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Cry Them A River

On the Hudson in Columbia County, one of the most hallowed of American landscapes, a plan for a vast new cement plant -- with a skyscraping, 400-foot smokestack -- is igniting civil war between weekenders and locals.


The hardy, disease-resistant remnants of Edith Wharton's New York-Delanos,Livingstons, Elliotts -- together with a healthy infusion of newer though noless cultured blood gathered at Midwood, the philanthropist Joan K.Davidson's estate overlooking the Hudson River a hundred miles north of thecity, on a recent unimprovable spring afternoon.

But the conversation wasn't just about the excellence of the host, thecharming scruffiness of the landscape (copies of a September 2001 storyabout Midwood in Martha Stewart Living were available on porch tables), orsummer plans. The most animated discussion was reserved for -- of allincongruous and intolerable things -- a cement plant that a Swiss multinationalproposes to plop right in the middle of God's country a few miles north ofhere. The facility -- less a single factory than a massive industrial city, tohear Davidson's guests tell it -- threatens to spoil everyone's views, freshair, and weekend well-being.

As the Hudson flowed majestically to sea beneath them and Bill Cunningham,the Times society photographer, scurried about snapping pictures, the guestssnacked on shad and lemonade, and talked about the plant.

"Wouldn't it be terrible if this idyllic paradise were ruined by a Swissglobal polluter?" sighed Alexandra Anderson-Spivy, an art critic andanti-plant activist, as she pointed to the waters of the Hudson glimmeringin the afternoon sun below. "These are the scenes that Cole and Churchpainted. This is the birthplace of American art."

"We spent a lot of time on the chemical pollution of the river and made someprogress, and now we're about to rape the view," added Kirk Varnedoe, theformer chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art and just one of the manymembers of the city's cultural establishment fighting the plant. Othersinclude the artist William Wegman, Annie Leibovitz, Gourmet editor RuthReichl, and musician Patti Smith. "This would be an eyesore of the mostastonishing dimensions. And furthermore, what it would do to pollute the airis terrible."

The plant, with its 406-foot smokestack, has sparked something of a class warbetween the locals and the weekenders here in Columbia County, which overthe past decade has seen an infusion of moneyed Manhattanites in search of alower-keyed alternative to the Hamptons. Travel any road in the county andyou can see red STOP THE PLANT or blue SUPPORT THE PLANT signs on frontlawns.

"We had signs in front of our house that got taken down so often I just gaveup," says an opponent of the plant who asked that his name not be used. "Idon't want whoever did it to break my windows."

"It's really sad," says a local antiques dealer. "Every dilapidated house hasa blue sign in front of it. And every beautiful, well-maintained house has ared sign in front of it."

Most of Columbia County's elected officials are for the plant. Upstate can'tsurvive on bed-and-breakfasts alone, they say. And to hear St. LawrenceCement, the company that wants to build the plant, tell it, the factory willbe, if not quite a thing of beauty, at least built with great sensitivity toits hallowed surroundings. Not only will it be state-of-the-art andvirtually nonpolluting, they say, but it will be painted colors so discreetthat it will virtually vanish into the verdant landscape.

"We worked with some people who did camouflage work for the stealthaircraft," boasts Phillip Lochbrunner, the project's manager.

Indeed, the company's claims extend even further -- into the counterintuitive.They assert that the plant will actually make the air cleaner.

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