Should the New York City metropolitan area have more people and more jobs? If so, how many more? Where in the 31-county region should they be located? And what needs to be done to ensure a habitable environment for everybody?
Last week the venerable Regional Planning Association issued a new report, Adding Value: Open Space Conservation in the Mid-Hudson Valley. The study, done in conjunction with SUNY New Paltz, described what RPA sees as the role of Putnam, Dutchess, Orange and Ulster counties in providing open-space protection in the New York metropolitan area. We Hudson Valley residents are rewarded with the message that we’re protecting open space, watersheds, agriculture and undeveloped lands. The study touts the plentiful economic opportunities provided by the presence of hordes of tourists and the many growers and consumers of food.
“Open-space protection is not a cost imposed on one place or region for the benefit of the other,” proclaimed the high-minded introduction to RPA’s study, dated August 2018. “Rather, it is a shared commitment to clean air and water, healthy lives, beneficial habitats, local sources of food, and region-wide economic vitality.”
Very few people want to see the Hudson Valley turn into the new Long Island, occupying plentiful open space with clueless development and then wondering what went wrong. Open space is essential, but it does not exist in isolation. It has to be integrated into the context of other human needs and social problems. Does Adding Value add value?
“I appreciate the vigilance,” said Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress CEO Jonathan Drapkin in a telephone conversation last week. He said he found the collection of strategies in Adding Value a stimulating framework for the preservation of Hudson Valley open space.
RPA wants to see more people and more jobs in what is by far the largest and most economically significant of America’s metropolitan areas, a true “global city.” Recent growth has failed to lift the standard of living of too many people, the planning organization concludes. A change in course is necessary. But that doesn’t mean population and job growth should be cut back.
“If we can provide the housing space, commercial space and infrastructure that is needed for all those that want to live here,” the heart of the Fourth Regional Plan released last November declared, “the region could gain nearly two million additional jobs by 2040.”
The 2017 plan projects an increase of 1.8 million or eight percent in regional population by the year 2040 if current trends continue. More room for sustainable growth would create the potential for adding another 1.9 million more persons to that total while — a tall order — expanding economic opportunity and making the region more affordable.
On the employment side, with current trends RPA projects 850,000 new jobs (or seven percent more in the region) by 2040. The potential is to create 1,050,000 more than that (16 percent growth).
In Adding Value, RPA allocates to the mid-Hudson counties of Dutchess, Orange, Putnam and Ulster a slightly smaller 2040 population under its RPA vision than under current trends (1.078 million versus 1.087 million). When it comes to job allocations, however, the RPA vision calls for a 47,000 increase in the four counties by 2040 rather than the 16,000 increase projected in the current-trends scenario. Perhaps the calculation is that mid-Hudson residents who commute in increasing numbers for New York City employment will find more attractive or better-paying jobs closer to where they live.
“As this region grows, and demand for development increases in different communities, it is important to understand what is at stake when considering planning and development decisions,” Adding Value explains. Contrasting what it terms a “business-as-usual” approach to “a more thoughtful approach based on smart-growth principles,” the study presents build-out scenarios for each. What would happen if all the lands developable under current zoning were developed? The negative consequences would be damaging to open space.
Adding Value illustrates its concerns by providing projections for three communities: Red Hook, New Paltz and Warwick. Under full buildout of all unprotected land, New Paltz is estimated to have enough subdivision capacity to house 23,734 new residents. Using the national average household size of 2.54 people per household, full buildout could result in as many as 9200 New Paltz subdivision lots. Sounds scary.
Adding Value projects 2027 more residents to New Paltz’s present population of 14,123 residents by 2040. Under a dispersed development pattern (subdivisions of one-family homes), an average of 92 people annually over 22 years would occupy more New Paltz open space than under a more concentrated scenario. Which will happen? Will the newcomers reside on developable land in single-family suburban splendor? Or will they occupy ever-smaller off-campus rooms or multi-unit developments in populated areas?
A dose of the real worlds is often helpful. Adding Value could have called the town and village building departments. Town building inspector Stacey Delarede would have told them that there had been 24 single-family starts in her jurisdiction in the past four and a half years. Village building inspector Holly Esposito would have said that there had been only a handful of single-family homes in the village in the past few years. Let’s be generous and estimate single-family homes on ten lots a year for both jurisdictions combined. Assuming no other kind of open-space-devouring development, at a ten-lot-a-year pace New Paltz will run out of developable open space in the year 2938.
Development patterns have changed. Of the 1840 building permits issued in Ulster County in the four-and-a-half year period between January 2004 and June 2008, 1476 were for single-family homes. Of the 660 building permits issued in the four-and-a-half-year period a decade later, 240 were for single-family homes.
Two facts, both good news for the preservation of open space, stand out: The number of building permits issued in Ulster County is now only 36 percent of what it was a decade ago. And the number of permits for single-family homes as a proportion of total permits have dropped from 80 percent to 36 percent.
The most recent data show no sign of reversal in these dramatic changes. In the future, there will be continued shifts. It seems, however, that the population and jobs growth the RPA SUNY New Paltz study forecasts for the next two decades for the mid-Hudson Valley in general and for New Paltz in particular are unlikely to result in the substantial reduction of open space.