The debate over Cornwallville’s future

Bernard Rivers

Over the past few weeks, everyone has been getting very agitated in Cornwallville, a bucolic Northern Catskills village that is part of the town of Durham. The big issue is “the 90 acres” — a parcel of land on the edge of the village where a developer wants to build a dozen homes.

At a virtual Town Board meeting on Dec. 1, residents attended in record numbers. One participant complained that the developer “will turn a rural landscape into a suburban subdivision that directly contradicts the essence of the Cornwallville Historic District.” Another protested that this is “a blatant and aggressive” attempt to “utterly and completely” transform the character of “this special community,” adding that the plan “reveals a mind-boggling lack of understanding of the nature and character of Cornwallville.”

The level of distress reminds me of the last time things got so lively in Cornwallville, which was 32 years ago. The county wanted to build a large dump and have trucks bring in construction debris from far afield. I was deeply involved in the resulting protest, which eventually succeeded in scuttling the plan — not least because there was cooperation between Republicans and Democrats and between locals and weekenders.

But the current protest is different, and threatens to divide rather than unite the community. The plain fact is that not everyone sees things like those speakers at the town board meeting. “You do not speak for the entire community. I welcome more tax-paying properties in our town,” said one resident in a Facebook post. Another said, “I’m laughing reading this. Who has been paying the property taxes? Please either offer to purchase the land adjacent to your property like I did, or head on back to NYC and protect the interests of the community down there.”

A bit of background: In 1816 John Jerome, an early settler in Cornwallville, purchased 94 acres of land. He, his wife and their twelve children developed a thriving farm. But now, two centuries later, their farmland has been abandoned and second-growth woodland has taken over. And it is on that woodland that the developer wants to build the 12 houses.

Thirty years ago I used to see Bill Woodworth working his farm next door to the former Jerome farm. But Bill is gone now, and little if any farming is done there. Before he died Bill subdivided and sold off his land, and large and highly visible houses were built on some of the lots. In fact, more than half of the 19 houses immediately adjacent to the “90 acres” were built during the past 20 years and are as “suburban” in appearance as can be, despite the fact that they all lie within the Cornwallville Historic District.

Much though I regret it, we cannot prevent the collapse of local farming. Also, we cannot — and should not — prevent the owners of abandoned farmland from selling it. And despite the existence of the Historic District, it seems that the community cannot prevent those buyers from building modern code-compliant houses — unless we have zoning, which is anathema to this deeply Republican community. But one thing we can do is urge our town board to work closely with the developer to take advantage of existing slopes and trees to ensure that the new houses are largely hidden from nearby roads and residences. This was not done when Bill Woodworth sold his wonderful open meadows, but it can be done with the largely hidden land that the Jerome family farmed two centuries ago.

It’s all too easy for new arrivals in villages like Cornwallville to buy or build a house and then to say “Stop! No more progress please!”. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an advocate for big change here. In fact, I would like it if we could go back to when farming worked, to when most young adults stayed here, and to when the town’s elementary school (now closed) and the Cornwallville church (long since removed) were centers for the community’s social life.

But we can’t go back. Furthermore, if we do nothing, the community will not stay the same, it will change for the worse, because even more young adults and their small kids will leave. Already, the percentage of our town’s population that is aged between 25 and 34 has halved over the past 30 years.

So we have to find ways to preserve the more visible and beautiful former farmland, sometimes through land trusts, but to encourage the building of new homes on the less visible abandoned farmland, leading to more jobs and more tax revenue. It will mean change, but it will increase the chances that there will again be local kids riding their bikes through the village – something I haven’t seen in a very long time.

Bernard Rivers (bernard.rivers@gmail.com), a retired economist and small-business owner, is Deputy Chair of Durham’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee. But these opinions are his own.

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