Conservation advocates from 10 Columbia County towns and the City of Hudson gathered at the Churchtown Firehouse on October 13, 2011 to hold the county’s first Conservation Advisory Council Roundtable (notes). As part of it’s Community Assistance Program, CLC convened the roundtable in response to interest from municipal volunteers and citizens who attended CLC’s land use training workshop, Conservation Advisory Councils: How They Can Help Your Town Balance Development and Conservation.
Conservation Advisory Councils (CAC’s) are advisory bodies that town boards may establish and appoint under New York State Municipal Law to advise on the development, management and protection of natural resources. They can provide information, tools and advice to town agencies, especially “time-strapped” planning boards. CACs can also conduct natural resource inventories and provide a more detailed analysis of planning issues and environmental impacts for reviews under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Although CAC’s in New York State date back to the late 1960’s, only three Columbia County towns have councils at present: Ancram, Hillsdale, and New Lebanon, and one was recently formed in Gallatin. Some county towns have authorizing legislation in place but do not have current councils.
The Roundtable was conceived as a way to share information among Conservation Advisory Council members, as well as to provide information and assistance to residents who may want to form a new CAC in their own towns. Several members of both the Ancram and Hillsdale CACs attended the recent Roundtable and explained how they started their councils, recruit members, and assist in their towns. Ancram’s CAC, who has members with scientific, natural resource and farming backgrounds, got to know each other from working on other environmental issues.
With our backgrounds, we’ve been able to provide information requested by our Zoning Revisions Committee and Town Supervisor on technical topics such as hydro-fracking, stream buffers, vernal pool protection and biodiversity assessment.
Jamie Purinton, chair of Ancram’s CAC
The Ancram CAC is currently working on a biodiversity map of the entire town.
At the Roundtable, Ruth Dufault and Gretchen Stevens, members of the CAC in the Town of Hillsdale, described how their five-year old CAC grew out of a lecture series started by town residents a decade ago. One of their primary functions is to assist the town planning board with development reviews and they have built that relationship over time by attending planning board meetings regularly.
Our advisory role is now fully integrated with the planning board. We visit applicant sites, produce project review reports, and have time on the board agenda to present and discuss topics.
Stevens, a CAC member and also the Director of the Biodiversity Resources Center at Hudsonia, an institute for environmental research and education
Also attending the Roundtable were six members of the County Environmental Management Council (EMC), including EMC Chair Edwin Simonsen of Kinderhook. Simonsen points out that “the County EMC and all of you on CAC’s are natural allies. EMC’s were authorized at the same time as CAC’s and one of the original purposes of the EMC was to help organize the local advisory groups. I see many ways in which we can compliment and support each others work.” The EMC is compiling a matrix of the environmental land use laws from all towns in the county which will be a resource for towns updating their zoning. “A CAC can help their town through that process.”
Other Roundtable attendees included residents of Chatham, Germantown, Taghkanic, Austerlitz, Stockport, Stuyvesant, the city of Hudson, and Claverack. Bob Preusser, one of two elected officials who attended the Roundtable, sits on the Claverack Town Board. He studied fish and wildlife technology, and has worked for NYSDEC and for Cornell. Preusser now works full-time for Keil Equipment and has his own pond management business. He sees the work that CAC’s do as a “win-win” for all citizens.
Everyone should be able to support the work that a CAC can do for their town. So much of it get’s down to water quality, and that’s in everyone’s interest.
Another perspective was offered by Mary Gail Biebel, chair of the Chatham Agricultural Partnership (CAP), one of three Chatham residents who attended. Biebel spoke about the importance of integrating different perspectives on town boards and committees. “In the case of agriculture, for example, we’ve made sure that a farmer is represented on both the town planning and zoning boards, but also that a town board member be on the CAP board. Non-partisan working relationships are essential for getting things done,” says Biebel.
A common observation at the Roundtable was that Conservation Advisory Councils can increase their effectiveness through outreach to other partners, including other environmental groups, sportsmen, trail advocates, local school and health groups, as well as the farm community. Comments included: “We all need to hold each others’ hands!” “It’s important to lend a helping hand on issues our towns face, and get known for doing things,” and also, “to get the word out about what we’ve done.” The meeting ended with an enthusiastic call for more roundtables on a regular basis.
CLC modeled the CAC Roundtable after the county’s Agriculture Roundtable, which has been meeting regularly for decades. Cornell Cooperative Extension convenes them three times a year and they draw representatives from all levels of government, as well as nonprofit groups with agriculture programs like CLC. The meetings are always interesting and helpful, whether five people attend or twenty-five. Our hope for the Conservation Advisory Council Roundtable is that it will be a member-driven, informal but informative forum for the county’s environmental activity.
Ellen Jouret-Epstein, CLC’s Community Projects Manager
To get updates on land use workshops, meetings and events, contact Ellen Jouret-Epstein at 518.392.5252, ext. 208 or firstname.lastname@example.org. More on our Conservation Advisory Council Program and upcoming Roundtables.