Tuesday, February 10, 2009



Mark Knaust at the site of the former Catskill Mountain House. 

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and best-known nature lover, once said that “there is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.”  As a naturalist, he was a keen observer of the objects in the world around him and was inspired to send Lewis and Clark to explore uncharted territories.  He was even committed to uncovering a natural curiosity -- the bones of a mastodon found in what was then Ulster County in 1801 -- when he helped to fund America’s first scientific expedition headed by his friend and Revolutionary War veteran, Charles Willson Peale.   The discovery of the great mastodon was memorialized in one of Peale’s most engaging paintings.  Jefferson’s love of the natural world and great sense of curiosity enabled unparalleled discoveries and advancement in scientific methods.  

Recent commentary in local papers suggests Jeffersonian thought to be outdated.  To the contrary, it is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.  The very basic 21st century quality of life issues need to be evaluated as closely as the keen observer Jefferson did with issues facing him in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with what he stated as “an interest or affection in every bud that opens, in every breath that blows around me.”

America’s population growth and the increase in population locally -- due in part to the tragedy of September 11 -- have combined to push a new set of quality-of-life issues to the fore: traffic, congestion, disappearance of open spaces, strain on water supply and a lack of affordable housing.  These issues are of great importance to many folks here in Saugerties.  

A drive down Main Street or Ulster Avenue, through 9W in Barclay Heights or through the intersection of routes 212 and 32, reveals traffic congestion on the highways in Saugerties is increasing dramatically.  A drive down any back road will reveal haphazard development of once beautiful farmland and natural areas.  The increase in residential and business development will surely impact our treasured water supply.

Unfortunately, even after the adoption in 1999 of the Comprehensive Plan for the Town of Saugerties, there have been instances of spot zoning and expansive business ventures with little or no review.  These issues are in direct opposition to the comprehensive plan.  The comprehensive plan offers the best guide that I know of right now to lead Saugerties into the 21st century.  The plan defines what is important to this community and is to guide change as consistent with community goals.

Let’s not wait for another historic house or cemetery to be demolished or farmland to be developed; let’s not wait to inventory our precious water resources.  By taking a proactive initiative on topics discussed in the Comprehensive Plan and giving thoughtful consideration to the quality-of-life issues like public safety, education, transportation, recreational opportunities and the esprit de corps of this community, we can affirm what values we want this community to aspire to.  A blade of grass and a scientific expedition are as relevant today as they were over 200 years ago.

- Mark H. Knaust

Friday, February 6, 2009


Mark Knaust at the base of the Esopus Creek Falls, Saugerties. 

From its inception Saugerties has attracted people of intellect, energy and drive. When Henry Barclay built his dam around 1825 and harnessed the power of the Esopus Creek for the industrial uses that built the surrounding community, it was generally thought to be a positive step in Saugerties' march to the future.  With the rise of mills below the dam, the Industrial Revolution began in Saugerties.

Over the decades these industries both prospered and failed.  But with the failures it seemed that succeeding generations managed to adapt, utilize what assets remained, and then prosper again.  Today, people want to know what will drive the economy of tomorrow. Where are the sources of revenue that we need to support our local government and its many services?  What can we do to foster a renewed prosperity and what is the economic future of Saugerties?

A look at the economic situation in Saugerties today reveals a small town with a proud industrial past struggling with a declining business tax base while contending with providing ever more services being funded by homeowners with modest incomes. What do we do to avoid a situation where Saugerties becomes a community of excessively high costs and too few good job opportunities?

I do not have all the answers to these questions, but the situation is not beyond our control. The decisions our local officials make impact our economic development in many meaningful ways. Where we seek guidance, and the policies we employ in making our decisions are important in positioning our community to meet the future.

I believe water can play a role again not so much by our harnessing its power, but by ensuring a clean and abundant supply of it. This region is blessed with tremendous water assets. Other regions of the United States are starting to reach their limits of growth because of concerns over water. It would be far-sighted for this town to identify and begin to protect all its water resources. Similarly, Saugerties should begin to identify and catalog its other assets such as our land, scenic, cultural and historic resources.

By taking these actions and encouraging the growth and development of this town to comport with the outlines expressed in the Comprehensive Plan for the Town of Saugerties adopted in 1999, the town can position itself to attract the type of industries that everyone desires. The Hudson Valley between Poughkeepsie and Glens Falls is becoming widely known as the Hudson Valley High-Tech Corridor, the eastern seaboard equivalent of California's Silicon Valley.  Computer technology, telecommunications, nanotechnology, biotechnology research and energy firms are springing up in the region as a result of proximity to research and educational facilities in the valley and to the quality of life that this valley offers.

These industries are frequently unobtrusive and quiet, and the people associated with them are educated and well compensated. Saugerties should become more aggressive in its quest to attract this type of industry. 

It has been a long time since Henry Barclay's dam has been of economic benefit locally, but the spirit, creativity and ingenuity that animated Barclay and the other entrepreneurs that followed him can serve as an example for us today. 

- Mark H. Knaust


 Mark Knaust at a former one-room school house in Saugerties.

Education is one of the prime issues that citizens in Saugerties have discussed with me. Whether it is in providing a quality education for the children in Saugerties or discussion of the increasing size of the school budget and resulting increase in school taxes, it is a subject that produces very decided opinions.  And it is a subject that demands particular attention around this time every year.

The recent defeat by property owners in the Town of Saugerties of the $62 million capital project to build a new middle school and to make additions and renovations to the junior and senior high schools and all four elementary schools, is a case in point. The rejection of the school bond was a clear signal that all is not well. That defeat represented a failure in leadership and disconnections between the establishment in the town, the school, and the taxpayers.

This community owes a debt of gratitude to a couple of leading citizens - both of them Democrats - for leading the opposition to this overreaching bond.

I would like to represent the 70 or 80 percent of the citizens of Saugerties who resent being told that a no vote on the school bond means that they don't support the education of the children in this community.

As a product of the Saugerites School System, I am aware that much of our infrastructure is past its peak. I supported the renovations to the Cahill Elementary School done in the 1990's because the renovations were both long overdue and reasonable.  The latest bond referendum was timely perhaps, but not at all reasonable, and I, like you, rejected it. I also believe that even those who voted against this bond issue want to see every child in our town receive a fine education, and I am with you. Now is the time to take a recess and evaluate our needs and priorities regarding the funding of education. The voters seem to be saying that a larger school, with expensive extracurricular activities, will not ensure a better education, and I agree.

Our school system is one of the largest "industries" in town. Unfortunately, our biggest export product seems to be our children looking for better opportunities. While other businesses are leaving this state, this is one industry that is flourishing. Education is so important to our community that it can no longer be the special province of our school board. The financial implications of the recent bond issue along with the size of the school budget suggest this to be the case. I believe we have to reassess our entire approach to the way we educate our children. We can start by having the school system become more integrated in the community. This idea was mentioned in the comprehensive plan adopted by the town and village of Saugerties in 1999.  Creative thinking, innovation, efficiency and frugality will not come from the bureaucracy or special interests in Albany. It must be generated and cultivated here in Saugerties, by us. 

The humorist Will Rogers once remarked that "we have the honor of being the only country in the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile."  I'll leave it to the readers' imaginations as to which model automobile they would liken our present educational system. One thing is for sure, there are too many government controls on the motor and it sure guzzles a lot of gas!

While I am not advocating a return to the one-room schoolhouse, it is worth pondering that previous generations of Americans managed to educate their children very will without sapping the lifeblood out of the citizens in the community. 

- Mark H. Knaust


 Mark Knaust and Bill Trumpbour discuss land use in Saugerties.

Land use is one of the most important and vexing issues facing Saugerties today. Important because we are in the midst of a profound period of change in our land use patterns and vexing because the subject covers a broad range of issues that offers no easy solutions. How we use our land, and the the impacts that flow from that use, will go a long way in determining not only how this community views itself but also our overall quality of life.

Saugerties has always been a predominately rural community. The importance of agriculture to this town was recognized when it was included in the original town seal in the 1830's, along with commerce and industry. Our relationship with the land has helped to define the town character and indeed the American character. In fact, the fundamental liberties that form the bedrock of this republic emanate from the recognition of private property rights. For most of the history of this country the land has been under the stewardship and protection of farmers. This relationship has left a positive and indelible mark on our character and is woven into the fabric of our society. Even today our school calendar still revolves around the needs of 19th-century farmers. The values that farming evokes - hard work, thrift, integrity and the giving of thanks every year for the blessings that providence bestows on us - form a very powerful component of our identity. 

It is with more than a little sadness and concern that I have witnessed the slow disappearance of our rural heritage in this town. For too long we've taken for granted the beautiful countryside in this town, assuming it will always be there. I believe that we have to start realizing that behind every pastoral scene or bucolic setting there is property owner more than likely scrimping to pay their taxes. As long as government depends on generating most of it's revenue from land taxes there will be enormous pressure exerted on these landowners. The decisions that are made as a result of this pressure are likely to be bad ones.

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking about these matters with a local Saugerties farmer, William Trumpbour. The Trumpbour family ties to the land go back to the original Palatine settlement in the early part of the 18th century. Bill started farming in 1947 and bought his wonderful wife, Ellie, an engagement ring with the profits from his first buckwheat crop. The farm and the land around it comprise some of the most beautiful scenery in the township. It has remained nearly unchanged since the days when, tradition has it, Revolutionary War troops celebrated in that field following their victory in the Battle of Saratoga. Not long ago the adjacent land was slated for development, something that thankfully has not happened. These rural scenes are a large part of what makes this town an enjoyable place to live.

I don't want these thoughts to be misinterpreted as being against development of any kind. There are many people in the town that depend directly or indirectly on the building and construction trades. The town can grow but it should do so in a thoughtful and graceful way. A few years ago some of our local citizens worked very hard to produce a comprehensive plan for the Town of Saugerties that contains common sense and practical suggestions to accomplish just that. This town now needs leadership in pursuing that vision; a leadership that understands when a new business is sited in the town - one that could have a tremendous impact on traffic patterns say - it must go through proper regulatory review. It's time we start paying attention to these issues before we destroy the very aspects of this town that make it so appealing. 

- Mark H. Knaust