Monday, June 21, 2010

New look for the Gadfly

Longtime readers will remember some unfinished business about sprucing up the look of the Gadfly.  The contest itself was not well-attended at first, but after a second call two of this blog's three readers submitted entries.  Choosing a winner was unfortunately sidelined by my attempts at journalism (which are overdue an explanation), but Google just added a bunch of new features and layouts which kicked the idea back into the light of day.

John Bligh contributed the winning design, and even updated it after he saw the new blog layout.  Fill in your own symbolism in the space below:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Doesn't New Paltz just love poison ivy?

Poison ivy is considered a noxious weed in the eyes of the law, and village code specifically demands that property owners get rid of it.  Most noxious weeds are aggressive invasive species, but this nasty stuff is a long-term local.  The plant is only somewhat shade tolerant, and naturally exists as a ground cover in wooded areas or along the edges of forested tracts.  Unfortunately, the poison ivy in New Paltz has found its niche in difficult-to-reach places or those that exist in some sort of legal limbo.

I've known more than one hard-core organic environmentalist who reaches for the Roundup when faced with Toxicodendron radicans.  This plant's defense mechanism makes me certain that the Universe has some kind of plan, and it's a plan that includes a touch of sadism.  It can take several days to develop a poison ivy rash, and it spreads from the most sensitive areas which touched the plant to the least over a period of time.  The worse cases can lead to painful, oozing blisters; the fluid they weep does not spread the rash but it looks and feels horrible.

The urushiol which causes the reaction is not actually on the surface of the plant, but it's so fragile that it can be damaged without much effort.  Fur and feathers serve as protection for the animals that pass through patches of the plant, but the chemical is lying in wait for a hairless human to pet that friendly dog or cat.  In fact, the urushiol can remain active for a year or more on the dead plant, so steering clear of the hairy vines is a good idea year-round.

The plant loves real estate development, because it thrives in disturbed areas.  It grows as a ground cover, climbs up trees and utility poles, and can even become a freestanding bush.  It can tolerate near-drought conditions, but is also fine living on a flood plain or in brackish water.  The berries are popular with birds and other animals, and can germinate just fine after passing through the digestive tract.  It's really well-adapted to surviving here, and in fact has become more prolific since the Huguenots' arrival here.

Repeated exposure to urushiol is likely to chip away at the immunity of anyone lucky enough to have it. Identifying poison ivy can be tricky, because not only does that plant have different forms, the leaves aren't always the familiar almond shape.

In New Paltz, poison ivy grows in places far and wide.  Most residents make a sincere effort to get rid of the stuff, at least when it's close to the sidewalks.  Many people don't want to use chemicals on it, and they don't provide a guarantee that you'll get it all.  On residential property it's very fond of hosta patches, under bushes growing on retaining walls, and anywhere the homeowner may not notice it or would have a difficult time reaching the stuff.

Just as deer seem to know when hunting season has begun, poison ivy almost deliberately grows in areas that exist in some kind of legal limbo.  I've been watching a two-story plant thrive on a utility pole until some well-meaning individual cut through the two-inch thick main vine, and then return as a healthy bush.  Central Hudson owns the pole, but I'm told it's not entirely clear who is responsible for the plant's removal.  Growing in the middle of an intersection on the pedestrian island is also a very clever idea:  who owns that land?  Do they even know about the noxious weed on their land?

Some of the most healthy poison ivy exists in public spaces such as Sojourner Truth Park and along less-traveled paths on campus; our beloved Wallkill Valley Rail Trail provides the perfect environment for flourishing poison ivy.  I don't know if the village and college have any legal requirement to remove this plant, but I know that it's a Herculean task that we probably aren't paying them enough to do.

The only solution I've seen to the New Paltz poison ivy dilemma was suggested by Jason West:  send in the goats.  It's safer than chemicals or hand-pulling, and more effective than either.  I've heard several suggestions about where to obtain these goats for free or for money, and even contacted one of the farmers, but I haven't confirmed that anyone is enterprising enough to hire out their goats.  If there is, I sure think New Paltz could keep them busy.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Village volunteers: appreciated or not?

I've been pondering municipal volunteerism in New Paltz a lot recently, particularly in the village.  A community of this size relies quite a bit upon volunteers.  They run into burning buildings, preserve what's left of our non-human environment, interpret and enforce our laws, and expend a tremendous amount of effort on tasks that are at the same time mind-numbingly dull and critically important.  If you know someone who is volunteering for one of our local governments, please seek them out and thank them for their efforts.

It's getting more difficult to find people to fill the seats of the various boards and commissions in the village, and there are probably several factors for that.  Dual-income households don't have as much spare time for volunteering after job and family obligations are fulfilled.  Not only that, but parents spend far more time shuttling their kids from one activity to another than they once did.  Homeowners, the people who arguably have the most to gain by volunteering, are in a minority in the village.

Mayor Dungan has been working to resolve that last problem with his rental reforms.  The argument as I understand it is that tougher enforcement of safety standards in rentals will make some properties into less attractive investments, which will reduce housing prices for the many apartment residents who wish to own homes.  Likewise, the opening of Woodland Pond may exert some downward pressure on housing prices.  Whether either of these things will come to pass remains to be seen.  The impact on the local volunteer pool, if it does manifest, probably won't be felt for several years.

Troubled waters
In the meantime, there's a dearth of volunteers right now, and I don't think all the reasons are demographic.

At a recent village board meeting, Dr. Thomas Rocco indicated that he was prepared to resign if he didn't get what he wanted for the task force he chairs.  Was this a petulant outburst?  Hardly. Dr. Rocco wanted a survey his task force had spent months preparing to get into the village's water bills. The request had been made originally more than three months ago, but the March bills were sealed before the survey could be inserted.  Three months later, the night before the next round of bills were to be sealed and mailed, Dr. Rocco was utterly frustrated that they were at the same crossroads.  He indicated to the village board in public session that he didn't believe it was a good strategy to leave village volunteers wondering if their efforts were appreciated.

Concurrent to the problems expressed by Dr. Rocco is the resignation of Planning Board chair Ray Curran.  What few may to remember about Mr. Curran is that he was a minority voice for environmentally-sensible development, and that he took the chairmanship reluctantly upon the death of George Danskin.  Since I have never been chairman of that board, I have to wonder if I would have done any better.  Why should a man be expected to put more hours in as a volunteer than he does at his paid job?

The question of the proper funding and support of our firefighters has been discussed ad infinitum.  It seems to be Patrick O'Donnell's sole purpose as a village trustee.  Regardless of your position on the funding question, can you doubt that the firefighters themselves are more than a little disheartened by the whole thing?

I don't think it's just that we have a smaller pool of potential volunteers.  The people who do step up are asked to do too much with too little.  Instead of broad support of volunteers by the municipal government, we see these fine people and their work reduced to pet projects of one or two board members.  Occasionally, such as during this contentious time for the Planning Board, the political will exists to get some level of consensus.  Mostly, though, volunteers are left to sink or swim with little or no support.