DELMAR — The Bethlehem Town Board has been told not to expect the update to its comprehensive plan in time to approve it before the end of the year, prompting steps to extend the one-year development moratorium another six months.
The Town Board will host a hearing to solicit public comment on extending the residential land use moratorium on Wednesday, Nov. 23.
Work on revising the town’s 2005 Comprehensive Plan started with a presentation three years ago. That first step involved assessing what progress had been made since community leaders and policymakers envisioned how Bethlehem would appear in 2020.
The plan has been amended five times over the years, notably to address particulars such as solar photovoltaic systems that weren’t as prevalent as they are today. There were also changes to be made in zoning and defining subdivisions.
The town’s Economic Development and Planning Department started revision efforts by inviting community stakeholders and town officials to identify what was important. Work on revising the plan was anticipated to focus on social equity and environmental sustainability by looking at transportation and traffic, open space conservation and the character of residential neighborhoods.
Town Planning Director Robert Leslie identified several factors behind the committee’s delay while speaking before members of the Town Board, including the challenge to meet under the conditions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Given the complexity of the issues, the amount of public input, the public engagement challenges created by COVID-19 pandemic, and the comprehensive nature of the tasks undertaken, additional time is necessary to complete the plan update,” Leslie told the Town Board. “To maximize the benefits of such a process, the enactment of a six-month extension of the town-wide residential moratorium is recommended by the Planning Department.”
The Town Board passed a 12-month development moratorium last December, halting the approval process for applications coming before it and the Planning Board. The legislation was said to be necessary in order to allow work on the comprehensive plan to proceed unhindered by a landscape continuously changing by approved housing developments. Leslie shared the committee’s meeting itinerary for the year, including 21 meetings over the last 10 months.
The moratorium, however, struck the ire of development firms that have had plans under review, some of which for several years. Since the embargo, developers for three different projects have gone before the Town Board seeking exceptions.
In April, the Town Board denied Michaels Group Homes’ request to allow its plan for an 87-lot development off Selkirk’s Elm Avenue to proceed. Two weeks later, the Town Board started discussing a possible waiver for NRP Group plans to build 72 affordable housing units just south of Jericho Drive-In.
An exception for the affordable housing project appeared favorable as the waiver application cleared the town’s Planning Board despite public pushback. According to Leslie, it was the first proposal for affordable housing the town had received since the comprehensive plan was adopted. Outside planning commissions had identified the town as an ideal place for affordable housing. The Capital District Regional Planning Commission noted the town’s above-average housing costs. The New York State Office of Homes and Community Renewal identified its high-performing school districts as a benefit.
But resident protests pointed to several perceived deficiencies in the plan’s location, devoid of sidewalks, away from the center of town and assumed lack of public transportation. Arguments were also against placing it within the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk school district, to which the Planning Board said that shouldn’t be a factor. However, Albany County Legislator Matt Miller supported those arguments. The Selkirk resident and RCS teacher shared how the school district was already inundated by affordable housing. The waiver was subsequently denied.
The most recent waiver request, a residential development on 67 acres of Kleinke family farmland introduced by Cardona Development, LLC four years ago, was denied shortly after Leslie’s request to schedule a public hearing before the moratorium expires on Thursday, Dec. 9.