THE WORD “COMMUTERSHED” leaves me with an image of weary passengers huddled beneath a lean-to warming their hands over a fire of scratched-off lottery tickets while waiting for their carpool ride. Took me a while to realize the term is used to describe the residential communities that surround a center of employment, as in: northern Columbia County is part of the commutershed for the Capital District.
The Town of Kinderhook, which has more residents than any other municipality in the county, falls within that Capital District commutershed. Although it has historic homes and two villages, plus lots of farmland, the town undoubtedly has the highest concentration of suburban residential development in the county, as well. And while the style and vintage of a home doesn’t identify who’s a commuter and who works nearby, development patterns do reflect trends.
The 2010 Census offers some guidance about what’s happening in the town. It shows that nearly half of all employed people who live in Kinderhook travel 30 minutes or more to their jobs. The census doesn’t tell us where people travel to work, but the data do show that the largest single source of jobs for town residents is in a category that includes education, healthcare and “social assistance.” That covers roughly 1,000 of the 4,000 people in the local workforce. Contrast that with the 92 people in town listed as having jobs in agriculture.
Even if local politicians don’t have the census numbers at their fingertips, they know their constituents. And savvy elected officials will try give the public what they think the majority wants. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Town Board decided this week to do away with what’s called conservation subdivisions, a move that could make it easier and less expensive to develop more housing in the town.
What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all, assuming the goal is strictly defined as increasing economic activity through homebuilding and expanding the tax base with new arrivals. It might sound like a stretch to expect a new boom in home construction and sales, but with the rapid growth of high technology industry in and around Albany, it could happen if buyers see Columbia County as a better bargain than pricier suburbs.
In Kinderhook the conservation subdivision law only applied to parcels of land of 20 acres or more and to any kind of development proposed within the town’s Prime Farmland Overlay District. Before the board acted to disable that conservation requirement, the town mandated that 50% of subdivided land be protected as “open space,” either through a conservation easement or some other deed restriction that prohibits or severely limits most forms of development.
Conservation subdivision rules were meant to help preserve Kinderhook’s rural character, what’s left of it. But the restrictions also had a practical purpose. People who know about farming explain it something like this: Once you develop farmland, you never get it back.
So while there’s no guarantee that there will always be farmers here willing to work the available land, without some sort of conservation program like the one abandoned this week, the Town Board has placed a bet on a farm-less future for Kinderhook.
The board may say that its vote doesn’t prevent conservation subdivisions, it simply makes them voluntary. Uh huh, and paying more than your fair share of taxes would be an equally public-spirited thing to do. Any volunteers?
The conservation subdivision restrictions gutted by the Town Board had flaws. They sounded rigid and ill-suited to address the kinds of special cases likely to come up in a diverse community like Kinderhook. These drawbacks could have been handled with a series of amendments that built in more flexibility.
By killing the conservation program rather than fixing its shortcomings, the board turned its back on the town comprehensive plan. That decision weakens the comprehensive plan, which was adopted to guide land use planning in Kinderhook for years to come.
The speed with which town government rammed this change through suggests that the board could just as quickly draw up an alternative to its bogus “voluntary” approach and pass yet another new law mitigating the burdens imposed by the old legislation while reaffirming the importance to the town of preserving open spaces. While they’re at it, town officials should try once again to explain exactly what credible evidence they have of harm done by requiring that conservation go hand-in-hand with development.