A canopy of regional planning protects us all

Illustration by Forest Byrd

This spring, we sat in a room full of journalists at a convention for weekly newspapers, listening to the attorney general, sounding a lot like he was setting down planks to make a run for governor.

He asked the journalists to guess how many local governments the state had. The correct answer was 10,000, he said. An audible murmur of surprise rippled across the room.

“We’re in tough economic times,” said Andrew Cuomo. “We have to get the cost of government down … Why does everyone have to have their own fire truck, their own police car, their own sewer district?”

Cuomo conceded it is hard to change the status quo. “My job is bringing the cases that highlight the problem. Your job,” Cuomo told the journalists, “is to cover the problem and convince the people…so the politicians will listen.”

We know consolidation is a tough sell. When the supervisor in the rural town of Berne pitched an idea of consolidating the town highway department with the county’s, the other town board members wouldn’t even vote to apply for a grant that would study the merger.

The Intergovernmental Studies Program of Rockefeller College at the University at Albany released a study this spring on municipal cooperation and consolidation, which finds “modest patterns across municipalities” in Albany County. Municipalities that had weathered financial stress did not increase their cooperative activities to cope with their financial problems; when municipalities were more financially stable, they increased cooperative activities, the study says.

The study also found that a leader’s affinity toward cooperation was linked to his community’s cooperation activity level. The town of Guilderland topped the local list, with eight categories of cooperation, followed by the village of Altamont with seven. This includes sharing equipment, paramedic service, fuel, assessing, staff, community development, land-use planning, and sewer and water.

Berne, Knox, and Voorheesville each cooperate in five categories, New Scotland in three, Westerlo in two, and Rensselaerville in one.

Because we cover small towns and villages closely, we understand how much citizens — from the elected leaders to the volunteer firefighters — have invested in their independence. Our job is not to convince people of one thing or another but to inform them as fully as possible so they can make intelligent choices.

One area where regionalism would be worthwhile is in land-use planning. We’ve written before of the need for an overarching organization to allow municipalities to plan together for a healthy future. If the state legislature doesn’t have the foresight or gumption to create such regional planning organizations, local municipalities must form their own commissions to do so.

Now there is economic incentive to develop agricultural and farmland protection plans. We commend the town of Berne, which has applied for a $25,000 grant through the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets. Municipalities are eligible for up to $25,000 or 75 percent of the cost of planning. The grant stipulates towns pay $8,333 of the $25,000 and $1,667 has to be in cash; the rest can be in-kind services.

We wrote about the grants for farmland protection planning when it was announced last year at Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland. The farm was an appropriate site since it was the first in the county to sell its development rights, to remain forever agricultural.

New York’s Farmland Protection Program is more than a decade old but the new provision allows cities, towns, and villages rather than just counties to apply for funds.

A quarter of New York is still farmland but it is fast disappearing. Albany County has more than 400 farms, many of them in our coverage area.

The new provision allows two towns to join together in planning and be funded for double the money — $25,000 each. We urge towns near Berne to join in the planning project.

We wrote two years ago about the time being ripe for a regional master plan, from the Helderberg highlands to the valley below. The time now may be over-ripe, although not yet spoiled.

In the Hilltowns, Rensselaerville has completed a master plan, but was successfully sued by a group of citizens who argued that implementing five-acre zoning in the agricultural district did not follow the plan. In Westerlo, which has 30 farms, the town board was wise to re-instate a planning board after a 14-year hiatus. But work on a master plan has faltered as two of the five planning board members have left amid controversy. In Knox, the comprehensive plan is in need of review.

Below the escarpment, in New Scotland, citizens in the once-rural town rose up this spring to protest plans for a big-box mall at the old Bender melon farm. The town board adopted a half-year moratorium on commercial development and appointed an advisory committee to revamp zoning to reflect the town’s master plan.

Farmland is worth protecting — to preserve the rural economy and way of life as well as the views — and there is money at hand to plan for it. Careful planning with committed follow-through would quell some of the chaos and controversy.

Two years ago, David Rusk, one of America’s leading experts on urban development, issued a report that blamed antiquated state laws for the increasing economic disparity between cities and suburbs in upstate New York. The laws, he said, spread power over 1,546 cities, towns, and villages without unified regional planning.

We already have a framework for regional planning in the 2002 Helderberg Escarpment Planning Guide, which assembles in-depth research on the escarpment and the land below — its geology, soils, hydrology, plants, animals, agriculture, aesthetics, recreation, and historical and cultural resources.

The work was edited by two men with years of local planning experience — Daniel Driscoll, an engineer from Knox, and Lindsay Childs, a mathematician from Guilderland.

The highly readable guide is not meant “to frustrate growth,” its authors write. Rather, it is “to assist municipal boards, landowners, and developers to appreciate the unique character of the escarpment area and to understand better how to design growth which will be respectful of that uniqueness.”

The guide, it was hoped, would stimulate inter-municipal cooperation, providing a common framework for planning.

“The communities in the region are interdependent — one on another — for the wise stewardship of their magnificent resources,” says the guide. “What one community does can help or hinder adjacent communities in their efforts to assure that future generations will be able to enjoy the Helderbergs as much as we do.”

Our towns face issues that are inter-related. When it comes to planning, though, they are completely unrelated and, at times, are even unaware of each other’s problems and approaches. We urge our leaders, as the intergovernmental study showed their effectiveness, will forge ahead on this.

There is no better time than now to plan together for a future we can all embrace.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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