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Annual town meeting targets community concerns


By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

Bernard Rivers, right, from Durham Connect, welcomes the crowd to the second annual Durham town meeting, while Town Councilwoman Joan Breslin and Town Supervisor Shawn Marriott look on. Melanie Lekocevic/Capital Region Independent Media

DURHAM — Newcomers to the community, broadband access and roadside trash were some of the questions raised at the second annual town meeting.

The meeting, held at Brandow Memorial Park on Clay Hill Road, was a recommendation of the town’s comprehensive plan, said Bernard Rivers, chairman of Durham Connect, the organization that hosted the meeting.

“The comprehensive plan recommended that the town should hold an annual meeting to present each annual report and provide an opportunity for a community discussion about it,” Rivers said. “This is that meeting.”

The first annual town meeting was held in June 2021.

“The meeting is just a chance for residents and officials to meet and hear from each other,” Rivers said.

The meeting was led by Rivers, Town Supervisor Shawn Marriott, and Town Councilwoman Joan Breslin. Breslin is also the deputy chairwoman of Durham Connect and the town board’s representative to the committee.

Marriott said holding events at Brandow Memorial Park is a goal of the town board.

“This is the second event we have had here. We want to start doing more in the park,” Marriott said. “We talk about this a lot at town board meetings. This is the only [property] that the town really owns besides the town building, so we are starting to work towards putting more into this park.”

Town Highway Superintendent Joseph van Holsteyn was unable to attend the meeting to provide an annual update to the community, but Rivers read his report in his stead.

“We were able to do more last summer than we had planned on,” Rivers read. “The highway department got $50,000 more from the state than we were expecting. We repaved Sunside Road and we paved parts of Cochrane Road and Allen Teator Road.”

In 2022, however, rising prices will make road improvements more expensive.

“But this year things are tough for the town and the department because the price of asphalt and fuel is significantly up and also there are lots of supply constraints,” according to van Holsteyn’s report. “The biggest project for this summer is to replace the two culverts on Hervey Sunside Road that washed out during a heavy rainstorm in October. Another project we hope to do this summer is to finish the paving of Sutton Road, all the way to the top, which will probably cost over $200,000.”

Breslin spoke of the progress being made in the town to bring broadband service to areas of the community where it is lacking.

“The Broadband Committee generated a broadband report which detailed underserved and unserved areas of our community, which is a big help for the county to go forward with, giving us money from their ARPA (federal American Rescue Plan Act) funding and to allow our town to have access to internet throughout the town,” Breslin said.

The committee’s work will help the town acquire federal funds to improve broadband access, Marriott said.

“Durham Connect did an absolutely awesome job — they set up mapping,” he said. “One of the biggest issues is that the state has some funds available and they need information, knowing exactly who had service and who didn’t. Durham is the first town in Greene County to have actual mapping showing exactly who has service and who doesn’t have service.”

With that information in hand, the town may be able to tap into federal funds given to the county to build out broadband access.

“The county got just under $10 million in their ARPA funds,” Marriott said. “We are trying to work out a deal to have Durham be the flagship for getting broadband coverage all the way across the town using ARPA fund money from the county, from money that they were given. That is the goal.”

Once build-out of the broadband project begins, completion could take as little as six months to get the town fully connected, he added.

Durham Connect is also looking to gather community input on events and activities residents would like to see come to the town, Breslin said. A survey was given to everyone attending the meeting to complete. Volunteers are needed to make those plans a reality, Breslin said.

“If you want to see things happen in town, if you want to be a part of organized activities, you have to step up and lead things,” she urged. “That is a really difficult thing — I know we are all busy, but I encourage everyone, if you have an interest in any of the things on this list, or something else that we didn’t mention that you could lead or take part in, connect with us on our Facebook page.”

Activities on the survey included Durham history talks, a book club, family movie nights at the park, a dog park, sports, exercise classes, hiking trails, coffee shop gatherings and more.

Marriott said he wanted to clarify a quote that was included in the town’s annual report in which he said, “The issue of newcomers is still extremely polarizing in our town. It has gotten worse in the last few months. We need to find a way to strike a balance with welcoming new people into our community and protecting our core values and way of life.”

The town supervisor apologized for the way the comment was portrayed and added he welcomes newcomers to the community.

“I welcome absolutely anybody to come in,” Marriott said. “We have a good life here and I can see why people from outside like it and want to be a part of it. I welcome anybody.”

One resident in the audience said he appreciated the clarification but said there was some truth to the idea that newcomers are sometimes seen as an issue.

Marriott said Durham has people from all walks of life — from fifth-generation residents to newcomers from New York City — and that the town has to find a balance.

“We have a very broad spectrum of people and some people look at it as a negative, and some look at it as a positive. I look at it as a positive,” Marriott said. “There is a very diverse community here and it is becoming more and more diverse. I think that is absolutely awesome.”

The many different groups have to find a way to live together in the community, he added.

“We have to strike some way of being able to get along,” Marriott said. “It is a polarizing topic because you get people who are very adamant in both directions. I do my best to remain neutral.”

Resident Mary Ann Ledda said her family has been connected to Durham for a century and that newcomers to the community should familiarize themselves with the area’s culture before moving in.

“If you are going to move to an area, you should maybe find out something about it, about the culture of that area… so you don’t get angry when the guy next door is target shooting, so you know the rules — you can target shoot, but not near a house,” Ledda said.

One resident asked about excess garbage on town roads. He wanted to see something done about it.

Marriott said that is a difficult issue to tackle.

“It’s tough — we have 46 miles of road here in the town so [it is difficult] to be able to police all of it all the time,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t police every person that is throwing garbage all over. I would love to be able to, but we can’t. If you see somebody doing it, please call law enforcement and give them a plate number so they can deal with it, but law enforcement can’t be everywhere to see it everywhere.”

Regular clean-up is also a challenge, he added.

“We do the best we possibly can,” Marriott said. “Our highway guys do a phenomenal job, but for that amount of road, we only have eight guys, so it is tough.”

The issue that dominated much of the discussion at last year’s annual town meeting — the proposed Bosque housing development — was not raised at this year’s meeting.

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