New Scotland adopts a vision for its future

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff
Agri-tourism — encouraging kids like these to visit Indian Ladder Farms every year for Baby Animal Daze — is something New Scotland should promote, says the town’s newly-adopted comprehensive plan.

NEW SCOTLAND — A process that began over a decade ago, paused, and recommenced in May 2017, came to a quiet conclusion on Wednesday night as the town board unanimously approved an update to New Scotland’s comprehensive plan.

New Scotland first adopted a comprehensive plan in 1960 and updated it 35 years later in 1995.

Supervisor Douglas LaGrange said during Wednesday’s public hearing — where only two residents spoke — that the plan is an aspirational document meant to be a vision for the town.

Going forward, the recommendations made in the plan will be used as a guide as New Scotland updates its zoning and land-use regulations. Each proposed regulation update will undergo its own public hearing.

The town’s Comprehensive Plan Update Committee used a set of strategies designed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assist “communities to identify gaps in policies, plans, codes, and zoning regulations by asking a series of Yes or No questions.”

In May, the town board adopted a new law that rezoned the New Scotland hamlet, taking about 455 acres that had been zoned commercial; about 70 acres  zoned residential-agriculture; and 24 acres zoned residential hamlet, and rezoned the land to create the new hamlet-zoning district.

The hamlet district has three sub-districts: a concentrated hamlet center with the character of a traditional village; an expansion area, which had been zoned for commercial use, and will now include mixed-use to incorporate more housing; and a development area, which will be more residential than commercial.

The new hamlet law lays out permitted uses and development standards that will be allowed in the sub-districts. These allowable uses create density and diversity, which, its drafters hope, can create affordability.

Councilman Adam Greenberg described the New Scotland Comprehensive Plan earlier as “kind of a wishlist” or a document that says: “We’ve looked at the town and here’s the areas we think you should be concerned about, and here is what we think could happen in the future — and here are the ways in which we think a proactive approach could help.”

Greenberg pointed out that every recommended change in the plan would have to go through a public hearing, so residents would have plenty of opportunity to offer input.

The town’s comprehensive plan, Greenberg said, is not nearly as detailed as the New Scotland Hamlet Plan — nor is it intended to be.  

An online survey created by the update committee yielded 658 responses;  New Scotland has 8,785 residents, according to the latest federal census data.

Residents placed a premium on preservation and conservation, with two-thirds to three-quarters of respondents deeming the concepts “very important” and “extremely important.”  And half of respondents said they would pay more in taxes so that the town could buy more open space.

One notable result from the online survey, the plan says, was a “stronger preference” to implement “design standards as opposed to unbridled commercial development.”

New Scotlanders view their town as “unique within the Capital District” because, in contrast with many of its more developed neighbors, it has considerable rural character.

Much of the town’s development, the plan says, exists within the village of Voorheesville and its five hamlets: New Scotland, Clarksville, Feura Bush, Unionville, and New Salem.

In order to preserve rural character and direct growth, the plan says, “It is the vision for the Town of New Scotland to enact laws and implement policies that will”:

— Retain the town’s character;

— Protect and restore the town’s natural resources and scenic vistas, for example, views of the Escarpment;

— Promote “sustainable, walkable, climate smart development which directs development” to areas with existing infrastructure;

— Encourage affordable housing;

— Promote economic development in the five hamlet centers as well as the village; and

— Provide for an active and engaged community.

The plan proposes a number of overlay districts, which is a zoning district that can be applied to one or more previously established zoning districts, and establishes additional or stricter standards than those of the underlying zoning district.

“Communities often use overlay zones to protect special features such as historic buildings, wetlands, steep slopes, and waterfronts,” according to the American Planning Association. “Overlay zones can also be used to promote specific development projects, such as mixed-use developments, waterfront developments, housing along transit corridors, or affordable housing.”

The comprehensive plan proposes overlay districts throughout the town for agricultural preservation; conservation; karst and well testing; the Helderberg escarpment; scenic vistas and ridgelines; and forest conservation.

With the comprehensive plan, the town has laid out a set of 11 goals as well as the measurable steps that need to be taken in order to achieve its “vision.”

Revitalize hamlet areas

The town’s hamlets, the plan says, would benefit from revitalization like the recently rezoned New Scotland hamlet has; to do so, the plan identifies four objectives:

— Concentrate development in areas with infrastructure that can accommodate growth:

Developers looking to cash in on New Scotland’s natural setting and proximity to employment centers, the plan says, may end up harming the attributes they are seeking to exploit. As such, development should be concentrated to the town’s hamlets so that existing infrastructure can be used, which will preserve the town’s rural character while giving those areas an economic boost.

Concentrated development, the plan says, reduces the cost of infrastructure and municipal services, while also reducing sprawl.

“Compact, mixed-use development can be attained by the adoption of hamlet-specific zoning regulations, such as those currently proposed for the New Scotland Hamlet,” the plan says;

— Encourage revitalization through redevelopment:

Rather than converting existing open space, the plan says, the town should promote  “greenfield” development — land not previously used for residential, commercial or industrial purpose — in the hamlets;

— Encourage mixed-land uses using form-based code principles and design standards:

Mixed-land use, the plan says, can significantly contribute to the revitalization of the hamlets. The 2012 New Scotland Hamlet Master Plan provides design standards that could be considered in other hamlets.

Implementing “form-based code principles and design standards” fosters predictable outcomes and ensures that new development is consistent with existing community character.

The plan then outlines these steps to accomplish the goals for hamlets:

— Partner with the Albany County Land Bank to “create a strategic approach to reduce the number of vacant, abandoned, or underutilized properties in hamlets and village”;

— Consider adapting the recently-adopted the New Scotland hamlet plan for other hamlets;

— Amend the town’s zoning code to align with “Smart Growth” principles, a set of development and conservation strategies;

— Require public green space in new developments;

— Purchase open space in the New Scotland hamlet that would serve as a town park; and

— Amend the zoning code to keep out formula restaurants and chain stores.

Strengthen local economy

Making New Scotland more inviting to existing and prospective businesses, the plan says, could strengthen the local economy. The plan says the town should:

— Encourage unique, small, local businesses to locate in New Scotland:

“Enacting zoning provisions that promote development in the hamlet centers,” the plan states, “will provide opportunities to shop, socialize, and gather, thereby attracting small businesses”;

— Retain the existing population:

New Scotland, according to the plan, should “provide avenues” for young people, longtime residents, and the elderly, to remain in the community. To do so, the plan says, the town could allow for elder cottage housing, or ECHO, temporary housing that can be installed in a backyard, most commonly used to accommodate the elderly; mother-in-law flats; and residential-lot sharing;

— Leverage local assets:

Agribusiness, like Indian Ladder Farms; history, like the Hilton Barn; and scenic open-space resources, like the Helderberg escarpment, John Boyd Thacher State Park, and Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail can be “leveraged to promote economic development in New Scotland.”

The plan outlines these ways of strengthening the local economy:

— Create a town economic development office;

— Collaborate with Albany County’s economic development office; and

— Amend zoning to expand allowable uses in barns, and to allow for less expensive residential options, “in order to retain the existing consumer base.”

Engage local community

So that residents feel invested, the plan suggests, promoting activities to engage the public. It recommends:

— Engaging the public in the planning process:

Creating a variety of community advisory committees, such as a Conservation Advisory Council, a joint town-village Committee for Intergovernmental Coordination, and a Hilton Barn and Park Events Committee “could change the way that residents view development proposals and give them a more hands-on role in the development approval process,” the plan says; and

— Engage and connect community members through programs and services:

The town’s goal, the plan says, is to develop community centers in each of the five hamlets, with programs for youth, adults, and senior citizens.

The plan lists these ways to engage and connect those in the community:

— Establish community advisory committees;

— Amend land-use laws and regulations to increase the preservation of open space in new developments; and

— Create centers for youth, families, and seniors.

Promote active living, improve community health  

To reduce adverse public-health impacts of new development, and to improve residents’ quality of life, the plan says the town should promote active living and suggests these methods:

— Promote active transportation:

The plan calls for “sidewalks, bike lanes, linkages, greenways, wayfinding signage, accommodations for electric vehicles and bicyclists, as well as the establishment of park-and-ride programs to promote ride-sharing and multi-modal transportation.”

In addition, the proper infrastructure needs to be in place in order to promote active transportation;

— Promote open space and recreational opportunities;  

— Encourage subdivision and building design that reduce negative public health impacts:

The plans says that regulating the size and orientation of parcels within subdivisions; adopting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards for development; adopting clustering, conservation subdivision, and form-based codes to reduce sprawl development; and conserving  natural areas will reduce negative health impacts.

The plan advocates these steps to promote community health:

— Require new developments to have more than one entry and exit point;

— Adopt a conservation subdivision ordinance;

— Require open space;

— Regulate the size and orientation of parcels; and

— Use zoning to require that 50 percent of parcels be preserved as open space with houses clustered in a traditional neighborhood design.

Provide safe transportation choices

The plan recommends multi-modal transportation, listing this initiatives:

— Make the town more walkable, bikeable, and accessible to all;

— Improve traffic safety and traffic management; and

— Advocate for public safety near railroads.

The lists these means of offering transportation choices for all:

— Require connectivity between new and existing developments;

— Adopt a “Complete Street” model, a set of principles for streets to be designed and built so that people of all ages and abilities can travel easily and safely by foot, bicycle, transit, and car; and

— Improve local connectivity with existing Capital District Transportation Authority bus service to accommodate all users, and advocate for more bus routes. Add park-and-ride locations.

Protect open space and ecosystems

Protection of New Scotland’s open space, natural habitats, and ecosystems, the plan says, is a top priority for the town.

The town spans approximately 56 square miles, according to the plan, and contains several major tributaries that drain into the Hudson River estuary.

New Scotland’s wetlands and vernal pools, the plan says, provide a habitat for one of the most diverse amphibian populations in the state — in particular, the Vly Creek wetland, which has the highest diversity of amphibian species of any area in New York.

The plan says the town should:

— Protect natural resources;

— Use water resources more efficiently:

The town has limited ground-water resources, the plan says, and studies are needed to identify areas at risk of depletion;

— Preserve and protect open space:

Results of the town-wide survey show that preservation and conservation of open space is a top priority for residents.

“The conservation of open space resources is essential to the preservation of the Town’s significant natural areas and wildlife, agriculture and scenic vistas, recreational pursuits, property values, and small town, rural character,” the plan says;

— Promote climate-conscious practices:

The town, the plan says, should promote climate-conscious practices including obtaining Climate Smart Certification, program that provides local governments with a framework to guide climate action;

— Enhance flood resiliency:

Flash flooding can occur in the Vly Creek and Onesquethaw Creek watersheds, the plan says, and “mitigation of this stormwater flooding can be attained through the establishment of wetland and vegetated stream buffers, minimizing new impervious surfaces, encouraging the use of green infrastructure practices for managing stormwater, and by responsible development practices outside of floodplains.”

The plan outlines these steps to open space, natural habitats, and ecosystems:

— Create a Conservation Advisory Council;

— Enact conservation overlay zoning districts that provide for resource protection regulations;

— Acquire conservation easements for sensitive habitats such as floodplains or wetlands and their buffers;

— Establish procedures for boards to consider habitat and environmental resources early in the planning process;

— Apply for funding to undertake an inventory of at-risk streams and wetlands;

— Enact a law or that requires groundwater studies be conducted prior to approving new development;

— Amend zoning laws to require conservation subdivisions; and

— Update zoning laws in accordance with Federal Emergency Management Administration updates.

Support agriculture for a variety of markets

By supporting and promoting local local farming and agri-business, the plan says, the town can reduces greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation of the agricultural products and improve the freshness of food.  According to the plan, the town should:

— Preserve existing agricultural lands and open space:

Since enacting a Right-to-Farm Law, in 2006, New Scotland has increased its farmland from 4,605 acres, in 1993, to 6,212 acres, in 2017. “This trend should be supported,” the plan says.

“Agricultural and Working Forest easements and tax assessments at current use value on agricultural land (rather than highest value on real estate market) could provide options for farmers who are struggling to keep farms open due to market pressures or for the next generation of farmers who cannot afford the upfront costs associated with farming,” the plan states;

— Support and promote agriculture and agri-tourism.

The plan recommends supporting local agriculture by taking these steps:

— Apply for funding for studies and assistance programs that would enable the town to offer agricultural easements and tax breaks for farmers;

— Create a conservation overlay district for high-value agricultural land; and

— Allow more uses on agricultural properties such as bed and breakfasts.

Housing for all ages and incomes

The town, the plan says, should help make housing more affordable, and provide a variety of affordable housing and remove barriers to homeownership. New Scotland should enact land-use laws that will produce a greater mix of housing type and lot size, and require that a percentage of units in new developments be set aside as affordable.

Although, the plan points out, data from the United States Census Bureau “do not indicate that residents are significantly burdened by housing costs.”

However, the plan says, there are few affordable options in New Scotland for  young people.

The plan lists these ways the town could make housing affordable:

— Allow for a mix of housing types and lot sizes within new developments;

— Streamline approval process for new developments that promote housing diversity;

— Encourage redevelopment of abandoned properties;

— Establish a housing trust fund from fees applied to non-residential development that will be used to build affordable housing;

— Provide tax credits to encourage the building of affordable housing; and

— Require that at least 10 percent of the units in new developments be affordable.

Preserve historic and cultural resources

Preserving New Scotland’s cultural, historic, and visual resources, the plan says, will “preserve the town’s strong rural, agricultural, and railroading identity.” Three-quarters of survey respondents said it was “important,” “very important,” or “extremely important” to conserve the town’s historic buildings.

The plan recommends these means for the town to preserve historic resources:

— Amend land-use laws to encourage adaptive re-use of barns;

— Establish design guidelines in hamlet areas;

— Adopt building and lighting regulations to limit light pollution; and

— Adopt a scenic viewshed overlay district to protect views like those of the Helderberg escarpment.

Improve government efficiency, services, and enforcement

To make New Scotland a more desirable place for residents and business owners, the plan says, the town should improve the efficiency, services, operations, and enforcement of local government by these means:

— Improve local policies and regulation:

Create for the public a searchable, easy to use system of the town’s land-use laws, and re-evaluate and update the town’s zoning and subdivision laws as soon as possible.

— Improve enforcement of local policies and regulations; and

— Improve local partnerships.

The plan says the town should take these steps:

— Consolidate and improve clarity of local laws and regulations, and publish a consolidated law for online access;

— Adopt stormwater management best management practices;

—  Adopt design standards and form-based codes that maintain consistent landscaping between properties;

— Require LEED building standards;

— Efficiently enforce local policies, laws, and regulations;

— Coordinate with local land conservancies; and

— Adopt a Helderberg escarpment overlay district.

Use energy efficiently, produce renewable energy

To reduce the cost of living and doing business in New Scotland, the plan suggests, improving the town’s energy efficiency as well as exploring “the feasibility of the production of renewable energy to promote a climate smart community.”

The plan lists these steps to improve energy efficiency:

— Work toward a regional approach to energy efficiency and energy independence;

— Adopt a New York State Unified-Solar Permit and renewable-energy law to reduce costs and delays for solar projects;

— Require light-emitting diode lighting for street signs and street lights;

— Reduce the town’s greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce municipal buildings emissions by 10 percent through energy efficiency upgrades and renewable energy;

— Adopt policy that requires annual reporting of energy use in municipal buildings; and

— Train code-enforcement officer and other municipal officials in energy code enforcement best practices.

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