DELMAR — Bethlehem Town Supervisor had an underlying message to his 35,000 residents in his State of the Town address: Go outside.
It was far from the only point he wished to share on Wednesday, Jan. 25, but it was the one he chose to use to close his annual address, tying up a year that witnessed substantial efforts in farmland protection, park improvements and business development.
“Bethlehem is a wonderful community with great businesses and good neighbors,” VanLuven said. He noted that the new year is his sixth as Town Supervisor. He intends to run for another two-year term, expected to receive the nomination from the local Democratic Party. “I encourage all of you, as regularly as possible, to step away from social media chatter and get out to gatherings like this for real interactions with real neighbors. And to be reminded, again and again, how lucky we are to live here.”
The “vitriolic national discourse” is what’s often captured on social media channels. Posts on Facebook and NextDoor repeat national party agendas that don’t translate to the local landscape, nor shape what’s happening in town, VanLuven said.
“Today’s perpetual election cycles are seemingly addicted to negative posturing,” he said. “When in reality, we have so much more to be positive about. Because, life is real interactions between real people.” he listed off the community gatherings — First Night, Summer Concert Series, Memorial Day parade — which resurfaced after the COVID pandemic. “And those real interactions strengthen our community and make our lives better.”
The head administrator has often equated town services with people throughout his administration. As in past addresses, he continued to remind voters that staffing numbers have gone down while more people move in. According to the U.S. Census, the town population has increased 4 percent from 2010 to 2020. Within the same window of time, the amount of town employees has decreased by 7 percent.
“Fortunately, Bethlehem has incredible town employees who have adapted their work and shown great resiliency as they have continued to deliver services that are essential to our quality of life,” he said.
An 18-month moratorium on residential development was lifted last year, in conjunction with the Town’s revised comprehensive plan. As the three-year effort to reshape the community’s master plan, affordable housing became a discussion point.
Gov. Kathy Hochul identified affordable housing as a pressing issue in her State of the State address last month. In it, she proposed 800,000 new housing units over the next decade in her New York Housing Compact.
“One of the reasons rent is so high is because there are not enough rental units out there,” she said. “Why housing prices are so high? There are not enough houses out there on the market because they have not been built.”
The housing market was red hot in 2021, where sales climbed up but so did prices. The number of homes were just not there compared to past years. New construction was halted throughout the nation due to supply chain issues and skyrocketing prices for materials. Realtors now see the market cooling off in general. Town’s like Bethlehem, however, could continue to see asking prices climb. In Bethlehem, the median sales price stood at $375,000 at the end of the year.
“First, in response to calls from the community and Governor Hochul’s new statewide housing vision, we will need to assess ways we can incentivize housing construction that provides a wider range of housing choices, including affordability,” VanLuven said. “Bethlehem needs to be open to people of all incomes, whether they are laborers, teachers, nonprofit workers, professors, attorneys, or doctors.”
As zoning regulations change to fit the new comprehensive plan, the town supervisor said there will be efforts to provide incentives for affordable housing. Other efforts traffic safety through complete street plans, protecting natural resources, and protecting open space.
VanLuven identified last November’s Proposition 2, enabling the Town to purchase 300 acres of Glenmont farmland, as “our biggest open space victory.” The properties, including the historic 150+acre Heath Dairy Farm, is visible on three corners of Wemple Road/Rte 9W. There is another 122-acre farm off Clapper Rd and 31 acres on Weisheit Road. The town anticipates closing on the properties later this year, starting an assessment process to keep the land in agriculture.
“I’m incredibly proud of this effort for two reasons. First, these wonderful properties, which have been growing crops since at least the Revolutionary War, will be able to continue growing crops, not subdivisions, for another 250 years. And second, it shows that we in Bethlehem don’t just talk about the importance of open space, we’re willing to work with interested landowners, and pay for it.
Wednesday’s Town Board meeting was the first in recent memory that did not host protests over the Town’s approval of the $350 million wind-turbine manufacturing plant at the Port of Albany. The plant stretches across the town line onto Beacon Island where a 50-year coal ash dumping site has resided. The Town has been under suit for allegedly failing to notify neighboring residents under state review regulations. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has refuted that claim. VanLuven said he was excited to see the plant progress.
The wind-turbine plant was one of two major projects erected or promised in town, the other of which was the $125 million Plug Power manufacturing facility opened last month in Slingerlands. The battery-manufacturing plant served as a capstone for business development within the town, promising as many as 1,600 jobs to the surrounding community.
“Businesses large and small are vital parts of the Bethlehem community and critical drivers of our strong local economy,” VanLuven said. “We are working hard as a town government to support these businesses, and we are fortunate to have strong partners in the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and the Bethlehem Industrial Development Agency to advance these efforts.”