Battle for control stalls progress on Hudson walkway

Project's organizer runs into problems with government officials

August 14, 2002|By Kirk Johnson | Kirk Johnson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. - About a decade ago, Bill Sepe uncorked a doozy of an idea. The old Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge - an engineering marvel in 1888 but a delinquent eyesore ever since a spectacular fire closed it in 1974 - should be transformed, he said, into a pedestrian skyway over the Hudson River.

The old rail bed, wrapped in its Victorian-era lattice of steel, 200 feet above the water, would get a second life, he said, as strollers and bikers thrilled to the view and the history.

Central to the walkway plan was its seize-the-day enthusiasm. The bridge's owner in the early 1990s had not paid taxes for years, and that made it an abandoned structure, according to Sepe, then a self-employed handyman. Grabbing his tools, he began to lead volunteer crews out on the rail bed to see what could be salvaged. Local politicians and business leaders, envisioning hordes of weekenders with bulging wallets, cheered the effort on.

"He had that dream, and he infected people with it," said Robert Shepard, the town supervisor in Lloyd, on the bridge's western side. "I believed in it."

Today Sepe (rhymes with peppy) is still living the dream, but it is an increasingly lonely one. The old bridge sits silent and empty behind a chain-link fence, locked in legal limbo. Many of the volunteers have drifted away. Some local officials have begun worrying that pieces of rusting steel, unpainted for three decades, could flake off and fall into the river. Developers of a network of hiking trails being built on old rail lines were planning a link to the bridge, but they have plotted out an alternate route.

Sepe said he blamed narrow-minded politics for the impasse. Other people, including even some of his ardent admirers, said the problem was that the bridge's fortunes became bound up too much with Sepe's foibles. Although the dream is not dead, people on both sides of the river agree that what eventually happens will depend less on rusting rivets than on the temperament and tactics of the man who would be the walkway king.

`Bridge is his life'

"The bridge is his life," said Dick Coller, a retired electrical engineer who has worked closely with Sepe for years and once led tourists out on the bridge to the viewing platform that the volunteers helped build about 1,200 feet from the western side. "But he wants to do it his way."

Town officials in Lloyd are more blunt. "The man is an idiot," said David L. Butler, supervisor of the Building Department and its chief code enforcement officer.

He and other town officials say they have spent $30,000 in legal fees just for an unsuccessful effort to force Sepe's group, Walkway Over the Hudson, to comply with building and zoning regulations for the structures that were built within town boundaries.

"If anybody else was running that organization, there would have been people walking on that bridge three years ago," Butler said.

Sepe, now 54, said there was no doubt that the walkway consumed him and that he made some mistakes. Bridge affairs took over his home - filling up his living room, then his dining room and his garage with files, posters and donated office equipment. It cost him his handyman business, he said, because customers objected to his running off for meetings. He has since taken jobs serving legal papers, driving a bus and most recently operating a tractor at a gravel mine in Rhinebeck three days a week, all to accommodate his bridge duties. The project was bad for his health, he said, as he gained weight from the stress.

But he said he believed, whatever the cost and however sour things have turned out, that the original vision was right.

He insisted almost from the beginning, for example, that building the walkway would be a community affair - a self-financed, volunteer effort that would not take a dime of government money. The government, Sepe preached, always takes control of what it pays for; conversely, any community that creates something through sweat and dedication will value it more, he said.

That idealistic view got hundreds of people involved in the early days, but later it came to seem quixotic, some volunteers said, as the dimensions of the project became clearer. Sepe said he thought a walkway could be built for $2 million; some experts have said it could cost $30 million just to paint the bridge.

Sepe's freewheeling philosophy also ran afoul of local zoning laws after his group gained title to the bridge in the late 1990s.

Permanent injunction

He refused to post a $1,600 escrow payment for an engineering inspection, saying the bill was padded. Then, in the middle of the litigation, in 2000, a volunteer was seriously injured in an electrical accident while working on the bridge, and an angry state Supreme Court justice said he'd had enough. The judge slapped a permanent injunction on Walkway Over the Hudson, indefinitely barring any tours or repairs. Sepe appealed the injunction in May.

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