Green tide sweeps into New Paltz, N.Y.

Young progressives in this college town want village to buy wind energy and build wetlands marsh for sewage.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The chain-link fence to the sewage plant is locked. But that is no great impediment to Jason West, Julia Walsh, and Rebecca Rotzler, all of whom are young and lithe enough to slide under the gate for an unofficial exploration and whiff of a greenhouse where sewage sludge is dried.

In another two weeks they will get an official tour because they've just won an upset election to run this bucolic Hudson Valley village. And, as members of the Green/Innovation Party, they have big plans that entail everything from ending the shipment of the sludge to buying energy produced by windmill farms.

It might be a perfect Hollywood movie: a 26-year-old house painter (Mr. West, the mayor-elect), a 23-year-old student (Ms. Walsh, a trustee), and a 39-year-old Eskimo (Ms. Rotzler, a trustee) have shaken the political establishment by winning election and taking control in this quaint community. Call it "The Greening of New Paltz."

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Yet the story here - home to a State University of New York - has also been played out in other college towns, where offbeat political parties often resonate. Madison, Wis., where the University of Wisconsin is located, has been electing young candidates for the past decade. Voters from Humboldt State in Arcata, Calif., have been electing Green council members for some time. And the First Ward in Providence, R.I., recently elected 26-year-old Green councilman David Segal, who represents Brown University.

"The party has had a disproportionate success in races with younger candidates in younger districts, which would include college towns," says Madison, Wis.-based Ben Manski, co-chair of the national Green Party.

An appeal to young voters

The nonestablishment parties often have a message that appeals to young voters. That's the case with Mr. West and the two trustees. In New Paltz, as in many college towns, an increasing number of students are opting to stay put after school. But housing is expensive - and affordable housing is one of the issues that West ran on.

"They had a well-focused message," says Joel Lefkowitz, an associate professor at the university.

They also knew how to get out the vote on campus. A website detailed their platform and environmental concerns. On election day, folk singers crooned and shuttles took students to the polls.

"They played the student card against us. We weren't expecting that," says Tom Nyquist, mayor for the past 16 years.

It didn't hurt that the four-term mayor was running against his own deputy mayor. Also, village tradition dictated that the two incumbents couldn't use traditional political parties, such as Democrat, to define themselves, while West was allowed to use the Green Party since it had lost ballot status after it failed to win at least 50,000 votes in the state's 2002 elections.

"We split the community vote between us," says Mr. Nyquist.

Amid yoga and tie-dye, a tax hike

The community, settled by Huegenots in the 17th century, was already pretty liberal. The town board voted to oppose the Patriot Act, decrying it as an attack on constitutional rights. And, earlier this month, it dedicated a park to Sojourner Truth, the former slave who once lived in New Paltz and used to visit the Walkill River for solace.

To many visitors, the community looks and feels much like Berkeley, Calif., which has often been politically out of the mainstream.

There are three bike shops for 6,000 residents. Stores sell used furniture and secondhand clothing. Residents can take yoga lessons, visit art galleries, and eat organic food. Tie-dyed shirts are sold at a store called the Groovy Blueberry. Those reminiscing about the 1960s can drive 40 minutes to get to Woodstock, which became emblematic of an entire generation.

But it's also a community that is suffering from the economic slowdown and higher expenses. This year, the town board had to raise taxes 8 percent, reflecting higher insurance costs and pension expenses. In addition, it is planning to spend $2 million to improve the water system.

"There is not any flexibility for new initiatives unless you cut out other items from your budget," says Nyquist.

The community's problems are not exactly new to West. He and his two running mates have been attending town meetings - usually to voice opposition to some proposed development. "If we walk into a meeting, people know we are not just going to sit there and listen - none of us sit back," says Ms. Rotzler.

A 'moral obligation'

But, at some point, West recalls, they realized they needed to start suggesting alternatives. The final catalyst was in April at the start of the war in Iraq, which they all opposed. "We felt we had a moral obligation," he says. They quickly rounded up petition signatures to get on the ballot. Then, West won the election by 64 votes.

Will any of their ideas work? Incumbent Mayor Nyquist says the incoming threesome "are people of goodwill, but they don't have a clue." But Lefkowitz, who had West and Rotzler as students, says skeptics should beware. Both were serious and good students. "If you have a chance to talk to Jason, he'll probably win you over, if you have even a little bit of an open mind."

One of his challenges will involve the sewage plant, which now exports nearly 200 tons of sewage sludge at $270 a ton to landfills in western New York. But, he says, those landfills are filling up. "The costs will be going up as we ship farther and farther away," he says.

To solve this potential problem, he intends to look into building a series of reed beds that will naturally filter the sewage. "It could save money down the road for taxpayers," he says as he walks about the sewage plant. "It's our responsibility to take care of it now."

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