BETHLEHEM — As the town prepares an update to its comprehensive plan, board members have listened to pleas for both land conservation and preservation of livelihood as it prepares to temporarily halt the handling of residential land use applications.
The town is preparing a 12-month moratorium that will affect applications for residential development. The move, which is subject to the town first passing a local law, has the potential to impact two dozen proposals already on the table, involving more than 800 housing units.
Robert Leslie, the town’s director of planning, has spent the past several weeks drafting the proposed moratorium, the first suggested pause in the planning process since Bethlehem instituted one in 2004.
Like in 2004, the town is preparing an overall plan to direct future development and growth. The town is preparing to update its comprehensive plan, a task not expected to be completed for nearly a year. In that time, however, Leslie is suggesting a moratorium so that development proposals don’t overrun their efforts.
As the town board discusses the merits of a moratorium with Leslie, residents have occupied the public comment section of its meetings with their opinions. Common concerns have centered around open space and historic conservation, and traffic mitigation.
By coincidence, board members listened as a Slingerlands Elementary fourth grader asked for a crossing guard to address motorists speeding by Kenwood Avenue. Slingerlands traffic notwithstanding, traffic concerns around Bethlehem Center, with three strip malls and three more north of the intersection, has turned into the busiest and hazardous crossways in town. The town’s last plan expressed concerns over future development around the 9W corridor in South Bethlehem and neighboring Selkirk.
“We have an incredibly historic area,” Selkirk resident Roberta Jeracka told the board in October. “I was down on Creble Road at the Peter Winnie House… and I’m telling you, we’re old.”
The Peter Winnie House is located near the intersection of Creble Road and Route 9W, otherwise known as Becker’s Corners. It was originally built in the 1700s as one of the first dwellings in town. The former home of A.W. Becker, whose name also graces the elementary school on 9W, still stands among other homes from the turn of the last century.
“We’re not looking to kill development,” said Pattie Beeler of the group Bethlehem Tomorrow, which stressed the need for responsible growth. “We believe development can and must happen. We believe a pause is so very important.”
Expectations surrounding the moratorium and subsequent update to the town’s comprehensive plan suggest residents expect a clamp down on construction. The thought of which concerned developers and realtors who expressed an immediate need for more housing in a down desired by buyers.
Chris Derr, whose proposed Selkirk Reserve Multifamily application is still under review, pleaded with the board to exempt plans like his own. The affordable housing project that promises 72 multifamily units recently earned a New York State Homes and Community Renewal grant that requires construction begins by next spring or he’ll lose it.
“We’re asking for affordable housing to be exempted from the moratorium,” he asked. “There’s the need in the town.”
Judith Gabler, the owner/broker of Gabler Realty, expressed a vibrant buyer’s market, fielding multiple offers for existing homes within the first 24 hours. She worries about cutting off the livelihood of local construction and developers, and the demands for new construction driven by aging residents looking to stay in town.
“I really think it’s important to think about the livelihood of our residential builders and you’re basically telling them that they can’t work for 12 months or make an income any longer, when we clearly have a need here for more housing,” Gabler said.
Leslie stressed last week in his proposal before the board that the moratorium doesn’t stop construction, it puts a halt upon the proposals that have yet to be approved by the town’s three boards — town, planning and zoning.
“It’s a moratorium on applications. It’s not a moratorium on building.” Leslie said. It’s a pause on accepting land use applications and not a pause on construction.
The town first has to hold a public hearing, expected later this month, before such a law is established. Once in place, none of the town boards will be allowed to review, hold a hearing, or render a decision on residential subdivision applications containing more than four units. This includes existing subdivisions proposing to expand. Also excluded are applications to establish a planned development district, and site plans containing units within residential care, nursing homes or senior citizen housing.
The original draft of the proposed law included a Sept. 18 effective date. However, Leslie explained, as the board leaned in favor of using a negative SEQR declaration as a threshold, the effective date was omitted. Instead, the moratorium would take effect once the law is passed.
Board Member Dan Coffey explained the intended threshold is to allow plans to proceed if they’ve already reached final approval. Other proposed plans still waiting for such approval would be held back through the duration of the moratorium.
Whereas some proposals are cleared after a state environmental impact review, others such as a new subdivision still go through an additional plot review. Subdivisions still waiting upon a final plot approval won’t be able to proceed.
Jim Foster warned against residents viewing the moratorium and subsequent comprehensive plan update as a “silver bullet” against development.