Two subdivision proposals went before the Town of Liberty Planning Board on August 1st. One would subdivide 144 acres on Menderis Road into 26 lots, mostly about 5 acres. The second would subdivide the 252 acres of RM farm into 44 lots, also about 5 acres each. Both are planned to be gated communities. Both are also very traditional — cut up the land, build roads, bring in utilities and put up houses.
What’s striking in these and most of the other subdivision proposals floated in Sullivan County is how unimaginative and uncreative they are from a land use planning perspective. They generally don’t involve conservation easements, farmland protection or forest conservation unless forced by some government entity to make concessions.
One reason that Sullivan County is still so beautiful is that we were mired in the economic doldrums during the late 80’s and early 90’s, when other areas were experiencing a lot of development and were cut up into ticky-tacky subdivisions. We have an opportunity to leapfrog all that and become a model for much more progressive land use planning and conservation-oriented real estate development.
During the 1st week of August, at the same time the Town of Liberty Planning Board was reviewing those two subdivision proposals, both the House and Senate approved sweeping changes to the tax treatment of conservation easements that offers landowners much more incentive to protect their land. The Pension Protection Act of 2006, which is expected to be signed by President Bush, raises the maximum deduction a donor can take for donating a
conservation easement from 30% of their adjusted gross income (AGI) in
any year to 50%; allows qualified farmers and ranchers to deduct up to 100% of their AGI; and increases the number of years over which a donor can take deductions from 6 years to 16 years. This is a huge change in the tax treatment of conservation easements, and makes it much more attractive to protect land.
Our Planning Boards needs to start demanding more creative land use plans that protect land in exchange for permission to develop. Those "trade off" provisions are common in NYC, where developers regularly agree to add features to a project for the public good as part of the approval process.
Buyers also need to begin rewarding developers who bring conservation-oriented developments to the market. Another way to approach that 252 acres (now slated for 44 five acre lots) might be to propose, say, 20 two to three acre lots surrounded by about 200 acres of commonly held land protected by conservation easements. The big question is whether the market will value — and pay for — that type of lower density development with shared conservation areas. The new tax incentives will hopefully make that type of development much more attractive for developers and investors. But its also up to buyers to decide if they’ll be willing to pay $125,000 for a 2 acre parcel surrounded by protected land instead of, say, $100,000, for a 5 acre parcel not part of a conservation development.
In light of the flooding that occured in parts of Sullivan County earlier this summer, some citizen groups are proposing moratoriums on subdividing in some of our townships. I think a blanket moratorium is a wrong approach. However, I do support brakes on these traditional subdivisions with little or no conservation focus. If we do impose moratoriums on this type of development, we should encourage lower-density, conservation-oriented developments that protect our farmland, forests and watershed.
If we don’t begin incentifying conservation-oriented developments and dis-incentifying traditional developments, we’re headed to a future here with hideous McMansions sprouting up in the middle of hayfields. Just take a drive around Orange County between Goshen, Middletown and Newburgh to see what that future looks like.