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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 17, 2005

Working Today to Save Tomorrow

The Open Space Institute earlier this year released a report documenting sprawl in the Capital Region and noting that the state allows five planning methods for municipalities. One of them, and it is one of the most important, is a comprehensive land-use plan.

It offers a vision of what a town would like to become and what it should preserve. When so-called master plans first became popular more than a quarter of a century ago, many municipalities adopted cookie-cutter plans churned out by consultants that sat on shelves, collecting dust.

For a municipality’s master plan to work well, it must reflect the views of its residents and then its tenets must be codified into zoning law. And it must be regularly updated.

The town of Guilderland has made a good effort, developing a plan in 2001 which took two years to create and involved many surveys, public hearings, and roundtable discussions. Separate areas of town are being considered individually and then incorporated into a whole plan.

For years, in this space, we advocated for a cohesive land-use plan as some Guilderland officials insisted separate documents already in use constituted such a plan. They did not. The process of creating a single document involved enough residents and stakeholders that the town will now be able to follow through with a cohesive plan.

Altamont is currently embarking on the master-planning process. We raised the question in our spring election interviews. All the winning candidates said they advocated creating a comprehensive land-use plan. Now they are fulfilling that promise.

It’s easy to wonder why a village that is more than a century old and about a mile square, largely already built up, would need such a plan.

Trustee Dean Whalen, an architect on the master-planning committee, told us during his pre-election interview, "With the rural Guilderland study, we’re in a difficult position to push back. We don’t have anything on how we see ourselves in the 21st Century. We don’t want to get steamrolled."

He told our reporter this week that the village’s zoning ordinance was established in the 1970’s. It hasn't been studied or changed since then, Whalen said. "The mindset of the late ’70’s and early ’60’s was a suburban model. A lot of it is written on that premise."

A master plan is critical for Altamont, in order to preserve the village character that has made it so appealing. Beyond that, when Altamont’s resources, particularly water, are currently limited, it is wise to plan so that future needs will be adequately met.

The committee is proceeding the right way — it plans to survey village residents and businesses and it plans to hold public workshops. We encourage residents to get involved to see that the plan reflects their views and goals.

We urge the neighboring town of New Scotland to develop a master plan as well. The town is at a critical juncture. Once rural, New Scotland is facing increasing development pressure.

Seventeen active farms are left in New Scotland, covering about 2,400 acres. Last year, we profiled local farmers, taking an in-depth look at the issues confronting them. We agreed then and still do with New Scotland farmer Timothy Stanton, who said large-lot zoning devalues the land and doesn't serve its intended aesthetic purpose; it results in "a lot of big yards," he said, rather than preserving open space.

Plans that favor clustering, as in Guilderland, allow development while preserving open space.

A major senior housing complex is proposed for New Scotland’s main corridor, on Route 85, which would involve re-zoning. And a massive upscale housing development, with homes ranging from $300,000 to over $1 million, is proposed for the northeast quadrant of town — 282 houses would be clustered on 267 acres.

An aquifer on the site could supply water for the town’s entire commercial district — but at what price"

About 170 residents petitioned the town board in October, asking for two-acre zoning on the land. The town board sent the petitioners’ request to the planning board, which recommended, by unanimous vote, the area not be re-zoned. The final decision rests with the town board. We can understand why the petitioners want less density, but big yards are not the answer.

The acrimony and divisiveness surrounding the development, which played out in the recent election, could have been avoided if the town had a comprehensive land-use plan. The planning board chairman has said that the town went through the master-planning process in 1994 and he has resisted a massive overhaul.

But that plan was never adopted, nor were all its tenets codified into law. Also, pressure for development has intensified since then and views and elected officials have changed.

It’s past time for the town to start the process anew. The town board got off to a good start two years ago when it appointed a citizens’ committee to make recommendations for the town’s future. The dozen diverse members, headed by John Egan, gathered information from a wide variety of experts and documents and, most importantly, surveyed New Scotland residents, through mailed forms and in over 40 community meetings.

The town board charged the committee to focus on New Scotland’s major corridor, where routes 85 and 85A intersect. The committee’s 44-page report has been largely disregarded, and that’s a shame since it made many useful recommendations.

Rather than back away from planning for New Scotland’s future, the town board needs to embrace it. Such planning won’t be easy, but it is necessary and it will be the most worthwhile work the board can do.

The board should commit to creating a new master plan — based on committee work for different areas of town, similar to the work that was done on the route 85 and 85A corridor.

The process will give the town a chance to publicly work through its priorities — from resource, traffic, and environmental concerns to social concerns like the need for affordable housing or viable community centers. The town board should invest in consultants to complete the needed technical work and it should adopt the plan.

New Scotland’s motto is "Working Today to Save Tomorrow" and that’s exactly what the town board needs to do.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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