Efforts to create new villages have roiled Hudson Valley politics for decades. Old controversies persist; new ones continue to arise.
In Westchester County residents of the hamlet of Edgemont continue in their multi-year effort to establish a seventh village within the town of Greenburgh. In Orange and Rockland Counties three Hasidic villages are well established, but still make occasional headlines regarding difficulties in relationships with neighboring communities and run-ins with county government.
Meanwhile, efforts to incorporate two more villages to help accommodate the need for housing arising from explosive population growth in the Hasidic community—Seven Springs in Orange County and Ateres in Sullivan—are well under way. No doubt, other plans for village creation in the region are on developers’ drawing boards.
In reaction to the contentious, bruising politics that the village creation process has generated in the region in recent decades, two Hudson Valley Democratic state senators—James Skoufis and Andrea Stewart-Cousins (the Majority Leader)—this year each introduced bills altering the process. Both were passed by the state Legislature in June. Both are now under review by Governor Kathy Hochul for signature, or veto.
Senator Skoufis has described his bill (S7538/A7754) as an effort at modernization to assure that any new villages “…. are held accountable, they’re sustainable.” More forthrightly Stewart-Cousins, who has been deeply involved in the controversy surrounding the Edgemont effort, has declared: “New York doesn’t need another village.”
This is no small matter. Changes in the law add or alter requirements for creating a village, redefine the powers of those traditionally engaged, and provide entry for new players. If put into effect, the Stewart-Cousins bill (S7537/A7761) will end the century-and-a-half long practice in New York State of creating villages entirely by local action. In sum, if signed, this legislation is likely to make it a lot harder—perhaps impossible—to create new villages in New York State.
Is this a good thing?
Why do we have villages?
To meet the modest need for local government services in sparsely settled rural New York, the state created a system of towns within counties. Towns’ functions were minimal, and their powers limited.
New York’s population nearly tripled between 1790 (340,120) and 1810 (959,049). As some places became more densely settled local leaders petitioned the Legislature for authority to provide additional growth-related local services, ones that towns were not authorized by state law to deliver (e.g. fire protection, street lighting, public sanitation). The state’s response was to leave the existing responsibilities of the counties and towns relatively unchanged, while chartering villages to meet these additional needs.
Interestingly, this was the origin of the current high level of layering of general-purpose local government in New York. In 2000, one in seven people living outside the state’s cities were served by and paid taxes to support three general purpose local governments: a county, a town and a village
State legislative sessions were brief during much of the early 19th century. When in Albany, lawmakers found themselves increasingly burdened by and distracted from addressing statewide matters by the great volume of local demands for special acts to charter new villages and amend the charters of those already established. Additionally, there was some concern, informed by experience, regarding the temptation that all these local bills created for some members to sell or trade their votes when acting on matters to which they and their constituents were entirely indifferent.
In 1847 the state legislature got out of the business of chartering individual villages; it passed a General Village Law that provided for their incorporation entirely by local action. Twenty-eight years later, in 1875, an amendment was added to the state constitution that prohibited the Legislature from creating villages by special act. This left the process for village incorporation entirely in local hands.
Thus the title of Lisa Parshall’s excellent new book about New York villages, In Local Hands (Albany: SUNY Press, 2023). Data Parshall gathered show that most villages still operating in the state were incorporated during the period between passage of the 1875 state constitutional amendment and the beginning of World War II.
During the rapid suburbanization following that war’s close, the Legislature abandoned the remains of its commitment to retaining the distinctions between the functions of villages and those of other general purpose local governments. Demands for familiar local services in their new communities from former city dwellers were most quickly met by authorizing towns to act in these areas.
Soon town governments could provide virtually all services formerly reserved to villages. Thus, the service delivery rationale for the creation of villages lost its force. Localities were left with the power to create villages without any specifications or limits in state law regarding acceptable public interest purposes for doing so.
Current Village Creation: From Public Interest to Private Interest
Village creation came to be a means for defending or pursuing private interests, the protection or creation of benefits or advantages for specific individuals or subgroups in the broader community. The goal was to capture the governmental and regulatory powers given generally to villages in state law—regarding, for example, such matters as taxing, spending, planning and land use—and using them to preempt towns in making, protecting and defending alternative choices about preferred community character.
All this did not go unchallenged. Territory was annexed and governments preemptively created to block the establishment of new villages. Conflict within, among and between local governments over structural and operational issues was routine and persistent. As a consequence, crucial decisions for the character, viability and future wellbeing of local communities were routinely made not by elected officials but through litigation, further diminishing the prospects of collaboration, assuring delay and sustaining a routinely adversarial environment.
A 2014 study of local government incorporation across the country captured nicely the key differences between traditional and contemporary effect of the village creation law in New York State: “…[E]arlier (pre-1950s) incorporations were largely about service provision, which arguably promotes the public (collective) good, modern efforts to incorporation tend to rest on political, economic and social motivations in the private interest.” (Rice, Waldner and Smith cited in Parshall p. 30-31.) [emphasis added]
If The Governor Signs Off
Reacting to recent experience, this year’s changes passed by the Assembly and Senate, presented as reforms of the process, will in fact make the incorporation of new villages more difficult, perhaps impossible. Petitions to create a village will require a larger number of signatures. Key players in the process will change, with crucial decisions shifted from the town to the state level. Required conditions for assessing petitions for village creation will include both process and substantive considerations. Studies of fiscal, policy, administrative and other impacts within the proposed village, in the surrounding town and the local area more generally will inform the referendum vote, significantly altering its context.
The Minimum Population Required to Create a Village Will Be Increased. Currently, places that wish to be villages must have 500 or more “regular inhabitants.” Under the proposed new law that threshold would go to 2000. With this change in the minimum population, even without an increase in the percentage of the population required as signers, the number of signatures required for authorizing petitions would more than quadruple.
One comparison is instructive. There are 60 villages in New York that today don’t meet the 500-resident threshold. That is, they do not have the minimum population requirement to petition for village status if they were starting from scratch. Additionally, 238 of New York’s 533 villages have fewer than 2,000 residents, the proposed new minimum population for incorporating a new village.
One Of Two Methods For Petitioning To Create A Village Will Be Removed. Currently, owners of more than 50 percent of the value of the real property that would be within a proposed village may petition to hold a referendum on its creation. Under this method, similar to the practice for stockholder voting in private corporations, each owner’s vote is, in effect, weighed in accordance with his or her “share of ownership.”
This anomalous wealth requirement for political participation is politically indefensible in contemporary New York; it will be removed if the governor signs Skoufis’s bill (S7538/A5669) this year.
The creation of Hasidic villages has often been initiated by purchase of large parcels of land. This change in the law may have the particular effect of closing down one heretofore unused option for such village creation. For example, in 2023 the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa (formerly the Granite Hotel) in the hamlet of Kerhonkson in the town of Rochester was sold to Hudson Valley New York Holdings LLC, a Hasidic developer that now owns over 650 acres in Rochester. Under current law, a dominant landowner, with support from relatively few families who may already be living within the boundaries of or close to a large purchase, might create a village without a popular majority of those who would end up living within its boundaries.
Increased Signature Requirement. This leaves a petition signed by 20 percent of a proposed village’s potential population the only path to a referendum on village creation. An attempt to incorporate Seven Springs, a newly proposed Hasidic village in the town of Monroe in Orange County adjacent to the existing Hasidic village of Kriyas Joel, is in progress. The population of the territory it includes is estimated to be about 600. Under the current law its advocates’ petition requires 120 votes. Under the new law the number would be 400.
Petitioning by the Viznitz Hasidic community, which created the village of Kaiser in Rockland County in 1990, calls for a referendum to establish the new 1.7-square mile village of Ateres on land in the Sullivan County towns of Thompson and Fallsburg. The population of the proposed village is currently 834. Advocates presented signatures from 99 potential village residents. The new requirement would be 167.
A transitional provision in the new law does allow signatures already gathered to be used to meet an increased signature requirement for proposals in process, but still requires the new higher number of signatures to trigger a referendum vote.
Replacement Of The Town Supervisors In The Process With A State Village Incorporation Commission. Under current law, petitioners seeking a referendum on village creation must file their petition with the town supervisor of the town that contains the most territory within the proposed new village. (Proposed Villages must follow some existing local government boundaries but are not required to be within a single town.) Alone or jointly with supervisors of other towns in which the proposed village includes territory, he or she must hold a public hearing to “…hear objections which may be presented as to the legal sufficiency of the provision for incorporation…” That is, he or she may not consider arguments on the substantive merits of the proposal.
This provision automatically creates a conflict of interest, or the perception of such a conflict. Invested with considerable executive authority by the Town Law, and the presiding officer of the town board, the supervisor is expected to lead in accord with his or her judgement regarding the best interests of the entire town. Even if the supervisor genuinely seeks to accept the village incorporation process’s constraints, an allegation of bias or “hidden agenda” is virtually inevitable if there is a negative outcome from his or her review of advocates’ petition.
Sometimes such an agenda is freely admitted. For example, using his authority to conducting this review, Paul Feiner, the supervisor of the town of Greenburgh in Westchester County, has twice blocked efforts on procedural grounds to create the village of Edgemont within its borders. Feiner’s decisions have been sustained in the courts as in accord with the requirements of current law. But his public comments have made it clear that he views the creation of a seventh village within Greenburgh as socially divisive, fiscally problematic and a step toward greater inefficiency in local governance. He said: “… I think …the advocates for a Village of Edgemont would fail big time if they ran a village. Everybody in Edgemont would be hurt.”
Meanwhile, those on the other side of the argument are hard pressed to understand why their views on the merits can’t be taken into account. After the required public hearings Supervisors Bill Rieber of the Town of Thompson and Kathy Rappaport of the Town of Fallsburg allowed the referendum to create the village of Ateres in Sullivan County to go forward. But in a joint press release the supervisors were critical of their limited discretion in this process. “…[T]though there were “…many well articulated objections…full of merit,” they said, “…no qualitative or quantitative analysis is even allowed in the process under current NYS Law.”
To address this issue the bill introduced by Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins (S7537 of 2023) would remove the town supervisor from the process and replace him or her with a three-person Village Incorporation Commission, a new state agency which through these statutory changes is given control over village creation. The commission, with members appointed to four-year renewable terms one each by the Attorney General, the Secretary of State and the State Comptroller, would decide by majority vote whether a referendum would be held. Movement of a key aspect of village creation from the local to the state level would alter more than a century and three quarters of established practice in New York.
Required Studies. Critics regard it as a major flaw in the current village creation process that those who live in the town or the “rest of the local area” outside the proposed village’s boundaries have no vote if a referendum is authorized. Indeed, they have no influence on the referendum vote on incorporation beyond the opportunity to provide testimony at a public hearing (much of which the Town Supervisor who receives it is likely obligated to ignore). Moreover there is no obligation for the presiding Supervisor or Supervisors to consider the overall costs, impacts or operations of local government in deciding whether a referendum will be authorized.
The Skoufis bill adds a requirement for completion of a study to be filed with the Secretary of State, and its results publicly posted for at least 90 days prior to any referendum vote creating a new village. Its focus must be upon the “…fiscal, service, and taxation interests of …[both]… the population which would constitute the residents of such village and the population which constituted the residents of such town in which such village would be established.” By enriching the information environment with credible evidence provided by a disinterested third party, and diminishing opacity, this provision likely empowers opponents of change.
The Stewart-Cousin’s bill goes even further. It requires the village incorporation referendum to be preceded not by one but by two studies paid for by village advocates:
The first is to be on “the proposed village’s ability to provide services to its population in an efficient manner and pay for these,” and the other on the fiscal and operational effects of creating the proposed village on “the surrounding town and the local area” including consideration of the impacts on fiscal, service, political, environmental and land-use matters.
Further reform. The commission is also mandated in the Stewart-Cousin’s bill to issue a report within two years that makes recommendations on additional changes that may be needed in the village incorporation process, with specific attention to such questions as further alteration of population requirements for a village’s creation, whether citizens of the town living outside the boundaries of the proposed village should be included in the petitioning process and the referendum vote itself and “other information and recommendations the village incorporation commission deems relevant.” The commission also may include in this report consideration of a population density criterion for village creation.
Closing the Door Permanently on Local Creation of Villages?
By the mid-20th century the burgeoning service demands on local governments led the Legislature to take the path it had long resisted, generally empowering towns (and sometimes counties) to perform a broad array of functions. This diminished the rationale for additional village creation. Villages no longer had a unique public policy purpose. Yet the process to create new villages remained in the Village Law, a hammer looking for a nail.
The possibility to create villages entirely by local action, without a requirement for state approval, and without any need to rationalize the desired action in accord with values or purposes specified in law, came to be used by local majorities to protect or advance private goals (e.g. tax limitation, religious homogeneity, exclusionary planning and zoning).
Provoked by the controversies arising from the persistent use of governmental power for private advantage, the legislation now before the governor seeks to constrain this practice. It would: make the creation of villages by local action more difficult; move a key role in village creation to the state from the local level; and lay the groundwork for further process changes that would likely make politically impossible the future establishment of new villages in New York.
These two bills were among the 372 of the 896 passed by the Legislature in 2023 but not yet acted upon by Governor Hochul. With little visibility or fanfare, she is situated with two signatures to move New York State down the path to fewer villages, a long-sought albeit modest change in a centuries-long practice of increasing the numbers of New York’s local governance without a clear, defensible public purpose: a good idea whose time has come.
Gerald Benjamin, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, served prior to his retirement in 2020 as Associate Vice President for Regional Engagement and Director of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at SUNY New Paltz. He has written numerous books and articles and commented extensively on state and local government and regional governance with a special emphasis on New York.