The concept of “preserving the town’s character” has been frequently brought up, particularly as the comprehensive plan is now undergoing a major overhaul. But what exactly is Bethlehem’s character as a town?
Town Supervisor David VanLuven said that Bethlehem “is a rich mixture of suburban neighborhoods, thriving commercial districts and big industries, along with farms and forests and fields. It has a fair amount of variety; that’s what makes it so interesting and an attractive place to live.”
Town Board member Jim Foster said that each resident can define what the town’s character is differently and that “it’s not only defined by buildings, our open spaces, historical landmarks and landscapes, but it’s also by people and their history and their values.”
He reiterated that it’s the overall community feel that keeps the town close. “Ultimately, it’s good, friendly, warm neighbors who love the community deeply and want to preserve the small-town feel. It can be anything from a passing exchange at a coffee shop, to sharing moments over a baseball field, or going to small businesses and supporting neighbors.”
Fellow Town Board member Maureen Cunningham appreciated how Bethlehem is a welcoming and family-oriented community. “I see safe streets where kids can walk and bike around. I also think of community events like the Turkey Trot and menorah lighting, which are different events that still bring in our community members to help keep make this town grow stronger.”
She offered an anecdote where on Thursday, Dec. 13, her 12-year-old son had walked to the Four Corners —located at the intersection of Delaware and Kenwood avenues in Delmar— and while she knew he was safe there, she knew the small business owners’ first names there. “Knowing people’s names is one way of knowing we have a strong sense of community. It’s like getting a coffee or a sandwich in town and the people there know you personally. It’s why, in my opinion, a lot of the town’s character is intangible.”
Speaking of neighbors, there was a general consensus among the town officials that engaging the residents in conversations about town matters and issues is of paramount importance.
VanLuven and Cunningham brought up, for example, how they’ve met dozens of residents to learn what issues those people cared about during the Slingerlands and Selkirk community forums back on Thursday, Nov. 29 and Thursday, Dec. 13 respectively. These meetings are among the numerous scheduled community forums through March 2019 across various hamlets where meeting residents will inform Bethlehem’s comprehensive plan update process.
“In the Selkirk comp. plan forum, when asked about what the people like about Selkirk, one gentleman said he loves the small businesses and neighbors there,” Cunningham recalled. “People want small businesses coming in.”
She added that many Bethlehem residents overall have “mentioned Clifton Park as the example we don’t want to be. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of chain businesses, big-box stores, and strip malls there. But here in Bethlehem, people want to maintain the small businesses and neighborhood feel.”
Foster chimed in, believing that Bethlehem is a strong small-business community and “I hope residents continue supporting them and those businesses are the ones that sponsor our teams and define us a town, as opposed to big-box stores. If you squeeze out small businesses, it’s concerning.”
VanLuven, Cunningham, and Foster collectively agreed that while the town has different hamlets with different sense of characters each, they do not necessarily clash with one another.
Foster said that the community forums is a great way to stay proactive and seek each hamlet’s voice equally. “Each individual hamlet should be considered and that goes a long way on preserving the community that we all cherish,” he said. “It shouldn’t be just the nosiest wheel that determines the direction the wagon takes.”
VanLuven said that the forums would complement the upcoming comprehensive plan and come up with strategies that will guide the town’s growth. Cunningham agreed that as the town sees more developments, “we need to see when a developer’s proposal may be bad for the town and push back and ask for changes from that developer. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the right thing to develop and is there room to push back?’”
When asked if Bethlehem’s character as a town will feel much different in the future than what it is today, answers were mixed.
VanLuven believed that “it could change rather quickly in the next 20 years if we don’t check development, but we can also backtrack that growth so we can protect our town’s fundamental values like keeping that small town feel and being able to know your neighbors. Those values make our neighborhoods strong. We’re at a crossroads now, since we’re working on the comp. plan, but I’m optimistic.”
Foster, however, thought that such a change will not likely happen “as we have many intelligent and involved people in town government working towards maintaining Bethlehem as a great community. I think we’re on a great trajectory.”