In the face of growing opposition to the commercialization of the Putnam County woods, the politically connected entrepreneurs who wanted to sell outdoor advertising on the Putnam Trailway withdrew their plan Monday afternoon.
They did so just two hours before citizens filled to overflowing Room 318 of the Bruen County Office Building to let the County Legislature know that the advertisements that are banned on local roads should also be banned in their woods. It was the third standing-room-only crowd to protest the outdoor advertising in the woods, since Tax Watch broke the story on May 23.
Westchester County killed its deal with Bikepath County in mid-June. Putnam came around tonight.
“For once the people won!” crowed Southeast activist Ann Fanizzi.
Fanizzi was part of a grassroots campaign that employed emails, online blogs, and an online petition to rally opposition.
With County Executive MaryEllen Odell sitting in the front row of the crammed committee room, Legislature Chairman Richard Othmer, R-Kent, read the letter sent by Bikepath County President Ivan Bellotto and Vice President Richie O’Keefe, the former Carmel Town Councilman whose family ties go deep into Putnam Republican circles.
They did not appear at the meeting.
“We feel projects such as this are smart ideas worth exploring in the community,” wrote Bellotto and O’Keefe. “As lifelong Putnam resident, our ultimate goal was to assist first responders with vital location information, decrease the tax burden for all residents and promote small business. As a small business, we saw an opportunity for small business to grow with initiatives like this.”
Their statement reflected so much of what was wrong with the plan. It was great for business – their business. It would help first responders find people who took a spill on an 11-mile linear path where they’d yet to cite one instance where someone couldn’t be found. And it would decrease the tax burden with a plan designed to put money in the pockets of Bikepath Country’s nine partners, but leave precious little to defray the cost of maintaining one the county’s most popular recreational facilities.
Missing in their statement were the people who enjoy the trailway – the cyclists and pedestrians who find solace and inspiration in the wooded corridor where the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad once ferried passengers and freight.
“It was great they heard the voice of the people, but I would have liked them to have sought to hear it before they announced the plan,” said Jerry Ravnitsky, of Mahopac. “They think they know what the people need without asking them. But it’s good they finally saw the light.”
Othmer apologized to the citizens for supporting the plan. On July 2, it appeared that Odell had her five votes to make it happen. But Othmer that night buckled under the relentless criticism voiced by a long line of citizens who said they wanted to be spared seeing advertising in their forest.
“I’m taking responsibility for this fiasco,” he said. “I failed to do my homework. I will take responsibility and apologize to the public.”
Odell told the legislators – and the audience – that she wanted to put the negativity behind and move forward. Adam Stiebeling, Putnam’s emergency services coordinator, proposed cluttering the trailway with mile markers every quarter mile – twice as many as proposed by her outdoor advertising friends.
Odell said it was essential for the county’s emergency services personnel.
“I want to move forward to deal with this emergency situation,” she declared.
But neither Odell nor Stiebeling have detailed one instance in which someone came to harm because an EMS worker took a few more minutes to find them on the trailway, which bisects numerous roads as it winds from Mahopac to Brewster.
Perhaps Odell was considering the political emergency she faces, with growing numbers of Putnam residents fed up with her willingness to sacrifice one of Putnam County’s prime assets – its natural beauty – to benefit her Republican cronies looking to make a buck off the Trailway’s viewshed.
Odell had apparently known for some time that Bellotto and O’Keefe were bailing. Stiebling made a PowerPoint presentation of various mile-markers he had priced out. He also wanted to put up signs at crossroads, to let cyclists and pedestrians know where they were.
Legislators Sam Oliverio, D-Putnam Valley, and Dini LoBue, R-Mahopac, continued to hammer away, leading the opposition on the panel. Oliverio liked markers that could be embedded in the pavement, to let people know where they were without the visual pollution of so many signs in the woods.
Dorothy Schmidt of Mahopac was smiling as she left the crowded hall. She was among the Putnam residents who had been so taken aback by the outdoor advertising plan that she’d written a letter to the editor of The Journal News.
“We get blasted by advertising everywhere,” she said. “We don’t need them on the trailway. We need to let nature heal us.”
Photos: Top – Audience at meeting Monday, July 22.
Middle: County Executive MaryEllen Odell, right, and Deputy County Executive Bruce Walker.
Bottom: Bikepath Country President Ivan Bellotto, left, and Richie O’Keefe.
Photos/ David McKay Wilson