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
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
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
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
Its true. You can fight City Hall-and Win!!!!