Even as the city and state governments confront diminishing revenues and budget
shortfalls, development pressures and real estate prices are climbing throughout
much of the city's suburban rings. This trend, planning and conservation experts
believe, is creating worrisome challenges for those concerned about New York City
and the region's environmental future.
The continued pattern of sprawl development
is, of course, nothing new to the New York urban area. It gained steam following
World War II, when a suburban migration was fueled by inexpensive home loans for
returning soldiers, increases in automobile production and federally-subsidized
highway building. New tract housing communities, like Long Island's Levittown,
became national symbols of America's post-war prosperity.
But what has some
urban planners concerned today is that the unrelenting pressure of suburbanization
is not only transforming some of the region's most important open spaces, but
threatening to weaken New York City's critical mass over the long-term . If present
growth patterns continue, New York City could be affected by more sprawl-generated
pollution draining into city drinking water reservoirs, additional state and federal
funds being diverted from the city to build new infrastructure in rural areas,
and an erosion of the city's political power in Albany.
Taking a broad look
at the current development trends is the staff of the well-respected Regional
Plan Association (RPA). And much of what they see does not please them.
patterns of growth are an inefficient use of land that scatters jobs, houses,
schools and shopping across the landscape," says Robert J. Pirani, director of
environmental program at the Manhattan-based association. "It leaves people little
choice but to use their auto for any trip," causing increased air pollution throughout
the region. "It fragments the ecosystems that protect our drinking water and wildlife
habitat and that provide recreational opportunities that we all enjoy."
the last 30 years, Pirani continues, suburban development has "outpaced population
growth in this region by a factor of ten to one, creating fiscally unsustainable
patterns of growth."
CHANGES IN THE LAND
Development pressures are
being felt, even in these tepid economic times, throughout the New York region.
In New Jersey, ill-advised sprawl development has led to frustrating traffic jams
and ever-increasing strip malls, threatening even the state's more rural western
counties and its southern cranberry bogs. On Long Island, new home-building has
resulted in controversial road expansion projects and vanishing Suffolk County
But perhaps nowhere else are the bulldozers more active today
than in the counties north of New York City.
"From north to south, east to
west, residential and commercial developers in 2002 targeted Putnam County for
their projects," Ann Fanizzi, chair of the Putnam County Coalition to Preserve
Open Space recently warned.
Located just north of Westchester and less than
50 miles from the city, Putnam has for years been the fastest growing county in
New York State. It is a rural landscape that is seemingly changing month by month.
A case in point is the Brewster Highlands shopping center, now nearing completion
just off Interstate 84, which slices through the county. This new mall, with 370,000
square feet of retail space including Home Depot and other "big box" retailers,
is being built on what had been beautiful, forest-covered Hudson highlands, part
of New York City's Croton watershed.
"They cut off the top of the hillside,
and they denuded the landscape," said Marion Rose, chair of the Croton Watershed
Clean Water Coalition, describing the work of the Brewster Highlands developer.
Other developers, real estate lawyers and, in some cases, backhoe operators
are already working on more than a dozen other Putnam County projects. The names
of these landscape-altering developments are suggestive of the rural environments
that they are unwittingly helping to transform -- "The Meadows at Dean's Corners,"
(in the town of Southeast), "The Campus at Fields Corners," "The Fairways"(in
Carmel) and "Living Springs" (in Putnam Valley).
"Projects like these represent
a direct threat to the future of the New York City water supply," says Robin Marx,
a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work), who has focused
on regional watershed protection for the past decade. She notes that 13 New York
City reservoirs are located in Westchester and Putnam counties. They are subject
to pollution from stormwater runoff that races off of parking lots, roads, rooftops
and other paved surfaces associated with the new development, as well as from
failing septic systems and sewage treatment plants that accommodate the new growth.
In addition, she adds, the hundreds and hundreds of acres of new construction
are replacing meadows, forests, and wetlands that serve as natural filters for
the water supply of nine million downstate New Yorkers.
ACROSS THE HUDSON
On the west side of the Hudson River, the suburban and ex-urban counties
of Delaware, Greene, Schoharie, Ulster and Sullivan are also facing mounting development
pressures of varying degrees. Of course, these areas, as far as 150 miles from
New York City, have not yet been built up to anything like lower Westchester and
other close-in suburbs. But there is no doubt these areas are facing changing
demographics, with adverse consequences for both upstaters and city dwellers.
In Ulster County towns like Woodstock and Phoenicia, second-home growth has
been climbing for years. Now, due to such factors as increased Internet commuting
and new living and vacation patterns in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks,
real estate demand is accelerating even in places like Hunter and Jewett (in Greene
County) and Margaretville (in Delaware County). In Andes, another Delaware County
community, 60 percent of the homes are owned by part-time residents and prices
have climbed 25 percent in 2002.
In addition to the growing second-home market,
several major development proposals, now under consideration, could spur rapid
shifts in land use in these Catskill and Delaware watershed communities. For example,
a proposed Belleayre Resort -- with two 18-hole golf courses, two new hotels,
hundreds of residential units and ancillary commercial development -- has been
proposed for nearly 600 acres on steep slopes that drain into the city's two largest
reservoirs in Ulster and Delaware counties.
Also stirring controversy among
both downstate and some local residents are plans for three new casino developments,
to be located in the Catskills. (The first such facility, which would attract
thousands of daily visitors, strain local transportation systems and create significant
secondary development pressures, may be a casino to be run by the St. Regis Mohawk
tribe and built on the site of the old Kutsher's Country Club in Sullivan county.)
At special risk from such west-of-Hudson development is the small family farm
and the way of life that goes with it. Across New York State, the family farm
has been in decline for years -- a victim of everything from falling milk prices
to rising real estate values. In the town of Andes, for example, where hundreds
of small dairy farms once operated, only four of appreciable size remain, the
New York Times recently reported.
"It will be a shame for both upstate and
downstate New Yorkers if we can't save at least the bulk of those family farms
that are still operating," says Dave Dolan who works at the Delaware County-based
Watershed Agricultural Council, helping farmers obtain conservation easements
that protect their lands. Dolan believes, and water quality experts agree, that
retaining farming as a local land use will better safeguard the city's upstate
water supply than converting those parcels to residential and commercial development.
THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Earlier this year, 21 environmental and civic
organizations wrote to Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, calling
upon them to develop new state and city programs to help combat haphazard sprawl
in the city's Catskill, Delaware and Croton watersheds. (See Gotham Gazette's
page on the environment.) In that letter, the groups recognized that "(t)he
primary opportunity for subduing wastershed sprawl lies with our state officials."
To date, however, there has been little response from the Pataki Administration
to the environmental and civic group request. On the plus side, state environmental
conservation officials have meet with several environmental representatives and
expressed sympathy with their overall concerns. But there are as yet no new state
In stark contrast stands the "smart-growth" efforts
recently launched by New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey.
In January, Governor
McGreevey boldly announced: "There is no single greater threat to our way of life
in New Jersey than the unrestrained, uncontrolled development that has jeopardized
our water supplies, made our schools more crowded, our roads congested and our
open space disappear." Since then, the governor's anti-sprawl campaign has included
the release of a draft color-coded map that divides the state into areas where
the administration will seek to encourage development, areas where sprawl should
be discouraged, and areas where development should proceed cautiously. The governor
has also introduced legislation that would, among other things, give county planning
boards the authority to levy fees on developers and have more input on regional
development proposals. New Jersey is also proceeding with an aggressive plan to
purchase and protect undeveloped lands throughout the state.
groups believe that New York City has begun to make progress in this area, but
still has a way to go. The city's Department of Environmental Protection has recently
been more vocal in questioning the potential impacts of major upstate development
proposals on the city's water supply. And significant new plans for protecting
upstate watershed lands, on top of the city's already existing program, are rumored
to be in the offing.
To call for greater state and city action to combat suburban
sprawl is not to pit city dwellers against our upstate counterparts, or vice versa.
Smart-growth programs can benefit both New York City and its northern suburbs.
As William H. Whyte wrote, in his 1988 classic, "City: Rediscovering the Center,"
a region with a strong center-city "give(s) coherence to a whole countryside."
Until state and city officials step up their actions to tackle the challenge
of sprawl, city residents who care about their upstate water supply and the overall
vitality of the region which New York City anchors should not rest easy.
Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense
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