Under the Radar
By Laurie Willow
From Issue 42: Spring 2019
There have been some big changes in the fabric of Gardiner in the past few years, and it looks set to continue. The farm-based economy has shifted to a tourist-based one, and no wonder; the extreme natural beauty of Gardiner is a target for investors who want to translate that beauty into big business.
Some developments have gone through the approval process, without community awareness, and appeared on the landscape fully formed. Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park went from a small RV campsite to a mega-park with over 350 campsites, a water park and pools open to overnighters and day-trippers. Heartwood Resort, recently approved by the Planning and Town Boards, will boast 70 glamour cabins, all with plumbing and electric, a year-round restaurant, an event barn for weddings with amplified outdoor sound, a swimming pool and tennis courts. Although there was extensive public input on Heartwood, it escaped being included in the proposed moratorium on tourist-related developments requested by the public because, said Council Members Warren Wiegand and Laura Walls, “it had been before the Planning Board for two years and it wouldn’t be fair to the developers.”
Developments of this type heavily impact our town resources, and all of us. For example, water usage and noise, traffic, and light pollution from such large-scale projects far exceed what our laws would permit if the same parcels of land were to be used for houses. Most towns have thorough laws regulating housing, but concepts like glamping (glamour camping) didn’t even exist in 2004 when our current Master Plan was written. Neither did AirBnB, which allows anyone to rent their house, or a portion of it, to transient visitors. And “tiny houses,” another new trend, means a piece of land zoned for a single-family residence could now also boast a tiny rental house. Gardiner’s zoning laws do not address any of these concepts, and yet projects continue to be reviewed and approved.
So how do developments avoid community scrutiny and then ultimately come as a surprise to many when they appear full-blown? Are residents not connected to the doings of the Town Board and Planning Board? Maybe people don’t notice until it’s a done deal. Maybe Town officials don’t make enough effort to keep the community informed, or perhaps when the public does come out, officials don’t take action on the input they get. There is no blame to be laid here, as communication is a two-way street.
How do we prepare for future development possibilities instead of being blind-sided with a development that is not covered by our current codes? How do we get a heads up on what is in the pipeline? Do we have laws in place to protect our architectural heritage?
A possible answer is volunteer groups of citizens. In 2004, it was a volunteer committee that drafted and deliberated on the now outdated Master Plan. That lengthy and demanding process produced a document regulating land uses in a manner that balanced preservation of the unique character of the Town while at the same time fostering economic opportunities.
While the Town Board is currently working on new laws to govern camping and resorts, there is no community-based committee and it is being done almost totally by a few members of the Town Board, so it’s hard to see how the results could reflect the wishes of the wider community. Yes, if a citizen wants input they can attend a Board meeting and wait for the end, when during the “privilege of the floor” they can express an opinion, but this is no substitute for participation in a focused committee that delves deeply into an issue. If we are to continue to maintain the character of our town, it’s time for a revival of community involvement. Here are some ways you can keep updated on proceedings:
1. Sign up at townofgardiner.org to receive meeting agendas and announcements.
2. Elect officials who value and actively encourage focused community input.
3. Stop in at a Town Board or a Planning Board meeting.
4. Ask the Supervisor and the Town Board to sponsor a committee that you have interest in, then volunteer for that committee.
5. Come to functions like Gardiner Day or the Fire Department spaghetti dinners where you can meet town officials and exchange viewpoints.
New energy is always welcome and appreciated, and it’s necessary, if you want to have a say in what happens going forward.