Photo Credit: Jerry Monkman

Important Questions and Answers on "Private Lands, Public Benefits"

Catskills Report Cover Private Lands Public BenefitsApril 18, 2011 — OSI's release of "Private Lands, Public Benefits" generated considerable dialogue in local media outlets, within the conservation and development communities and, perhaps most importantly, among planners and elected officials in the four-county Catskill region it examined.

Our study found 520,000 acres—more than 10 times what will be needed to accommodate population growth over the next 25 years—on which development could potentially occur without negatively impacting the Catskills' tremendous natural resource base.

Yet, there is much more to this study than its 520,000-acre headline. During its three-year study, OSI collected data on growth patterns, natural resources and existing infrastructure throughout the Catskills that will now help towns as they seek to strike an appropriate balance between the region's spectacular open spaces and clean water sources and the critical need for thoughtful, well-planned growth.

See below for additional insight, much of it framed by the questions and comments we've received, into the study's conclusions, OSI's impetus for doing the study and how we hope its findings can be utilized moving forward. 

Q & A on Private Lands, Public Benefits

What was the catalyst for a land conservation organization to study the need for development in the Catskills?

By identifying areas where development can occur, we hope to help steer people away from the more sensitive areas. There are 350,000 residents in the Catskill region, and they own 1.1 million acres that protect over 68 percent of the open space resources identified in the study as regionally important. Their ability to maintain those lands as open space and to support those resources requires a healthy Catskill economy and we wanted to do our part by identifying areas for healthy growth.

How has the report been received so far?
We've been very pleased with the radio and news articles, which have stuck to the facts and analysis and have not ventured into speculation or prescription, i.e., nothing should be developed, or all 500,000 acres should be developed. Also, several towns have contacted us to understand more about what this means for their community, and we encourage them to conduct further analysis using our data.

We did hear from some developers who were nervous to learn there are some places they should not develop. At the same time, some conservationists were uneasy with the report's findings that in fact there was a lot of land that could be developed. The fact is that both are true, but the good news is that there is a lot more of the former than of the latter, so there is ample room for a "win-win."

Could 520,000 acres really be "preferred," much less available for development?
We collected data from more than 20 sources to identify the important farm, water, wildlife and recreation resources. We assumed these should not be developed. Then we identified regulatory or physical constraints to development. The former include regulations on wetlands, floodways, flood plains, buffers on water bodies and Department of Environmental Protection regulations within the Catskill-Delaware watershed.

On one end of the spectrum, some towns could theoretically develop as much as 50 percent of their land base, while other municipalities can't develop much more than they have already without encroaching on a steep slope or an open space resource. It will be up to each of the towns to refine the analysis and come up with their own priorities. This report does not purport to do that for them.

Does OSI's report suggest that all "preferred" areas should be developed?
No. Our analysis is designed simply to identify land that could be developed, and thus is "preferred" over those lands more sensitive to the impacts of development. It is really very important that each town decides what type of development is appropriate and how to concentrate growth in a responsible manner, i.e. around existing infrastructure.

Does your analysis take local zoning ordinances into account?
It does not. It is hard to give an accurate picture of that because local zoning changes frequently and variances are approved with surprising regularity. Instead, we decided it made more sense for interested towns to take what we've done and overlay their local zoning. It's their job to figure out what mix of development and conservation is right, and where each should occur. Our report provides useful data to help in the process, and may be useful as towns look beyond their borders. We never anticipated that we would replace the town's own comprehensive plans, but that we could help them better see how they fit into the region.

What is the difference between a "build out" study and OSI's study?
Build out studies are much more detailed studies that incorporate local zoning and illustrate, given existing zoning regulations, what "build out" would look like for any given town.

As indicated above, OSI's study does not incorporate local zoning to show exactly where developed will occur. Rather, it identifies areas that are less sensitive to development as a way to help identify compromises for conservation and development.

We hoped to offer a way for towns and counties to 1) see how they compare to their neighbors, and 2) make data available that towns can use to evaluate their own zoning and planning efforts.

How does the 520,000 acres of "preferred growth area" compare to the 20,000-40,000 acres needed to accommodate projected population growth?
These two numbers come from two different analyses. The 20,000-40,000 acres are derived from how much land will be needed to accommodate the 13,000 people expected to come to the region over the next 25 years. Our research shows that each new person in a rural area tends to require between 1.5 acres and 3 acres of land. We used those estimates to get the acreage figures.

In contrast, the 520,000 acres is derived from a mapping analysis that looks at current development, open space resources, physical restrictions and state and federal regulations. When we eliminate all of these impediments to development, we're left with 520,000 acres that are preferred for growth.

What is the most important take-away from all these numbers?
Our findings showed that because approximately 500,000 acres could accommodate development, while only 20,000 acres to 40,000 acres may actually be needed for population growth, there is more than ample room to find common ground between conservation and development. We can develop far more than what the market is projecting will actually be developed and, if sited appropriately, never encroach on the region's many and significant open space resources.






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