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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 31, 2008

Vote "M" for diversity

Photo: The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Pictured above:
A bit of nature in the midst of the village: Carl Schilling, who owns this land, says he’d like to build clustered housing to leave much of the property open for public recreation.

Twilight falls on a late winter afternoon over the land in the center of the village owned by Carl Schilling. A pale pink light outlines the periwinkle Helderberg escarpment. Wind whispers through a stand of cattails at the center of the property. Deer have left their tracks on the snow that covers the ground. The graceful branches of trees, naked of their leaves, are silhouetted against the evening sky.

The property is bordered by village houses whose residents must love to look out at the park-like vista. Schilling himself has memories of playing there as a child a half-century ago. He’d skate where the cattails now grow and play along the banks of the creek.

His father bequeathed the property — 5.4 acres — to him and he has kept it undeveloped for 27 years. Schilling is a carpenter and he would like to build clustered housing on his land, leaving much of it open for public enjoyment, he said. He first learned about clustering when he served on the Helderberg Escarpment Planning Committee and considers it ideal for the site.

"When I’m 80," said Schilling, "and not able to work, I want to be able to walk by it and think, ‘Perfect.’" He’d like the buildings to be "architecturally beautiful" and serve a cross-section of the community.

"I have cared about good design ever since I learned to swing a hammer," said Schilling. He built a house for his mother, on the Schoharie Plank Road, that borders the vacant property. And he recently built, with the help of volunteers, the pavilion at the village’s Maple Avenue park.

The way his property is zoned now, said Schilling, he could build 10 houses there, spaced out on traditional lots "and add to the sprawl." He could make money that way, said Schilling, but he wants instead to create a clustered development. About a third of the people who dwell there would be older villagers who want to sell their big houses but still be a vital part of Altamont. Many have contacted him over the years, requesting such housing, he said.

"It’s in the middle of the village," said Schilling. "You can walk everywhere....Studio apartments would be tucked in where there would be attics or trusses," he said, providing affordable living space.

Schilling himself lives in a 400-square-foot cottage across from Altamont Country Values, the old Agway, in Altamont and thinks other people could enjoy small living spaces.

Next Tuesday, the village board is slated to make a decision that will allow Schilling to proceed with his plans, or prohibit them.

Last winter, the board adopted a comprehensive plan for Altamont’s future. While some scoffed at the idea since the century-old, mile-square village is already largely developed, we advocated for such a plan and we applaud it. The committee that developed the plan, headed by Trustee Dean Whalen, an architect, did careful and thorough work. The committee surveyed village residents and business and came up with a creative and coherent plan.

So far, so good.

But for any comprehensive plan to be implemented, zoning laws must be adopted. The committee that drafted zoning changes for Altamont, again chaired by Whalen, took into account villagers’ goals of wanting an economically diverse village and a variety of housing options. Zoning some of the little remaining open space "M" for multi-family units, meaning three or more, would allow for apartment or condominium-style housing, which is more affordable, and is desirable for elderly residents who want to downsize.

Whalen said earlier he wants to make sure that further development around Altamont has a village feel, rather than the typical cul-de-sac and cookie-cutter house design that has become the suburban status quo.

For four months — beginning in October and ending in January — the village board has held a public hearing on the proposed zoning changes. Residents have packed the sessions, many of them upset about the proposed "M" designation.

"Why can’t we leave things the way they are"" one resident asked the board in December to resounding applause.

Unless the village is prepared to buy the vacant land or buy the development rights on the land, it won’t remain the way it is. It will be developed.

The question residents need to ask is: Would you prefer clustered multi-family developments that leave open space or, instead, one- and two-family homes, spread out over the acreage"

"When you take away the ‘M,’ you can be sure that your yard will butt up to someone else’s," said developer Troy Miller at the December hearing. The board, at that meeting, decided it would not zone the property on Bozenkill Road for multi-family use. It has yet to vote on the matter.

And, it has yet to decide on the property owned by Schilling. "The board members were swayed by fear and anger," Schilling told us this week of the December meeting when the board decided against multi-family residences on Bozenkill Road.

We hope the board will base its decision on reason and adopt zoning that allows a place for the working class and elderly in Altamont. Kristen Casey spoke at January’s hearing in favor of allowing multi-family residences on Schilling’s property, saying, "I think we do need to have a place in the village where we can have some more housing that is more affordable, that maybe has some opportunities for people who are single parents and need a place to live or...who want to down size."

Whalen has supplied data in a letter to us this week that shows 16 percent of the current village housing is multi-family and there will be a greater need, especially for the elderly, in the future. While a third of those who answered the planning committee’s survey felt there was a need for apartments or townhouses in Altamont, over 60 percent said there was a need for affordable housing in general.

A household that spends no more than twice its annual income on housing costs is considered to be affordable, Whalen says, which the village has already exceeded.

Citing data from the most recent federal census, Whalen states, "Altamont has a growing number of senior citizens, increasingly unaffordable housing conditions, and very few vacancies that could accommodate new residents."

Public hearings are meant to illicit new facts before a legislative body makes a decision. They are not meant to be a form of direct democracy. The board is elected to represent all the people in the village not just the strident few who fill a hearing room.

We hope the Altamont board votes to keep the proposed "M" designation. It’s the best way to preserve some open space in the village. It will also allow the working class, which contributes so much, to live in an increasingly gentrified village, and it will help ensure that aging villagers have a place in Altamont after they sell their homes.

A vote for multi-family residences is a vote for a vibrant and diverse community in Altamont’s future.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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