DELMAR — Agnes Zellin set the tone for the night when she opened the public hearing by saying, “Some may dismiss us as sentimental, tree huggers or, even in this season, snowflakes.”
The Bethlehem resident was one of several who spoke out in favor of the town’s plans for a 12-month residential land use moratorium. Town Board members sat through more than an hour of comments, many of which from longtime residents sharing concern for climate, open space and an overall preservation of the town they moved into decades ago.
It also included the voice of one developer whose firm shaped the residential footprint of the town over the past 50 years.
The town is preparing a 12-month moratorium that will affect applications for residential development. The move, which is subject to the town first passing a local law, has the potential to impact two dozen proposals already on the table, involving more than 800 housing units.
Like in 2004, the town is preparing an overall plan to direct future development and growth. The town is preparing to update its comprehensive plan, a task not expected to be completed for nearly a year. A moratorium is expected to allow the town more time so that development proposals don’t overrun their efforts.
“Many of us here in the town of Bethlehem have experienced that awful, sinking feeling upon noticing the heavy equipment has shown up on land that we have only known as pristine and beautiful woods or stands of trees or meadows or fields, each of which are home to much wildlife,” said Bonnie Goldsmith, who’s resided in town for more than 25 years. “Then, inevitably, bland, cookiecutter vinyl houses in varied shades of grey and beige begin to appear.”
Should the town pass such a pause on development, none of the town boards will be allowed to review, hold a hearing, or render a decision on residential subdivision applications containing more than four units. This includes existing subdivisions proposing to expand. Also excluded are applications to establish a planned development district, and site plans containing units within residential care, nursing homes or senior citizen housing.
“I think this town, over the years I’ve been here, has done things in a very thoughtful and careful manner. And, I think it’s wise that we continue in that good tradition,” said Larry Deyss, a 40-year resident. The former pastor of Delmar Presbyterian Church moved to town in 1981 to lead the church’s congregation. “My concern is if we rush this process, we do not have a moratorium, this will undoubtedly produce backlash, and that’s not healthy for the town.”
The proposed moratorium is restrictive in that it will only allow plans to proceed if they’ve already reached final approval. Other plans still waiting for such approval would be held back through the duration of the moratorium. Whereas some proposals are cleared after a state environmental impact review, others such as a new subdivision still go through an additional plot review. Subdivisions still waiting upon a final plot approval won’t be able to proceed.
“I’d like a much tighter one, but I will take what I can get,” said Jonathan Fishbein, a trustee on Bethlehem Central School District’s school board. He said, as a resident, he’s opposed to more building. “Unchecked development, residential development increases school taxes. … We have to rein in residential development.”
But, town officials had tried to warn residents that the moratorium will not protect a patch of woods from development. Last month, Jim Foster warned against residents viewing it, and the subsequent comprehensive plan update, as a “silver bullet” against development.
“I just want to manage expectations of what the moratorium does and does not do…
“If I’m looking at a parcel of land I know is possibly going to be under development, the moratorium and comprehensive plan update doesn’t necessarily mean that’s now going to be saved from development in the future,” Foster said. Leslie added, even with the last moratorium in 2004, proposals that were paused still returned for review and were developed. “More than likely, it will just potentially change what that development looks like,” Foster said.
Luke Michaels, of Michaels Group Homes, said he opposed all but one argument for the moratorium — the need to establish predictability between the town and proposed development.
Michaels Group has built several of the residential developments across town, starting with Colonial Acres more than 50 years ago. The development firm has shaped the landscape with similar neighborhoods with Chadwick Square, Brookhill, Walden Fields, Newell Place and Bender Farms.
“So, we’ve been a big part of Bethlehem over the years,” Michaels said.
His firm’s next project is Kimmy Point, a 80-plus unit development off Elm Avenue, that intends to maintain an existing farm separate from the residential community. The Dutch barn on the property is one of the oldest in town, once featured in a front page article by the late town historian Allison Bennett in The Spotlight. Michaels first presented the plan before the town in November 2017.
“Three years later I can say that the approval process has taken a very long time and we’ve been navigating through an unpredictable path to achieve a plat approval or a SEQRA [negative declaration],” he said.
Michaels professed that his firm, and the nine other applicants waiting for town approval, have invested “significant time and hundreds of thousands of dollars” since first approaching the town. Should the town pass the moratorium, he asked that it excludes applications already under review and under the town’s current process.
“I ask the board to not delay or interrupt the progress that we have made thus far. … We’ve been in front of the town for three years. We’ve been in the process,” said Michaels.