View Full Version : In Putnam, Open Space Now Has a Price

June 14th, 2005, 11:11 PM
June 15, 2005
In Putnam, Open Space Now Has a Price
COLD SPRING, N.Y. - People here like to say that they live in the county where the country begins. Forty miles north of New York City, Putnam County still represents a sharp departure from the suburbs separating it from the city - a tableau of roads twisting through woodland, stony ridges rising up from the Hudson River and charming villages like this one.

But in the last decade, with development pressures rippling up from Westchester County, that has begun to change. Big-box stores have arrived, along with a spate of McMansions and the occasional town house community. As a countermeasure, the County Legislature recently voted unanimously to place a bond referendum on the ballot in the fall that would allocate $20 million to preserve open space.

The Legislature would use the money to buy parcels of land that a citizens' advisory board identified as particularly sensitive or significant. The land acquisition would cost the average household $44 a year more in property taxes over the 20-year life of the bond.

While county residents are concerned about rising taxes, they also seem to value the bucolic atmosphere. In a recent poll commissioned by the Open Space Institute and the Trust for Public Land, two nonprofit preservation organizations, 58 percent of those surveyed said they would support a $20 million bond act for land preservation. After hearing the details, 69 percent were in favor.

"We still have that country feel; we still have open space," said Vincent M. Tamagna, a county lawmaker who heads the land-acquisition and open-space committee and is the sponsor of the bond act. "I don't believe the horse is out of the barn, but we're not going to have a place to bring horses if we don't take action."

Erik Kulleseid, director of the New York State program of the Trust for Public Land, said Putnam would be the first county in the Hudson Valley to put an open-space referendum before voters. Counties like Westchester and Orange have allotted significant sums for land conservation through their capital budgets, he said.

"Putnam is the first one to let the voters take this on," Mr. Kulleseid said. "We're very excited because when you look at these measures nationwide, 75 percent of open-space funding measures on the ballot passed in 2004."

On Long Island, voters in Suffolk County have passed several open-space referendums over the years, including one last November for $75 million. In Nassau County, voters overwhelmingly supported the first such referendum to appear on the ballot there last fall, authorizing a $50 million land-acquisition fund.

In many respects, Putnam, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, is still tiny. It stretches only 11 miles from its southern border, which it shares with Westchester, to its northern border with Dutchess County. Its population is 100,000 - Westchester has 923,000 residents - and represents a mix of weekend homeowners, commuters to Manhattan and third- and fourth-generation natives.

Development in the county took off in the 1980's. The number of building permits issued in Carmel, for instance, jumped to 357 in 1985 from 29 in 1980, with other towns experiencing similar spikes.

In recent years, the development has eased a bit, the result of the county's locale within the 380-square-mile Croton watershed, which feeds the reservoir system that New York City and parts of Westchester rely on for drinking water. Since 1997, when the city and the watershed communities signed an agreement to safeguard the drinking water, tough new land restrictions have gone into place.

Some say those limits have shifted the attention of builders to the western part of the county, near the Hudson River. "That side has seen a larger boom in development, so Philipstown and Putnam Valley are getting hit harder because of contractors not wanting to work in the watershed," said Lauri Taylor, the county's senior environmental planner.

On a sun-dappled afternoon along the Main Street here, Donna Durr, a textile designer who moved to Cold Spring three years ago from Queens, said she would support any effort to preserve Putnam's semirural character.

"There is quite a bit of open land, and I'd like to keep it that way," said Ms. Durr, a mother of two who owns a handbag boutique in the village and also commutes to a job in Manhattan three days a week. "Handing more land over to the county is a great idea. In the end, it's for our children and their children. Forty-four dollars is nothing."

Gary Novak, a Verizon worker who lives in Putnam Valley, agreed. "I'm for anything that keeps it green," he said. "Once it's gone, it's gone forever."

But others were concerned about the cost. "Any time you give the public back some open space, that's pretty nice," said Rich Locaparra, a father of five who has lived in nearby Garrison for 14 years. "But taxes are pretty high right now. My taxes have gone up 30 percent. I have to move."

Proponents of land conservation say they wish the bond referendum represented an even larger pot of money. Still, they are optimistic that the dollars can be stretched through partnerships with the state and local governments as well as with conservation groups.

"Given the land values, $20 million is probably not enough," said Andrew T. Chmar, executive director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group. "But the good thing is, it can be matched with other funds, and we think it's an ideal opportunity to leverage this money with others to achieve $30 or $40 or $50 million."

And everyone, it seems, has a wish list with one or more pet parcels in mind. Ann Fanizzi is a retired New York City schoolteacher and administrator who lives in the town of Southeast. A few years ago, she helped form a group, the Coalition to Preserve Open Space, after the Brewster Highlands Mall, a shopping complex with a Home Depot, a Linens 'n Things and a Kohl's began to rise on a hillside over Route 312, not far from her home.

Now, the group is challenging several proposals. One is a housing plan in Southeast called the Campus at Field Corners, which is almost through the approvals process. The development - 143 single-family houses on 310 acres - would be next to the 200-acre Tilly Foster Farm, which the Trust for Public Land helped the county acquire a few years ago.

"This is a classic case of land that should be preserved," Ms. Fanizzi said of the Campus at Field Corners proposal. "It fits all the criteria for land acquisition and continues the swath of greenway."

Vincent M. Tamagna, a Putnam County lawmaker, is sponsoring a bond referendum in the fall that would allocate $20 million to preserve open space.