Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Suburban Sprawl, City Troubles

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.

"Sprawling 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."

Over 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."


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 farmlands. .

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.


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.


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 February topic 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 anti-sprawl initiatives.

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.

Environmental 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.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.































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