A wooden walkway meanders through the Swift Wetland. It’s one of several pictures Bethlehem residents sent in response to the town’s open space planning efforts this month. (Courtesy of Town of Bethlehem)
DELMAR — Town residents were generally supportive of the town’s open space planning efforts at the Bethlehem Town Board meeting on Wednesday, June 14, with the notable exception of a repeated concern that the town be respectful of large landowners’ rights.
During the public comment period preceding the meeting, one resident, Nancy Neff, was visibly emotional as she pled with board members to “not covet” private property. “It is important,” she said, “that you stand up for the rights of the individual in the minority — in this case, the large landowner — when it comes to protecting our rights against those of the majority, those who are hell bent on staking a claim to open space preservation of lands not owned by them.”
Residents who spoke after Neff primarily commended town officials for their efforts to preserve some of the natural spaces remaining in Bethlehem, but many commented on her remarks and told the board that the rights of private landowners should, indeed, be paramount.
Board members and Supervisor John Clarkson later protested that they have no interest in coercing any private landowner to do anything with their property.
The comments came in advance of that night’s presentation of the open space conservation values mapping that the town has undertaken in an effort to identify key open spaces in the community and which, ultimately, will be used to develop a composite open space conservation priority map and an open space plan, which is expected to be finalized in late fall.
“As Bethlehem continues to grow and develop, it is important to meet that growth with a strong understanding of our remaining open and natural spaces so that we are best able to wisely shape and balance the community as it inevitably changes,” said town Planning Board Director Rob Leslie. “The town recognizes that natural, open areas — such as forests, fields, and water systems — provide economic, environmental, social and health benefits to our whole community.”
Jaclyn Hakes, director of planning services for MJ Engineering, the firm hired by the town to help guide the open spaces planning project, gave the presentation on the values maps, explaining that the process is intended to identify existing conditions within the town’s municipal borders. Data used to create the maps, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), was collected from more than 20 public data sources, as well as the town, all of which provided more than 70 datasets that were evaluated by MJ over the last few months.
“The challenging part is what do you do with all of this data,” said Hakes. In meetings with town officials and the Conservation Easement Review Board, Hakes said, “It became very clear to us that it needed to be organized in a way that could be easily understood, that told the story of what was going on here in the Town of Bethlehem with regard to your natural and environmental resources, and community character aspects.”
So, she said, they decided to organize that information around conservation areas that could be deemed valuable to the town and its residents. Four conservation values were identified: Community Character; Recreation and Greenways; Natural Water Systems; and Forest Fields and Wildlife Ecosystems.
Hakes stressed that the delineated values were listed in no particular order of importance before she began explaining that ‘Value 1: Community Character’ encompasses things like historic areas, agricultural landscapes, cultural and educational areas, as well as community events like the Delmar Farmer’s Market. Scenic views will also be a part of this map, as soon as data gathered from the Scenic Bethlehem initiative — which is asking the public to submit photos of their favorite open spaces — has been input.
‘Value 2: Recreation and Greenways’ is mapping the connectivity between people and natural areas, such as the Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail and the new kayak launch at Henry Hudson Park. It is also mapping dedicated conservation and recreation areas, as well as schools and “habitat patches,” which are forested areas that are larger than five acres. Some values, Hakes pointed out, are represented on more than one map, such as Farmer’s Markets and the Rail Trail, which also appear on Value 2 maps.
‘Value 3: Natural Water Systems’ maps are identifying areas with aquatic biodiversity, estuary ecosystems, flood zones, water quality and public health in terms of those local water systems. Included on these maps are also steep slope areas and current parks and conserved areas.
The ‘Value 4: Forests, Fields and Wildlife’ conservation maps are concerned with such things as general biodiversity, air and water quality, rare flora and fauna, and crop-producing lands, as well as with flood zones.
“When you’re talking about natural systems,” said Hakes, “there is some inherent overlap with them, which is important to understand.
“The intention here,” she said, “was to be as unbiased as possible in pulling together this inventory of existing information.” The data will then be input into a “conservation analysis tool,” which will objectively identify town priorities. Those priorities will then be considered alongside community input, said Hakes, which the town will spend the next several months gathering.
“The town recognizes that most of these remaining open acres are held in private ownership,” said Leslie. “Throughout the open space planning process and the subsequent thoughtful application of appropriate land conservation tools, there will always be respect for private property ownership, choice and rights. Open space conservation tools will be used only when there is a mutual benefit for both the landowner and the community as a whole. No private landowner will ever be forced to conserve land.”
Following Hakes’ presentation, Town Board member Julie Sasso said, “I don’t want to belabor the point, but the whole time I’ve been on the Board and we’ve talked about open space, we’ve talked about the term ‘willing landowner’ and I don’t think that term is being consistently heard. And, so I think, as we’re working on this, there needs to be a clarity to that we’re not taking land away, we’re not targeting land. That’s not a goal, that’s not an acceptable end game here. But that needs to be a conversation here because we keep hearing there’s fear — that something is going to be taken away, that’s somebody’s land is going to be usurped, that their private property rights are going to be subsumed to the greater good of the community.”
“On the contrary,” said Leslie, “if desired by the landowner, conservation measures can often provide relief of certain financial burdens on landowners, or serve to create a marketing gain. Now is the time to find the best ways to wisely balance development with conservation, and work collaboratively with all involved in shaping our community’s future – including developers, private landowners, conservation organizations and other partners – so that the town we currently enjoy can grow in a way that both respects the land and the people of Bethlehem.”
“Respect for landowner rights is embedded in the DNA of open space planning,” said Town Board member and Democratic candidate for Town Supervisor David VanLuven. “It’s a fundamental component of it. That’s why you do open space planning; it’s because you respect landowner rights.”
An ecologist, VanLuven and Watershed Alliance Executive Director Maureen Cunningham will be leading a ‘Kayak Eco-Tour on the Hudson’ on the evening of Thursday, August 10, from the kayak launch at Henry Hudson Park.
The focus of the tour, said Karen Shaw of the Department of Planning, will be “to discover our local connection to the great Hudson River and its estuary, as well as convey an understanding of the relationship to land use planning and conservation to the health of the water.”
The town is also displaying the conservation value maps at the town library, with opportunity for community feedback and will have an information table at the August 5 Delmar Farmer’s Market.