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Speech for Keynote address before Orange County Land Trust

Saturday, June 5, 2004

Good evening, I am honored to have been asked to give you a talk this evening, and to honor your awardees, Jan and Sandra Van Heerden and Ann Botshon.  What they have done and what the Orange County Land Trust has done with your support for the benefit of our county, Orange County, is simply marvelous.  We thank you all, and we are determined to continue your good work.

We have a most beautiful place to live and work.  Stretching from the Delaware to the Hudson, our County is blessed with great scenery, good water supplies, wonderful soils, wildlife and basically good transportation systems.

We of Orange County are most luckily to have benefited from the wise counsel and leadership of a series of distinguished public officials.  Our county leaders, from the first county executive, my political mentor Lou Mills, here tonight, to our present leader Ed Diana, have all demonstrated the ability to think many years ahead and to provide great leadership, particularly in the areas of open space acquisition and land use review and planning.  Former Commissioner Peter Garrison, present Commissioner David Church, Pat Gilchrist of the Orange County Citizens Foundation, your own leadership under Doug McBride, people like Jim Ottaway, Jr., your benefit Chair tonight, and our Governor, George Pataki among others of the State leadership, all have been extremely helpful over the past years and indeed, I should say visionary.

It certainly does not hurt to have the strong leadership of the editorial board and reporters of our daily, The Times Herald-Record, with day after day fascinating and interesting articles dealing with the problems we are all concerned about: unrestrained growth, sprawl, and all that comes with too much dumb growth.

Through the years, Orange County’s leadership, with the help of the Orange County Planning Board’s of various times, have adopted comprehensive plans.  The most recent one, The Orange County Comprehensive Plan adopted in 2003, was truly a multi-faceted effort, with the assistance and support of many people ranging from Orange Environment, the Citizens Foundation, engineering firms, citizens who are or were members of the Orange County Planning Board, business groups, and planning groups.  It is a good plan.  I commend it to you.  It is worth reading, and studying. 

However, a plan is only a plan.  Under the laws of the State of New York, the Plan had only two mandates upon adoption:
1) all County land acquisitions and public improvements had to be in accordance with the County Comprehensive Plan,
2) all plans for capital projects of a municipality, including those of the County itself, or of a State governmental agency on land included in the County Comprehensive Plan - must take this Plan into consideration.
Sounds good, yes?
The Plan, however, is just that, a plan.  It has very few teeth, other than these two mandates.  It does provide for priority growth areas, and for preservation of both farmland and open space.  It lays out some extremely interesting concepts and ideas, which if adopted at the local level, can make real changes in the way our people live and work.  But it is only precatory in effect.

Here in the State of New York the ultimate power for land use decisions, under the State Constitution, rests either in the state government itself, or in the towns and municipalities of our County and State.  The towns must decide.  The towns must act.  Sometimes I think that the towns do not talk to each other.  They  often seem to be rivals in attracting new  developments thinking that new ratables will result in lower taxes – which never happens.

Now, councils of governments at the county level are permissible under the general municipal law.  That is, municipalities, villages and towns can join together to do jointly, anything that they could do individually.  This could become a powerful weapon particularly for the preservation of open space.  But it needs a strong regional political push.  The initiatives must come from the local governments.

This month and next month, the County Legislature will act upon a County Open Space Plan, which has been presented as an amendment to the County Comprehensive Plan.  That plan, again, is the part of the cooperative efforts of  many different groups, ranging from the Orange County Planning Department under David Church and Chris Campany, Rich Jones and Kelly Dobbins, the Orange County Planning Board on which I have the honor of serving under Susan Metzger as Chair, and the technical advisory committee on open space which included Doug McBride of the Orange County Land Trust, and a list of other contributors too long to mention here, except that John Yrizzary is also listed. 

The plan was prepared at the request of County Executive Diana, and if it is approved it will become an official supplement to the County Plan.  It is intended to inventory current county open spaces, define the uniqueness and environmental characteristics of the County, define future open space needs and recommend County and other priority actions to protect key open spaces.  It supports and is supplemented by three existing legislatively accepted documents, the County Park Master Plan, the County Water Quality Strategy and the County Agricultural Economic Development Strategy adopted in 2004.

It is interesting to note that in our county 99,636 acres, 19%, is permanently protected.  If you include West Point the total is 136,151 or 26%.  West Point is considered “temporary” because the federal government can change its mind.  Also, we of the public cannot access these lands, for good reason.

There are a number of county wide recommended actions, particularly establishment of an open space dedicated fund to provide critical matching funds to municipalities and/or qualified conservation organizations like this Trust, both working with willing sellers, to acquire open space or conservation easements, to be initiated with a 1.5 million dollar investment from the county water fund targeted to the first priority of the plan which is the protection of water supply watersheds and well head protection areas.  Water resources, and county support for the protection of water resources, takes a very high priority.  County reservoir lands, another highest priority, are recommended for permanent protection by the plan. 

Lastly, of high priority is agriculture, the foundation of a vital sector of Orange County’s economy, which is a commercial land use that not only provides open space, recreational opportunities, water shed protection and bio-diversity protection and enhancement, and which can also be used to help balance public revenues and expenditures. 

As we all know, however, for a farmer to stay on the land in the business of farming, he or she must be able to generate sufficient income from the farm operation and not have overwhelming pressures imposed by low farm produce prices, high land values or high property taxes that force the sale of the farm.  Somehow, both farmland preservation and agricultural economic development have got to be fostered. The 2004 Agricultural Strategy adopted by the Legislature is a good start.

Those of us who sit on the edge of the Palisades Interstate Park, as we do at this moment, find it difficult to understand that the rest of our County badly needs to have more county-wide trails and recreational corridors and access to rivers and lakes.  The distribution of parks in the county is unbalanced, some areas are well served, some are under-served.  The County Park Master Plan deserves continued implementation. 

So far, all of this sounds excellent.  A lot of hard work has gone into these plans, with the assistance of many different citizens, organizations, pressure groups and political leaders.  Yet, I don’t think any of us is happy with today’s situation.  Good plans just seem to sit on shelves and gather dust – they just don’t get put into place at the local levels.  I just read somewhere that New York State loses an average of 174 acres each day to development and that during the past 30 years the population of the New York City Metropolitan area has grown only 13% while the urbanized area of that Metropolitan area has increased 60%. 

Last week I attended a quality communities smart growth conference in Albany co-sponsored by the New York State Department of State and Audubon New York.  Much of the discussion focused on the need for what was called, for one of the better description, “Regionalism”.  The mayor of Rochester, for example, decried the inability of his city to work with the surrounding townships and municipalities, all in the same county, because of the complete lack of understanding of each other’s side’s problems.  

Smart growth principles always require regional planning and regional solutions.  In our State, this is very difficult because of the tradition of home rule.  Yet sometimes, regionalism does work.  The mass transportation systems of the New York Metropolitan Region are an example of what I mean.  Despite criticisms, the Board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority represents within itself the needs of the inner city, the inner suburbs and of the outer suburbs, such as the tip end of Long Island and far reaches of Orange County or Dutchess County.  Only by bringing together the political power of those three constituencies can the body politic in Albany be persuaded to provide what is necessary.  None of these three constituencies could alone do what they can accomplish working together.  That kind of regional planning, implementation, and yes, regional government, is becoming more and more necessary.  The State must provide leadership and require regional solutions.  This is very controversial and our local municipalities have no wish to lose any powers or have them thrust upwards into the hands of county legislators and county executives.  Other states of our nation have made such decisions.

We at Audubon New York are strongly supporting legislative and policy initiatives which we believe would help the cause of “Smart Growth” in the State of New York.  I won’t try to outline each piece of legislation, except to mention that one of them would allow towns in New York State to adopt a transfer tax on certain real property transactions of up to 2% for the purpose of establishing a community preservation fund to use for land conservation.  A referendum would be required for participation.  If it passed the communities would be authorized to spend this money to provide park land, safe guard drinking water, protect farmland, habitat, scenic views and other conservation activities.  This is modeled after the very successful program established by the five eastern towns on Long Island.  These funds can be used to match existing federal or state programs or some of the new funding mechanisms that are being proposed as part of these legislative initiatives..

To summarize, what is needed is for the State of New York to provide leadership and expertise to the counties, the towns and the municipalities of the State, and incentives so that the principles of Smart Growth can be implemented.  It is going to take a constitutional amendment to change the home rule principles of New York State, and frankly that will not happen in my lifetime.  But our glass if half full, not half empty.  I believe that with leadership at all levels of government, particularly at the State level and the County level, we can move the discussion towards what can be accomplished instead of what cannot be accomplished.

Let me now come back to the excellent work being done by the Orange County Land Trust, and to urge that everyone here support its work.  It’s worth remembering that a land trust is a voluntary non-profit organization.  Private people making private deals. 

The fact that what a land trust does is always voluntary, always between a willing seller of an interest in land and a willing buyer, means that it is immune to outlandish pressures from developers or indeed other people with other axes to grind.  And, to extinguish an easement by condemnation is not an easy thing to accomplish.  In addition, land trusts, by being repositories of good will in the community, can be seen as trusted facilitators or mediators.   The trust can facilitate dialog and build consensus when there is an argument between a developer group and a group of concerned citizens or municipalities.  Not every piece of land needs to be protected.  Some of it should be developed, and developers should be encouraged to build in priority growth areas as defined by our Orange County Comprehensive Plan, while still preserving the amenities of open space, fresh air, green lands, farms, recreational spaces, water that is fresh and plentiful and so on.

Orange County Land Trust, you are doing wonderful work.  May you continue, and may each of us support you to our best ability. 

Congratulations again to Ann, Sandra and Jan, and to all of you!  Thank you all and good night.