The vast majority [of survey respondents] — approximately 84 percent — believed that municipalities should coordinate with each other to “strategically limit the location of renewable energy sites to preserve scenic vistas and maintain rural character.”
WESTERLO – Nearly two years after assembling a committee to build a comprehensive plan from the ground up, the town of Westerlo has unveiled a full draft of the document for the first time.
The plan includes analysis of a survey of residents, showing overwhelming support for the town’s rural character as well as their priorities of privacy, community, and low taxes. The plan lays out a vision to protect Westerlo’s small-town rural character, prime agricultural assets, historic location, vital natural resources, and exceptional quality of life.
One of the stated objectives is for Westerlo to undergo town-wide property valuation, which hasn’t been done in over half a century, leaving the tax rolls badly skewed.
Comprehensive plans are a critical component of municipal planning, often providing information about natural resources and features within a municipality, as well as data collected from residents about what they want to see in their town, city, or village in terms of development.
The 178-page drafted plan released last week is likely to be the first that Westerlo codifies into its zoning law, after it passes through a public review process, and, if the plan is codified, it will allow the town to make planning decisions that better reflect the desires of its residents.
The town had created a comprehensive plan in 2015, but, as then-Councilman Bill Bichteman, who’s now supervisor, told The Enterprise in 2017, it “didn’t go far enough,” leaving the town vulnerable when a bevy of solar developers rushed in proposals for solar facilities, including the 90-acre twin arrays at Shepard Farm that have taken on a symbolic status in the Hilltowns since their construction, signifying, for some, the dangers of unchecked renewable energy development.
After allowing five solar projects to be built in the town, including the two at Shepard Farm, the town board voted in 2019 to enact a year-long moratorium on solar and wind development until an adequate comprehensive plan could be developed. The moratorium was extended another year last August, pending the plan’s completion. The moratorium is currently scheduled to expire this August.
Reflecting the importance of and anticipation around renewable energy infrastructure in the current plan, the town released the draft of the renewable energy chapter in March.
To make the plan, the town put together a nine-member committee led by David Lendrum, with Chuck Voss, of engineering firm Barton and Loguidice, serving as a consultant. Voss also chairs New Scotland’s planning board.
In addition to renewable energy, the new comprehensive plan draft addresses, in its “Vision & Goals” section: agriculture, tourism, the hamlet, non-renewable energy, Lake Onderdonk, environmental initiatives, aging in place, and town government and finances.
Elsewhere, the authors supply census data and maps of natural features and resources at the town, county, and state levels, and provide an overview of the town’s history.
The town also sent out surveys to all households and compiled the responses to create a profile of residents’ vision for Westerlo going forward.
The survey is arguably the most important component of the comprehensive plan, as it gives town officials insight that can be lacking at local meetings, where public comment periods are typically dominated by passionate individuals who may or may not have views that reflect those of the wider community.
The authors write that a four-page, 27-question survey was sent to each of the town’s roughly 1,500 households last summer, and that the committee received 455 surveys back, a rate of less than 30 percent. Of the 428 surveys that had completed demographic information, 75 percent came from a household with at least one member above the age of 55, despite that group making up only 39 percent of the town’s population.
“Although this figure may actually be higher because each survey represents one household not one individual,” the authors note.
About 14 percent of responses came from a household with a member in the 45-to-54 age range, compared to that group’s rate of 17 percent in the full population count. The three groups spanning 18-to-44 made up a combined 11 percent, with the rates of response descending as the ages get lower.
The survey asked questions about agriculture, infrastructure and housing, renewable energy, economic growth, open spaces, town government, and demographics, with additional open-ended questions to gauge what residents like about the town and what needs improvement.
Results show that most respondents had concerns about the availability of reliable, high-speed internet (another chart reveals that, while 39 percent of respondents had access to high-speed internet, 23 percent did not have internet access at all, while 16 percent were unhappy with their speeds – another 19 percent found rates too expensive). Also common were concerns about employment opportunities within the town, cleanliness, and roads.
“There were also several comments pertaining to the existing solar and future development within Town,” the report states.
In terms of what they liked, respondents overwhelmingly supported the town’s rural character – which, it should be noted, is often brought up as a counterpoint to renewable energy development.
“Many residents attributed their admiration to the fact that their family lived in Town and they had grown up in Westerlo,” the report states. “Another reoccurring comment was the appreciation of Westerlo’s community and friendly people. Based on the responses, it seems that many people truly like their neighbors as well as having the opportunity to get to know them.”
Regarding commercial solar development, 40 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the town advocating for development “but with logistical parameters put in place by town code.” In contrast, 28 percent were entirely opposed to the town promoting it, while 17 percent thought that “property owners should have free rein to use their land as they wish.” Fifteen percent of respondents were “neutral.”
Responses were similar in regards to wind energy development.
The vast majority – approximately 84 percent – believed that municipalities should coordinate with each other to “strategically limit the location of renewable energy sites to preserve scenic vistas and maintain rural character.”
Respondents were split on whether the town should use municipal funds to improve the hamlet, with 231 in favor and 187 opposed.
They were also divided on whether a new zoning district should be created for Lake Onderdonk to “streamline development,” with 190 in favor and 209 opposed.
Regarding the promotion of commercial development, 231 respondents were in favor while 185 were against it, but 285 were in favor of commercial zoning along routes 85 and 32 while 154 were against such zoning.
The authors note that additional open-ended questions were asked to help identify the various types of commercial development that would be welcomed by residents.
Common responses, the report says, included: restaurant, ice cream shop, gas station (specifically Stewart’s), diner, general store, convenience store, dollar store, farmers’ market, barber shop and hair salon, grocery store, coffee shop, clothing store, laundromat, hardware store, brewery, bar, liquor store, and small business in general.
“Although there were a handful of respondents specifically requesting stores like Walmart,” the report says, “there were also a significant amount of respondents in opposition to big box stores, including Walmart and Dollar General.”
Most respondents were in favor of a tourism-based economy, with 248 supporting the idea and 176 opposed; answers to subsequent open-ended questions about how to draw in tourists generally highlighted the area’s ample outdoor space.
Vision and Goals
To keep the town on track throughout its future development, the comprehensive plan addresses both the long-term vision and short-term actions that can be taken to actualize that vision, with goals and objectives occupying the middle-term to add more structure.
The authors state that the town’s vision is “an overarching statement that describes the aspirations of the town as a whole,” and should remain virtually unchanged over time. The vision is attained through the completion of goals, which are described as similarly unchanging but “much more narrow” in scope, and are hoped to be completed within a 10-year span, the plan states. Meanwhile, “objectives” are the stepping-stones to goals, to be completed within 6-to-10 years, and “actions” similarly feed into objectives and can be simple or complex in nature.
Westerlo’s vision statement is:
“Westerlo shall proactively foster well planned and aesthetically pleasing residential and commercial growth while encouraging preservation and protection of its: ‘small Town’ rural character; prime agricultural assets; historic locations; vital natural resources; and exceptional quality of life for all residents to the extent it is reasonably and economically possible. Necessary services will be supported by a tax base that is broad, diverse, and expanding.”
The related goal areas are: business and commerce, agriculture, tourism, the hamlet, non-renewable energy, Lake Onderdonk, the environment, Westerlo’s elderly, town government and finances, and renewable energy.
Each is furnished with relevant objectives and actions.
Regarding business and commerce, the plan states that the town should “ensure that any new commercial development, including renewable energy projects, do not impinge on existing agricultural operations or established residential areas.”
Objectives include constructing adequate broadband and telecommunications infrastructure (with the plan suggesting that the town “lobby and support federal initiatives in this area” as a specific action), establishing commercial zones where traffic levels are already relatively high, and supporting environmentally-friendly businesses “with a commitment to carbon-neutral, zero emission business practices.”
Regarding agriculture, the plan states that the town should “preserve and enhance the agricultural community in the Town by fostering the protection of farmland, encouraging sustainable family farms, and promoting agricultural related activities.”
Objectives include adopting a local Right to Farm law, assisting farmers in marketing their products to consumers, and supporting agritourism.
Regarding tourism, the plan states that the town should “attract tourism through well planned events and recreational opportunities to a Town with an inviting appearance.”
Objectives include promoting the town park as a venue for various outdoor events, constructing a network of trails, and building a municipal swimming pool.
Regarding the hamlet, the plan states that the town should “enhance the Hamlet areas through economic development opportunities and improved amenities for residents.”
Objectives include improving the water quality of the hamlet by reducing the bromomethane content, encouraging economic development through the construction of a wastewater treatment facility, and supporting the library and museum.
Regarding non-renewable energy, the plan states that the town should “preserve the land, air, and water quality in Westerlo for the health, safety, and welfare of current and future generations by not allowing heavy industrial operations and ensuring the safety of our existing energy infrastructure.”
Objectives include limiting heavy industrial operations, evaluating the town’s ability to respond to energy-related incidents and accidents, and ensuring that the town is “climate resilient.”
Regarding Lake Onderdonk, the plan states that the town should “recognize the unique characteristics of the Lake Onderdonk area and preserve this asset for future generations to enjoy.”
Objectives include determining the ownership of Lake Onderdonk and its dam, protecting and preserving the lake’s water quality, and creating unique zoning for the lake.
Regarding environmental initiatives, the plan states that the town should “preserve the land, air, and water quality, as well as the dark skies and quiet rural environment in Westerlo for the health, safety, and welfare of current and future generations.”
Objectives include protecting air quality, protecting water resources, and protecting the “legacy of Westerlo’s dark skies.”
Regarding Westerlo’s aging population, the plan states that the town should “support the ability of older Westerlo residents to continue to live in their homes and in the community safely, independently, and comfortably by providing additional housing and transportation options.”
Objectives include providing additional housing for senior residents, increasing transportation options, and establishing a town committee that focuses on the elderly population within the town.
Regarding government and finances, the plan states that the town should “be responsive, open, and transparent with leadership that exemplifies integrity, professionalism, and the highest moral and ethical standards, while acting in the best interests of the Town’s residents.”
Objectives include encouraging communication with residents through myriad channels, encouraging and commending volunteerism, and undergoing a town-wide revaluation (which the town hasn’t done in many decades).
Regarding renewable energy, the plan states that the town should “manage renewable energy development in a way that preserves Westerlo’s rural character and landscapes.”
Objectives include adopting land-use regulations and updating the town code to preserve vulnerable habitats and other “ecologically sensitive areas,” improving the energy efficiency of municipal and private properties, and providing guidance for the establishment of future energy codes.
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