Hudson River Valley

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Eye from Albany
June 2000

Hudson River Valley
By Paul M. Bray

These are the best of times for the Hudson River Valley, but also a time of growing environmental and economic risk and conflict.

It is hard to question the sincerity of Governor Pataki?s commitment to the Hudson River and the very tangible recreational and conservation benefits he has delivered. From the Hudson River Park in Manhattan to the Waterfront Esplanade Park in Yonkers and numerous new public access sites identified as you go north on the River, Pataki is directing major actions to allow people to connect with and enjoy the Hudson River.

The State has spent $256 million for cleanup and protection of the Hudson River since Pataki took office in 1995, a sizable sum for a fiscal conservative. He has adopted the excellent Hudson River Estuary program which was created before his administration as a vehicle for restoration of the Hudson River from Manhattan to the Troy dam. In his recent budget the Governor called for a first class research institute be created for the Hudson River, a “Woods Hole” on the Hudson. At the same time, the Valley is leading the regions of the State in job growth.

In less than two terms Pataki can arguably claim the creation of more of a conservation legacy in the Hudson River than his predecessor can for his actions statewide over three terms.

Yet, dark clouds in the form of prospects of poorly planned or inappropriate development and re-industrialization are on the River?s horizon. If the way to balance conservation and development isn?t found soon, the Valley is going to be an environmental loser for the bad development that succeeds and a development loser for good development that is thwarted. And in the process there will be serious conflict.

Near Albany the suburban town of North Greenbush torpedoed a regional effort to have a shovel ready site to attract a Microchip Fabrication plant. Attracting a ChipFab is one of the outcomes intended from tens of millions of public dollars that have been invested in the Albany metro area in micro electronic research.

This is a case of project of regional benefit that ran up on a shoal because of local concern of the project?s impact. These concerns had a mix of validity and Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) small mindedness. The valid concerns should have been addressed, but no viable means existed to mediate local versus regional conflict and address and mitigate impacts.

Heading south on the River there is the conflict around the proposed $500 million Athens Power Plant in the viewshed of Olana, Frederic Church’s Moorish Villa across the River. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has approved construction of the Plant while the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and environmental organizations like Scenic Hudson are in opposition.

Across the River in the Town of Greenport the communities of Hudson and Greenport are polarized over the proposed $300 million St. Lawrence cement factory which is only one of a number of proposals surfacing along the River.

In Westchester the land use conflict is over big box retailing as the Towns of Mamaroneck and Larchmont square off against the City of New Rochelle over the siting of an Ikea store. Mamaroneck has threaten to enact a local law seeking extraterritorial jurisdiction over siting in its neighboring city.

The New York Times reported that ?twelve New York environmental and preservation groups, led by Scenic Hudson, wrote to Governor Pataki recently urging a moratorium on industrial development until the state issues an overall plan for the development of the Hudson River.

A good case can be made that this situation of costly conflict does not have to happen if the State fully followed through on the compact planning process found in the State Hudson River Valley Greenway Law enacted almost a decade ago.

The State?s greenway program is not only an effort to link natural and historic sites through corridors and trails, but also through creating a compact it is designed to coordinate land-use goals and actions among the 242 local governments of the Hudson River Valley.

The Greenway compact was intended to be a regional plan encompassing the communities in all of the counties on both sides of the Hudson River from New York City to Waterford in Saratoga County. The overall regional plan was to be constructed from multi-county district plans hashed out by the mayors, supervisors and executives of the cities, towns, villages and counties therein.

Here is an opportunity for municipal officials to have a direct hand in planning their future at a table with their neighboring communities and with the prospect of directly influencing state infrastructure and funding decisions to conform to their plans. While compromise on who is likely to get land use fruits and who has to make room for less desirable land uses of regional benefit will be difficult, it can be achieved through balance, equalization and mitigation built into the compact plan.

Like the Long Island Pine Barrens Preserve law where a land use plan for 100,000 acres (half to be a Preserve and half to be managed growth) in three towns was fashioned by compact plan of a board made up of the three towns, a representative of Suffolk County and the State, agreement is optional. If any one party rejected the plan, the whole effort was terminated. All five parties were able to reach agreement.

If the Greenway compact like the Pine Barrens compact is agreed upon by the parties and the State, the participating communities are eligible for a range of benefits including indemnity for law suits challenging the implementation of the plan.

Rather than carrying out the planning process in this manner, the Hudson River Valley Greenway Communities Council has opted for an approach that can be called compact lite.

Clearly phobic over engaging localities with regard to land use which is the most cherished of home rule powers of cities, towns and villages, Council Chair Barnabus McHenry and Director David Sampson prefer what one the Greenway’s former planners calls “feel good planning”.

Instead of forging workable areawide plans through stakeholder negotiation and with their the carrots they can offer local governments, they have settled for good intentions and bromides without teeth rather than being “bold” as former State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Henry Diamond recommended.

The Greenway’s first compact lite plan submitted by Dutchess County has excellent guidelines for giving ?growth back its good name? which the county’s cities, towns and villages may choose to incorporate into their local planning processes with the emphasis on ?may?. The document even avoids the use the name ?plan?. It refers to itself as a program. In the words of Peter Q. Eschweiler who chairs the Greenway County Planners Advisory Council, the Dutchess Compact “is not didactic nor does it propose a “County” solution to the difficult planning and design issues of achieving the Greenway’s objectives”.

The difficult though not unsolveable planning issues that confront the people and communities of the Hudson River Valley need to be addressed. Governor Pataki has demonstrated that he is capable of facing these kind of seemingly intractable land use issues when he guided a settlement between New York City and numerous Catskill communities on the Catskill watershed. In effect, he got the stakeholders to the table and helped them hammer out a complex compact like agreement that is now being put in effect.

Before the environment, economy and people of the Hudson River Valley begin to develop the scars from the land use battles that have begun and are only likely to grow, the incentive-based greenway compact strategy on the law books should be reexamined and applied in a bold fashion. It is time for Governor Pataki to apply the leadership ability he showed in the Catskill watershed to the river valley that is his passion and make the Greenway the planning vehicle it was created to be.