NARROWSURG, NY - Thomas J. Shepstone, a local planning consultant, recently shared his personal account and historical review on years leading up to the formation of the federal Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, which has designated this section of the river coursing between Pennsylvania and New York and New Jersey, for the last 41 years.

He was the invited speaker at the May 2nd meeting of the Upper Delaware Council (UDC). Shepstone is the principal of Shepstone Management Company, Inc.

He focused his perspectives on how the land and water use guidelines were formulated, which are part of the River Management Plan adopted by Congress for the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River.

Nat. Wild & Scenic River

Congress passed legislation in 1978, designating 73.4 miles of the Upper Delaware River as part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System. This called for development of the River Management Plan. The UDC was created in 1988 to oversee and implement the plan. Setting this River Management Plan apart is its commitment to local land use controls and voluntary actions by landowners to protect the resources of their private property, rather than federal ownership and control of land bordering the river.

Members of the UDC include local PA townships and NY towns fronting the Upper Delaware River that have chosen to participate, as well as the two states, and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which has non-voting status. The UDC partners with the National Park Service, through a long-term cooperative agreement.

Shepstone recalled efforts of local government in the early 1970’s, even before the Upper Delaware received it federal designation, to create basic land use guidelines along the river. He recalled the fierce opposition that arose when the federal government stepped in.

There were fears up and down the Upper Delaware River Corridor that a similar model would be employed that resulted a massive federal taking of private properties on the PA and NJ sides of the river. The purpose was to dam the Delaware River at Tock’s Island, which would have form a vast lake for hydroelectric power, flood mitigation and recreation. Although the dam project was abandoned, the 40+ mile corridor of federal land, along with the river segment, became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Ad hoc group came first

Shepstone, who is 68, first attended an Upper Delaware meeting in July of 1973. The meeting was at Reeber’s restaurant in Barryville. “That is when I first heard about the whole idea, of designating a Wild & Scenic River, and the subject of guidelines came up.”

He worked for the Penn State Extension Service at the time, and later became Wayne County Planner. During that time he worked with people concerned about the Wild & Scenic Rivers program. He reached out to people on the New York side as well.

The Upper Delaware had been on a list of rivers that the U.S. government was studying since 1968 to be classified under the Wild & Scenic Rivers program. “We wanted to be ahead of the game and take control of our own destiny,” he said. An informal, ad-hoc group of county planners was formed, called the Upper Delaware Clearing House. Other stakeholders were bought aboard.

By August 31,1976, they produced a set of guidelines, following a set of public meetings. Opinions varied, but he said generally, people were comfortable and saw the approach as realistic. It refers to zoning, although most townships/towns were not zoned at the time.

Most of those where were involved are dead, he reflected; some names he mentioned were Ed Curtis, Larue Elmore, Bob Landers Sr., and Frank Jones.

Among the guidelines they recommend were a 150 foot setback from the river, minimum lot sizes of two to five acres and sign regulations. He said their proposal may have been somewhat strict for the time, but most on the committee were heading in that direction.

“Official guidelines”

The Park Service came along in 1978 and started talking about “official guidelines.”
Shepstone was involved on a planning team made up of the affected counties and the Park Service. They worked hard on a set of what were to be general guidelines, which were adopted in 1981.

They also indicated that they would provide a basis for review of local plans, regulations and land use decisions, by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“That came back to haunt us,” Shepstone said.

How it differed

Guidelines listed land uses that were allowed and not allowed, broken down by scenic and recreational.

In addition, the committee created “settlement areas” which had its own list of allowable uses, such as commercial and industrial. A basic framework was set up to set standards by river segments, which was beyond what the prior ad hoc group developed informally. On other ways the guidelines were very similar.

The ad hoc group also had not addressed water uses, on the river, which the Park Service included.

“A lot of Park Service people came with the idea it was all about providing recreation, and a lot of the local people… had a deep concern that the river was being over-run,” he said. This referred to the canoeists, some who would stop and trespass over private property. There were a lot of issues like that which angered people, he said.

Furor over Park Service

Shepstone recalled the issue that erupted over the National Park Service.
“What happened was, the Park Service officials who were in charge here, said, ‘Ok, we got these guidelines in place, now we need to go out and tell the towns what to do,’” Shepstone said. “I was so angry at the time, because I knew where this was going to go. It was the wrong time, the wrong approach, it was just done inappropriately.”

The Park Service met with the towns and told them what was wrong and how the towns had to correct the problems. Neither was appreciated.

“The meetings were perceived as threats. In some cases they were a little bit that way,” Shepstone reflected. “It was just a very bad situation with respect to the Park Service, and their action with the community. Communities exploded with anger and suspicion. A lot of organized resistance.”

Community meetings popped up; one had as many as 800 people.
The National Park Service had begun operations here in 1980.

The Conference of Upper Delaware Townships - known as “COUP”-  was organized in 1981, which he said was very effective and well led by local citizens.

After two drafts of a river management plan were rejected by the public the National Park Service entered into a cooperative agreement COUP in 1984 to write a more acceptable version.

Shepstone assisted with the committee to revise the plan. They first met on April 16, 1984. On August 10, 1985, COUP presented a draft of a new approach.

They recommend alternative standards, and related them to goals and objectives, which is what is in place today. After Congressional review, the plan became effective on January 4, 1988.

That year the UDC was organized, succeeding COUP.
“When the locals took over the planning process, it became more flexible and offered different alternatives,” he said.

James Greier, UDC representative of the Town of Fremont, reflected that he was one of the people in 1978 who reacted adversely to the arrival of the Park Service. “I was one the guys- I kind of feel bad about it now- who went around putting up signs, ‘National Park Service get out.’”

Greier said he recently shared this with George J. Fluhr, who had a long time record of service on the UDC.  Greier related, “He said, ‘Don’t feel bad, because if it wasn’t for the resistance, the landowners, the property owners and all the residents… We wouldn’t be here today, and the Park Service would have taken over the whole valley.”

New uses not foreseen

The Park Service has since put out a document saying that an update of the guidelines would require the same exact process, he noted, subject to meetings and legal reviews.

Shepstone offered a comment for the UDC, noting that new land uses that were not anticipated in the mid-1980’s, need to be considered. Two of these are cell towers and solar farms.

He urged the UDC to not make an “amendment” to the guidelines, but rather a “supplement” addressing some of these specific uses and how an agreement would be found on handling those uses.

As a supplement, he said they would not have to go through the same level of process.

Bureaucracy

Aaron Robinson, UDC representative for Shohola Township, commented that although the River Management Plan is the benchmark, all the circumventing, interacting regulations cause the townships/towns and the UDC much frustration.

When the Plan was agreed upon, there was an expectation based on the current methods of bureaucracy. Robinson said that while the intention was pure, it is exhausting to work around the regulations the townships/towns and UDC have to work around, to realize the intent.

Shepstone agreed; he noted one big example is the different philosophies of governing between Pennsylvania and New York- such as land use permits and zoning laws.

Condemnation “not going to happen”

Shepstone reminded that the force of the land and water use guidelines in the Plan is not the threat of condemnation. “That’s what started it,” Shepstone said, “But in the real world, it’s not going to happen. For a hundred reasons, it’s not going to happen. I suppose it could happen in some rare circumstance, but in general, it’s not going to happen.”

The force of the guidelines, he said, is in the fact that people agree.

“That’s the force of the guidelines. It’s the common spirit, the cooperation,” he said. “That being the case, there’s nothing stopping you on agreeing on something, if you wanted to supplement. I wouldn’t change anything [by formally amending the present guidelines],” Shepstone advised.

95% remains privately owned

Approximately 95 percent of the land in the Upper Delaware Corridor is privately owned. The legislation limits the National Park Service to managing its facilities, enforcing laws pertaining to the river’s surface, and assisting local governments with resource protection. Acquisition of land by NPS, on a willing seller basis only, is specifically restricted to 124 acres out of the 55,575.5 acres in the river corridor.

As stated on the UDC’s website, the proposal to create an Upper Delaware Council as an alternative to federal management of the river corridor was the paramount recommendation of the River Management Plan. Its governmental members, numbering 19 if all agreed to participate, would use their existing authorities to cooperatively implement the Plan’s goals, aimed at protecting the river through ongoing reviews and recommendations pertaining to any relevant actions, developments, ordinances or laws in the corridor.

Some information on the history for this article, was taken from the UDC’s website, found at upperdelawarcouncil.org.