BETHLEHEM — Public hearings have been set for the first properties applying for the town’s Conservation Easement Program, an initiative aimed at conserving open, natural spaces.
The program was adopted in 2014, after the town researched ways to protect open spaces and came across a provision in state law authorizing two towns in Erie County to offer property tax exemptions to landowners willing to forgo development. Supervisor John Clarkson reached out to locally elected state officials, Assemblywoman Pat Fahy and Sen. Neil Breslin, who got legislation passed that extended the authorization to the Town of Bethlehem.
“We’re going to report back to the state Legislature on its implementation because other towns and the region as a whole could benefit from this approach to protecting open space,” said Clarkson. “It’s entirely voluntary. Fahy has said she will help any other interested towns obtain authorization and Bethlehem’s implementation may serve as a guide and model.”
Under the program, landowners receive tax reductions based on the amount of time they agree to preserve their land. The minimum allowable agreement is 15 years and the minimum allowable area is five acres. A landowner who agrees to forgo development for 15–29 years gets a 50 percent reduction on town (and fire district) property taxes, 30–49 years would net a reduction of 75 percent, 50–75 years would receive an 85 percent reduction, and a perpetual commitment would save the landowner 90 percent on property tax bills for the duration of the easement.
The Bethlehem Central School District has also opted into the program, so landowners within that district would see the same decrease in their school property tax bills. Albany County is considering opting into the program, which would extend the reduction to county property tax bills as well. The Legislature is expected to vote on the proposal in the near future.
The easement program doesn’t reduce tax revenues, said Clarkson. Rather, the cost is distributed among other taxpayers. The reasoning is that the preservation of open spaces is a benefit to all town residents. “Our projections are that even at maximum participation, after many years, the impact will be very small,” said Clarkson, “Probably pennies or, at the most, a couple of dollars on an average annual tax bill.”
The first three properties under consideration are all located near the Normanskill, which Bethlehem Planning Director Robert Leslie said is consistent with the town’s Comprehensive Plan. The owner of two parcels, a total of 44 acres on McCormack Road North, is applying for 30-year easements. Another parcel, 6.9 acres on Salisbury Road owned by Constance Tilroe, would be preserved in perpetuity.
“I believe in open spaces because we need them to offset all the building that’s going on,” said Tilroe, a conservationist with family ties to the area that go back to the 1600s, who also volunteers at Five Rivers Educational Center in Delmar. The parcel Tilroe wants to preserve is what remains of her grandfather’s farm, much of which has become Normanside Country Club. “It’s only seven acres,” she said. “But I thought I could preserve a little piece of his farm and do something that is also beneficial to the town and the people living here.”
Tilroe, who is now in her 80s, said she read about the program and thought, “this is exactly what I want to do. I’m not going to live forever and it would be very nice to leave that as something that would help improve the town for years to come.
“You have complete use of the land,” she said. “Other than not building on it, you can have a garden or have hiking trails, which I happen to have, or sleigh-riding or all the things we use it for now, it still can be used for and it’s still private property.”
While conservation easements do not give the general public access to the land, a landowner may permit public access and include it as a condition in the agreement. Land protected by an easement can be sold, given or otherwise transferred at any time, however, the transfer of ownership does not affect the integrity or enforceability of the easement. New or standing landowners can petition the Town Board to cancel the agreement, but must pay a penalty. Land with habitable structures, as well as the yard space surrounding them, is ineligible for the exemption program.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Board member David VanLuven, before the Board unanimously approved the public hearings. “I think it’s great they have the opportunity to take advantage of this.”
More information can be found on the town website at http://www.townofbethlehem.org/682/Conservation-Easement-Review-Board. Anyone wanting more information about the properties under consideration, or wanting to voice an opinion, can attend the public hearings set for the April 12 Town Board meeting, 6 p.m. at Town Hall.