BETHLEHEM — Supervisor John Clarkson recently revived a mostly dormant discussion when he put this question to board members: “Is it time to actually begin developing a plan to preserve open spaces in Bethlehem?” If so, he asked, “how might they proceed?”
“I think we just need to get started,” Town Board member David VanLuven told Spotlight News.
Outside of funding secured by Clarkson and state Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy (D-109) to pay landowners who commit to leaving their property undeveloped for a specified amount of time, through something called a “conservation easement exemption”—which VanLuven called a “wonderful tool”—he observed that very little has been done to address residential concerns in recent years.
“Guiding growth and protecting community character is a high priority for people,” said VanLuven, who has spent 25 years involved in environmental conservation efforts and served several years on the town’s now-defunct Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Conservation. VanLuven made it clear that, while he feels an open space program is overdue, the town needs to be thoughtful in its approach and should strive to remain respectful of, and responsive to, the rights of landowners.
About his experience with the CACC, VanLuven said it was difficult to reach consensus and that goals could become convoluted. He even went so far as to suggest employing an impartial moderator when things arrive at that stage of planning. “It’s about dialogue and building trust,” he said. “And I think that’s what we haven’t had. We’re weren’t able to build it with the CACC and they weren’t able to do it in the 90s.”
“A number of conversations, including CACC and others, have come and gone,” said Clarkson. Most recently, a broadly representative Comprehensive Plan Assessment Committee engaged in some discussion of open space preservation but, as it was clear that they weren’t going to reach consensus, they weren’t asked to do so, according to the supervisor. “So the Town Board has basically taken on the issue and, in 2014, we passed a resolution. But, we haven’t gotten up to the issue of whether we should have an open space plan.”
The resolution passed by the board in March 2014 established the Open Space Technical Advisory Working Group, charged with working with Rob Leslie, the town director of Economic Development and Planning, to provide guidance on standards and methods for the conservation of open space lands. It also purportedly adopted a general plan for pursuing the implementation of a coherent open space preservation program—a plan that was never actively pursued.
During this month’s discussion on ways to go about forming a plan, essentially all of the intentions put forth in the 2014 resolution were reiterated: to develop a set of objective criteria for evaluating and identifying lands for preservation; to explore and incorporate new conservation tools; establish a designated fund; and agree upon which mechanisms the town will consider to support open space preservation.
Early costs of developing the program itself shouldn’t be prohibitive, as overlay maps used to determine the value of a piece of land – such as agriculture, wildlife, recreation and water resources – have already been prepared by the CACC. According to VanLuven, they will still require a computer informations technologist to make use of them and he is hoping to find a qualified Bethlehem resident willing to donate time and talent.
“We shouldn’t need any town funding in the next few months,” said VanLuven, who intends to spend that time doing research on his own so he can return to his fellow board members at the next discussion with examples of what has worked and failed elsewhere.
Potential mechanisms range from more easement exemption opportunities or other grant funding to buying properties or funding easement exemptions with the town’s general fund or a dedicated conservation fund. While Clarkson seemed to shy away from the idea of dedicating town funds, VanLuven was more confident that town residents would be willing to spend tax dollars to keep open spaces open.
“While I think most people would support some form of public investment for open space protection, it has been a flashpoint in previous open space discussions,” said Clarkson. “And I think we’ll need to better define how much it might be, where we’ll get if from, and how we’ll allocate it before we can really get a full public sounding.”
“We can’t expect landowners to foot the whole cost of keeping up open spaces that the whole town values and enjoys,” VanLuven said. “That doesn’t make sense, and I think most people understand that. We need to do everything we can as a community, I believe, to allow large landowners to have options for their properties other than selling to developers.”
As noted by Clarkson, the conservation easement exemption—which was authorized by the state Legislature and provides a tax reduction of between 50 and 90 percent for landowners who agree to defer development—has just been opted into by the Bethlehem school district. The exemption strengthens the financial incentive for potentially interested landowners, and the town is hopeful the county and other neighboring school districts will opt in as well.
The board will formally continue the conversation in early November, but Clarkson said that an Oct. 26 presentation on development trends in the town is likely to involve some discussion on open space preservation as well. They will take up the topic again on Nov. 9, following a public hearing on proposed zoning and subdivision regulation changes to the town code. Some of the changes that have been proposed would give the board discretion to waive conservation requirements for developers.
At the Town Board meeting on Thursday Oct. 13, members voted to table the amendments until hearing from town residents. (Details on proposed zoning changes can be found on our website, www.spotlightnews.com.)