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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 14, 2010

Sow seeds now for smart growth later

Illustration by Forest Byrd

“More houses on the horizon” blared the headline last week on our front-page story — dateline: New Scotland.

The story described a typical suburban cul-de-sac proposal for a development called Creekside with 15 upscale homes, on 30 acres off of once-rural Miller Road. That part of New Scotland hasn’t been developed because water there is hard to come by; the developer is talking to the neighboring town of Bethlehem about getting water.

Fifteen new houses — no doubt spacious and impressive — by themselves are no cause for alarm. But there are three other housing developments in various stages of the planning process just a few miles away in the northeastern part of town.

And other landowners near Miller Road also have plans for development.

The village of Voorheesville, in the northern part of town, is also undergoing its own building boom.

Earlier this year, John Bossolini, a project executive at Amedore Homes, which plans 40 new houses abutting the golf course near Voorheesville, told us, “It’s a great school district. Taxes are reasonable. It’s an easy commute. New Scotland is so close to the city and the state campus.”

As we wrote then, any of these good things can be spoiled without sensible planning.

An easy commute can become a snarled nightmare if transportation isn’t considered.

Taxes go up as families move in with kids who go to school, and residents require other municipal services, too. The Voorheesville school district, like others across the state, is facing massive reductions in state and federal aid and, without a large commercial tax base, may well have to make painful cuts.

Residential development drains a tax base rather than adding to it. What most helps a tax base is farming — farmers require few municipal services while their farms cover large tracts of land.

Nearly a year ago, New Scotland voters gave their elected officials a mandate. They put in office a trio on the town board — Supervisor Thomas Dolin and councilmen Douglas LaGrange and Daniel Mackay — who said they would enact a size-cap law for commercial development. The town had been aroused by a proposal from Sphere to develop the old Bender melon farm, at the rural crossroads of routes 85 and 85A; the 179 acres of farmland was to become a 750,000 square-foot mall. Townspeople were galvanized. Led by a grassroots group, over 2,400 in a town of 9,000 signed a petition calling for a moratorium so that zoning laws could be examined and updated to follow the town’s 1994 comprehensive land-use plan. Sphere Development told us then that the current zoning had served as a beacon, attracting the company to the old Bender melon farm.

So far, no new zoning laws have been passed. We urge action on this, as the mandate was clear.

But, beyond that, the town needs to take a larger look at its landscape and its future. If water sources are developed, the town can no longer rely on the scarcity of this natural resource to keep the town rural — something the majority of its residents value. The Target-anchored mall that so many residents protested could soon seem like a natural part of the new suburban landscape.

New Scotland needs to plan and legislate for its future. It’s easy to say that a town should preserve rural character, but it takes effort and courage to survey citizens and develop laws that will do that. In many places across America, particularly in no-growth or low-growth areas like the Northeast, once-open spaces are filling with houses while nearby urban centers empty and decay. In other words, sprawl isn’t necessarily a result of growth; it can be contained. New York is a home-rule state, so each municipality can play a powerful role in shaping its own individual future.

The Open Space Institute released a report in 2005, which we’ve referred to over and over again, documenting sprawl in the Capital Region. Sprawl diminishes the quality of life, now and for future generations. Walkable clustered communities that preserve open space are better for both personal health and environmental well-being. Building houses on large lots does not preserve open space.

The Open Space Institute places the blame for sprawl on municipalities, chalking it up to poor planning. The institute notes that the state allows five planning methods for municipalities. One of the most important is a comprehensive land-use plan.

Six years ago, we took a close look at the 17 active farms that were left in New Scotland, covering about 2,400 acres. We profiled the farmers and took an in-depth look at the issues confronting them. A town can’t stay rural if it doesn’t have farms.

In the midst of the recent recession, there’s been a surge in the movement to buy produce locally. Since local produce is not shipped hundreds of miles, it saves on our carbon footprint, it can often cost less, it comes from people we know and trust, and it is fresher. New Scotland won’t have a chance to be part of this niche farm revival if most of its prime farmland is gobbled up by housing developments.

A viable master plan offers a vision of what a town would like to become and what it should preserve. The neighboring town of Guilderland, after years of stubbornly maintaining that its zoning codes constituted a master plan, made a good effort developing a plan in the early part of the decade. Over two years, involving many surveys, public hearings, and roundtable discussions, a plan was developed in which separate areas of town were considered individually and then incorporated into a whole plan. A committee is currently combing through the town’s codes to recommend needed updates.

The village of Altamont, too, was wise in recent years to survey its residents and create a master plan as village ordinances hadn’t been updated since the 1970s.

When so-called master plans first became popular more than a quarter of a century ago, many municipalities adopted cookie-cutter plans, churned out by consultants, that sat on shelves, collecting dust. The more recent plans developed in both Guilderland and Altamont were, instead, based on surveys of residents’ views. That’s what’s needed for a master plan to work well; then its tenets must be codified into law and regularly updated.

That is what New Scotland needs to do now.

The town has taken one positive step forward. Under the leadership of resident Katy O’Rourke, a $42,500 grant was secured from the Capital District Transportation Committee to study transportation and land use in the northeastern part of New Scotland. The town will pay $12,500 for a total study budget of $55,000.

A planner will be hired who, with input from the public — both residents and businesses — and from town boards and staff, will develop a master plan for the area and then help update the town’s zoning to reflect that plan.

Edie Abrams, another New Scotland resident who, like O’Rourke, has long been active in town planning issues, recently wrote us about the need to preserve the historic Le Vie barn, threatened by a proposed development in the northeastern part of town. We agree it should be saved, and have written here many times about the need to preserve our old barns.

Barns were necessary structures to house animals and crops, back when most Americans were farmers, but they also became symbols of community spirit as people pitched in to raise them. The massive LaVie barn, roofed with 60 tons of slate, was raised by 160 men; it was considered to be the largest structure in Albany County when it was built over a century ago.

Once barns fall or are torn down, that link with the past is forever lost. Unlike the pre-fab buildings that now blanket our landscape, our remaining old barns distinguish us. They have become landmarks, proud reminders of our history.

As important as it is to retain such an icon, it is even more important to retain the open space, the farmland that creates the town’s beauty and defines its identity.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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