Taking the long view: A love for the Helderberg is who we are and it is worth preserving

Enterprise file photo — Sean Mulkerrin

This is the second of a two-part series examining how views of — and from — the Helderberg escarpment have shaped our development and how this asset continues to provide unique definition to the communities that share the Helderberg viewshed. Read the first part here.

How do you value a view? In an economic sense, real-estate professionals will tell you that a home or raw land boasting a significant view will command anywhere from 10 to 25 percent more in value than otherwise situated properties in the same locale. Likewise, a similar amount of economic value can be wiped out from developments that negatively impact existing views.

But how do we value views in a larger sense? For many people, views are an occasional treat, an aspect of a yearly vacation or something to be sampled and enjoyed during an occasional outing to the country.

Dramatic natural settings are nice but the choices that many people make indicate that, when choosing where to live, other things are higher priorities. Easy proximity to work or school; the convenience of public infrastructure, easy access to stores or the mall — these things seem to matter more. That is one reason why eastern and central Guilderland developed so intensely and why the more remote and picturesque western sections, where I live, remain largely open and bucolic.

It’s harder to live where we do. The weather, particularly in winter, can be more challenging. Wells and private septic systems are uncertain and expensive. It takes longer to get to work, to shop or to ferry your kids to their various activities in other parts of town.

Others in town chose services and convenience; we chose to live near or on the Hill. Why? For m, it’s because the getting here is a major part of the appeal. Every day that I drive home, the view of that mountain invigorates and inspires me. When I’m at home, the view from near the top never fails to uplift and sustain me.

Admittedly I’m a view guy. I pull off at every scenic vista along the highway and try, mostly unsuccessfully, to get my kids to pry their eyes from their phones and tablets to enjoy the view with me. My family’s summer home in the Adirondacks isn’t on a lake or even a pond. We bought it because of the views and the panorama of the High Peaks never changes and never disappoints.

The views of the Helderberg escarpment have a similar effect. I remember as a student at Guilderland High School daydreaming, while staring at that view. Back then, I wanted to live up there, and now I do.

My neighbors in Altamont and the surrounding areas are willing to pay the price — in terms of inconvenience, distance, time — because we love the open space and we love the views so much. In describing their work to protect the various Helderberg viewsheds the Open Space Institute uses the phrase “the lure of a landscape.” We get that.

To us, the views around Altamont are akin to unique, environmental treasures and they have become   the backdrop for our daily lives. Each of the iconic views is slightly different: the views from Indian Ladder Farms, Meadowdale Road, from Orchard Creek Golf Course all show the escarpment in different perspectives, in a different light.

Fortunately, our Helderberg viewsheds are valued by more than just the hardy folks who have chosen to make their home here. The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, a national organization organized to protect the nation’s scenic treasures, early on identified our area as worthy of protection.

Albany Mayor John Boyd Thacher had purchased great tracts of land in order to preserve the views. Later his widow worked with the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and convinced the state of New York to protect the area through the creation of John Boyd Thacher Park, one of the earliest state parks in the United States.

Subsequent purchases in the areas of Thompsons Lake, High Point and  the Black Creek Marsh, has made the state of New York one of the leading players in the protection of Helderberg viewsheds. 

By actively operating some of these assets, the state has successfully introduced new generations and countless numbers of day visitors to the glory of the Helderberg views. The state parks, along with orchards and golf courses featuring prime escarpment views, have sustained the local eco-tourism economy and have considerably enlarged the number of voters who have become stakeholders in the protection of Helderberg viewsheds.

Other levels of government are following a similar course. Albany County has repurposed portions of the old Delaware & Hudson rail line to create the hugely popular  Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail. Currently the trail ends in Voorheesville.

One of my first acts in my new job as county legislator was to vote to approve funding to study an extension of the trail to Altamont and to suggest to county officials that consideration also be given to linking the trail from Altamont to the new visitors’ center and nature center at Thacher Park.



“Proactive steps to preserve”

Increasing development pressures below the Hill have led local towns to take bold, proactive steps to preserve and protect the Helderberg views. In New Scotland, local officials worked with the Ten Eyck Family, the Open Space Institute, and the state to secure a permanent public easement on the lands of the beloved Indian Ladder Farms. This move, one of the first agricultural easements granted in the state, will ensure that the view that draws so many visitors to the region, will be protected forever. 

New Scotland also acted to protect other key open parcels threatened by the “wild west”-like construction of major solar energy collection facilities. These construction projects are popping up all across rural New York in response to massive financial incentives presently offered by the state. New Scotland acted to prohibit large-scale solar projects from all prime farmlands and lands that contain prime soils, a number of which lie in the Helderberg viewshed. 

In Guilderland, which hosts a number of key Helderberg views, the town undertook not one but two master-plan processes, both of which placed viewshed preservation as a top priority. The second process, which resulted in the Rural Guilderland Plan, focused exclusively on planning for development in the western end of town.

A number of resources were used in developing the rural plan, including the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, a seminal work created by experts from the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy and local stakeholders led by the late Dan Driscoll of Knox. The planning guide established the uniqueness of the escarpment and its significance to the region’s past and to its future. It was and remains an invaluable resource for guiding future land-use options and decisions.

The creation of the Rural Guilderland Plan also featured more than a year’s worth of research, meetings, and workshops participated in by scores of landowners and residents of Altamont and western Guilderland. Rural landowners initially resisted one of the hallmarks of the plan — the downzoning and economic diminution of their lands — from essentially 2-acre zoning  to 3- or 5-acre minimum lot requirements. 

However, in the end, most landowners appreciated the bargain that was struck. Their lands would be down-zoned but the plan would work to protect the elements and qualities that originally drew them (or their ancestors) to this beautiful part of town. Included among the protected elements was the protection of the open spaces, scenic ridges, and views that defined  the area.

In addition to informing the revised zoning ordinance, the Rural Guilderland Plan is relevant to each specific development proposal made in this part of town. The town code requires that, before any proposed development receives a site-plan approval and/or a special-use permit, the relevant board must first determine that the development is consistent with the plan.


Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer



This seems pretty straightforward but, in practice, application of the plan has been spotty.

Two months ago, the Guilderland Planning Board considered an application from Helios LLC of Birmingham, Michigan to construct another major, industrial-scale solar-energy collection facility in western Guilderland.

As proposed, this facility will cover nearly the entirety of the scenic ridge that frames the iconic view of the Helderbergs from State Route 397 (Dunnsville Road). This is the view that draws thousands of visitors to Altamont Orchards and the Orchard Creek Golf Course. It is the only public, north-to-south view encompassing the full length of the escarpment.   

Though the planning board was obligated, by code, to assess the particular project and site against the plan, the board reasoned that, because the zoning ordinance allowed solar arrays as a special use anywhere in the Ag District, it therefore was consistent with the plan to approve this use at this particular scenic site. 

This is a very constrained, some would say erroneous, understanding of the applicability of the Town’s Plan to projects that impact scenic resources. The move by the planning board has led to objections and protests from an unusual coalition of business interests, progressive activists, and residents determined to see that the plan applied to protect the resources it was designed to protect.

As of this writing, the best hope of preserving this iconic ridge lies in defeating the request for a special-use permit. This can happen when and if the zoning board follows the code and actually applies the principles of the town plan to this particular project at this particular  site.   

The Altamont Village Board could make this considerably easier if it sees fit to disapprove the project under its cross-jurisdictional referral zoning authority. If Altamont disapproves, then the Guilderland Zoning Board of Appeals can approve the project only with a supermajority voting in favor of construction.

Alternatively, the Abbruzzese family, the owners of Altamont Orchards, has offered a land swap so that the solar facility could be developed on an adjoining parcel. This offered parcel, which lies on a preferred south slope of the ridge, is not viewable from the road and thus would protect the view.

Should the developers agree to the swap, the Abbruzzese family has also agreed to offer a conservation easement on the scenic side of the ridge, forever protecting the public viewshed.


“Worth preserving”

It remains to be seen how this threat will yet play out. The threats to protected public resources — like the Helderberg viewshed — will likely increase over time, even as new generations come to appreciate the unique natural resource that created and defined our community. Anything unique and valuable is worth effort and worth fighting for. 

While most of the voters in town live in the built-up areas close to Albany or Schenectady, the people who have chosen to make their homes in Altamont and the surrounding countryside have determined that the Helderberg — and our views of it — matters and is worth fighting for.

Our views of the Helderberg matter so much that we are willing to put up with long commutes, uncertain water, and harsher winters so that we can live surrounded by them every day. This is what gives our part of town its unique and heightened sense of place. It roots us to the land and, in a way, to one another. 

It’s ironic that something so singular has created a community. But that’s exactly what has happened. For nearly 300 years, a community has been created from the people who share a love for a unique hill  and its awesome views. It is who we are and it is worth preserving.

Jeff Perlee is an Altamont native who currently represents the region in the Albany County Legislature.

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