Jessica Ottney Mahar is New York policy and strategy director for The Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization founded in 1951 that has more than a million members. In her personal capacity, she served on the town’s Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee. She is also on the Albany Pine Bush Commission board, Capital Region board of the League of Conservation Voters and a member of SAVE Colonie, a Partnership for Planning. She, her husband and their daughter live in Colonie.
Q: What is the most pressing issue facing our environment today and what can be done about it?
A: Climate change is going to redefine our lives, and we need to take action now on two fronts: mitigating the pollution causing the problem, and ensuring our community is prepared for the impacts that we can no longer avoid. Science tells us that we should expect much more extreme weather, from more frequent floods during more violent storms, to heat waves that threaten lives. Local planning and actions we take at the town level are absolutely critical if we are going to solve this issue. We need to ensure that we are developing in a way that will allow our kids and grandkids to thrive in Colonie, and the decisions we make now can set us on that course. Conserving natural areas that buffer us from flooding and absorb water is an important first step. Protecting our local forests and farms can store carbon pollution, and provide cooling shade and local fresh food. Incentivizing development that not only conserves natural resources, but includes important features such as renewable energy systems, porous pavement, and energy efficient buildings is also very important.
Q: Development is an issue in Colonie. Do you think there is too much? Not enough? Just right? If it’s not ‘just right,’ what can be done to make it so?
A: Development is an issue everywhere. Colonie is lucky because it is the very heart of Capital Region. It has attractive waterfronts and parks, abundant commercial property, and diverse neighborhoods, all in a very convenient location. We know from studies that conserving natural resources increases property values, attracts businesses that want amenities for employees, and saves taxpayers money in the long run. Colonie has big opportunities through the development taking place here to provide important benefits to residents while growing in a sustainable way. I don’t think the issue is whether we have too much or too little development, but if we are leveraging the development opportunities we have to the fullest extent and ensuring we are creating true public benefit as we approve development plans. I think in that regard, the town could be more creative and ambitious while seeking to achieve the balance between development and conservation.
Q: You served on the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee. Are you happy with the final blueprint for the town? Are you happy with the process?
A: I am grateful to the town supervisor and Town Board for inviting me to serve on the Comprehensive Plan Committee. It was interesting and challenging. As one of just a few members on the committee who were not employed or appointed to another position with the town, I asked questions that probably made some folks uncomfortable. Questioning the status quo was difficult. I like Colonie, and I think our town can do even better. In that spirit I tried to bring to the table ideas about how we might do things differently to make even more progress for our future on issues related to planning. I was hopeful the final product would be more assertive in creating a list of more our town can and should be doing to strike the right balance between developing for the future, and conserving the natural resources future generations will depend on. I’m hopeful that with fresh leadership in the Planning Department, the town will develop additional documents and programs, like an open space plan, with resident input and support.
Q: What is the biggest challenge to being a working mom and how do you deal with it?
A: This is an interesting question to try and answer during a global pandemic that closed schools and many other activities for kids! Right now there is no work/life balance. It’s all about survival. But generally, in normal times, it’s trying to be really present when I’m with our daughter, while also meeting the demands from work, which often includes after hours calls or meetings.
Q: What is your favorite park or natural attraction and why?
A: I really adore the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy preserves around my neighborhood. The Ashford Glen and Fox Preserves are really close to us, and provide easy access to nature. Along with the Mohawk trail and the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, they have been incredible to have nearby during the pandemic, for safe opportunities to get some time outdoors to enjoy nature and exercise, and to find solace during troubling times.
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