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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 3, 2009

Blind faith won’t preserve our heritage or our environment

Illustration by Forest Byrd

If the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, the divine may be in the long view.

Right now, a committee in Guilderland is doing the painstaking work of updating the town’s zoning code, written more than 20 years ago. The goals of the committee, as outlined by its chairman, Bruce Sherwin, are to update the code based on changes made over time; to streamline the permit process to be more user friendly; and, most importantly to align the code with the overall vision of the town outlined in its comprehensive plan.

“Drafting the comprehensive plan was a lot of backbreaking work with lots of community involvement,” said Sherwin. “It provided an overall vision of the town that must not, cannot change.”

We commend Guilderland, and the committee members in particular, for undertaking this work.  Updating zoning codes is essential for practical as well as philosophical reasons. The efforts that citizens and planners as well as town officials put into drafting a comprehensive plan must be realized through the law. That is the only way concepts take form in real time and space.

Last month, Sherwin told our Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden, that environmental issues are one of the “big picture” items the committee hopes to examine.

The big picture is essential and we urge the committee to follow through with the vision. The committee recently listened to concerns having to do with zoning for wind turbines and solar panels, which are important for a sustainable future, but environmental concerns go further.

Last month, we wrote about a housing development to which members of Save the Pine Bush objected. The watchdog group is largely responsible for the formation of the Pine Bush Preserve as we know it today. The ecologically rare pine barrens used to be considered mere wasteland.

Founding member Lynne Jackson says the land off East Lydius Street, which is considered part of the pine barrens ecosystem, should not be bulldozed to make way for 46 houses. We commend Save the Pine Bush members for their tireless efforts. At the same time, though, we can’t fault the developer of Woodsfield Estates, which followed the zoning process the town has established.  The Guilderland Planning Board gave the project final approval in May 2008 after nearly six years of consideration.

The Pine Bush Preserve Commission, which oversees the publicly-owned preserve, wanted to buy the land where Woodsfield Estates will be built; its appraisal was lower than what the owner would accept.

Stephen Feeney, who chairs the town’s planning board, said that, as a compromise, the property owners will develop only 26 of the 106 acres, and donate the remaining 80 acres to the town.

“We felt that was striking a good balance,” said Feeney. “Instead of paying an exorbitant cost for the 106 acres, 80 acres are being preserved for free.” The town will dedicate those acres to the Pine Bush Commission for management.

Jackson argues that the donated land, with steep ravines, is not developable anyway, and she says houses will be built on land that was a natural habitat for federally protected species like the Karner blue butterfly.

We believe the time is right for the zoning review committee to look at more stringent regulations for the 1,600 privately owned acres in Guilderland that are part of the pine barrens ecosystem but not managed by the Pine Bush Commission.

Like Feeney, Christopher Hawver, the executive director of the Pine Bush Commission, used the word “balance.” He said, “Although we’d like to see this property protected in full, the owner has property rights. So now we have to balance the two issues.”

What hangs in the balance, though, is the protection of endangered species. The Karner blue butterfly is emblematic of the dilemma. Hundreds of thousands of them used to flutter their wings each year in the Capital Region. Now their numbers have diminished to just a few hundred, which may not be enough to sustain a community.

The count for Karner blue butterflies in the Albany Pine Bush is now below 3,000, the number the Federal Recovery Plan of 2005 says is the cut-off for a sustainable population.

Decades of development encroaching on the butterflies’ habitat reduced the numbers from millions in the 1940s, to 65,000 in 1980, and to barely 1,000 early in this decade.

When Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859, our Earth had fewer than a billion people. Darwin wrote of species that were interconnected with each other in ways we still don’t fully understand.

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,” he wrote, “clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

People now number over six-and-a-half billion, and countless species have gone extinct. In the 21st Century alone, we have already lost the Baiji dolphin, which once swam in the Yangtze river in China; the West African black rhino; Spix’s macaw that brightened the jungles of Brazil; the black-faced honeycreeper and the Kama’o thrush of Hawaii; the Pyrenean ibex; and the golden toad of Costa Rica.

Here in Guilderland, we have the chance to make a difference with at least one endangered species. There are other benefits, too, to preserving the pine barrens. Open space is attractive and doesn’t drain taxpayers like residential development does with its need for schools and services. The preserve also provides recreational space, which is good for the local economy as well as the soul.

The committee needs to look at the big picture for the sake of our future. Another part of that long look should be Janus-faced, gazing both forward and back, to preserve what is left of our physical history in Guilderland. Unfortunately, because so much has been torn down in the name of progress, the list would be a short one.

The town was wise, as part of its master-planning process, to set up forums in different parts of Guilderland so that citizens could participate, with planners, in deciding what they value — what they want to preserve and what they want to change. Hamlet dwellers have said they want to preserve a sense of community.

In the 1970s, when the late Arthur Gregg was town historian, he worked with many residents to put their old buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Altamont has over three dozen buildings in its historic district, between Thacher Drive and the old train station. The charm of the village is ensured by the preservation of its past.

It is harder, of course, to preserve buildings when a major thoroughfare like Route 20 — once hailed as the Great Western Turnpike — runs through the center of a hamlet. Still, there are many examples of communities across the country that have sensitively and successfully adapted old buildings to new uses. From Manchester, Vt. to Seattle, Wash., communities beckon visitors, helping the local economy to thrive, when old structures are preserved.

We’ve written this week about two 19th-Century buildings — a general store and a Federal house — that stood on Route 20 next to Willow Street and were recently demolished. They were bought by the neighboring Guilderland Fire District and razed so the land can be used for future expansion of the fire department.

As with Woodsfield Estates, we have no complaints about the fire department. It was perfectly within its rights, according to current town regulations.

We didn’t even know about the demolition until after it was done because the town has no mechanism for informing citizens or reviewing projects that involve tearing down old buildings.

We urge the zoning review committee to look at developing a list of historic buildings in town that would trigger a review process if they were to be destroyed. Very little is left of what is referred to as the hamlet of Guilderland. Each time an old building is torn down, we lose a piece of our past.

Arthur Gregg researched and wrote about the history of local places on the pages of our newspaper. He wrote at length about the Glass House on the Hungerkill as the 1700s glass factory in the hamlet of Guilderland was called.

“The story of the Glass House reads like fiction,” Gregg wrote.

He quotes from the poem “Helderbergia,” written by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft who lived in the hamlet: “Place once renowned for furnaces that threw/Their rolling volumes to the amber skies,/Where reeking glassmen their bright fabrics blew/’Neath roofs that shamed the piny hills for size.”

Those roofs are now gone, and the poetry, too.

We’ve written over the years of several historic buildings in need of preservation. On this page, we spoke out for saving another old building in the Guilderland hamlet — the Schoolcraft House; it was to be sold out of town and a parking lot put in its place. The town took on the project of restoring the Gothic mansion and one day soon it will be a beautifully restored credit to the community.

Not all the pine bush land that should be preserved can be bought; neither can all the historic buildings be purchased and preserved by the town. But, as we’ve urged here for years, the town could develop a master plan for historic preservation.

Guilderland’s historian, Alice Begley, made a fine suggestion to the developers of a $100 million project to be built on Route 20. She suggested the name Glass Works Village so at least our local heritage will survive in a name. The concept for the development is an old one, too — combining residences with stores in a walkable community.

Ironically, the concept, which will be reviewed at a public hearing Dec. 9, is much like the buildings that were torn down. Ward’s general store sold all manner of goods while housing its owners in the same building.

Old buildings — even if we have only a nodding acquaintance with them as we drive by on our modern highways — remind us where we came from and who we are. They distinguish our community from all the others. They give us a living link with history.

We’re fond of quoting Marcus Tullius Cicero: “History,” he wrote, “is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tidings of antiquity.”

Do we want to deprive future generations of that?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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