I believe the future is bright for Bethlehem. While we certainly face challenges like other upstate communities, we are poised not only to address them, but to be a regional leader for developing smart growth and sustainable land use solutions.
Bethlehem has a comprehensive plan that can keep us focused on our strategic goals. Our plan, created in 2005 with community input and reviewed two times since, asks the critical question: What kind of community does Bethlehem want to be in the future? The plan attempts to strike a balance between urban, suburban, and rural perspectives; economic growth and tax base expansion; stewardship of natural resources and the health, safety and welfare of the community. Bethlehem has adopted a Conservation Easement Exemption, one of only a handful of such programs statewide, giving participating landowners a tax reduction based on the number of years (greater than 15) land is conserved. We have a planning department and professional town employees, who are implementing open space and waterfront revitalization planning, as outlined in the comprehensive plan and with public meetings this month, in collaboration with landowners and residents with expertise in those areas.
What we have is a solid foundation on which we can continue to improve. I believe we need to review and update the comprehensive plan, with a new round of community discussions, priorities, and a new target date (currently it’s 2020) for our future vision. It’s time to conduct an audit of the town’s growth and land use changes since 2005, when the plan was created, to see if the plan is doing what it set out to do in balancing growth with other needs. The audit should also look at our town code and zoning and subdivision regulations to ensure that they are providing the necessary guidance for our planning and zoning boards. I believe we need to further explore grant funding, private donations and partnerships to enable the town to purchase land or development rights at market value for open space protection, and to look for additional economic options for property owners.
We need to ensure that changing climate predictions and threats such as flooding and drought are incorporated into our planning, to build our resilience. We need to look for innovative ways to attract and keep businesses and industry in town. We need to upgrade our water and sewer infrastructure by looking for financing, increase our energy efficiency, and promote the use of renewable energy, all of which will help us succeed in the long term. And finally, we need to prioritize our quality of life and community character, including our important history, in the next community vision statement and any revisions to the comprehensive plan.
There is no easy answer to finding a balance between growth and sustainability. Having worked with communities on similar issues for over 20 years, I believe that Bethlehem does have the foundation in place to lead the way in finding sustainable, forward-thinking solutions.
Maureen O. Cunningham
Candidate for Bethlehem Town Board