts like “rural†and “housing†in the planning documents and the methodology used in data collection. Irwin assured Morse that work on the new comprehensive plan was only in the beginning stages.

The next step in the process will be setting priorities and action planning. Irwin expects that this will occur on a Saturday sometime in March 2010. The final comprehensive plan should be ready for adoption before the end of the year.

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