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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 28, 2009

Zoning can be changed to promote agriculture

New Scotland has a golden opportunity to plan for its future. Lost in all the rhetoric as citizens for more than a year have battled over the fate of the Bender melon farm is this: Residents care; they are energized.

When Sphere Development planned a 750,000-square-foot retail mall — since cut in half — anchored by a Target, 2,400 residents of the town’s 9,000 signed a petition, calling for a moratorium so that zoning could be adopted to align with the town’s comprehensive land-use plan, adopted in 1994.

The focus has become narrowed to slogans that dot yards in town — “No Big Box” or “Size Cap.”

With Albany County’s planning board last week turning down the controversial Local Law B because it would not have regulated the density of commercial development, now is the time to step back and take a wider look at the town and its future.

The 1994 plan declares that outside of the hamlets, New Scotland is rural. “The greatest use of these rural lands is for agriculture,” says the plan.

About 43 percent of New Scotland’s land is zoned for housing and related uses, the master plan says, and is located largely in hamlets or along existing roads, as opposed to being part of large subdivisions.

“New Scotland is still an essentially rural community,” says the 1994 plan. “While long lost in many Capital District suburbs, the traditional development pattern, where buildings are clustered in hamlet areas and outer areas remain open is still dominant in New Scotland. This development pattern gives the town an historic context.”

The old is new again. A current trend in development is to build walkable communities, where amenities like stores and churches, banks and libraries are built near dwellings.

When the Residents Planning Advisory Committee, appointed by the town board in 2003, surveyed residents and businesses in New Scotland, it found the preferred uses, if the Route 85 and 85A Corridor were to be developed, would be — in order of preference — eateries, professional offices, and banks and personal services.

Overall in town, 85 percent of the survey respondents said that encouraging working farm operations is either very important or important, and 92 percent said that preserving open space was either very important or important.

The best way to preserve open space — thereby satisfying the vast majority of the town’s residents — is to have working farms.

As we pointed out in March 2008, soon after we broke the story on Sphere Development, New York is a home-rule state so each town can play a powerful role in shaping its own individual future. “Municipalities can do more to protect agriculture than, at some times, the commissioner of agriculture — even the governor — because the legislature has given to local towns the authority to develop comprehensive plans and develop land-use regulations,” said John Brennan of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Those who are pushing for development for relief from taxes will be gratified to know that working farms meet that end better than anything else. According to a cost of Community Services Studies conducted by the American Farmland Trust over the last several years, comparing the cost in services used by residential development, commercial and industrial development, and working an open land, “In every community studied, farmland has generated a fiscal surplus to help offset the shortfall created by residential demand for public services.”

Research reported on earlier this month by Saranac Hale Spencer shows that, while the number of farms overall are declining nationwide — just as they have in New Scotland — near cities, in peri-urban areas, there has been a steady increase in niche farming. It’s not just what comes out of the ground that contributes to the economy, but the food industry as a whole.

A recent study, “Population Change and Rural Society,” edited by William A. Kandel with the United States Department of Agriculture, and by David L. Brown, at Cornell University, describes the “rural/urban fringe” in metropolitan areas in the half century after World War II. “These tracts are becoming increasingly contested spaces given conflicting pressures for urban development and environmental preservation,” says the study. In this context farmland preservation has become an important issue. For the environmental community, it is often a tool for preserving open space, habitat for wildlife, and functioning ecosystems…Residents of the area see farmland and some forms of farm production as an amenity and as an asset in preserving property values.”

The study goes on, “With the spread of non-farm residences across the countryside, land use has become more diversified, and farmland and related habitats have become fragmented. By the 1970s, rapidly expanding urban areas, especially on the east and west coasts, were encroaching on agriculture and raising concerns about the negative environmental impacts of continued low-density development — what is sometimes referred to as sprawl.”

Interestingly, the dispersal of residences across the countryside has often occurred in areas without population growth. Metropolitan areas expanded spatially to include extensive rural territories as people commuted to work across greater distances, creating a more varied and complex “rural/urban fringe” landscape — often described as “leap frog” development, the study says. There is no smooth or consistent pattern as houses are often built on large lots and isolated from other dwellings, “creating a fragmented landscape peppered with residences.”

New Scotland has largely escaped this fate, as development has been clustered in the village and hamlet areas. We can envision zoning for the town that would develop these historical centers further while still leaving farmland on the outskirts.

Zoning in New Scotland was first adopted in 1961, an era that spawned sprawl as two-car families began regularly driving rather than walking to reach amenities. The roughly 400 acres that lie at the crossroads of routes 85 and 85A had a few businesses back in 1961; “That’s where the commercial activity was,” said the town’s longtime building inspector, Paul Cantlin. A handful of businesses are still located there but why does that mean there should be more?

“You look at the land,” said Robert Stapf, who has chaired the planning board for years. “The land dictates what it can be used for.” Some land isn’t necessarily suited for agriculture, said Stapf. “There are other, higher and better, uses for it.”

When we look at the land where Bender melons were once grown, and which is still farmed, we see this dictate: rich farmland. Why should a regionally drawing shopping mall be seen as a higher and better use?

Farms and related businesses provide jobs — typically more enduring than mall jobs — reduce tax burden, and preserve open space. The Kandal and Brown study concludes that policies should be designed to help farmers take advantage of multiple-earning opportunities, most abundant near cities. Products and services that cater to urban populations provide a new niche market. Buying locally grown food not only saves on gas and helps the environment, but also helps the local economy.

“Population growth bears both opportunities and constraints for agriculture,” concludes the USDA and Cornell study, “However, with careful local planning, population growth can be channeled in ways that buffer farmland and create additional economic opportunities….”

New Scotland is the right place at the right time to make this work. Harness the energy and insights of an aroused citizenry to create a plan that encourages desired development near hamlets — there are several large tracts near water or potential water — and keep the essence of the town’s historic beauty and economy.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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