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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 17, 2011

Public to have its say on Berne’s blueprint for a vibrant rural future

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — A town’s comprehensive land-use plan serves as a guide for its growth towards the shared vision of its residents.

Berne’s comprehensive plan, first written in 1992, has been re-tooled in recent years by a comprehensive planning committee, which began meeting in August of 2008 to carefully examine the plan and debate over which aspects needed to be modified, and what key points were missing.

“We did compromise, and that’s how you get through anything like this,” said James Cooke, who chaired the committee, though he joined a few months into the process. “I’m appreciative of the committee members I worked with. They volunteered their time, and they came in on these cold winter nights to do their part, and I think that’s commendable.”

Cooke served on the committee that developed the original master plan nearly 20 years ago, though he was not the chairman at that time.

Now, the revision process is complete, and the town board will hold two public hearings on the plan, the first on Thursday, Feb. 24, and the second on Monday, March 21. Each hearing will be an opportunity for residents to speak their minds on the proposed revisions, ask questions, and offer suggestions; the hearings will not necessarily differ in terms of what topics are discussed.

Following the Feb. 24 hearing, there will be a two-week period during which residents can submit their comments on the plan at Town Hall, and those comments will be considered before the final adoption of the revised plan.

The plan lists seven core goals:

— 1. Preserve and enhance Berne’s community character and small town rural quality;

— 2. Conserve and maintain the town’s open spaces and natural resources;

— 3. Maintain farmlands and promote agricultural activities;

— 4. Provide for community infrastructure and transportation facilities and services, and the systems to support them;

— 5. Provide for affordable housing opportunities;

— 6. Protect Berne’s historical resources and provide for cultural and recreational opportunities for all ages; and

— 7. Encourage job growth through the establishment of new small and agri-businesses that are consistent with the community-character, environmental, and other goals.

Nan Stolzenburg, founder of Community Planning and Environmental Associates, was hired by the town as a consultant to help facilitate and develop the comprehensive plan. Next week’s public hearing will begin with a presentation by Stolzenburg on what the comp plan is and how it was developed, and will provide a brief explanation of its components.

“The plan is the purpose and the rationale for the land-use regulations that a community has,” Stolzenburg said Wednesday, “so there’s consistency between what you’re trying to accomplish, which is what’s laid out in the plan, and how you’re going to get there, which is laid out in the regulations of the town.”

Speaking generally, Stolzenburg provided for The Enterprise some examples of how and when a comprehensive land-use plan might be used.

“Whenever there’s a decision that the town board makes, they can refer to the plan to see whether that decision brings them closer to meeting the goals and vision established in the plan,” she began. “It’s used when any kind of grant writing or funding is sought, to explain why they need funding and to show that planning has been done to support that.”

She went on, “It’s used by the planning board because it’s the planning board’s responsibility to ensure that the things they approve are consistent with the comprehensive plan, so they should be looking at the maps, and the vision, and the goals and strategies to give them the direction behind their decisions. It’s used by government agencies when there’s a capital project like a road or a bridge; it’s used to make sure those plans are consistent with the community’s plans.”

Goals and objectives

The 120-page plan is available at Town Hall, and online at www.BerneNY.org/ComprehensivePlan/ComprehensivePlan.htm; also available on the website are maps of town roads and property boundaries; topography; slopes; water features; property class; farmland; agriculture; resources; and zoning.

What is key in the plan is how its seven goals interconnect, Cooke said.

“Agriculture, the third goal, is certainly interrelated to the second goal of keeping the open spaces and the natural habitat for our wildlife and on and on,” said Cooke. “Certainly, the rural character of Berne depends on the farms’ continuing to exist.”

Each goal is broken down into a series of objectives, and each objective is followed by a list of actions that will move the town towards achieving each objective, and eventually accomplishing each goal.

For example: The first goal, preserving and enhancing Berne’s community character, lists its first objective as developing and supporting community activities and citizen participation, which will be accomplished by establishing a community-activities committee; providing financial and other support to this committee and similar organizations; and recognizing volunteers that aid in the process.

Immediately following these actions is the second objective: encouraging development in the areas of town where natural resources and elements of Berne’s rural character are less vulnerable to damage.

This, according to the draft plan, can be accomplished by: Incorporating the conservation subdivision technique into land-use regulations, which would encourage or even require that all subdivisions of over four lots be designed to preserve 50 percent of the parcel as open space; and by providing incentive zoning, which “offers a housing lot bonus above the level allowed in the zoning if the landowner offers an amenity in return to the town.”

“Every action in all seven goals is interrelated,” said Cooke. “Once any particular action is acted upon, it serves to benefit and implement other actions under other goals.”

Cooke expressed a particular interest in the seventh goal, encouraging job growth through establishing new small businesses and agricultural businesses; an important part of that, Cooke said, is deciding what kinds of businesses people want in Berne.

“The public input showed that large industry and large-scale businesses were opposed, not small-scale industry or commercial businesses,” said Cooke. “I think that we’re no longer the town that sustained itself with farming 60 or 70 years ago. Farming has changed. The world has changed. But Berne has a lot of great natural resources it can use, and the younger farmers are creative and coming up with ideas and trying to implement them.”

One resource, Cooke went on, is Berne’s water supply.

“It’s a clean water supply, and if we don’t protect that from unplanned development — certainly, that’s an extremely important factor in the plan,” said Cooke. “Preventing contamination can be controversial, because it costs people money…Then you go to housing, Goal 5; certainly that has a lot to do with water, sewage, maintaining the rural character, and open spaces.”

Cooke went on to say that he is a strong supporter of improving Internet access in town; the issue of Internet access is addressed in both goals 3 and 4.

“To have a successful business nowadays — or successful anything — you need a good hardwire connection to the Internet,” said Cooke. “Achieving that action would go a long way towards achieving other objectives, because now you have good communications…Implementing that will be difficult because you have to go to government structures above you.”

Stolzenburg concurred that identifying and analyzing the town’s resources was a “major thrust” in the planning process.

“When you have a goal to promote farming and farming activities, the planning activity you can go through is to say, ‘Where are our farmlands? What kinds of farming are taking place? And are there particular areas that are more important to our farming base than others?’” she said. “The process the committee went through was to define farmlands and try and identify which areas in the town form the critical mass of farmland; it’s the critical farmlands we need to maintain farming as a viable activity. So, the committee defined what would be an important piece of land for farming, and created a map that identifies critical pieces of farmland.”

The entire plan, including the farmland maps, as well as the committee’s meeting minutes, are available for review, and the coming weeks will determine how the town will grow from here.

“I think the plan naturally creates order, and I think that is important because it’s a realistic thing what we’re talking about,” Cooke said. “We’re talking about growth in Berne — it’s going to happen. What kind of growth do Berne citizens want to see happen? It will be something that occurs over a longer period of time, and this is really a starting point, but it’s an orderly starting point. And it provides the Berne citizens and government with the guidance necessary to orchestrate an orderly growth.”

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