Urban and rural: We are one state and must find common ground

The history of tension between upstate and downstate, between rural and urban, is as old as New York state.
The Sons of Liberty, a group founded in 1765 to protest the Stamp Act, was active in New York City, calling the governor, Cadwallader Colden, “the Chief Murderer of their Rights and Privileges.” The group later hung an effigy of the governor alongside the devil.

Meanwhile, much of upstate, under British Army officer and colonial administrator Sir William Johnson, was solid Tory country loyal to the crown.

The upstate-downstate tensions that prevailed in the 20th Century were detailed recently on our pages by Albany County Legislator Jeff Perlee, writing about reforestation efforts.

Al Smith, New York’s progressive governor, who was dubbed “the hero of the cities,” Perlee wrote, had always prioritized attention and resources for downstate and urban concerns. Smith would not back an upstate reforestation effort to revive depleted farmland.

As the United States became industrialized and rapidly developed, resources essential for life became a cause of further tensions.

As the population of New York City burgeoned, wells — the first pumped well was set up in the 1660s after the British took control of the city from the Dutch — and local reservoirs could not meet needs. A fire destroyed a quarter of the city’s buildings in 1776 and, in the 1830s, contaminated water contributed to a cholera epidemic that killed over 3,000 city residents.

In the 1840s, New York City started the system it uses today, bringing in water from large upstate reservoirs. “Each day, more than 1.1 billion gallons of fresh, clean water is delivered from large upstate reservoirs — some more than 125 miles from the City — to the taps of nine million customers,” proudly states a city website.

Our readers are familiar with the reservoirs in the Catskills. There is also a Delaware system and a Croton system supplying water to New York City; the watersheds of the three systems cover an area of almost 2,000 square miles, about the size of the state of Delaware. The reservoirs combined have a storage capacity of 550 billion gallons.

Cities did the same thing here. The growing city of Albany built three reservoirs to supply its residents with clean water. One is the Basic Creek Reservoir in Westerlo, constructed from 1928 to 1932 

Here in Guilderland, the Normanskill was dammed to flood farmland for Watervliet’s reservoir.

“During the first decade of the 20th Century, typhoid had become an increasingly serious health issue in the city of Watervliet as the result of contamination of the city’s water supply,” wrote Enterprise history columnist Mary Ellen Johnson. “Watervliet’s water source was then the Mohawk River near Dunsbach Ferry, water which had become more impure as the upstream cities and industry expanded.”

She details the fight, which played out on the pages of The Enterprise, that the Woodrich family waged to try to keep their Guilderland farmland from being flooded.

They were the last owners of the historic Wemple farm before the rich agricultural lands and buildings were lost forever. Richard Woodrich not only hired two Albany lawyers, but additionally a New York City law firm to fight the proposed acquisition.

To settle the dispute, the Albany County Court appointed a three-man committee to view the property and take testimony. The matter went to the New York State Supreme Court where the Watervliet Water Board requested the condemnation of the Woodrich property. The Woodrich Estate received $16,000 for 60 acres.

“With the city having the power of eminent domain, the Woodrich family didn’t stand a chance,” wrote Johnson.

Now, of course, we accept the reservoirs in our midst. Guilderland gets drinking water from Watervliet’s reservoir, and people have used the reservoirs recreationally.

But, at the time they were built, there was a keen sense of city dwellers taking advantage of rural residents.

This came to mind when our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel detailed a Cornell study on rural attitudes towards solar facilities in a front-page story last week.

In addition to field work, Zweifel reports, the researchers surveyed more than 400 residents in areas of northern and western New York State about their opinions on utility-scale solar — which the study defined as large solar facilities that generate electricity sent somewhere else — while also measuring their political attitudes, belief in climate change, upstate identity, and local attachment, among other things.

The study found what most correlated with rural residents’ stance on solar development were factors related to sense of place, such as how secure people felt in their own community, how strongly they identify with an upstate point-of-view, and whether they feel their area can compete fairly against other areas for its own interests.

The study, published online on March 16 in the journal Rural Sociology, “Reacting to Rural Burden: Understanding Opposition to Utility-Scale Solar Development in Upstate New York,” found that upstaters felt they weren’t adequately compensated for fulfilling downstate needs.

“Solar energy is usually described as a promising and clean technology and is often touted as a key response to the climate crisis,” the study reads. “But the growing trend of developing [utility-scale solar] sites in rural places highlights how solar can recreate energy production and consumption patterns between rural and urban society — patterns which historically have contributed to spatial inequalities.” 

There is little local benefit from utility-scale solar facilities as they are designed to feed directly into a centralized grid, rather than being redistributed locally to lower local energy bills. 

The usual benefit a municipality receives from a utility — through tax payments — is circumvented for solar facilities because the state, wanting to encourage solar, has lifted that requirement, letting developers pay far less in Payments In Lieu Of Taxes, known as PILOTs.

In the towns we cover — Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Helderberg Hilltowns — we have written often about residents protesting large solar facilities near their homes.

The Cornell researchers, observing the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon, known as NIMBYism, note that some opponents of solar projects “engaged the label of NIMBYism, but contradicted the common usage of this term as dismissive and judgmental — that is, they are reasonable to not want this in their backyard, based on the distribution of costs and benefits.”

The survey showed clearly that most rural residents see the value and necessity of solar energy and are not climate-change deniers.

So we need to toss out those ignorant stereotypes of residents raising objections to these large solar facilities.

How do we proceed from here if we recognize both the necessity of solar in saving our planet and also of respecting rural rights without further fueling the rural-urban divide?

We believe the answer lies in responsible local governance. New York state has set admirable, if difficult, goals to stem the use of fossil fuels and incentivized this by such measures as discounting taxes.

But local governments — as the towns of Guilderland and New Scotland have done — can insist on full tax payments as they would for any other facility.

Further, and more importantly, municipalities can gauge the desires of their own residents to see what resources — whether it be rich farmland or scenic vistas — are commonly viewed as worth preserving and zone accordingly, thus dictating the most suitable places for solar facilities to be built.

This happened at the Albany County level when legislation was proposed to protect the viewshed of the Helderberg escarpment in the wake of protests over a solar proposal that would have marred that view shed.

After all, such an attraction as the scenic Helderbergs is not just good for the soul but also for the local economy, attracting tourists.

It is easy as New Yorkers to focus on our differences as upstate or downstate residents.

The political differences have been starkly clear in recent elections, with cities — not just New York City — supporting Democrats while rural areas largely support Republicans.

It is also easy to define our problems as political — whether patriot versus Tory, or blue versus red.

But taking a close look at attitudes, as the Cornell study does, is a far more worthwhile endeavor.

It is not just unfair but also counterproductive to portray rural residents as not caring about the environment or not understanding the underpinnings of climate change.

We do.

It is equally wrong and counterproductive to characterize cities as crime-ridden hotbeds of radical ideologies. New York City is the financial capital of the world, rich in arts and educational institutions, peopled with a vibrant diversity of cultures.

Just as, a century or more ago, city dwellers did not have the land to create reservoirs so their residents could drink clean water to stay healthy, cities now do not have the space needed for solar facilities to keep the planet healthy.

We are one state. We need to find common ground. We should have a shared goal of seeing that the needs of current residents are met within the framework of sustaining our planet for future generations.

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