GUEST COMMENTARY: ‘Wilmington is a treasure. It’s time we start acting like it.’

No one should be expected to passively absorb, month after month, ever-lower blows.

For nearly a year, a group of people have used a variety of tactics to malign an elected official in Wilmington. Some might say this is the cost of public life, but members of this group have now ventured beyond personal attacks that are merely crude, antagonistic and disingenuous.

Serving in public office should not require one to quietly tolerate the vulgar or the grotesque. However, rather than climbing into the mud, one may decide to respond by bringing attention to topics worthy of public consideration.

These topics include:

¯ Wilmington’s annual property tax increases;

¯ The municipality’s excessive annual subsidies and giveaways to the local chamber of commerce, and;

¯ The fact that Wilmington’s town board considered a proposal to ease the burden on residential taxpayers by increasing fees (currently set at $150 per year, plus $25 per bedroom) on the 100-plus “whole-home” vacation rentals (STRs) currently active in Wilmington, but this proposal was rejected by the same voting bloc that has refused every opportunity to compromise on any issue related to STRs.

Perhaps the best way to respond to salvos ranging from merely misguided to spiteful and shameless — as well as, more importantly, to those who incite and applaud these personal attacks, then bemoan the “division” they claim exists in the community — is by mentioning the policies endorsed and promoted by these individuals, pointing out what those policies have provided, and asking the community to consider the future those policies offer.

Wilmington has the potential to grow into something even better than it is today, but our current trajectory — in which, to mention two of several possible examples, the formerly secluded and even idyllic town beach is now hemmed in by a cookie-cutter development; and the formerly wooded area where Francis Betters’ shop once stood has been clear cut for a huge self-storage facility — is not the path to accomplish that goal.

Communities don’t change solely due to market forces and the decisions of investors. They also evolve based on the decisions of voters and elected and appointed officials.

For nearly a century, American municipalities have routinely enacted zoning codes to protect and enhance the health, safety and wellbeing of their residents. This general “wellbeing” can include scenic or aesthetic resources as well as the existing character of a community.

Not so long ago, Wilmington could have some confidence that our zoning ordinance was up to the task of filtering out harmful and unwanted enterprises. But those days are over. And we certainly can’t rely on inertia, on corporate benevolence, or on Wilmington’s current, decade-old zoning code.

While our previous code was written to protect the right to the quiet enjoyment of one’s property, the town’s natural assets and the character of the community, our current code was written for a different purpose: to grease the wheels of commerce in every part of town (not just in the central business district) and to obtain “growth” (“Wilmington briefs APA on new zoning, waterfront development,” Press-Republican, July 19, 2010).

Efforts to strengthen our zoning code and enhance our Planning-Zoning Board’s ability to reject applications that would detract from everyday residents’ quality of life, the community’s appeal to visitors, and/or the prospects of locally owned businesses are long overdue, but even modest amendments to our zoning code — which were written to accomplish those very goals, using language that has worked for other communities — now lay dormant due to the adamant opposition of one town board member and the indifference of others (“Wilmington board applauded,” Lake Placid News, June 12, 2022).

We have the opportunity to change our focus and emphasize protecting and bolstering Wilmington’s distinctiveness and its natural and authentic appeal. This should be done because it will benefit the residents and second-homeowners who appreciate Wilmington as it currently is. It is also worth pointing out that the more generic a town becomes, the less attractive it is to visit.

Wilmington does not need to grant every variance, approve every application, and always say yes.

We should have the self-confidence and self-respect to be a lot more selective.

We can continue listening to those whose favored policies will result in chain stores, strip malls, exhaust fumes, and shining seas of parking lots.

We can continue catering to those whose policies will provide residents and visitors alike with sustained summer soundtracks of chainsaws, wood-chippers, bulldozers and backhoes.

We can continue catering to those who, in their hurry to profit from something, risk destroying it.

Or we can start catering to those who, when they think about the future of Wilmington, hope for:

¯ The type of town people visit to “get away,” not to find more of the same;

¯ A town with a strong, deeply rooted, and prosperous community;

¯ A town growing patiently, not in a rush that tramples the things that make the place worth caring about;

¯ A town with quiet roads, peaceful evenings, neighbors known for decades, and an attractive town center defined by its unique “mom and pop” shops;

¯ A town defined, perhaps most of all, by its serene paths, brooks, trails, meadows and shorelines — owned by the people of New York, but, for a moment, all your own.

For some, Wilmington is a hometown. For others, it is a choice. For still others, it is an ideal.

It’s time to start catering to the families who moved to Wilmington because of its picturesque, wholesome, and winsome appeal. And it’s time to heed the voices of those with deep ties to the community who feel disheartened by its trajectory and ignored by its leaders.

Wilmington is a treasure. It’s time we start acting like it.

(Tim Follos is a member of Wilmington’s town board.)

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