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BETHLEHEM — The town’s last comprehensive plan, compiled back in 2005, focused on goals, recommendations and visions for how the town should evolve by 2020.
As that year continues to creep closer, town government members have discussed the creation of an updated plan that would provide direction for how Bethlehem and its hamlets should move forward, possibly as far ahead as 2050.
The executive summary of the 2005 document defines this comprehensive plan as follows: “helps to provide a context for the many decisions that the community will make now and in the future. It helps guide and prioritize the investments that must be made to enhance the Town’s future.”
Issues likely to be addressed in the upcoming plan include concerns about increased traffic, zoning, the economy, land conservation, continued developments, being more environmentally-forward or business-minded, improvements in the town’s aesthetics, and local infrastructure.
The 2005 plan focused on over a dozen goals, including achieving a balanced tax base, supporting more local businesses, regulating a dependable high-quality water supply, making improvements in local transport and mobility, conserving open spaces with willing landowners, and fostering compact, mixed-use commercial and residential development.
Bethlehem Town Supervisor David VanLuven is particularly concerned with the trajectory of growth in Bethlehem and what it should look like in 50 years.
Hoping that it will not become just another Capital District community with homes sprawled everywhere and not have a unique character, he said he wants to receive honest feedback from local residents about how they think the town should evolve.
“I want to have a series of neighborhood forums where people come together and we talk about their vision for places like Slingerlands, North Bethlehem, Old Delmar, Elsmere, Glenmont, Selkirk and more,” he said. “Those places come with different challenges and different community character. We need to think together about how we can address that and to keep the near future in mind.”
Town Board Member Maureen Cunningham, who believed that Bethlehem “is a very engaged community with a lot of ideas and assumptions,” echoed VanLuven’s sentiments by also encouraging the use of public forums.
She added that the comprehensive plan is planned as an agenda item for the two upcoming Town Board meetings on Sept. 12 and Sept. 26, “to begin the discussion on the town board level.”
However, VanLuven expressed that Town Board meetings are not necessarily the best way to engage the locals.
He believed that having the conversation there with residents could potentially devolve into hours of passionate arguments and screaming, “like in the town of Knox, where their Town Board Meetings are just people yelling at each other, until as late as 11 at night.”
“Usually, the screaming and bickering about the issues at hand are rooted in people jumping into conclusions, before we’ve actually come to an agreement on what the issue is in the first place,” he continued.
Same goes for online forums.
“People speak anonymously online and it gets nasty,” he added. “People say horrible things when they’re in the privacy of their own homes and aren’t being held accountable.”
VanLuven did note that actively engaging the locals with public forums would give the town government a chance to also correct any misconceptions and misinformation on the public’s part.
Examples he gave included how people may assume the town is actively developing land or that it has the authority to stop a development, both of which are not the case.
Something residents may not realize is that the 2005 comprehensive plan remains available to them to review on the town’s website for free.
“I do feel like a lot of people talk about that comprehensive plan but I wonder how many people actually read it,” Cunningham pondered. “It’s a good read. From what I know, it took a lot of work for the town to complete and there was a lot of community input. There were many public meetings too.”
Information in the 2005 plan support Cunningham’s statement, as there were 12 public workshops, 14 Bethlehem Planning Advisory Committee meetings and two written surveys to highly foster public discussion.
Cunningham reflected that despite its age, the 2005 plan already placed Bethlehem ahead of other towns and counties.
She remembered that while undergoing Land Use Training in May with Pace University in a separate line of work, she worked with many municipalities from Orange County and “a lot of them don’t even have comprehensive plans or they have plans from the 1990s.”
Cunningham said that while the 2005 comprehensive plan is somewhat outdated now, it should not be tossed out carelessly because its themes of ensuring the town character’s growth and attaining residents’ perspectives still matter.
The 2005 plan had actually been assessed twice to check if it was working and reaching its outlined goals.
The Comprehensive Plan Oversight Committee was created in April 2007 to help guide the plan’s implementation. The Comprehensive Plan Assessment Committee was assigned to once again evaluate its progress, developing a final report in June 2013.
These findings and reports are also available for the public to peruse online.
The 2005 plan did set numerous goals that the town has since either achieved or is actively pursuing. Some proposed programs at the time have also been either successful or have been in development since then — some of their foundations had been laid out in that plan.
Examples include the establishment of the Conservation Easement program, the development of the Open Space program, the introduction of the Waterfront Revitalization plan, and a pair of completed initiatives, namely the Delaware Avenue Hamlet Streetscape Enhancement and Route 9W Corridor projects.
Robert Leslie, director of the town’s Economic Development and Planning Department, was highlighted by both VanLuven and Cunningham as being essential to the comprehensive plan’s process and completion.
According to Leslie, the Planning Department both leads and is “integrally involved in the comprehensive plan” since it reviews all of the town’s development proposals which must conform to the plan.
Numerous departments he would actively work with include the Department of Public Works, Engineering Division, the Parks & Recreation Department, Highway Department, Senior Services Department, and even local school districts.
Overall, this gives a sense of how collaborative the process will be and what additional issues the plan is expected to address, including sewer and water systems, senior needs and housing, recreational needs and potential roadwork.
“I’m also looking to speak with various generations here, as younger kids may have different goals, others may want to raise families, while some people want to retire,” Leslie said. “This is especially key since this new plan is looking to what Bethlehem should be like in decades to come.”
VanLuven, Cunningham and Leslie touched on how the comprehensive plan hopes to address the land conservation versus development debate in town. Leslie specifically emphasized that the comprehensive plan is not meant to support only one side of that argument.
“It will not be about just allowing more development, for example. Each piece of land does come with certain development rights,” Leslie said. “It’s not so much the town can say they can just stop development. Growth is always expected but at the same time, we’re looking to seek partnerships in land conservancy.”
Cunningham, who has a background in conservancy and being environmental-minded, said, “I just want to be clear that I do support property rights, that’s not something we can change. It’s embedded in our culture. We just want to look into having a balance between development growth — which some people are upset about — and open space and farmland protection. It’s not easy, there’s no right answers.”
VanLuven himself accompanied Open Space Coordinator Karen Shaw on Saturday, Aug. 25, at the Delmar Farmers Market. They distributed paper surveys — the “Bethlehem Open Space and Farmland Conservation Opinion Survey” which asks for residents’ opinions on topics such as land conservation, nature, development, scenic views and water resources — to people there and answered questions.
Physical copies are also available at the Town Hall’s main hallway and at the Bethlehem Public Library’s September hallway display; the online version is still available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/openspacesurvey. Bethlehem locals are highly encouraged to take it. The final day to take the survey is Sunday, Sept. 16.
According to Shaw, 1,025 people have taken the survey as of Aug. 29, an increase from 900 back in the week of Aug. 19.
VanLuven and Shaw have said that this survey is one way to start encouraging community input on the land conservation versus development debate, which the upcoming plan is expected to address.
While it’s unknown how long the process of getting started and finalizing the upcoming comprehensive plan would take, Cunningham said the process alone could take at least a year, “but there’s no right or wrong or conclusive answer to that.”
As the 2005 plan envisioned what Bethlehem would hopefully be like by 2020, this newer plan is set to concern through as far as maybe 2050, as mentioned before.
“2030 seems too close though. Believe it or not, 2030 is only 12 years from now,” she said. “By the time we finish the comprehensive plan, it may be 2020 then, and 2030 would be just 10 years away. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to have a vision for both 2030 and 2050 though.”
VanLuven, Cunningham and Leslie collectively believed that it is paramount to strongly balance the town’s development growth and land conservancy. They individually said they would want the town to continue maintaining its aesthetically-attractive character, protect open space and farmlands, and be more proactive in decision-making for the future.
“The town is going to continue to grow because it’s a desirable place to be in. I mean, we have great schools, a fantastic library, the Four Corners, Delaware Avenue, and it’s a town with so much soul that has a sense of place,” VanLuven concluded. “And people want to come and live here. The challenge for us is guiding that growth that will allow us to maintain that soul, and continue to be Bethlehem and not devolve into a soulless sprawl.”