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Ballston considers farmland preservation in zoning law

Ballston considers farmland preservation in zoning law

Public hearing on zoning changes on March 12
Ballston considers farmland preservation in zoning law
Proposed changes in zoning would help protect Ballston Lake's water quality.
Photographer: Erica Miller

BALLSTON -- The town is moving closer to adopting zoning changes that would help preserve farmland and open space in the more rural western part of town.

The Town Board will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, at Ballston Town Hall concerning a draft environmental impact statement for a series of zoning changes aimed at preserving agriculture and open space. The changes would refocus development along state highway corridors.

A central proposal under consideration would create a voluntary "transfer of development rights" program that would allow agricultural properties to sell the development rights to their land to a private developer who could use them to build additional units in a more densely populated part of town.

"I really think being a farming community that [the proposed change] definitely is a major benefit to ag folks in our community," said Town Supervisor Tim Szczepaniak. "We are a farms first community, and I see a lot of benefit to that program. There's room for growth in the Route 50 corridor."

The concept of a transfer of development rights -- or TDR -- has been discussed for years as a way to preserve farmland and open space in towns like Ballston and Malta, where land is under heavy development pressure. If the Town Board approves, Ballston would be among the first to act on the idea. The only other town in fast-growing Saratoga County to have adopted a TDR policy is Clifton Park, where development pressure has been intense for decades.

"Hopefully it gives us new opportunities to preserve agriculture and preserve the town's character the way it is," said senior town planner Sophia Marruso.

The proposed zoning changes have been in the works for just over two years, with town officials trying to make the town zoning code more consistent with the town's 2006 comprehensive land use plan, which put an emphasis on preserving open space and agriculture.

The changes would also allow higher density in hamlet areas like Burnt Hills, and create new non-development buffers along streams to reduce the amount of runoff going into water bodies like Ballston Lake. It would eliminate the use of planned unit development districts as a way for developers to get a high-density development approved, except in a limited number of areas.

Under the proposed TDR program, private developers could pay for the development rights to farmland, and the town would receive a conservation easement on the land, preventing its future non-agricultural development. The rights would go into a "bank" from which a developer could buy rights that would let them increase the density of a development in another part of town where the town wants to encourage activity.

"The town is generally going to want to see higher density development in the far northern and far southern parts of town," Marruso said. "We want to look to Route 50 and Route 67 as our more high-density corridors."

The town's role in a development rights transfer would to be an intermediary. Marruso said it would likely work with one or more of the regional land conservation groups that has experience with buying and managing conservation easements.

"It's different, and I think Ballston is really excited about it," Marruso said. "It can be an effective tool to deal with the development pressure we are feeling."

But it could allow too much density, some officials argue.

Councilman William Goslin has voted against the TDR concept, citing concerns that it will concentrate development too much in areas where development is being encouraged.

"I think the theory is good when you talk about it, to say I'm not going to develop in rural areas and going to allow more development in hamlet areas, but the issue for me is this would allow up to 10 units per acre," Goslin said. "You haven't slowed growth, you've just transferred it around."

Despite that concern, Goslin said he expects to vote in favor of the package of zoning changes as a whole once they come up for a final vote.

"These changes are massive, and they need to get done," Goslin said. "I like the idea of preserving rural space, and I oppose that particular part, but the package as a whole is a huge step forward."

Another big part of the changes would put new limits on multi-family housing like apartments and condos.

"What we're really doing is slowing down the growth of the town, as far as apartments and condos go," Szczepaniak said.

Goslin said that along Route 50 south of Ballston Spa and along Route 67 east, there are examples of multi-story apartment complexes occupying land that he believes is more suitable for commercial development.

"In the new zoning, we really look at restricting multi-family units in the town, and that's restricting our commercial development," Goslin said.

If no significant new issues are raised at Tuesday's public hearing, Town Board members expect to adopt the zoning changes in April.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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