Focus on development in the small laboratory called Putnam County
NY Journal News
April 24, 2006

It is human nature: Once I have mine, I don't care quite as much if you get yours.

It was true with chocolate milk in kindergarten. It is true with what we adults call the American Dream. Just about all of us want it: nice homes, safe communities, great schools and, especially in a place like Putnam County — "Come to where the country begins"— no crowds and lots and lots of green space.

Reality tends to interrupt dreams however. And the dream of suburban or country living in this region certainly is being intruded upon by several reality checks, the most pointed being that it is costing you in more ways you never saw coming. The burden of residential property taxes overwhelming the boon of residential property. Fuel costs to get to work, to shop, to go out and have fun are skyrocketing. We sit in traffic crawling by somebody's house; they're across the county stewing in traffic near ours'.

The developer
Putnam County— still one of the smallest, still one of the most desirable, still one of the fast-growing counties in the state — makes a perfect laboratory for studying the dream and the realities. And a visit to the Editorial Board last week by Paul Camarda, arguably Putnam's highest-profile developer, sharpened the scrutiny.

Camarda said that he began his property development in the county roughly 20 years ago, beginning with smaller residential properties. For the last several years, he has garnered greater attention as he sought local government's approval to develop tracks of land in Patterson, Kent and, of late, Southeast for a host of commercial projects: retail, senior housing and "mixed-use" development, the most ambitious perhaps a proposed hotel and conference facility on Route 6 in Carmel, the first in the county.

Some of Camarda's projects have been more than 10 years in the making. Like any developer of note, he is painted in the extreme by opponents and supporters alike: either as an empire-builder only interested in paving over the green grass for the green dollar; or as a savior, developing commercial property that will overflow local coffers with needed tax revenue.

Not that simple
Realists say neither portrait is fair, neither scenario that simple.

Uppermost on Camarda's mind right now is something called the Stateline Retail Center on Route 6, "one mile from the Connecticut line," as he emphasizes. Camarda wants to see one major anchor store and several smaller retail stores there on property he owns. The Town of Southeast and the county, he reasons, should especially welcome out-of-towners who will come to shop, pay the sales tax and go home.

Some say 'No'
Yet the opponents are gathering. They say they don't want any more "big-box" stores in their rural "bedroom communities." They fear more traffic, more air and water pollution. Some town officials are balking. Camarda has begun a public relations campaign. And the fight is on.

Such a dispute may seem just a parochial blip in the lifeline cutting through the Lower Hudson Valley. Hardly. It IS the Lower Hudson Valley, with its pressure to build, pressure to move, pressure to provide services, to shop, to find recreation, to take to the roads, to get home quickly, to preserve the lovely environment around us.

Out of Camarda's development plans come questions reflecting the collision of values and competing interests that echo throughout Westchester and Putnam:

  • How does a community retain the very characteristics that attract people to it — before it attracts so many of them that it becomes unrecognizable?

  • The region historically has been a "bedroom community." Yet "bedrooms" mean houses. And that means families. And that means municipal services and schools. And that means high property taxes. So is the "bedroom community" willing to welcome commercial property to help pay for it?

  • Commercial includes retail. Retail in this day and age, includes "big box" stores, large "footprints" that people say they abhor because of their size and the crowds and traffic they attract. Yet most of us flock to them for the merchandise selection, bulk-buying opportunities and generally lower prices. If we don't want them in our backyard, fine. We must remember, though, where our sales-tax dollars are going.

  • Developers like Camarda want to build senior housing to keep longtime residents in the community, a clear need. And seniors don't add children to the school population. But wait: They typically sell their homes to younger parents who do have children, adding to the need for more classrooms and teachers. Do developers, planners and taxpayers really recognize the cycle and all its implications? Or just the piece that interests them?

Like it or not, at the foundation of the simple "American Dream" of a home and a desirable community is the complex issue of development - one that deserves big-picture thought and honest debate.