From vision to reality: the role of local government
By SUSAN SULLIVAN
At one of the first educational forums organized by the Upper Delaware Visioning group, I learned how visions become reality. A guy from Pace Land Use Center gave a clear explanation of how local government works. I learned that writing a comprehensive plan puts our collective vision in writing. This plan, by New York State law, becomes the basis for local zoning laws, which, as they are enforced, move our vision into reality over time. In New York State, home rule simply means we get to do the plan, write the local laws, and then, by attending meetings and being vigilant, make sure such laws are consistently enforced.
Comprehensive plans begin with a survey of residents. We get to express our vision. I found that my vision for this area and that expressed by the residents of Tusten Township were similar. From what I’ve read about comprehensive plan surveys in Damascus, PA and other western Sullivan County towns, many of the same views were expressed. Quoting from the conclusions drawn after the survey was compiled by Sullivan County Planning Department: “Survey respondents and focus group participants value the natural environment and open space of the town, and there exists a strong desire to protect the rural character and open spaces of Tusten.”
Many folks also had a vision of growth, seeing residential and commercial growth as a way to keep our tax burden manageable. Different visions of “growth” emerged, and the consensus was that commercial activity should remain in designated zones, and our proximity to the Delaware River would give us a sense of direction. For example, home-based, small businesses like B&B’s would meet both the need for growth, and allow small-town atmosphere to be retained and the environment to be protected. We’ve seen the growth of small-scale organic farming on both sides of the Delaware. Our generous open spaces bring fishermen, canoe and kayak lovers, hunters and hikers that we want to encourage by protecting the open space. This was a two-year process, so I mention here just a few examples of what was seen as “smart growth.”
Open space, views, small-town atmosphere. My personal vision usually includes the word “small.” Small clusters of houses fairly close together, surrounded by forest, wetland or farmland is what I love to look at and live with. This can be supported by local government embracing the concept of conservation easements and conservation subdivisions. I would like to think that years from now, I could look up and see unbroken, green, wooded ridgelines. We could choose to pass ridgeline ordinances. Not everyone shares this desire.
In New York State, it’s called home rule. What about the townships on the Pennsylvania side of the river? Going back to that first Visioning forum, one of the attendees was the town supervisor from Shohola Township, George Fluhr. He and his board have added a conservation easement/subdivision amendment to their zoning law. Clearly, it is possible for Pennsylvania towns to empower themselves. And it was Fluhr who told us that the way to have an impact on this process was to attend town meetings, and to listen. It was great advice. I’m grateful to live in a place that fights for its collective vision. It is important to attend public hearings on NYRI and gas drilling, but it’s been my experience that you can have a significant positive impact on the environment by attending local monthly town and planning board meetings.
(Susan Sullivan is a Narrowsburg resident and a member of the Tusten Conservation Council and the Zoning Committee.)