Town-level plan first of its kind in Albany County
The Bethlehem Town Board voted unanimously to adopt an Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan on Tuesday, Nov. 24, that provides a wide range of recommendations on how the town can maintain its agricultural resources.
The plan is the first of its kind in Albany County, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Thomas Gallagher, who sat on the town’s committee and was also a member of the Albany County Agricultural and Farmland Protection Board that drafted the county’s protection plan. That county plan, he said, is an excellent resource but doesn’t provide much detail for local governments.
You can really zero in on issues in a single town that really impact agriculture, Gallagher said. `I think we’ve got a great plan here.`
The primary threat to agricultural use in Bethlehem, according to the report, is population growth. According to the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, the town’s population is projected to grow by 6,200 persons, or 29 percent, by the year 2030.
Also of concern are drainage issues that can be caused by new development and the problem of unauthorized use of farmlands by trespassers.
In these cases, the plan recommended that better communication be established between the Planning and Police departments and landowners, and that farmers and the public in general be educated about the town’s farmland.
According to the study`drafted by a 10-member group that began meeting in early 2008`Bethlehem is home to 63 operating farms sitting on just over 5,900 acres of land. Corn, hay and pasturing constitute the majority of agricultural uses, which is a reflection of the relatively poor soil quality in most parts of town.
Many of the farms are smaller, or hobby farms, as well. A 2002 agriculture census found that 92 percent of Bethlehem’s farms sold less than $50,000 in agricultural products, and 46 percent of agricultural landowners reported farming as their primary occupation.
68 percent of the town’s farmland is located within the Ravena Coeymans Selkirk School District, or the southern part of town.
Among other recommendations the plan made is that the town study purchase of development rights or term conservation easement programs, which essentially provide tax breaks or other incentives to landowners who agree not to develop their land for a certain period of time.
`This program would obviously have to be researched to identify what the fiscal implications would be for the town,` said Senior Planner Robert Leslie.
The plan also recommends that education programs be pursued in town and schools to emphasize the importance of farming, that the town’s agriculture zoning be reexamined to allow for more agri-tourism uses and that an Agricultural Advisory Committee be established to keep the Town Board informed on agricultural issues.
The plan was hailed by members of the Town Board as an example of collaborative efforts between town offices, agricultural organizations and the citizenry. American Farmland Trust, for example, visited and interviewed 10 farmers in town, and there were several public hearings during the drafting of the plan.
`This was a great opportunity for public participation,` said Councilman Kyle Kotary.
`Where the rubber meets the road on this is going to be the financial aspects, the economic incentives,` he continued.
Adoption of the plan does not bind the town to enact its recommendations. With the development of any PDR or conservation easement program, for example, a more comprehensive study would be conducted before a resolution was drafted.
Leslie noted that many state and federal programs are very competitive, but also said nearby areas like Clifton Park have been successful in piloting conservation easement programs.
`We’re going to have to come up with some creative ideas,` he said. `I think there are some other models out there we can look at.`
The Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan is available for viewing on the town’s Web site.
The cost of preparing the study was largely offset by a $25,000 state Department of Agriculture and Markets grant. The town had to chip in about $1,200 in matching funds in addition to the work Planning Department staff did.
Also on Tuesday, a public hearing was scheduled for a noise abatement and containment local law, or noise ordinance. The public will have an opportunity to present views to the board at the Wednesday, Dec. 9, meeting.