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Agree to Disagree: Farmland Preservation Issues in Ballston, Milton, Malta

The Ballston Town Board will hold an agenda meeting this evening (May 31) at 6:30, and probably the main item for discussion will be a proposed “transfer of development rights local law.”

The proposal is the product of long deliberations by the Farmland Protection and Preservation Committee, and is an offshoot of the town’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan adopted in 2013. It would set up a mechanism to give “landowners the option of voluntarily selling the right to develop their land in certain  agricultural areas …, and transferring those development  rights to lands in other areas of the Town better suited for residential development. Lands from  which development rights have been transferred are permanently conserved for farming and open  space uses. Lands to which development rights have been transferred are allowed to build at a  higher density than otherwise allowed under the Town’s zoning law.”

While the program would not cost taxpayers anything, it would permit increased residential density in some non-residential areas, which is potentially controversial.

In the town of Milton, meanwhile, the Town Board is likely tomorrow to adopt a new Farmland Preservation Plan. And even in ever developing Malta, home of the massive GlobalFoundries computer chip plant, it was announced earlier this month that an orchard and farm right next to the Northway will be preserved from development. (The Ballston Journal first reported the potential deal last year.)

That deal to preserve the Malta Ridge Orchard  and Gardens was done mostly with state money, and the town’s share comes from fees paid by developers. Owner David Bowman also deserves credit for his contribution, and for being willing to give up potential profits from development.

Some people are suspicious of any public money going to preserve farmland. They shouldn’t be. While a housing development may generate more tax revenue, it also generates higher costs — everything from the new roads needing maintenance to the kids needing public education.  Preserving farms has economic and environmental benefits, keeping productive jobs and helping protect the watersheds of the Kayaderosseras and Ballston creeks, along with Saratoga, Ballston and Round lakes. It also helps the wider economy, because people prefer to live and work in a beautiful area than in generic suburban sprawl.

That’s also a reason to steer development toward new “downtown” areas, as Milton and Malta have tried to do. Sometimes, that can result in a questionable project, but the general principle is sound, because concentrating new construction in a walkable town center can reduce development pressure elsewhere. And the new push to reduce the speed limit in downtown Malta and permit parking on Route 9 in front of Ellsworth Commons is a good idea.

In Ballston, it is Burnt Hills and the southern vicinity of Ballston Spa that are obvious locations into which to steer development, but there may need to be a wider “receiving area” in order to make the transfer of development rights program work. The Town Board needs to find a compromise to make that happen, so that food can be grown and animals grazed in Ballston forever.

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Reporter Bob Conner has worked 21 years in various positions at the Gazette of Schenectady, and before that four years as a reporter at the Glens Falls Post-Star. He won two first-place writing awards from the New York Associated Press Association for newspapers with circulation between 50,000 and 250,000. Bob has a Phi Beta Kappa bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University, and an associate’s degree in chemical dependency counseling from HVCC. He is a published author and is currently writing a historical novel about the last four months in the life of Ulysses S.Grant

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