While a new open space program has been formed in the Town of Bethlehem, some residents felt no more could be achieved than what had already been discussed in prior community groups.
Formation of the new open space program was approved Wednesday, Feb. 12, by the town board. The main objective is to establish a citizen advisory group, which would work to evaluate lands the town may want to preserve for open space.
“The goal is to identify criteria that can help the Board in making decisions on open space preservation in the event that properties and willing land owners come forward to preserve their land or look for the opportunity for the town to purchase land or development rights,” said town Planning Director Rob Leslie.
The subject of open space has been a major issue in the town for more than a decade as officials and residents work to make sure there is a balance between new development and land preservation. A number of former citizens groups have discussed the topic, such as the Citizens Advisory Committee on Conservation and the more recent Comprehensive Plan Assessment Committee.
Leslie said the new program was meant to create the criteria, which would recommend the preservation of land, establish a capital reserve fund for the purchase of land and work on education and outreach. Once land was obtained, it would also be the group’s mission to decide what would be the best way to preserve the land, through zoning or a land trust.
Supervisor John Clarkson said the issue was being taken up again because residents have repeatedly indicated they would support such an effort.
Lisa Evens, a representative of the local conservation group Bethlehem Tomorrow, said her organization was in favor of the group and once again brought the Town Board a petition from two years ago with 900 signatures asking for such a group. Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, also commended the town for “tackling” the subject.
“I know this is a tough issue, but one that I think is really important to the town’s future,” he said.
Others were unsure what more could be done if landowners weren’t willing to cooperate, and some didn’t like the possible idea of the town using its own money to purchase land or the fact that any preserved land would be taken off the tax rolls.
Valerie Newell of Wemple Road, who served on CACC, said she thinks many of the large landowners in town could be weary of the town having an open space program because they might feel like they were not always heard. She also said she thought a lot of time had already been spent on the topic.
“One of the things I would like to see as we go forward, because I guess we are going forward, one of the things I would like to respectfully request is that we look at the lands that are going to be prioritized on the basis of only those lands of a willing landowner,” Newell said. “I think that is extremely important.”
Bethlehem resident Linda Jasinski echoed many of Newell’s thoughts and said she felt there were enough nonprofit organizations within the town that could tackle the issue themselves without help from the town.
Leslie agreed that the program’s objectives were consistent with the work that had already been done by other groups, but little action had taken place. Clarkson said he hopes with the new program, the town could actually start preserving land.
Five Rivers asks for buffer
At the same meeting, Friends of Five Rivers President Robert Gordon asked the town board if anything could be done to help create a buffer around the environmental education center’s 446-acre property.
Gordon had first written a letter to the town board members and was then invited to speak at the next town meeting to coincide with the open space discussion.
“What we’re here asking for is the town to consider — due to the unique nature of Five Rivers as a natural, educational and open space resource to the town — any development plans that would affect it warrant heightened scrutiny, and accommodations that can protect this great resource,” he said.
Gordon said “McMansions” can now be seen from some of the outer trails. Only about 50 acres of the of the Five Rivers property is within the Town of Bethlehem. The rest lies in the Town of New Scotland.
The group is asking for a buffer of land in between their land and developments. Trees have been planted, but Gordon said it could be nearly two decades until they are tall enough to be effective.
“This is sort of a real example of what we were just talking about of what an open space program could do,” said Councilman Jeffrey Kuhn.
Gordon said a number of things could be done to help, such a having an entity purchase the development rights, creating a conservation easement to limit the number of homes that could be built in the area or protecting small portions of land to create trails.
Jasinski said a buffer wasn’t needed given the size of the property.
“Building up around it has nothing to do with the oasis there,” she said. “Central Park in New York City is very much appreciated, and it has apartment houses all around it.”