Plan regionally for an open future

Whether or not tech valley becomes a reality in the Capital Region, this has been a year to take stock of ourselves and plan for our future.

Everywhere in our coverage area — from Berne in the rural Hilltowns, to New Scotland on the rural-suburban cusp, to suburban Guilderland with its bold attempts to preserve open space in the western part of town — planning has provoked passionate responses from our citizens.

In February, we ran a front-page story, a warning of sorts from the Open Space Institute that sprawl in the Capital Region is out of control. While the population of the area slowly grows, people are pouring out of the cities and even the villages and into new developments in suburban towns.
"The dots of sprawl are being connected as growth — largely unplanned and uncoordinated — occurs around us," the report states.

The Open Space Institute buys land in New York State and preserves it; the report, said Joe Martens, president of the institute, is to help local governments preserve land without groups like the institute buying it.
"We realize we can’t buy everything that’s out there, nor should we," Martens told our reporter, Matt Cook.

Martens said cities can attract people by reducing crime rates and pollution, and improving public transportation. However, he said, the single biggest change a city can make is to improve its school district, as thousands of people are leaving beleaguered city school districts for suburban ones with better reputations.
Why should we care if suburbia sprawls across open space and farmland" Wildlife and wetlands will be lost; the quality and supply of drinking water will decrease; traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption will all increase and so will local taxes.

In short, the quality of life will diminish not just for us, but for future generations as well.

The Open Space Institute places the blame for sprawl on municipalities, chalking it up to poor planning. In Albany County, for example, only four out of 19 municipalities — Berne, New Scotland, Guilderland, and Voorheesville — use all five recommended planning methods: a comprehensive plan, zoning, subdivision review, site-plan review, and a planning board.

While we were pleased to note all four of these are municipalities we cover, we realize it is not enough. Clearly, as people leave cities like Albany in search of safer venues and better schools, there is a growing chasm between the wealthy and the poor. The once-solid middle class is disintegrating into pockets of haves and have-nots.

In April, we covered a session where supervisors from Guilderland, New Scotland, Berne, Bethlehem, and Colonie shared planning ideas and their goals for smart growth. Despite the towns’ differences, many of the supervisors’ comments were the same — that planning is difficult, but key to protecting the future of Albany County.

There was some discussion of the towns’ need to work together, but no mechanism in place to do so. Albany was invited to the session but didn’t come; the county’s central city is an essential player in any sort of regional planning.

In May, David Rusk, one of America's leading experts on urban development, rode in from the west with what looked to be a solution.

He blames antiquated state laws for the increasing economic disparity between upstate New York cities and suburbs. The laws, he says, spread power over 1,545 cities, towns, and villages without unified regional planning.
While we think Rusk’s analysis of the problem is accurate, his solution isn’t workable. Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, who now works as in independent consultant on urban and suburban policy, wrote a report called "Upstate New York: A House Divided," in which he calls for an increase in county power.
He calls for "big-box" county government to preside over towns and villages, which he calls "small-box" government.
As population pours out of cities and into the suburbs, it causes not only sprawl, but segregation, Rusk says. "In ‘little box’ regions, I have found that the (generally) unspoken mission of most ‘little boxes’ town councils (and most ‘little boxes’ school boards) is ‘to keep our town (or our schools) just the way they are for people just like us,’" Rusk writes. "Jim Crow by income is steadily replacing Jim Crow by race."

The best way for upstate New York regions to act as single entities, Rusk asserts, is to strengthen the power of county governments.

This may work in the western part of the country where county governments have, from the start, been powerful. But the Northeast developed differently; it was settled over centuries — long before Europeans settled the West — with a tradition of separate, and, indeed, sometimes rival towns and villages.

We have only to look at the huge uproar this year from the Westerlo community when the centralized Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District decided to close the small Westerlo primary school because of decreasing district-wide enrollment. Communities will not willingly give up their identities. County governments are not set up to recognize traditional municipal allegiances.

What we need is an overarching organization that will work with the existing municipalities, much in the way the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services allows diverse school districts to work together. The BOCES concept is, of course, fueled by money from the state; individual school districts are rewarded with added aid for services they use communally.

Another local example of individual municipalities being harnessed for a common cause is the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, set up by the state legislature to preserve the rare inland pine barrens.

The county-wide governance envisioned by Rusk is not a big enough box. In the Capital Region, the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, and the towns that surround them, face issues that are inter-related. But each municipality — included in several counties — acts in isolation; when it comes to planning, they are completely unrelated and, at times, are even unaware of each other’s problems and approaches.

What is needed is a regional planning body with teeth.

There is no easy fix, but, if separate states could come together to form the union that became the United States, we believe separate municipalities could do so, too. The European Union is now working towards a similar goal, while each country is to maintain its individual identity.

Active citizens’ groups, like the faith-based Gamaliel NY, which funded the Rusk report, are the best way to motivate governments to action, Rusk said.

We believe state legislators need to listen to such citizens and create regional structures that will harness individual municipalities’ energies to plan cooperatively for an open future. Beyond preserving open space, which is important, we need to preserve an open society that will be inclusive of all its citizens.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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