Steering Tusten with eyes on the future

By CHARLIE BUTERBAUGH

Ben Johnson says he is ready to update the Town of Tusten comprehensive plan in order to address the developing needs of the local population and economy.

The town last revised the document in 1988, and since Johnson took office in January 2004, the need to revise zoning laws has revealed itself in several ways. But instead of passing new ordinances in a piecemeal fashion, Johnson plans to set up a committee to “really get a feel” for the particular changes needed to refresh the comprehensive plan and make it a better blueprint for the town’s future.

To that end, in the end of July the town will submit an application to the Upper Delaware Council for a technical assistance grant.

“My next step is to get some people in town, put a group together, sit down and start figuring out how we want to go about this,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to be the effort of one or two people. I want a good crosscut of the community involved.”

During his term as supervisor, the town has been hit with three major storms, and Johnson has spent a great deal of time working with engineers and obtaining funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the damage caused by flooding, which cost $1.2 million.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Johnson wants the town to update its laws governing new construction in the floodplains of the Upper Delaware and Ten Mile rivers.

Next, he wants the comprehensive plan to lay out clearer guidelines that manage future ridgeline development. Born in Pond Eddy, Johnson has seen many changes in the river valley during his lifetime, but the ridges following the Upper Delaware River have remained, for the most part, pristine.

Over the past two years, the town has been working with planning consultants Tom Shepstone and Carson Helfrich to draft new zoning that would maintain the ridgeline by controlling development between the scenic byway and the river. Public hearings will soon be held to gather input on the new laws, which might seem “restrictive,” Johnson said. But if the ridge is preserved, “it could also increase the value of people’s properties.”

The ridgeline, Johnson said, “is important for the overall health of the town because it’s just like an industry. For us tourism is an industry. The river is an industry. It’s what many people come to enjoy.”

The ridgeline will be developed at some point, he said, adding, “Any of the open land we have is owned by somebody.” And many of the 100-plus-acre tracts of land that have been owned by families for many years will eventually be subdivided as time goes by.

“We’re not making any more land. What we do with that land is really going to dictate what we have in the future. For every time we do it wrong it’s going to make it that much harder to make it right later on,” Johnson said.

He said he is convinced the town can work through the revision process without instituting a moratorium on development. With the Sullivan 2020 planning process going on now, he said the timing couldn’t be more perfect. “I’ve found the county planning department to be very supportive,” he said.

As the chief fiscal officer of a town that’s about to see its elementary school closed—a measure taken by the Sullivan West School Board because, in part, it saw enrollment numbers falling—Johnson said a revision of Tusten’s comprehensive plan has to consider the needs of its aging population. In 2000, U.S. Census numbers showed that residents over 55 made up 35 percent of the town’s population, and residents over 45 made up 57 percent of the local population.

Johnson said planning for a growing population of senior citizens means providing them with affordable options for housing so they can stay and remain a vital part of the community.

“A community is a representation of all the people. And that’s why you’ve got to be very careful about ending up with just one certain type of population in the township,” he said.

“It would be nice to see [affordable housing] instead of all of our older people moving out of the area because they can’t afford to stay in their houses because of their fixed incomes and what the taxes are.”

On June 13, about 10 residents showed up at the Tusten Town Board meeting to ask the board to oppose the school board’s decision to close the Narrowsburg elementary school, in the form of a resolution. Johnson responded, saying the town board would be overstepping a political boundary by opposing another elected board’s decision.

But after the meeting he said, “If we as a town have a plan that assists in bringing people in, that’s how we can assist in getting better for the school district.”

He said it could take years to see the positive results of a comprehensive plan, and while the town won’t be able to do anything with the building immediately, Johnson said the school will need to serve some purpose at some point.

He hopes that eventually there will be enough kids in the area to re-open the school.

“If we can make it so that people want to stay here, and people can afford to have their families here, that’s what’s going to make our population grow to the point where we can do something with the school building. We should be looking at what we can do to bring people to the town,” he said.

“We want to have a sustainable base of residents here. We need to find them jobs. We need to be able to pay them. And once we get them we’ve got to make it so they’re able to live here. It’s a hard mix,” Johnson said.

Johnson said eco-tourism, agriculture and light manufacturing are appropriate industries for the town to pursue in order to develop its economic base.

TRR photo by Charlie Buterbaugh
Town of Tusten Supervisor Ben Johnson (Click for larger version)