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I have lived in town as both a tenant and a homeowner for more than 20 years. Two of my daughters graduated from Bethlehem Central High School. My youngest daughter attends Elsmere Elementary. Being a father and a husband has provided little time for involvement in local issues.
However, over the past year, the extent of development projects being considered by the Town Board, absent an up-to-date comprehensive plan, has compelled me to become more involved in our community because I care about the fabric of our neighborhoods.
I am increasingly alarmed by the lack of openness, transparency, clarity, and proactive planning on the part of town government and the lack of effective leadership. The current environment places an undue burden on residents who must become watchdogs, ad hoc community organizers, advocates, lobbyists, and self-educators on zoning, easements, traffic patterns, density, etc. This is not an effective system of checks and balances. Residents cannot match developers in terms of expertise and financial resources to advance their agenda.
Another concern is the process that the Town Planning Board uses for the public hearings. The meeting agendas and supporting materials are often not posted until one or two business days prior to the meeting. Public comments are limited to a 10-minute period at the beginning of the meeting — which is before the proposal is discussed by the planning board and the presentation is made by the developer. In the interest of enhancing public participation, the public comment period for large projects should be held after the proposals are discussed by the developers and the planning board.
While zoning laws should be straightforward, the overarching impact of the current process is a hodgepodge of development that has been evaluated using inconsistent criteria. The lack of clarity further disadvantages town residents.
Zoning is, and always will be, a hot button issue for local communities and Bethlehem has witnessed much growth over the past 15 years or so. What’s new, and alarming, is the number of high density developments being proposed in established Bethlehem neighborhoods.
Town government needs to review and update the comprehensive plan that was last updated in 2005. The review process must include a series of public forums that include input from town residents. The need for an updated comprehensive plan has often mentioned been by the Town Supervisor (past and current) and Town Board (past and current), with no action.
When confronted with a similar situation in 2005, the Town declared a moratorium on development pending the creation of a comprehensive plan. Perhaps now is the time for a similar action, which would help alleviate growing tensions and concerns for residents regarding major projects in their neighborhoods, without an updated governing document to rein in developers.