Middletown Planning Board mulling over Comprehensive Plan

By Matthew J. Perry
After more than a decade in limbo, the vision of a comprehensive plan for the Town of Middletown is taking shape in extensive discussions on the planning board, although it remains an open question what the final result will look like.

A $25,000 Local Technical Assistant Program grant from the Catskill Watershed Corporation sparked renewed interest in seeing a plan to completion, but until recently the grant has been insufficient to attract professional assistance. Also, there has been debate about even the need for a community planning consultant’s input; some town officials believe that rewriting key local laws and zoning ordinances would do for the town what a comprehensive plan would do, at a fraction of the cost.

Nevertheless, the planning board has cobbled together a potential solution that seeks to limit professional input by creating a special committee—composed of representatives from all the Middletown hamlets and villages, as well as members of the planning and town boards—and making efficient use of data that has already been collected. Nan Stolzenburg, AICP, of Community Planning and Environmental Associates in Berne, has expressed willingness to work with Middletown under such an arrangement. Stolzenburg is expected to submit a proposal to the town next month; afterward, a contract could be signed with her organization at the town board’s discretion.

The key to a successful project, according to the planning board, would be efficient collection of information and a scope that addresses the primary concerns of the community without being bogged down in details. The appointed committee would seek to pinpoint the primary concerns in the communities, while the planning board, working in sync with the consultant, would exercise oversight with development and planning. The town board would appoint members of the committee and give final approval of the document.

Planning board member Katherine Somelofski, who offered to take a central role in the project, stressed that a professional consultant would lend indispensable credibility to the plan. County advisor Shelley Johnson also noted that the planning board, which has a full docket every month, must be realistic about what they can accomplish in the time committed to their volunteer positions.

At a meeting on May 8, the planning board also discussed the development of a horizon protection plan, although the future of that aspect of the comprehensive plan is even more uncertain. The board has surveyed plans from other municipalities and started to envision a scope for Middletown, but it is still looking to the town board for an endorsement of the project.

Horizon protection could define regulations for setbacks, clear-cutting and reforestation, lighting and building footprints above a certain elevation. The point of the regulations, according to the board, would not be to stifle development but to make town land more attractive and valuable, while making construction and home maintenance near ridge lines more efficient. It could also address safety issues, such as road glare created by non-reflective windows.

Supervisor Len Utter, who attended the meeting, stated that he would act in accord with the town board’s wishes concerning horizon protection. As a private citizen, however, Utter stated that “as a landowner and a taxpayer, I can’t embrace this plan.”

“What can you do to the top of the mountain that can’t be healed with time?” he asked. “I’m much more concerned about houses being built on productive farmland.”

Pete Palen, who has lead the board in its research of horizon protection, stated that the plan “could be as minimalist as a set of guidelines” if the town was adverse to spending money on enforcement. “The character of the area is the essence with this,” he said. “But we need to know if the town board thinks we’re just barking up the wrong tree entirely.”