I love where I live. Like many people, I came here, several years ago, to escape the intensity of New York City -- which I also love, but which is a lot to take 24/7 -- and to live in a place where I see trees rather than concrete, hear the river rushing instead of cars and buses. I never wanted to live in the suburbs, having grown up there; as a writer, I wanted a place where my mind could rest, and where I could do my work in peace.
In a way, this was an individualistic dream. I didn't move here for community, and many of my friends remain in the city. I was a little selfish, even. I wasn't interested in the problems of Putnam Valley; I was interested in the lakes and streams. I can barely even see my neighbors from my small house in the woods, and that was part of the point.
But Putnam Valley is hurting, and unless I choose to remain willfully ignorant of reality -- the moral equivalent of clapping my hands over my ears and shouting "I can't hear you!" -- I can't help but notice. Unemployment is high here. Our town center, such as it is, is suffering from neglect, as small businesses struggle to stay afloat. People are hurting.
In response, our current town board has done very little. They're good people, and our town supervisor has done an admirable job in responding to crises like Tropical Storm Irene, which caused widespread flooding and damage. But there's no real plan for Putnam Valley. The economic crisis has hit, and hit again, and our local elected officials aren't doing anything.
Of course, the town board is not the federal reserve, and can't solve the economic crisis. But we can and ought to do something to preserve our property values (which have plummeted), revitalize our town center, and help people get back on their feet.
The incumbent majority on my local town board, though, is clinging to the wrong political philosophy for these troubled times. Even the Tea Party Republicans on Capitol Hill are accepting that government has to do something to avoid a double-dip recession. Why, then, does my town board seem to be stuck in the laissez-faire politics of another era? Community planning is as American as apple pie. It's time our town board did some.
For example, in place of the town board's newly-minted "incentive zoning" scheme, which basically lets developers bargain for whatever urban sprawl they want to inflict on the rest of us, we need to implement the unanimously-passed comprehensive plan, which promotes sustainable development and the kind of environmental preservation that will help make Putnam Valley the kind of place people want to live and visit -- i.e. the kind of place with solid, increasing home values. Putnam Valley is right on the edge of Northern Westchester's suburbs, and we're in danger of looking like them. This would be catastrophic for our way of life, and our property values.
Here's another example. In place of the town board's schizoid approach to our town center -- sometimes top-down planning, other times total neglect -- we need a collaboration between business owners, residents, and government to make our town center truly "where the country begins." (This is Putnam County's tourist slogan.) Right now, a prime corner of that town center, a disused car garage, is about to come on the market. Government and our civic organizations need to work together, urgently, to purchase it and turn it from a liability into an asset for our town. Every sign from the town board, though, has been that they'll let a developer buy it and do what they want with it.
These and other issues exist not because the town board is ignorant or malicious, but because they have the wrong political philosophy at the wrong time.
Maybe that's why this year the Democratic line is also endorsed by our local Conservative Party, and the independent We the People party. Putnam Valley's future shouldn't be about politics. It should be about finding smart, economical solutions to pressing economic problems. (If Congress acts, we can start by applying for some of that infrastructure money, which could create jobs and help that town center revitalization I've been talking about.)
I've had a remarkable professional and personal life. I've started two successful nonprofit organizations, and one successful software company, and I've written three nonfiction books as well as dozens (okay, hundreds) of articles for publications like this one. I'm also about to get married to the love of my life. I'm very grateful, and very mindful of the combination of my hard work and my good fortune.
But the town I love is in danger. If we don't act, we could be thrown on even harder times that could make it even harder for us to do the right thing for our community. I don't want to see more businesses shutter, and I don't want to see suburban sprawl in my hometown. We've got a precious little slice of America up here, an hour north of New York City. And we have to work to keep it alive.