Orange Environment, Inc.




Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.

It is time for a radically new approach to planning in Orange County. With a competent new Planning Commissioner poised to take office and a staff waiting to whale, there is the potential to really make a difference now. I suggest these steps for the near >term:

1. ACT NOW. The Orange County “plan” put forth last year is not really a plan, but a loose wish list. However, there is no time for an impasse. As the main opponent of the plan, I therefore suggest that the legislature pass it, but only if it is willing to take these next steps.

2. RESOUCES AND RESTRAINTS. The County needs to conduct studies that will help identify the resources available to support growth (water, roads, schools, sewerage, etc.), the costs of current growth (lost wetlands and wildlife areas, excess paving, overdrawn water supplies, failed sewer plants, etc.), and the cumulative effects of additional growth. Cumulative effects are vital because they put the roads, and the water, and the sewerage together in one picture and they recognize that what occurs in one community affects neighboring communities and the region as a whole (Where Wallkill goes, so goes Wawayanda, Goshen, and Crawford; if Sullivan County pops, there goes Orange County’s roads, etc.). These studies will identify the limits to growth, how much growth can be sustained, of what type, with what mitigations, and where.

3. VALUES AND VISIONS. The County should simultaneously build on the “plan” by creating a master vision for growth that will involve an authentic dialogue between citizens, officials, and the private sector. The vision will recognize what we value about Orange County and what legacy we leave for future generations. This vision should be deliberately “articulated” between a county vision and local municipal visions, as the New Jersey State Planning cross-acceptance process did. The goal is a public consensus on where we are headed.

4. SUSTAINABILITY AND SEQRA.. The focal point of the planning process should be how to create a sustainable Orange County, where natural and social capital are respected (valuing viable ecosystems, minimizing pollution, preserving local history and livable communities), where self sufficiency is promoted (local farms with local markets, community shopping and enterprise, renewable energy, protection and use of local water resources), where we try to accomplish our goals with minimal secondary costs, and where issues of equity and our legacy for the future guide our thinking. I have worked over the past several years to create planning processes to achieve these ends, using community collaborative decision making to include all stake holders and to seek consensus. I have also explored the use of the State Environmental Quality review Act as a sustainability planning tool. Since impact review is required by law, and impact statements are frequently done, why not convert the impact assessment process from the current less than optimal and adversarial approach to a collaborative sustainability planning process that will build consensus, guide desired development, and build sustainable communities?

5. OPEN SPACE AND OPEN MINDS. Finally, there seems to be wide acknowledgment that a key focus of planning should be open space preservation. Given the press of development, this must be an immediate objective, occurring in parallel to the other stages above. I have a simple suggestion for how to move forward. All undeveloped land in Orange County over a few acres should be mapped as open space, indicating land already in public hands or having protective easements and land vulnerable to development. A County planning process would then be undertaken for the open lands following this formula. Each parcel owner could elect to have their land fall into one of two

categories: to be protected fully or to be developed. A county program for

acquiring development rights or outright purchase would address the first category. The developable lands would be addressed as follows. Half of the acreage in every parcel would be developed and half preserved. This concept is not so radical when one considers existing municipal requirements for developers to create parks or open spaces and, in effect, a two-acre building lot would involve one acre under the owner’s control and one acre put into a protective commons. There is ample precedent for this approach. How would planning occur? Landscape planners working for the county would examine the developable parcels, indicating where buildings might be best placed in order to preserve one of two open space features of the land either for small scale farming or for ecosystem preservation and passive recreational access. Parcels allocated for small scale farming would then be leased to farmers willing to work with the surrounding residents to limit nuisances and pollution and to market locally through Community Assisted Agriculture arrangements built into the development. The County planners would consider how to minimize roads, create viable residential neighborhoods, make workable mini-farms, and create park areas that would support outdoors access for residents while protecting ecologically sensitive and vital natural areas and natural renewability. The integrative planning effort would allow for the separate parcels to be connected, so that continuous open spaces, protected natural features spanning parcels, well planned roads, and viable residential communities would be created. The result supports and preserves farming, natural open areas, and much less sprawled residential areas. Using Trading of Development Rights, County Planners could trade land that was suitable for greater development for land that was better served by preservation for farming or park space.

Implementation of the plan would be through voluntary home rule participation decided by referendum or municipal boards in each community. Is such a plan workable? My models are Radburn, part of Fairlawn, New Jersey and Gottenborg, Sweden. In Radburn, beautifully clustered houses surround cul-de-sacs but face out into a magnificent park. Children, recreators, and train commuters can walk without crossing roads. Community facilities and events are encouraged. In Gottenburg, within the city limits, clustered housing communities are surrounded by parks and farms so that other development cannot even be seen. Clusters allow for potential mass transit connections. Roads are minimized. The clusters are large enough to support community sewerage and water systems but small enough to allow for septic tanks and wells, as appropriate to the setting.

We have many planning challenges, but if we act with open minds, intelligence, and cooperation, we may be able to craft win-win solutions that will work for different stakeholders-businesspeople, farmers, residents-while providing a creative and value protective planning effort that serve to create a sustainable future for Orange County.