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BETHLEHEM — Town residents who are interested in learning more about its ongoing land conservation efforts can hear some of its success stories during a pair of public events titled “Making Local Conservation Happen: Talks, Tastes and a Tour,” scheduled to take place on Thursday, Feb. 7, and Thursday, June 13. Regional landowners and conservation organizations will be on hand at both events to share their stories.
The Feb. 7 meeting, titled “Winter Conservation Strategies and Stories: Forests and Preserves,” will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, located at 56 Game Farm Road in Delmar. Stories at this session will focus on forest conservation and include voices from the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, the Strawberry Fields Nature Preserve, and the Pine Hollow Arboretum.
The June 13 meeting, called “Spring Conservation Strategies and Stories: Farmland for Farmers,” will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at Indian Ladder Farms, located at 342 Altamont Road in Altamont. This event will be preceded by a guided outdoor tour of the farm from 5 to 5:45 p.m. Stories at this session will focus on farmland, and include voices from Laughing Earth Farm, Lovin’ Mama Farm, and Riverview Orchards.
According to the town’s website, attendees can enjoy “seasonal tastings of locally grown foods and craft drinks by Field Notes and Indian Ladder Farms,” while deciding for themselves if conserving land is a possibility with certain benefits.
Town officials’ perspectives
“There will be around five- to 10-minute little soundbites from landowners or organizations who will talk about how much land conservation costs and what happened,” said Karen Shaw, the town’s Open Space Coordinator. “We try to make it a fun affair and informative, educational, and maybe a little inspirational. It’d show that it can be replicated in some way and yes, they’re complex but really the attending public can see that there are partnerships out there to make these difficult conservation projects successful.”
“The word ‘conservation’ is vague and too open for people to wrap their heads around,” said Robert Leslie, Bethlehem’s Planning Division Director. “The projects and stories will help tell the public more about what’s happening.”
These meetings, along with the results of the town-wide survey conducted about open space and farmland protection, are part of the town’s ongoing discussion on the topic. The survey,which received 1,504 responses, roughly 10 percent of Bethlehem’s 14,000 households, found that 1,400 of them believed that protecting local open space and farmland is either “highly” or “somewhat important.”
Town Board member Jim Foster, who expressed pride in coming from a family of past and current farmers since the 1940s, wrote via e-mail that the meetings “are important because they provide an opportunity to share ideas with landowners and farmers on possible ways to keep and protect their land which is often their largest asset.” He continued that “these panels will help illustrate that conservation does not always need to be achieved through charity or deeding over certain rights to your land — it can be achieved through growing or reinventing a business or farming operation to meet current market trends and opportunities in our communities.”
Town Supervisor David VanLuven said that the town continues to work not only with interested landowners to try to buy land to either expand or create new parks, but the Conservation Easement Review Board as well to identify potential ways to fund open space protection. “It’s a vital conservation for the town to have so I’m all for it, especially when looking around us to see what’s worked in other municipalities nearby or more broadly, and what lessons we can bring here,” he said. “I hope a lot of people will come to the meetings, learn, have ideas, and help us move forward together.”
View from local landowners
While resident Keith Wiggand, whose family owns 30 acres in Glenmont, emphasized that he strongly values open space, he believed the two educational meetings “may become a soapbox for radical ideas, in my opinion, although meetings are always beneficial when they’re open where people can express their opinions.” He stressed that much of the town’s open space is owned “privately by only dozens of people in town. So it’s bad for meetings to be swayed by the numbers of people who show up to them and don’t own land themselves. As landowners, we are few and we can become discriminated against which is not right.” He added that landowners typically don’t attend many meetings because of other personal commitments, for example.
Some ideas to fund open space protection that Wiggand brought up included having developers either pay a $1,500 fee in a park set-aside plan whenever a new building lot in town is developed, or set up long-term land leases that collect tax over a long period of time, such as 25 years, which he believes would the town more flexibility than outright buying a piece of land.
Fellow landowner Linda Jasinski, who lives on 80 acres of land in South Bethlehem on Bridge Street and has houses on an additional 10 acres which she rents out, said that she does not believe in open space protection. She explained it can put many restrictions on what can be done with the land and it limits options for the land’s upcoming heirs and future generations.
She also said that she had attended many public meetings in 2004 and 2005 when the town was crafting its 2005 comprehensive plan and “one of the things we found is that people who are making that plan don’t own land and did not understand how we live in the not-so-developed part of town.” When asked if she plans to attend town meetings that will inform the upcoming comprehensive plan, she said, “Honestly, all of us longtime landowners are getting tired and the current administration does not seem to listen. They have a view of what things should be.”
Jasinski suggested that there should be “non-success stories because that’s never mentioned. If you bring in people that talk about how it’s worked, there are stories where it didn’t work out. I don’t want the meetings to tell people, who don’t own any land, what to do. I’d like a balance, we got to watch out for that.”
Both Wiggand and Jasinski also discussed how their lands were hit hard by the 2014 tax reassessment and their belief that the open space survey seemed biased.
Wiggand recalled how, because of $28,000 in increased property tax bills, he felt forced to cut down old growth trees, that were over 250 years old, just to raise money to pay them. “It hit my family pretty hard and the town’s radical ideas of conservation came back to bite them, not just us but many landowners. It brought tears to my eyes to see the trees cut down. These trees survived so much like the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, so to see them come down because I had to pay the taxes, it was really sad to me.” He also thought that the survey’s questions were “looking for a predetermined conclusion and it really solicited what most of the public said. If you didn’t agree with that, you’re seen as being on the outside.”
Jasinski, noting that her family first moved to Bethlehem over five decades ago, said her property taxes also increased, which forced her to sell over 20 acres of land she once owned on Bender Lane to developers. “I had no intention of selling that, it was for my kids. There was no sense of me holding onto it and paying high taxes every year,” she said. She also disliked surveys in general as “you can easily slant the questions to get the answers that you want. In the open space survey, when you ask questions like whether you like open space, of course everyone would say yes.”
Wiggand concluded that if the town does not consider landowners’ input, “they’re making a huge mistake. People should be aware that open space in town is mostly owned by very few long-standing families with history since the Revolutionary War. They should care about these people, and their futures, and personal economies. We’re not a bunch of rich people; we just own lands. It’s really hurtful when policies are put forth and target the minority against the majority.”
For more information about the town’s two scheduled conservation success stories meetings as well as the recent open space survey’s results, visit http://www.townofbethlehem.org/783/Open-Space-Planning or contact Open Space Coordinator Karen Shaw at [email protected].