People travel as much for history as for food. My hometown, Saugerties, NY, was chosen as one of the top ten “coolest Towns” by Budget Travel Magazine. Certainly we have great restaurants. Our location on the river in New York’s Hudson Valley virtually guarantees us an attractive natural beauty. A public beach, public parks and gardens, one of the largest athletic facilities (including an ice-skating rink) of any community in the State, a lighthouse, an Olympic-class HorseShowsInTheSun equestrian facility, Opus 40 – one of the oldest earthworks in the country – which will soon be a town-operated attraction, the largest garlic festival on the East Coast, and two public land conservancies totaling more than 100 acres, all build on each other to establish Saugerties as a top tourism destination in the state.
One of the main reasons people come to the Village of Saugerties is for our historic downtown. More than 25 years ago the Historic Village Business District was created. It is an eight block area of late 1800s/early 1900s commercial architecture in good repair, and the first such business district on the National Historic Register. Much of the Village’s economic stability and growth is attributed to the creation and maintenance of this district.
Over the more than quarter century of its existence, various members of the community sat on the Village Historic Review Board to guide the development and changes within the district. Until I came on the board as chairman 18 months ago, nothing was done to define the guidelines necessary to preserve the district. Over the preceding few years, businesses opened and closed, and inappropriate signs were hung. Inexpensive neon, LED or internally lighted signs exploded into the marketplace. Their appearance, though against the law, undermined efforts to preserve the spirit of the historic district.
The economy contributed to the problem. Most local governments are feeling the economic downturn as much as their citizens are. Infractions and possibly detrimental additions to the district were overlooked in a “can’t we all get by” attitude. As the abuse of the historic district laws grew, so did a reluctance by local government to appear to impede economic growth. When opportunities to enforce the law included a sure and costly legal battle, government then hesitated to incur the expense. Abuses became flagrant, with the common belief that a business could open in the historic district and ignore the law completely. Many did.
One year into my tenure on the board I identified 42 businesses in violation of our Historic District laws. Rather than enforce the law, local government changed it to allow the unsightly neon, LED and/or internally lighted signs, and weakened the language so that others could proliferate. After spending millions to remove unsightly overhead wires and develop an invitingly walkable “Streetscape”, we, as a community, allowed our government to decline to enforce the laws designed to protect the look of our Historic District.
The result is readily apparent. One can walk down a once well-preserved historic street and see garish signs, color combinations and inappropriate fencing where none used to prevail. And, in part because the guidelines were never defined, and in part because the laws were not strictly enforced, this bloom of “strip-mall” decor is increasingly difficult to combat.
My resolution for 2011 is to return to the spirit of the law designed to protect the historic nature of the district. To achieve this, the Village Historic Review Board, in association with the Town Historic Review Commission, recently received a grant to publish our guidelines as part of an educational awareness book celebrating Saugerties’ 2011 bicentennial. In it, along with the history of the Village and Township, will be depicted architectural styles prevalent in the community. Their features will be defined, and guidelines designed to protect those “historic” features will be integrated into the text to create a seamless history, cum preservation guide, cum civic pride-inducing memorial to our heritage.
At the same time the boards will continue to press local government for strong legal enforcement of the rules and regulations created to preserve our heritage. It is my hope that citizens will see the immeasurable benefits of this course of action and support it.