• Orange County Legislature approves Palm Tree referendum

Sep 8th, 2017 | By | Category: 2017 Election, Annexation, Education, Emily Convers, Gedalya Szegedin, James Skoufis, John N. Allegro, Kiryas Joel, Mayor Welle, Monroe, News, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, Orange County Politics, Preserve Hudson Valley, Times Herald Record

By Chris McKenna – Times Herald-Record
Posted Sep 7, 2017 at 10:31 PM Updated Sep 7, 2017 at 10:50 PM
GOSHEN – A proposal to separate Kiryas Joel from Monroe by forming the Town of Palm Tree cleared its first and perhaps biggest hurdle on Thursday, when Orange County lawmakers voted 18-3 to allow a referendum on the town’s creation to take place in Monroe on Nov. 7.

Power to the people

The vote came after more than two hours of often impassioned arguments from audience members and county legislators at the meeting in the county Emergency Services Center. Members of the public spoke for about 90 minutes and were overwhelmingly in support of the proposal, urging lawmakers to give Monroe voters the opportunity to decide the fate of their town and Monroe-Woodbury School District.

“I want to continue to stay in the town that I love and have my daughter graduate from Monroe-Woodbury High School,” Monroe resident Veronica Connolly said, breaking down as she spoke. “Please throw us a lifeline.”

A handful of legislators had remained undecided in the last week while two had declared their firm opposition, leaving the outcome of Thursday’s vote uncertain until the roll was called. Because approval of the referendum required a two-thirds supermajority under state law, eight of 21 legislators could have stopped the town proposal by voting against it.

But most who had been wavering wound up casting their votes in support. Jeff Berkman, a Middletown Democrat who had been upset by the closed-door negotiations about the proposal that included only certain legislators, commended Kiryas Joel for a concession it made to Orange County’s cities and voiced hope for better relations between the Hasidic community and the rest of the county.

“We have a chance to start again in a more respectful dialogue,” he said.

The Palm Tree proposal is the culmination of almost four years of conflict over Kiryas Joel’s bid to expand to accommodate its fast-growing population. The village waged two contentious efforts to annex land from Monroe, one for 507 acres and another for 164 acres. Then, with both annexation petitions being contested in court, the Hasidic community took a new approach last year by petitioning the Legislature for the formation a new town, consisting of Kiryas Joel and what initially would have been 382 additional acres.

The town proposal at first met the same resistance. But United Monroe leaders, whose citizens group was waging one of two pending lawsuits against the 164-acre annexation that Monroe approved, began negotiating with Kiryas Joel leaders earlier this year and struck a deal in July. Both sides would drop their annexation suits and support a new town encompassing Kiryas Joel – including the 164 acres it annexed – and 56 acres of additional land. Kiryas Joel also promised in a legal agreement to refuse any further bids to annex land from Monroe or Blooming Grove for 10 years.

The payoff for Monroe residents living outside Kiryas Joel was that separating would mean the Hasidic community’s large and ever-growing voting blocs would no longer dominate town elections.

At Thursday’s Legislature meeting, United Monroe Chairwoman Emily Convers said the town proposal now gave Monroe residents a chance to end a long-running conflict.

“We found a solution,” Convers said. “We want the fighting to stop. Trust us with this decision.”

The agreement between Kiryas Joel and United Monroe will take effect if Monroe voters approve the creation of Palm Tree on Nov. 7. The chances of that seem high, given that both Kiryas Joel’s main political faction and United Monroe support the town formation and will rally their voters behind it.

Their deal also was contingent on an alteration of school district boundaries to move the 164 annexed acres and 56 added acres in the future Palm Tree from Monroe-Woodbury School District to Kiryas Joel School District. School boards in Kiryas Joel and Monroe-Woodbury already approved that change.

The three dissenting votes on Thursday were cast by Matt Turnbull, D-Hamptonburgh, Kevin Hines, R-Cornwall, and Roseanne Sullivan, D-Town of Wallkill. Turnbull condemned the closed negotiations that produced the deal, saying, “The problem is this agreement was negotiated behind closed doors with a political party, with the participation of only three legislators.”

Legislature Chairman Steve Brescia, R-Montgomery, later defended those talks, saying they had led to the very compromise he had sought when the town petition was filed last year. “This is what we’re voting on,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything secretive about this.”

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