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Editorial Archives The Altamont Enterprise, May 15, 2008
Citizens: Keep on pushing stalled planning
Illustration by Forest Byrd
A crowd of more than 800 gave the New Scotland Town Board a standing ovation last week after it unanimously passed a six-month moratorium on commercial building. Citizens had carried the day. A grassroots group, New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development, had formed after the Sphere Group announced its plans to develop the old Bender melon farm, at the rural heart of New Scotland; the 179 acres of long-fallow farmland was to become a 750,000-square-foot mall.
The grassroots group worked hard, rallying residents, and collecting 2,200 signatures on a petition calling for a moratorium. Their idea is to align the town’s zoning law with its comprehensive land-use plan.
We commend the citizen activists among us. In nearby Rensselaerville, citizens formed a group after the town board ignored the 20-acre zoning in the agricultural district, called for in the newly adopted master plan; the board zoned for five acres instead. The citizens took the matter to court and won. Last week, a state Supreme Court judge nullified the new zoning law because, in adopting it, the town board had violated the Open Meetings Law.
But it’s too soon to celebrate in New Scotland. There is much work to be done and only half a year to do it.
When representatives of the Sphere Group came to our newspaper last week, they said that a parcel of land that large, zoned as it was, served as a beacon to developers. They wondered at the furor when the property had been zoned commercial for so long.
We cited the thought that the shadow of the gallows focuses the mind.
“You need to be sure, when you walk away from the guillotine, you don’t go by the firing squad,” responded John D’Alessandro, from Zone 5, Sphere’s public affairs consultant for the project.
He was making the point that the Sphere Group would work with the community, but that zoning restrictions for example, with a 30,000-square-foot limit could result in a solid landscape of nondescript, unattractive structures.
The Sphere Group didn’t want the moratorium because it will cause a problematic delay. But the town board was right to enact a moratorium because the town, not a developer, needs to control New Scotland’s future. What happens in the next six months will be critical.
We wrote in this space on March 6, after we broke the story on the Sphere Group mall, that New Scotland, as a town, needs to plan and legislate for its future. You can’t legislate taste, but you can legislate placement, density, and architecture.
The fabric of a community changes as it is developed. This is happening all across America. New York is a home-rule state, so each town can play a powerful role in shaping its own individual future.
Several years ago, the Open Space Institute released a report documenting sprawl in the Capital Region that diminishes the quality of life, not just for us, but for future generations as well. The Open Space Institute places the blame for sprawl on municipalities, chalking it up to poor planning. New Scotland last went through the master-planning process in 1994, but many of the plan’s tenets were not codified into law and pressure for development has intensified since then.
Letter-writers who have filled our opinion pages in recent weeks have, again and again, cited the portion of the master plan that says commercial uses should be limited to those necessary to service local needs this excludes a center that would be a regional draw. Letter-writers also pointed out advantages of locally-owned stores over chain stores. Many wrote of the importance of preserving rural character, with several stating they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to do so.
We wrote early this week that we hoped the board would appoint a committee that included hard-working and perceptive citizens like Edie Abrams and Daniel Mackay who served on John Egan’s Residents’ Planning Advisory Committee five years ago. That committee focused on the very corridor in question, where the town’s two major thoroughfares routes 85 and 85A intersect. The group gathered information from a wide variety of experts and documents and, most importantly, surveyed New Scotland residents, through mailed forms and over 40 community meetings. We hoped zoning and planning board members committed to drafting new zoning would apply. And, if the diplomatic John Egan would reprise his role as head of the committee, we wrote, it would have a chance of accomplishing such a Herculean task in the six-month time frame. After all, Egan was responsible for bringing in the Albany airport expansion on time and under budget.
We were disappointed last night to learn the town board named a five-member committee without ever allowing applications, and one of the appointees had voted with the majority of the planning board against the moratorium. Such a closed process does not bode well. We hope the five members Chair Roz Robinson, and members John T. Biscone, J. Michael Naughton, Cynthia Eliot, and Liz Kormos will stay attuned to the community’s wishes.
We urge the New Scotlanders 4 Sound Economic Development to keep up their efforts in moving the process forward. We’ve written here for years about the need to make zoning changes. Now, with the citizens roused, elected officials should be poised to act.
We know what 2,200 residents don’t want. But what do they and the rest of residents want?
Saying the town should preserve rural character is easy. Defining laws that will do that is hard. What should commercial development look like in New Scotland? It’s a question all residents should ponder as the committee works towards a consensus that will shape a vibrant and satisfying future for the town.
We can avoid both the gallows and the firing squad if we are focused and courageous in these next six months. What needs to be executed is the zoning law.
Melissa Hale Spencer, editor