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BETHLEHEM — Town residents and landowners who are concerned about conserving local open space and farmland are encouraged to participate in a free, five-minute, online survey between now and Sunday, Sept. 16. Physical copies are available to complete at both town hall and the public library.
Known officially as the “Bethlehem Open Space and Farmland Conservation Opinion Survey,” it asks locals to not only share their opinions about conserving land or losing it to development, but also ponder what benefits come with the retention of open space and farmland, based on their own concerns and interests.
The online version is available at www.surveymonkey.com/r/openspacesurvey or on the town website via the Open Space Planning tab. In the library, paper copies are available by the September display in the hallway. It’s not specified exactly where in the Town Hall the survey is accessible though.
It also aims to raise public awareness about 11 acres of privately-owned open forested land situated along Bender Lane that the Town’s Conservation Easement Exemption Program has recommended for conservation.
The program, overseen by the Conservation Easement Review Board which hopes to preserve the environment, had evaluated the land’s development potential and voted unanimously during their May 2 meeting to recommend said land for Town Board approval for conservation easements.
It is located with 463 acres of wooden land that is home to a variety of wildlife, including rare animals that have been designated as important to protect by the New York Natural Heritage Program.
Landowners Kris and John Sigsby, who reside across the street, have applied to perpetually conserve the vacant site, and forego development there.
According to the CEE, its purpose is to “conserve open space lands, help maintain the character of the Town, and provide financial incentives and assistance to those landowners willing to forego development and maintain open space.”
It also allows Bethlehem residents who own at least five acres of undeveloped land to apply to receive tax exemptions for foregoing development for at least 15 years to infinity.
NYNHP on the other hand, concerns itself with keeping track of the status of endangered in-state flora and fauna, conserving them, and providing information about its assessment of the state’s biodiversity to the public.
Robert Leslie, director of the town’s Planning Division, had informed the Town Board members present during the Aug. 8 board meeting that their next plan of action was “accepting [CERB’s] recommendation, and then scheduling a public hearing for the next town board meeting.”
This public hearing, which was subsequently approved by the town board, is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Aug. 22 at 6 p.m.
Locals are encouraged to attend to learn more about the conservation easement project, which the survey is related to.
The survey was also developed to explore why town residents are divided over whether further land conservation or more development would most benefit Bethlehem.
For example, Town Supervisor David VanLuven brought up the 96-unit apartment complex proposed to replace the farm fields on Wemple Road.
“What I often see in these discussions is someone screaming and yelling about a new development and how it’s changing the neighborhood,” he said.
“That farm field has been in agricultural use for 300 years and now it’s going to be covered by apartment buildings. And when that happens, people are going to be furious because they like this rustic, rural view as they drive along.”
While the Wemple Road landowner does have the right to sell off his land to a developer—VanLuven noted that people tend to forget this—he also said that it would be beneficial to create an option for the landowner to sell it off to the Town or another pro-land conservation organization.
“Everyone is yelling about traffic right now; I get at least one complaint a day,” he said. “If we want to control the growth of traffic, keeping a property in an undeveloped condition is a really good way of doing it.”
In response to the turbulent conservation versus development debate, VanLuven said the town plans to start developing a new, comprehensive plan next year to better understand how Bethlehem intends to move forward.
For now, both the 15-question survey and the Aug. 22 town board meeting, aim to gauge locals’ perspectives on that debate.
It will also inform a potential educational land conservation workshop that locals can attend sometime this winter.
For more information, contact Open Space Coordinator Karen Shaw at [email protected]