By Grace Bennett
And then one day, my kids both flew the coop, and I joined the ranks of the “Empty Nest.”
But here I am, going on 19 years of residency in my hometown of Chappaqua–just like a full 55 percent of the community who reside here without children in the School District. One long-time friend returned to the excitement and convenience of the city; saying goodbye was painful for me! Another conversely wishes to slow down, perhaps, and is exploring a warmer climate in a community where taxes are more manageable. Others have opted to stay; still others are on the fence.
Like many of my peers who continue to pay New Castle taxes, we are often asked and sometimes even ask ourselves: Why do we stay? Why should we stay? What incentive and resources does New Castle offer its empty nest and more senior resident community?
So it was with great personal interest that I thought I’d explore any available answers to these questions by attending and covering one of a recent series of “Roundtable Discussions,” hosted by Town Hall this summer at The Chappaqua Library. This one was called: “How to Keep Empty Nesters in the Community.”
Over the course of an animated 90-minute discussion and exchange of ideas, the nine member panel, led by Town Supervisor Robert Greenstein, addressed different questions ranging from whether a tax reduction for residency here beyond the school years is possible to the cultural and educational resources that provide the incentive to stay in the first place. “Our goal is to help make people whose kids are not in school here still feel like they are an important part of our community,” noted Greenstein, early in the forum. And later: “We want people to be happy to stay here past the 12 to 13 year plan.”
“We are more than just great schools and we have lots to offer residents at every stage of their lives. We must have services and activities for residents of all ages: multi-generational living enriches our community.”
“We are competing with 55 and over communities that offer many activities. We need to offer those same activities. Let’s face it: We pay a lot in taxes. That’s the price of world class schools. But, we also need to offer world class community activities. Our empty nesters should have calendars full of arts and cultural events and recreational activities right here in our community.”
To that end, Greenstein told panel attendees that the Wallace Auditorium at Chappaqua Crossing could be the venue for more Chappaqua Orchestra, theater and dance programs. A new Culture and Arts committee is forming to address the best use of that new town resource.
“55% of residents don’t have school age children,” stated panelist Jeffrey Mester, board member of the Chappaqua Central School District; Mester is recently divorced and a soon to be empty nester himself. “I have 18, 19 and 20 year olds,” he noted. The big draw to being here for Mester? “They (the kids) come back!” he noted wryly. And then, more seriously: “It’s truly my ties to the community. It’s not about the higher or lower taxes.”
Still, Greenstein offered: “I feel strongly that if you are going to stay here and continue to pay the taxes, then we need to provide activities that make it worth it.
One member of the audience asked Mester that the School District retain residents’ email addresses for correspondence after the kids leave too and not automatically end correspondence. “The school depends on everyone’s taxes to support it,” noted Chappaqua resident Judith McGrath. “The schools need to take additional responsibility to be more proactive.”
Mester agreed that is a good idea and also encouraged those attending to contact the District Clerk for information on how to stay involved with the schools. “Participation with seniors is great,” he said, “such as through a pen pal program with fourth graders or simply coming in to discuss your experiences.” One audience member also noted that continuing educational offerings had become predictable and inquired why a language studies teacher at the high school, for example, couldn’t offer a course. Mester noted that action would require allocating funds to pay teachers (who are in contract) to also offer more vibrant continuing education.
One common theme that emerged during the evening: It’s impossible to pigeon hole empty nesters…their means and their expectations for the town can vary, considerably.
For example, not all empty nesters wish to downsize; some will even upsize, as long time Chappaqua residents Bonnie and Gerry Golub did to make their home an inviting place for their children and grandchildren to come visit and stay over. Panelist Bonnie Golub, a real estate agent with William Raveis, is a proponent of a gradual lowering of the tax base to make staying for many residents across the board more attractive too.
The question of taxation is for Albany, maintained Greenstein. “They give us a chance to provide certain exemptions as a local option: senior star exemptions, veterans, volunteer fire fighters, ambulance, etc. We take advantage of every tax exemption they offer to us,” he said. “As far as town charges for things like refuse, we can give discounts to seniors and we do. But, we cannot just give a tax reduction: this is Albany’s decision.”
A tax break notwithstanding, Golub also suggested that the school district actively encourage its students to provide voluntary community service to area seniors. Twenty hours of community service by young people to our seniors before graduation would be a wonderful way to give back, she noted.
Panelist and town Social Worker Carolyn Merkin reminded the audience of multiple efforts in New Castle to ease the burden for our seniors including home delivered meals programs and the volunteers who drive seniors every day whether to and from shopping and doctor appointments or offer to help at home for tasks ranging from help paying bills to arranging for at home care services.
One panelist, Steve Biren, who downsized to a home in Riverwoods, said the amenities of the sought after complex and his own active involvement there keeps him happy. He said that despite the attraction of a place for example, like Naples, Florida, for seniors, he stays here, because “it’s a cohesive community. That is a plus.”
Pamela Thornton, director of the Chappaqua Library, and Cassie Ward, director of the New Castle Historical Society (NCHS), were on hand too to summarize the plethora of activities and packed calendars each of these local institutions have available for everyone from toddlers to empty nesters and seniors. (Many in attendance agreed that integrated activities, i.e. those involving many age groups, were highly desirable.) Hundreds of volunteer opportunities are available not only at the Library and the NCHS but at churches and synagogues and not for profits around town; Ward also said that a central database of all events and programming around town would be extremely helpful.
Ronni Diamondstein, a resident of the Chestnut Oak Ridge condominiums in Chappaqua, joined the panel to represent New Castle residents who have never had children in the schools here (nor necessarily plan to). She said she lives here because Chappaqua “is a beautiful town” and that her location at the end of North Greeley Avenue makes walking to the train, going shopping locally and getting involved in a variety of community organizations easy to do. She also mentioned a group (and programming) for empty nesters at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester.
As for me, I’m totally psyched to hear if the new culture/arts committee might bring more adult programming to Chappaqua. I have found condo living (at Old Farm Lake, New Castle’s largest condo community) an absolutely reasonable option for single me with grown kids, and know how fortunate I am given the limits in downsize options. In general, I find the area teeming with work and creative opportunities and possibilities that with just a little more free time, I look forward to exploring more thoroughly. So, for now, and into the foreseeable future, New Castle, without question, remains my beloved home.
Greenstein acknowledges the shortage of homes to downsize to. “Many residents love their homes and their routines. They enjoy their lifestyle, cherish their friends and ties to the community. They have no desire to leave the community. However, it would be nice if we were able to offer them options to downsize in the community. This is an area where we can do a better job.”
The town-initiated Roundtable Discussions, which began with a forum on “What Prospective Home Buyers are Looking for” will continue through the fall–first with a September 10th panel addressing “Volunteer Opportunities for Young Adults.” An October panel will address: “Enhancing our Business Districts.”
Grace Bennett is Publisher and Editor of The Inside Press: Inside Chappaqua and Inside Armonk Magazines, and most recently produced a guide for the Town called Inside my New Castle:
Welcome to our Neighborhood.