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August 31, 2014
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They paved paradise


During the 20 summers we spent at our little bungalow near Monticello, we would occasionally wake to the sound of Bobby Somer’s tractor revving up to mow the communal property. If it was a weekend, when the 11 families that comprised our co-op were likely to be in residence, I would make a mental note to ask Bobby to hold off on mowing until the weekdays. But then, in less time than it took to put on a pot of tea and shower, the tractor would be back on its trailer and peace would once again reign in our little patch of paradise in the Catskills.

We were a motley crew of friends and friends of friends—all city residents who craved a bit of nature on the weekend. We were young and middle-class (when there was a middle-class), most of us working to pay the bills with not much left over for family vacations. Our willingness to cooperate bought us 58 acres and a pool two hours from the city. Our children grew up like children once did—with the freedom to run out to play with friends in the playground. The only rules centered on the pool, where parents were always on hand to supervise their safety. Screen doors slapped as the kids roamed together from house to house, seeking and hiding in a game, or settling in someone’s kitchen for a bowl of mac ‘n cheese.

Up the road from our little colony there was an airport. It was not what you think of as an airport. It always reminded me of the Bob Newhart sketch, “The Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company.” Old Doc Heins ran the airport from his trailer home. A few Cessnas made port there, and once a year a helicopter would give rides to the locals for $15. The noise was akin to Bobby’s lawnmower and about as frequent.

The airport closed after the good doctor died. We wondered what would happen to the hilltop landing strip. Eventually, a plan was announced to build a racetrack. The Monticello Motor Club was to be a swanky place for high-rollers to test their Lamborghinis without risking a speeding ticket. The entrance to the club was to be opposite our dead-end road.

At first we doubted this plan would ever take shape given the county’s history of fizzled plans. But, with the help of town supervisor Tony Cellini, the racetrack was given a green light by the town planning board, and the forest across the road from our property was quickly denuded. Landscapers from another county were brought in to plant shrubs and trees along the road that was once dense forest. A massive gate appeared.

The old airport (that had been illegally operating a landing strip for years) was transformed into a new mini Grand Prix racetrack that roared for hours at a time on weekends and weekdays. A sound study was done that equated the noise to a helicopter port—something it never was—and a good PR campaign was rolled out to make us and our neighbors sound like nattering nabobs of negativity.

Bobby and his family were offered a new home six miles away. They took it. Last month, the noise from the racetrack was so loud they could hear it in their new home. The older bungalow kids are having children of their own now and hoped to continue the communal experience with their families. But the peace has been broken by a need for speed. Race cars don’t move as fast with mufflers. The town fathers have decided that the racetrack can operate seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (8 a.m. on Sunday). The only noise abatement required is a recommendation by the engineer that we install insulated windows in our bungalows and homes.

Think about my story as you vote in November. Your local officials have all the power they need to make your paradise hell on earth.