In the hamlet of Accord, there is anything but

Conflicting cultures breed unusual level of hostility in Hudson Valley

March 05, 2000|By Katherine E. Finkelstein | Katherine E. Finkelstein,New York Times News Service

ACCORD, N.Y. -- Accord should be a place of peace.

Just 90 miles from New York City, this hamlet in the Hudson Valley, encircled by fruit orchards and flinty mountains, is home to two groups: plain-spoken farmers and truckers who scrape by on camaraderie and shrinking incomes, and Manhattan weekenders, who bought low-cost land from the 1970s on and restored dilapidated farmhouses into retreats.

This marriage of opposites has worked well throughout southern Ulster County, now a booming weekend destination where celebrities like Robert De Niro have built homes and where three-star restaurants have opened alongside package and hunting stores.

But in Accord, the conflicting cultures have bred a remarkable, and even bizarre, level of hostility: lawsuits have been filed; old-timers and newcomers have sworn off talking to each other, except perhaps to say something nasty; and accusations of harassment and corruption prompted both the FBI and the state attorney general to briefly open, and then close, an inquiry.

88-square-mile battleground

The battleground is 88 square miles of beauty within the town of Rochester, population just under 6,000.

The standoff began in 1992 over a speedway that reopened near the homes of newcomers, who have been fighting it ever since. The rancor has gone on to encompass various zoning laws -- dictating who can or cannot build what where -- cries of trespassing, and most recently, an uproar over a truck shed. And in a measure of the extreme level of unease, the town has instituted a set of rules governing public meetings: no booing or hand-clapping.

Yet the issues, to hear the combatants tell it, have come to transcend property and zoning regulations. The longtime residents, some of whose families settled here in the 1600s, say they are fighting to preserve their informality and freedom, and, above all, their livelihood. The weekenders, some of whom have lived here year-round for two decades, say they want to get equal treatment as taxpayers and residents, and to safeguard the small-town qualities that first drew them to Accord.

"Here I come to what I think is this nice, idyllic place," said Iris Lewis, 42, a Manhattan designer, weeping one recent morning in her stone home on 60 acres. Since then, she said, her life has turned into a nightmare.

Quarrel over zoning

Angered by a neighbor's truck shed, large enough for an 18-wheeler, she formed a group and sued the town last year, accusing it of selectively enforcing, and even changing, zoning laws to benefit longtime residents.

After that, cars began to trespass menacingly, idling on her property for long periods, despite the video camera and "Keep Out" signs on her driveway. Death threats appeared in her mailbox, Lewis said, including a cartoon last winter of stick figures crying and waving goodbye. "Every year that I'm here," she said, "it gets bigger and it gets uglier."

Down the road, longtime residents say that Lewis and her wealthy friends are trying to remake Accord in their own image.

"Basically, this town is just farmers and truck drivers, and there's nothing we can do about it," said Lori Schneider, 24, who lives in a trailer with her husband, a truck driver. The Schneiders were drawn into the fray after Lewis' group, Citizens Against Illegal Zoning, challenged their plan to build a truck garage in their back yard.

Gerald Meade Dewitt, a dairy farmer whose family has been here since 1648, said that the newcomers do not understand rural life. It "isn't peace and quiet," he said. It is big trucks, rumbling farm equipment and compromise born of poverty in a town where people scrape by to make a living. The equivalent, he said, would be like "us going down into the city and saying, 'We don't like taxicabs anymore.' "

From the late 1970s on, newcomers like Lewis bought land and created a tousled retreat unlike the Hamptons. Today, they own one-third of Rochester's 3,000 residential parcels. And as the town's former code enforcement officer, Michael Redmond, pointed out recently: "I keep constantly hearing about the people who don't live here. But everybody lives here. We're all us."

The problems began in 1992, when a speedway that had been closed for five years roared back to life after town officials swiftly approved a special-use permit for an upstate farmer.

The newcomers demanded that the town study the environmental impact before letting the man reopen the track. But at a heated public meeting, officials contended that a town law limiting speedway noise to 79 decibels was protection enough. The newcomers were outraged, predicting a blow to their property values. The cars raced on summer weekends, bringing traffic and noise to their doorsteps. So they organized.

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