Westerlo adopts long-awaited comprehensive plan

— From Westerlo's comprehensive plan
Westerlo’s first viable comprehensive plan, adopted this week, lays out a vision to protect the small town’s rural character, prime agricultural assets, historic location, vital natural resources, and exceptional quality of life.

WESTERLO — After two years of mighty effort, the Westerlo Town Board has adopted, by unanimous vote, the town’s long-awaited, much-needed, and first viable comprehensive plan

“I’ve told my husband probably six times that I was going to the last comprehensive plan public hearing ….,” said Comprehensive Plan Committee member Jill Falchi-Henck at the town board’s Sept. 21 meeting. “I’m excited to tell him it’s official.”

It was this month two years ago that the comprehensive plan committee first convened after being brought into existence by the town board at the time, headed by former Supervisor Bill Bichteman, who championed the plan’s necessity even as other town board members and some residents grew frustrated by various logistical challenges that came up during the process, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bichteman, however, was not at the Sept. 21 meeting at which the plan was adopted, having resigned as supervisor this past June.

Comprehensive plans are important because, although they have no legal weight, they guide municipalities in their planning processes by laying out a vision for the future with input from residents on issues relating primarily to development. Also, the Albany County Planning Board refers to local comprehensive plans when reviewing project proposals, and has declined to back projects that are not in line with the relevant municipality’s plan — the municipality can go ahead without county approval anyway if it has a supermajority vote.

Westerlo’s plan lays out a vision to protect the small town’s rural character, prime agricultural assets, historic location, vital natural resources, and exceptional quality of life.

One of the stated objectives is for Westerlo to undergo town-wide property valuation, which hasn’t been done in over half a century, leaving the tax rolls badly skewed.

In addition to the spiritual and planning benefits, Deputy Supervisor Matthew Kryzak, who is leading the town in Bichteman’s absence and is likely to be elected supervisor this November, said at the Sept. 21 meeting that, with a comprehensive plan finally in place, the town will be able to competitively apply for grant money that would otherwise be all but impossible to get. 

“Essentially, the first question on every grant is ‘Do you have a comprehensive plan that is up to date?’” Kryzak said. “If you can’t check ‘yes’ on the first box, you’re not getting any money. It’s no different than when you go to a bank for a business loan; if you don’t have a business plan, you’re not making it out of the bank with anything.”

He added that the town will now receive the last 10 percent of what once was a $5,000 grant but became a $10,000 grant from Hudson Valley Greenway, designed to aid comprehensive-plan development.

Westerlo had been scrambling to finish the plan under a self-imposed deadline, being the date by which a moratorium on solar and wind energy development is set to expire. The town board established the moratorium in August 2019 after allowing five solar fields to be installed in the town, some of which have been the subject of controversy for, among other things, their ugliness relative to the mostly natural environment that surrounds them. First set to expire in August 2020, the town board voted to extend the moratorium by one more year, and it was extended again for 90 days this past August. 

While the town could theoretically have extended the moratorium indefinitely, Kryzak has expressed concern that imprudent extensions might make the town vulnerable to lawsuits from solar companies that are interested in developing there, such as Stella Solar, which made a feeble attempt to stop the board from extending the moratorium in August 2020 because the company had a proposal on deck. 

Next month, the town board will likely vote on a slate of renewable energy laws pertaining to solar and wind facilities, as well as batteries. That meeting is scheduled for Oct. 5. 

“Thank you very much for everybody’s effort, the Comprehensive Plan Committee and the public as well, for all their blood, sweat, and tears that everybody put into [the comprehensive plan],” Kryzak said at the Sept. 21 meeting. “I’m very pleased with where we’re at, and very, very appreciative of everyone’s patience through the whole process, and everyone’s input. It’s really flattering to see how much everybody cares about where we live.” 

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