January 31, 2017Rebecca
Conservation: A Solid Strategy for Economic Development
I have a great idea to bolster economic development in Columbia County: we should as an entire community renew and redouble our commitment to conservation. We should collaborate to create as many publicly accessible parks, forests and nature preserves as possible; we should aggressively work to construct a system of interconnecting trail corridors; we should conserve as much good farm and forest land as quickly as we can.
Seriously? Yes, seriously.
Think about it. An important part of working to strengthen our economic base involves creating conditions that will attract people and businesses to come to the area. Why would someone want to move a business to Columbia County? Why would anybody want to live here? Because it’s a great place to live, a place with genuine rural character, a beautiful working landscape, lots of open spaces, historic hamlets and villages and many wonderful ways to enjoy the outdoors.
Not everyone, of course, aspires to the same style of life. But for anyone who values being within an easy drive to the New York, Boston or Albany Metropolitan Areas, and appreciates beautiful countryside, robust agriculture, easy access to fresh healthy food and a wide range of ways to engage with and enjoy the natural world, Columbia County is pretty hard to beat.
Choose Columbia: For Business, For Life
The organization primarily responsible to promote economic development in our county is the Columbia Economic Development Corporation. CEDC is all about growing businesses and creating jobs. One of CEDC’s central goals is to promote the county as a premier location to live and work. It has adopted a great tagline: Choose Columbia: For Business, For Life.
Why is Columbia County a premier location to live and work? As explained on the CEDC website, it is factors such as these – two hours from the NY Metropolitan Area, country roads, scenic landscape, active farming, outdoor recreation, visible history, strong community life.
See the connection? The qualities that make Columbia County such a great place to live and work, to own a business, to visit for a weekend get-away, are the very qualities that CLC is working hard to foster and protect. The extraordinary conservation attributes of this county are a very large part of what makes it so special and so attractive.
Those qualities are probably best summed up by that elusive phrase: rural character. The comprehensive plan of virtually every municipality in Columbia County highlights rural character as among the most highly prized features and ranks the preservation of rural character as a key priority.
CLC Promotes Rural Character in Many Ways
CLC is working hard to conserve the rural character of Columbia County in many ways. And in many ways, this work aligns with the CEDC’s economic development strategy.
Conservation Easements are a basic tool to preserve rural character. They are voluntary agreements by private landowners to prohibit development on their property that would compromise important conservation attributes. We have conserved 26,000 acres by conservation agreements; more than half of that protected land is part of a farm. Altogether a little more than 8% of county land has been permanently protected in this way. These transactions contribute significantly to maintaining the scenic, rural character of our landscape. (And by the way, conservation easements do not diminish the local property tax base.)
Most of our easements are donated. But a significant number have been purchased from working farm families. When we have completed a number of fully funded projects currently in the works, we will have facilitated the purchase of development rights from almost fifty county farm families, and that, in turn, will have provided more than $22 million to those families to re-invest in their businesses or use in some other way to bolster their financial position.
Support for farming and a resurgent farm economy is a major priority for CLC. In addition to farmland conservation easements, we operate a Farmer Landowner Match Program. The cost of farmland here is widely recognized as a primary barrier to the start-up of new farm ventures. A lot of farmable land is now owned by non-farmers, some of whom would love to see their property put to productive use. Our program puts such landowners in contact with people looking to begin or expand a farm operation. We currently have a database of more than 160 farmers and 160 landowners interested in exploring such an arrangement. So far we have made more than four dozen matches on almost 3,000 acres. Most of these represent either a brand new agricultural business enterprise or an expanded one.
Not only has farming been a staple of our economy and our community character; it has enormous growth potential. According to one recent study, in New York City alone sales of locally produced agricultural products amount to $150 million every year – but the demand for such products may be as high as $860 million! By every observable measure, Columbia County is ideally situated to be at the epicenter of a resurgent farm economy in the Hudson Valley.
Public lands: CLC owns nine public preserves, 2400 acres in all, managed for public access and enjoyment free of charge. These areas are visited by thousands of people every year. In addition, CLC has facilitated the expansion of other public lands. We’ve been centrally involved in transactions that have added very significant acreage to the Beebe Hill and Harvey Mountain State Forests. And we were the primary moving force behind the creation two years ago of the 550-acre Hand Hollow State Forest in New Lebanon.
Why is this important? If we’re serious about growing our tourism industry, we would do well to do all we can to expand opportunities for public access to our fabulous outdoors.
Planning: Planning is critically important. We all know examples where unplanned development has fundamentally altered the character of an area. It’s happened in many places right here in the Hudson Valley, places that used to look a lot like we still do today. It is possible to have growth and prosperity that evolves in a manner consistent with the rural character and conservation qualities that make this county what it is. The CEDC’s vision for economic development – emphasizing agribusiness, tourism, technology and arts and culture – is just such a vision. But growth that is compatible with rural community character does not happen by accident.
CLC works in many ways in support of thoughtful planning and conservation projects that are important to local communities. We produce training programs for municipal land use volunteers; we support the formation and the work of local Conservation Advisory Councils; we provided key staff support for the creation of our County’s recently adopted Farmland Protection Plan; we’re working with a number of different trail groups and community leaders on a Trails Task Force to promote the vision of an extensive trail network in the county. The potential is huge and it would be a huge draw for tourist dollars and quality-of-life seekers.
Economic development and conservation are not conflicting goals. They are entirely compatible. Those of us here today must nurture and conserve the rural character and exceptional conservation qualities of Columbia County if we are to sustain the character and culture that makes this such an attractive place to live and to work.
- Peter Paden is Executive Director of the Columbia Land Conservancy, a community-based land trust dedicated to land conservation in Columbia County. He may be reached at email@example.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of every month.