Development along the Mohawk Valley, according to Mohawk Towpath Scenic Byway Coalition Executive Director Eric Hamilton, is pretty much inevitable.
“Things are going to change,” he said. “We live in a time of change. We just want to guide the change.”
The coalition met Thursday at the Century House in Latham for its yearly summit. Since the swath of roads and land bordering the Mohawk River from Schenectady to Waterford was designated a national scenic byway, coalition members from area municipalities have been working to leverage the region’s rich history into tourism dollars. And there’s plenty of history to leverage.
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, who gave the keynote speech at the summit, called the byway “our young nation’s pathway to the West.”
“We don’t have to manufacture our history here,” he told the roughly 50 people in attendance.
For years the coalition has been working to promote that history. Now, they’re working to preserve the historical aesthetic of the area as well.
In 2007, the coalition held a number of community workshops to develop a Scenic Conservation Action Plan. Among other things, it’s a handbook to planning historically integrated development.
The plan has been in the works for years. Though Hamilton called it a “living document,” he asked municipal leaders for the first time Thursday for an official endorsement of the plan. He’s hoping area zoning boards will integrate action plan precepts.
The action plan is pretty specific about what types of developments are attractive.
It recommends large parking lots be tucked behind their corresponding businesses, away from the eyes of passing motorists. New homes should be clustered to allow for more uninterrupted field and forest.
New buildings should be designed to match old ones. Hamilton used a recent project in the village of Waterford as an example.
“One house was totally wiped out by flooding in 2011,” he said. “The owners rebuilt a home with twice the square footage, but they matched the designs of the rest of the neighborhood.”
The place looks great, he said, and doesn’t detract from the historic feel of the village at all. The action plan, he said, would encourage such practices across the area.
Waterford Trustee Russ VanDervoort said the village will likely endorse the action plan, even though village zoning is already quite strict.
“We’re pretty keen on that sort of thing,” he said.
In fact, rules designed to keep the neighborhoods authentic-looking were once annoyingly restrictive he said.
“Most garages in the village used to be carriage houses,” he said. “Some people couldn’t get permission to renovate them to fit their cars.”
In Halfmoon, town Supervisor Kevin Tollisen was thinking about responsible zoning issues long before he saw the action plan. Halfmoon is growing rapidly. “We’ve got everything from farms to factories,” he said. “We’re the fastest growing town in the county. We’re blessed.”
All that growth forced the town to rethink its zoning laws — a complex process currently under way.
Tollisen said the trick is balancing growth with preserving the feel of history. Only so much can be done to beautify a factory. He plans to bring the coalition’s action plan as a source of ideas to the zoning team.
Also at the meeting, byway coalition members voted to investigate better signage practices at historic sites, and to add the village of Scotia and town of Glenville to the current list of eight coalition municipalities.