Defining “open space”

Several weeks ago we wrote an editorial, “Boiling the frog,” in which we defended the value of conservation subdivisions, developments in which buildings are clustered close together and a large proportion of any given area is preserved as open space. We also conceded, however, that not every particular project calling itself a “conservation subdivision,” or touting itself as preserving open space, is a good one.

A case in point is the Highland Village project, proposed for Pike County, discussed in our article “Two Pike boards review plans for new town” in our September 14 issue. The fall Pike County Conservation District newsletter writes that of the approximately 2,500 acres, “1,249 acres of ‘open space’ includes two lakes, golf course, stormwater facilities, unpaved parking areas, Mountain Laurel Center, community centers, stream corridors, [and] wetlands.”

The quotation marks around the words “open space” in the newsletter are well advised, given that the words enclosed must obviously be taken with a grain of salt. A golf course is open space? Unpaved parking areas are open space? A performing arts center and community centers are open space?

In evaluating any development project that purports to preserve open space, it is vitally important that we are clear about what open space really is. To do that, we need to remember why we want to preserve it in the first place—something that, we believe, the Highland Village plan has failed to do.

We see a threefold purpose in preserving open space: first, to maintain the quantity and quality of the water supply and control flooding; second, to maintain the ecological health of the environment; and third, to preserve natural beauty.

The first purpose we believe to be absolutely non-controversial. Everyone wants clean water, and nobody wants to be flooded. Pavement, widespread areas of lawn and cutting of forest all adversely affect water absorption and worsen stormwater runoff. Furthermore, both pavements, which are coated with toxic spills from motor vehicles, and lawns, which are heavily treated with toxins and excessive nutrients in the form of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, are serious sources of water pollution. The pollutants do not only run off into streams, but seep into groundwater.

Some might question the importance of the ecology. Not everyone cares about plants and animals. But humans are biological beings, a part of an intricately linked system, and modern science has demonstrated that if the links in the system are broken, our mental and physical health suffer as well. Moreover, in a tourist area like ours that depends on activities such as hunting, fishing, camping and birding, the destruction of ecosystems will also have adverse economic impacts.

The third purpose is most controversial of all. Not everyone cares about natural beauty, especially if they feel that there is a tradeoff between beauty and money. But again, in an area like ours with a large tourist sector, beauty has a dollar as well as an intangible value—not to mention the impact of natural beauty on real estate values.

It follows from the above that “open space” means undisturbed natural habitat—habitat, moreover, that is left in large enough contiguous chunks that plants or animals that need a large range to survive can do so. Golf courses, with their huge spreads of toxin-treated lawns and isolated clumps of trees and shrubs, are emphatically not habitat in this sense. Nor are unpaved parking lots, which will be kept in grass and periodically covered with cars. Nor are performing arts and community centers.

As development pressures increase and communities become more aware of the need for preservation, we can expect the term “open space” to appear with increasing frequency in development proposals. It is crucial that community planners and town and zoning board officials sit down now to clarify what their communities actually mean by the phrase, in particular if favorable tax terms or other incentives are to be provided for preserving it. They certainly don’t have to accept our definition, but they should ask themselves the same question: why do we want to preserve open space in the first place? The definition decided upon ought then to be encoded in the town’s master plan and zoning regulations. That way, developers will know before they put a proposal forward what criteria they need to meet, and officials will have clear, fair and objective rules on which to make judgments.

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Dr. Punnybone

Hurricane Lamp

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Ban burning

To the editor:

I want to congratulate The River Reporter and reporter Sandy Long for the recent very informative articles on the subject of backyard burning.

This issue is often overlooked, or just accepted by the residents on both sides of the river. To me, and increasingly to more and more people, the extremely negative impact of this practice on health and the environment is becoming all too real. It’s really another “inconvenient truth.”

Anyone can pick up a free three-month permit that allows you to burn “legally.” On the back there is a list of restrictions and it is left up to the individual to adhere to it. Lets face it, where there is no enforcement, it is basically a free for all. I speak from experience. Also, to report a neighbor to the DEC could, on the extreme side, provoke potential violent retaliations or just create an atmosphere of ill will, which would be incredibly unpleasant to live around.