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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 6, 2008

Does New Scotland want a big-box mall

Illustration, left by Forest Byrd; photo, right by Norman Hagadorn

Rural rapidly become suburban: This photograph near Western Avenue in Guilderland was taken decades ago from near where the library is today.

Times change.

The famous Bender melons that were grown in New Scotland and shipped to fancy hotels in New York City are no more. The old farmland in the heart of New Scotland near its two major roads — routes 85 and 85A — has sat vacant for years.

Now developers are looking at the site. "Potentially, it could be a big-box type store," Supervisor Thomas Dolin says.

"All I know is that it would be a shopping center of some magnitude," Zoning Administrator Paul Cantlin told our reporter Saranac Hale Spencer last week. Although none of the stores have been named, he said, one of the anchors approached a development company after determining the New Scotland site would satisfy its needs.

Since we broke the story, we’ve been peppered with many questions we can’t answer. What we do know is that New Scotland, as a town, needs to plan and legislate for its future.

New Scotland looks today much the way Guilderland did a half-century ago — there are pockets of development in old village or hamlet centers along routes where municipal water has been established. Much space remains open, either simply because it is undeveloped or because it is actively farmed.

We’ve written many editorials about the value of farming to towns like New Scotland. A few years back, we catalogued the 17 remaining farms in town, covering 2,400 acres, and we talked to the farmers about what kept them in business.

We agreed then and still do with New Scotland farmer Timothy Stanton, who said large-lot zoning — typically three to five acres — 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.

We’ve stressed again and again the economic benefits of having viable farms. Locally-produced food is often of better quality and lower cost than imported food; and when customers buy directly from a farmer with whom they have a relationship, they can trust that the product is safe.

Beyond that, farms pay significantly more in property taxes than they receive in services. Residential developments, on the other hand, consume far more in services than they pay in taxes. In this way, farmers are subsidizing the residents.

A third economic benefit comes from the businesses that grow up around farms, such as food processing and transportation businesses. Close to $3 billion is generated annually from farm-related businesses across the state.

Beyond the economic value, farms offer aesthetic and cultural benefits. Farmland is nice to look at and many farms now offer tourist features as well.

We know, while we should work to support the farms in our midst that are still functioning, we can’t turn back the clock. We were once a nation where most of the citizens were farmers, and now just a small fraction are. The land at the heart of New Scotland is never going to grow melons again. It is zoned for commercial development.

A tech park is being developed on the northeastern end of town, and just down New Scotland Road from the Bender farm site, plans are underway to build 15 duplexes in a senior housing complex.

The fabric of a community changes as it is developed. This is happening all across America. New York is a home-rule state so each town can play a powerful role in shaping its own individual future. That point was made last week at a conference on farmland protection by John Brennan of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets.

"Municipalities can do more to protect agriculture than, at some times, the commissioner of agriculture — even the governor — because the legislature has given to local towns the authority to develop comprehensive plans and develop land-use regulations," said Brennan.

This applies to more than protecting farmland. Several years ago, the Open Space Institute released a report documenting sprawl in the Capital Region. When suburbia sprawls across open space and farmland, the report said, wildlife and wetlands are lost; the quality and supply of drinking water decreases; traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption all increase; and so do local taxes.

In short, the quality of life diminishes, 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.

We have, for years, urged New Scotland to develop a new comprehensive land-use plan. The town last went through the master-planning process in 1994, but many of its tenets were not codified into law. Pressure for development has intensified since then and views and elected officials have changed.

In 2003, the town board appointed a committee with a dozen diverse members, headed by John Egan, to focus on New Scotland’s major corridor, where routes 85 and 85A intersect. The committee 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. Its 44-page report, released in 2005, has been largely disregarded, and that’s a shame since it made many useful recommendations.

As sprawl proliferates, so does traffic congestion, noise, and pollution. You can’t legislate taste, but you can legislate placement, density, and architecture. (The nearby town of Berne several years ago adopted such strict requirements for new buildings in its hamlet, detailing even roof pitch, that a Stewart’s which had planned to build there backed off.)

Does New Scotland want a big-box mall"

Right now, the town has a nice mix of independently owned businesses. When big-box stores move in, those kinds of businesses often suffer or disappear altogether. Locally-owned businesses give back to the community in ways that big business — driven by a bottom line — does not.

New Scotland resident Jenna Shillinglaw writes us this week about how disheartened she is by suburban sprawl and she reminisces over her childhood home in Glens Falls where she could walk to school, church, parks, friends’ houses, and the library.

"I believe," writes Shillinglaw, "that the town has a unique opportunity to define our future landscape and avoid looking like some of our neighboring towns that have built haphazardly at the whim of big stores, big developers, big builders, big egos, and big paychecks."

Shillinglaw’s vision sounds much like that espoused by the architects who coined the term New Urbanism, outlining their plan in their 2000 book, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. We like their two major precepts — building communities that welcome a range of household incomes, and creating places where people can walk to work and shop. Replacing our car-driven sprawls with walkable communities where businesses are built next to homes is a worthwhile goal.

New Scotland, with so much undeveloped land, has a chance to do it right. We hope it seizes the day.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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