by Lynne Jackson
Save the Pine Bush came into being on February 6, 1978. It snowed that day. It snowed so much that the offices of the New York State government closed down and stayed closed the next day. This is the only time in the 20 years that I have lived in Albany that the State closed its offices due to the weather. I was able to ski to work in downtown Albany.
On that day, the Albany City Planning Board had scheduled a public hearing on four developments in the Pine Bush: the Dunes, Pinehurst, Pine Circle, and a development by Charles TouheyIt snowed that day. However, the City did not cancel its public hearing. Even though there was six inches of snow on one of the main roads, Washington Avenue, the City still held its hearing.
The developers and about 20 environmentalists showed up. Dick Patrick, the City Planner, presided. The developers spoke for one-and-one-half hours. Dick Patrick said, “The weather’s getting kind of bad out, so since the developers had 1 1/2 hours, you can have 1 1/2 hours.” A few people spoke in favor of preservation, and then Dick Patrick adjourned the hearing to meet the next day in a private bank board room (we were obviously not invited).
We were outraged. We started meeting in each others homes and at the library, talking about what we were going to do. The City of Albany was one of the oldest political machines in the country, second only to Mayor Daly’s Chicago political machine. Mayor Corning had a strangle-hold on the City; it seemed like an impossible battle.
Looking back on all of this now, I believe it was because of the rigid, immobile Albany Political Machine that caused Save the Pine Bush to be formed. If the City had been more reasonable, or even pretended to listen to what we had to say, perhaps we would have accepted some sort of compromise in those early days. But, we were on the outs and the City didn’t even need to give us the time of day. They would not even acknowledge that we existed, much less had an issue.
One fateful day, a few weeks later, about 30 of us gathered in the Community Room of the West Hill Improvement Corporation. Don Rittner, an early proponent of Pine Bush preservation and founder and Executive Director of the Pine Bush Historic Preservation Project, attended. Don had been involved in Pine Bush issues since 1973, when Mayor Corning gave him a grant to excavate some historic tavern sites in the Pine Bush. He wrote a book on the Pine Bush which was published in 1976. His was the only organization concerned with the Pine Bush at the time.
The group decided the only way to stop these developments was to sue the City over the approvals. We all looked at Don, and asked him if he would sue. He said no.
So, the rest of us formed Friends of the Pine Bush and found our first lawyer, the late Victor A. Lord. Victor Lord did great things for us though I only met him once or twice. This is my favorite story about him. Mr. Lord had been fighting the machine since before I was born. It was well know that the machine bought votes for $5. After one election, Mr. Lord went around with a petition mentioning to people that the cost for a vote had gone up to $10 and asking people if they had paid the full amount. Many, many people signed his petition stating that they only got paid $5 for their vote!
Victor Lord went to bat for us. Our first victory he won for us was standing in court. Standing is when the court says that an individual or group has the right to bring a suit. At the time, it was nearly unheard of for a group of citizens to sue over something that they could not benefit economically from. We would not suffer economically one way or the other if these developments were built or not. But, the court said we had standing.
The court said that the City’s approval of these developments was invalid and that the City had to hold another public hearing before they could make a decision on these developments.
The City held another public hearing in July of that year. No snow, but over 200 people showed up to speak against the developments. So many people attended that the City had to schedule another hearing so that everyone had a chance to speak.
It was not a big surprise to us when the City again approved the developments. I mean, why should they listen to the citizens who wanted to save this small ecosystem?
During this time, Friends of the Pine Bush decided to file incorporation papers, only to discover that someone had already registered the name “Friends of the Pine Bush” and that we couldn’t have it. I could not believe that someone would take our name, but in the end it was probably for the best. We had to come up with a better name. And we did. We incorporated as Save the Pine Bush. No beating around the bush, we weren’t just “Friends”, we were ready to fight!
Victor Lord was not able to continue to be our lawyer and led us to our next lawyer, Dennis Kaufman. The problem now facing us was that since the City actually held a legal public hearing, we did not know what grounds we would use to sue. In September of 1978, the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) was not yet in effect in New York State.SEQRA is that law that requires municipalities to review housing developments, office complexes and other developments for environmental impacts. So, there were no laws at the time that required a municipality to examine the envrionmental impact of a development.
As we re-read the law governing Planning Board approvals for the fifteenth time in Dennis’s office, we noticed that the Planning Board must require that a bond be posted by the developer to insure that the “improvements”, i.e., the streets and sewers (I just don’t think streets and sewers are improvements in the Pine Bush but that’s what they are called!), were completed.
Of course, if it was required by law, the Planning Board didn’t do it! They were incapable of doing anything legally!
So, sewers it was. We sued over sewers. People said Save the Pine Bush was crazy. What could we possibly win? So, the developer would have to put up a bond for the sewers. Big deal. Then they would build their houses. What would we gain?
Time. We felt that any development that was not built was good for the Pine Bush.
In the early spring of 1979, Dennis Kaufman told us that he was going to work for the State of New York Prisoner’s Legal Services and would no longer be able to be our lawyer. I was not looking forward to another lawyer search, but Mr. Kaufman mentioned that there was someone who worked at Prisoner’s Legal Services and was going into private practice and might be interested in working with us.
I met Lewis B. Oliver, Jr. one sunny afternoon with my maps in hand and a hopeful attitude. Lew Oliver was the best thing that ever happened to the Pine Bush. And Lew Oliver made a big mistake. He fell in love with the Pine Bush. Ever since that beautiful spring day when I first met him, he has been tirelessly fighting for the pitch pine trees and butterflies.
Since 1979, Lew has spent thousands of hours on court cases for Pine Bush preservation. He has filed case after case on behalf of Save the Pine Bush. The briefs he writes are really books, with carefully laid out arguments for preservation of the Pine Bush. They read like novels, only the law-breaking by government officials that Lew describes is real. Without Lew Oliver, there would be no Pine Bush left today.
There is really nothing quite like getting a call from Lew at midnight asking to meet, and then taking the five minute ride through the quite, dark streets from my house to his lower-Madison Avenue office for a brief meeting. I am usually greeted by an energetic Lew, eager to discuss strategy. After negotiating the open path between the piles of legal papers, to the one guest chair that is empty of briefs, Lew and I engage in an animated conversation, with Lew doing the majority of the talking. Then, I may read the newest brief or sign papers. Though exhausted from working on Save the Pine Bush business for endless hours, knowing that I must get up early for work, I always feel in those early morning hours that Save the Pine Bush is right, and that in the end, all of this work will be worth it.
Save the Pine Bush has been locked in a bitter struggle to save this small, fragile ecosystem for 18 years. And we will probably continue until there is no more land to argue over. This could easily take another 15 years. What impresses me that most is that this group of citizens who have no money and no power are able to fight and beat one of the oldest political machines in the country.