Friday, November 18, 2005

Rationality-Hunting

IMMINENT Today (11/18) from noon, and tomorrow. Sneak Preview of GreeneLand’s newest store: “Dream…home furnishings,” featuring Balinese-crafted teak and mahogany imports, at 388 Main St, Catskill. Tomorrow (11/19), from 7 am. Opening of firearm deer-hunting season (and bears become fair game on Monday). Information: www.dec.state.ny.us. Tomorrow, from 4 pm.: Opening of “All Through the House,” exhibit of holiday crafts by regional artisans, at Catskill Mountain Foundation gallery. Hunter Village. Monday, from 6:30 pm. Public hearing on proposed Greene County budget. In County Courthouse, Main & Bridge Sts, Catskill.

EMINENT. Coxsackie’s Robert Porter, elevated (with sword, epaulettes, chevrons, medals, boots) to rank of Most Eminent Grand Commander, Knights Templar, State of New York.

AT ISSUE: PRUDENT POLICY-MAKING

If an ace defense attorney presents a woefully weak case for his client, an observer could infer plausibly that the client is guilty. Right? And if a profit-seeking company mounts a lavish advertising campaign on behalf of its product, but makes no definite factual claim indicating that the product is better than its rivals, a prudent respondent would infer plausibly that the product is not superior. Right? But what if the weak argumentation comes from an unsophisticated, poorly qualified advocate? That question leads to the case of Coxsackie’s most vocal opponent of That “trailer park.” He is Joseph Zanchelli. And with foes like him, we are tempted to say, the project should not need any friends. The target of Mr Zanchelli’s ire is a scheme to put manufactured homes on a 185-acre site (the former Schoenborn farm) that lies partly in the Town of Coxsackie and partly in the Village. As contemplated by the would-be developer—Sam Landy, president of United Mobile Homes Inc. of Freehold NJ—this gated community would ultimately contain 280 homes (“double wides”) occupying 100 acres of the site. Accordingly, each home would occupy about one third of an acre. Other parts of the development would contain infrastructure (roads, landscaping, sewers, electricity) as well a community center, a swimming pool, walking trails and other amenities. The dwellings would have interiors of about 2100 square feet, plus attached garages. Buyers would pay around $145,000 for an installed home and would additionally be charged lot rentals of $450 a month (for utilities and for use of [water, sewer and garbage service plus maintenance of] common facilities). They would be liable for property taxes on their dwellings (around $325 per month at current rates). The developer, as owner of the land and its improvements in a gated community, also would be liable for property tax.

Residence in the project would be limited to persons who are 55 years of age or older. (In strict legal terms, that rule means that 9 out of 10 residents must be seniors).

That restriction marks a change from what originally was proposed. Back in June, when he announced acquisition of the land (for $1.7 million), Mr Landy envisioned an all-ages community. He immediately encountered serious local opposition. Some of that opposition consisted of forebodings about a slum full of riff-raff. Some of it consisted of apprehensions about strains on local infrastructure—especially in the capacity of the schools to absorb a big influx of children. Amid doubts and uncertainties about costs and benefits, the Village and Town boards adopted one-year moratoriums on evaluating large-scale (i.e., more than five building lots) subdivision proposals. In response to the local opposition, Mr Landy retained as consultant (or liaison, or lobbyist) the former mayor of Coxsackie, Henry Rausch. Mr Rausch proposed the change in demographic composition. Mr Landy concurred.

Mr Zanchelli was not mollified. He maintained his active campaign of opposition. He collected signatures on petitions opposing the proposed “trailer park.” He. testified at Village Board meetings. He wrote letters to the Press. In the course of those activities he built a manifestly feeble case. Its main points (as recorded in the news media) rare these:

(i) Because “trailers…depreciate over time,” tax payments by project dwellers would gradually go down.

Here we have an example of jumping from a half-sound premiss to a hasty implausible conclusion. Trailers (or manufactured homes) do indeed “depreciate” over time, both in the sense that if they were listed as taxable assets, their imputed value would decline each year, and in the sense that they deteriorate physically. But so do new brick McMansions and the house of Zanchelli. It does not follow, however, that the appraised value of a conventional modular home would decline, along with tax payments. Residential properties generally have appreciated time market value, in appraised value, and hence in property tax costs. Has a contrary pattern marked gated retirement communities composed of manufactured homes? Has it marked old-fashioned, sleazy trailer parks? Mr Z does not address those questions.

(ii) The Over-55 Rule would not last. “When they begin losing money from lack of viable tenants they will quickly move to go after working families,” and then we’ll get “crowded schools and over-taxed municipal services.”

This line of argument suggests indirectly that having a gated retiree-populated community would be better for Coxsackie than having an all-ages community. It affirms directly that the less desirable type of community would eventuate.

To take the latter claim seriously, we need to believe that the developer would want to discard the Over-55 restriction and, furthermore, could readily do so. On behalf of his hunch about the developer’s interest, Mr Z claims that the costs of living in the contemplated project would, for most seniors, be prohibitive. But that claim is tenuous at best (and, incidentally, makes the project appear to be an up-scale development). The over-55 segment is a growing portion of the whole population. Prices of the contemplated UMH homes are not out of line with alternate retirement communities that are composed of “trailers.” Many prospective residents would be seniors who are down-sizing: selling larger homes, long since paid for, at prices far above initial acquisition cost. They would be well endowed with capital.

In any event, once the Over-55 commitment is made, it becomes difficult indeed to break. It gets written on sales contracts with buyers; if the commitment is broken, incumbent residents can seek a court injunction stopping the violation. They can sue the developer for breach of contract. Moreover, the obligation can be reinforced by local authority. The trustees of the host-Village can adopt a zoning ordinance providing that homes in the project occupied only by persons who are over 55 years old (perhaps with a few exceptions for grandchildren).

In short, Mr Z fails to establish either that the promoters of project would want to drop the Over-55 Rule or that they could do so at will.

(iii) Old people use more water than young people (so the cost of supplying water to the UMH project would be disproportionally high).

This claim is not substantiated by Mr Z, let alone given a numerical value. It is far from self-evident. In any event, even if it were true, the volume of water consumed by inhabitants of a hundred-unit Over-55 suburb would be lower than the volume consumed by inhabitants of a hundred unit All Ages project. The population would be bigger. The homes would contain families, not just couples.

(vi) Seniors would get tax breaks; other taxpayers would be obliged to make up the difference.

Some residents of this over-55 community would be over 65. Some of the latter would be eligible for property tax breaks by way of the STAR program. “That is a heck of a lot of cash flying out of other taxpayer’s pockets.” To “make up for all of this lost tax revenue” the “rest of the community” would experience an “increased tax bill.” Balderdash. Mr Z evidently wants to equate discounts on tax payments with actual treasury losses or with increases in taxes levied on other payers. Some of those seniors would indeed pay less in property taxes than other people whose property is equal in value. They would still be paying taxes. Whether the taxes they pay would cover the costs involved in serving them remains to be seen. Mr Z does not address that question.

(vii) Parasitic project. The UMH development would be “a festering financial drain on each and every resident of Coxsackie and ultimately Greene County.”

Strong words. If they are true, then surely the UMH project ought to be rejected. They are served up by Mr Z in the guise of a culmination. But in relation to his other claims (carefully identified here; nothing left out), they exemplify non sequitur.

So what?

Cooly rational but lazy Coxsackieans might well draw from Mr Zanchelli’s vacuous fulminations that the UMH project would be good for them. The short-hand reasoning here is that since the leading opponent’s arguments are manifestly weak, then his case must be weak; so the project must be OK. That inferential leap, however, could be dangerous. Maybe the advocate intended to sabotage his ‘client.’ Maybe his ineptitude as an advocate obscures what otherwise would be seen as a good case.

Less rational but equally lazy Coxsackians could cleave to the opposite conclusion. They would focus on the advocate--his character, his motives—at the expense of his advocacy. Thus, a respected old-timer opposes the UMH project, has expended personal resources in the cause of opposition, and does not seem to be actuated by a Special Interest. His sincerity offers assurance of cogency. Never mind the terms, the relevance of the cited evidence, the soundness of the reasoning—of his rhetoric.

As for rational and diligent Coxsackieans, they would take due note of Mr Z’s daffy fulminations, would credit him with raising some good questions, and then would frame an appropriate inquiry, along two main lines.

(1) monetary cost-benefit analysis. Make plausible estimates of what property tax revenues would flow to local coffers (Village, school district, maybe also town) from the developers (=owners of land and improvements) and the residents, if the project were approved as proposed. Calculate also what would be the added costs, to local authorities, of providing services to the prospective development’s inhabitants. If the latter sum is less than the former, then the project represents a net financial gain to the present inhabitants of Coxsackie. It can facilitate a reduction in local property tax rates or an addition of tax-financed services. And to it would be added gains for the county (in sales tax revenues) and for local businesses (from sales to the newcomers).

(2) non-monetary cost-benefit analysis. Would the UMH project disfigure the land? What other kind of development eventually would come to the site if the UMH project is rejected? Finally, would the new neighbors be likable people?

[The text above is a slightly edited revision of what was posted 11/18, when Mr Z's name was spelled inconsistently and the UMH project was said to contemplate "single wides" as well as "double wides"].

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a coolly rational and only somewhat lazy Coxsackian, I have several other concerns about UMH.

1) UMH tried to present themselves as white knights coming to provide affordable housing for the workers in Coxsackie's new (high-tech?) factories. But what they really sell is 'Rent-a-Center' housing. Part of Mr. Zanchelli's point is valid; unlike in a subdivided housing development, UMH's buyers will be 'renting' the land their trailer sits on, and will not build equity the way a homeowner does. UMH, far from providing affordable housing, is selling a very undesirable investment.

2) Hand in hand with this is the fact that a leased land development will be assessed for far less than a traditional housing development. While I agree that a detailed analysis of costs and benefits needs to be done, it is rather obvious that tax revenues will be lower, while cost of services will be the same as for single owner homes. And, frankly, none of your ad hominum attacks address this simple fact. Labeling a critic as ‘daffy’ does not refute the validity of his argument.

3) As to the over 55 concept, it is difficult to reconcile this plan with UMH’s original claims that the development was needed to provide housing for the factory workers. If this development becomes a retirement community, won’t the factory workers of our so-called high tech parks still need housing? Either they will still need new housing (where?), or the housing already exists, in which case UMH’s original rationale is wrong (which would indicate that they do not know their business and market – a difficult conclusion to reach, given their success). And where will the senior residents come from? Your points about the increasing numbers of over 55’s, and the existence of similar retirement communities omits the caveat that the vast majority of these developments are in the South. Do older people really want to live in a trailer park in the Northeast, with the responsibility to shovel snow and take care of a piece of rented property? If they wish to stay in the area, why not keep their current homes? If they wish to downsize, how many seniors will make such a poor investment as a UMH rented home? And, if the senior demand does not materialize, as seems reasonable, do we seriously expect UMH to write off the whole project and walk away? Or is it more logical to assume they will abandon the over 55 concept?

4) Finally, I find it troubling that UMH’s land consultant is also being employed by Greene County Planning to help develop the master economic development plan. Considering that the Planning Department works hand-in-hand with the IDA, whose factories will supply UMH’s buyer base, doesn’t this seem a bit of a conflict of interest? Aren’t there any other land use experts the County could employ, ones without a client looking to develop a large project tied directly to IDA developments?

You have raised some valid points in your blog. A detailed study of costs and benefits needs to be done. An analysis of the relative assessments on a 'rental land' development versus a traditional development should be prepared. But it is disturbing that so much of your blog is devoted to personal attacks on Mr. Zanchelli. You do, at least, concede that he seems to have no special interest connections to motivate his campaign. I wonder if the same is true of you.

Sam Landy said...

As President of United Mobile Homes Inc. I am of course biased, but I believe my response is valid.

1.Manufactured homes in land lease communities are in fact owned by the home owner. In many new communities the homes appreciate in value after the sale. This appreciation belongs to the owner. Further on a financed home the owner builds equity with each monthly payment.
Conventional homes are capable of going down in value, it just has not happened in the last thirteen years. Buyers of conventional homes lost money from 1987 until about 1993. The more expensive house you bought the more you lost. If you bought a manufactured home in a community you may not have lost any money at all in terms of change in valuation, and further each month you made your monthly payment you built equity.

2. As the owner of the community we maintain the roads, water, sewer,electric, curbs, sidewalks and other amenities. That means we do those things with our money not the Villages. Our residents are taxed just like home owners on the full value of the house, and we are taxed on the full value of the land and improvements. We pay the tax on both the home and the land so the Village has a much easier job collecting the tax payment then in a subdivision. You get one check instead of 280.
3. People 55 and older continue to work and then can fill jobs. Federal law is clear, once you build a community as a 55 and older community it has to stay that way unless all of the residents and the municipality wanted it changed.
4. Our engineers have no say in the decision making process of wether or not our project will be approved or disapproved.
We can provide the business's of Coxsackie with a quality labor force living locally in houses they can afford. We can provide the Village of Coxsackie with revenue to pay for improvements to the water and sewer systems as well as for operating costs.
I know what a trailer park is and while I personally have nothing against them and believe they provide affordable housing to people who need that housing, that is not what we are proposing for Coxsackie. What we propose is a land lease housing community which will have no single wide homes. All homes will be at least 1680 sq.ft. plus garages of 44 sqft. These houses will sell for over $100,000. Some of the houses will be over 2000 sq ft. and sell for over $150,000. Manufactured housing reduces the cost of housing, not the quality of housing. Our company is in the business of creating and managing communities. We are paid a commission on the resale of homes that are listed for sale with us. The better the community the higher the resale price, the higher our commission and profit.
We believe once our model is up the residents of Coxsackie will be please with what we propose.
Sam Landy

Sam Landy said...

As President of United Mobile Homes Inc. I am of course biased, but I believe my response is valid.

1.Manufactured homes in land lease communities are in fact owned by the home owner. In many new communities the homes appreciate in value after the sale. This appreciation belongs to the owner. Further on a financed home the owner builds equity with each monthly payment.
Conventional homes are capable of going down in value, it just has not happened in the last thirteen years. Buyers of conventional homes lost money from 1987 until about 1993. The more expensive house you bought the more you lost. If you bought a manufactured home in a community you may not have lost any money at all in terms of change in valuation, and further each month you made your monthly payment you built equity.

2. As the owner of the community we maintain the roads, water, sewer,electric, curbs, sidewalks and other amenities. That means we do those things with our money not the Villages. Our residents are taxed just like home owners on the full value of the house, and we are taxed on the full value of the land and improvements. We pay the tax on both the home and the land so the Village has a much easier job collecting the tax payment then in a subdivision. You get one check instead of 280.
3. People 55 and older continue to work and then can fill jobs. Federal law is clear, once you build a community as a 55 and older community it has to stay that way unless all of the residents and the municipality wanted it changed.
4. Our engineers have no say in the decision making process of wether or not our project will be approved or disapproved.
We can provide the business's of Coxsackie with a quality labor force living locally in houses they can afford. We can provide the Village of Coxsackie with revenue to pay for improvements to the water and sewer systems as well as for operating costs.
I know what a trailer park is and while I personally have nothing against them and believe they provide affordable housing to people who need that housing, that is not what we are proposing for Coxsackie. What we propose is a land lease housing community which will have no single wide homes. All homes will be at least 1680 sq.ft. plus garages of 44 sqft. These houses will sell for over $100,000. Some of the houses will be over 2000 sq ft. and sell for over $150,000. Manufactured housing reduces the cost of housing, not the quality of housing. Our company is in the business of creating and managing communities. We are paid a commission on the resale of homes that are listed for sale with us. The better the community the higher the resale price, the higher our commission and profit.
We believe once our model is up the residents of Coxsackie will be please with what we propose.
Sam Landy

Joseph Zanchelli said...

Dear Mr. May, (If that is indeed your real name)

In responding to your recent “article” about me on this web site, I find that the easy and tempting thing for me to do would be to take your bait and to personally attack you the way that you did me. Or, I could call you some rather immature names, also what you chose to do. (Daffy? Really? I would hope that you could do better than that). Still, it should comfort you to know that I have no intention of doing so. First of all it would lower me to your level, and I never go slumming. Secondly, the way that you present your “argument” says more about you than it does me. Just what is your real agenda? I shouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t really a UMH employee, or a wanna be employee, after all.

In any case, I would add that if you really have such strong issues with me, most men or ladies would simply attended at least one of the public village or town board meetings and reveal their issues there. Or they might even write a rebuttal to one of my many letters to the editors of the local papers? But in your case it appears that you may just feel more anonymous and safe sitting in cyberspace where it doesn’t really take even an ounce of courage to attack others directly. Some would call you a coward, but I don’t know you and so I cannot judge you in this regard. Maybe you just have something to hide. I find it curious that one could follow my writings for so long, disagree with them so fervently, and then do nothing to really address them other than to ramble on an little known web site.

Then again, who can really say? Perhaps you were simply asked by someone to slight me or attempt to make me appear to have my facts all mixed up and thus distract people’s attention from the real issues of UMH’s proposed development. Whichever. (Funny how Mr. Landy just happens to find a small and insignificant web site so that he can sing UMH’s praises. Kind of makes me wonder about a few things. At least I had the benefit of being told about it by a friend, otherwise I would have never known.

I would like to add however, that although I defend your right to disagree with my opinions and views, I find it exceedingly disappointing that you can’t seem to do it in a more rational manner. Lesson one; people tune you out when you can’t make a lucid or respectable argument. Maybe you should try harder.

Be that as it may, I stand by my opinions against the proposed UMH development, and
your seemingly poor grasp of the real issues at hand cannot negate the facts that I have presented. I regret if people who think independently and who dare to publicly express their opinions bothers you but quite frankly, that’s too bad.

But yes, you are of course free to live in ignorant bliss and continue to twist and distort what I have said in the past about the proposed UMH development. For instance, I never said, “seniors use more water than young people.” Rather, I said that they would place an additional demand on the water/sewer system. As you may already be aware, we have many issues with our water/sewer systems. And I assume that even we two can agree that seniors also take showers, wash cars, do laundry, go to the bathroom, and so on.

Further, please don’t suggest that these manufactured trailers/”homes” which sit on rented slabs are as good of a value as traditional homes are because you and I both know that they are not. Thus, they are very poor investments and tend to generate far fewer taxes while the occupants of these dwellings still place burdens on municipal services. Of course, I could go on taking apart your “counter argument” like a clock, but then I would be here all day.

But before I go, I would like to say that what I noticed the most about your recent tantrum is not so much what you had to say, inaccurate as it was, but rather what you left out.

For instance, you neglected to seriously mention, let alone address the issues of increased demand on Coxsackie’s infrastructure, medical and other emergency 911 services, or the increased traffic on our local roads. Nor do you even hint at the dilapidated trailer park that UMH maintains in Clifton Park. Oh that’s right, it’s not the type of development that UMH wants to place in Coxsackie. Still, the current condition of D & R Village Trailer park does seem to speak volumes about how well some of UMH’s developments are, or in this case, are not maintained. Should Coxsackie overlook this truth and simply hope for the best? I think not. And please, oh please spare me the argument that they are “working with residents” to fix the trailer park up.

And what about the hundreds of signatures on the petition that I collected from people who are also opposed to UMH’s development? Surely you must believe that I lied or deceived each single person into signing. Or perhaps you think that I have magical powers and that I cast a wicked spell on each of them in an effort to gain their support. In my opinion, either explanation would be far easier to believe than would be the fairytale that UMH will be great for our community. What matters to most companies is the bottom line. It is not necessarily the welfare of a given community.


The facts are irrefutable and I have confidence that your somewhat comical attack on me will not distract or sway my fellow “lazy Coxsackians” from the real issues, nor will it be enough to white wash the negative and indelible stain that a UMH would leave on our fair village/town. I’m fighting the proposed UMH development because I sincerely believe in my cause and I know right from wrong. I have no ulterior motives other than the fact that I love my community and want to protect it. Trust me, we will prevail. But tell me truly Mr. May, can you say the same about your motives?

Anonymous said...

Be glad you don't have MR. Potato head in your town.

Anonymous said...

To Joe Z-

It's not that Dick May has any ulterior motives. He's just an old, rich, retired Catksill resident with nothing better to do than analyze the news and write a shoddy blog. He consistently derides the local newspapers, but uses information he gathers from the local media and publishes it on his blog without credit. He doesn't always cite his sources, and he makes more spelling mistakes and butchers more names than the Daily Mail, Freeman and Press combined even though he doesn't have a deadline. I've seen Mr. May use the newspapers to his advantage, and I've never seen him compliment any of their work. He's obviously just a bitter old man who needs to find a new hobby.

Anonymous said...

Mr. May,

There are two types of people in this world. People who stand up to be counted and make a difference, and people like you who have nothing better to do than to criticize and to put them down for their efforts. You seem to be little more than a bitter old fool who needs grow up.

Hey, it isn't our fault that you aren't good enough to be a real reporter, and it isn't our fault that you wouldn't know a real news story if it jumped up and bit you in the ass. If you can't say something even remotely intelligent just shut up. Haven't you already embarrassed yourself enough?

Anonymous said...

Hey , I couldn't agree with your post (Rationality-Hunting) more. Keep up the good work. mule deer hunting

Anonymous said...

My May, the original Mr. Potato Head. Get a real job!

Anonymous said...

Mr. May, the original Mr. Potato Head and his paranoid friends. Go figure.