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Towns create brochure to help new home builders stay green

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HILLSDALE—Do the natural pastoral views of Columbia County have you dreaming about settling here? Maybe building a new house?

If so, the Conservation Advisory Councils of Ancram, Hillsdale, New Lebanon and Taghkanic have created a brochure to help you and the environment at the same time.

The two-sided, full-color, tri-fold brochure is called, “Thinking of Building a New House?”

According to Caroline Stewart a member of the Hillsdale Conservation Advisory Council (CAC), the idea for the brochure emerged with the great influx of people who arrived here within the past couple of years during the Covid-19 pandemic. While many bought existing houses, many others bought undeveloped property to build on.

It is those people the brochure hopes to reach while their projects are still in the planning stages.

“If you’re looking for land in Columbia County, it’s probably due in part to the beautiful unspoiled vistas that this area offers. The very features that make this area so desirable to homeowners, businesses and visitors are the characteristics we all hope to preserve,” says the brochure introduction written by the CACs, which “have joined together to prepare this brochure to offer planning ideas for prospective home builders and their architects who, like us, value the natural environment.”

“This is the first collaboration of its kind among CACs,” Ms. Stewart told The Columbia Paper by email this week, adding, “We do all share information at collective CAC meetings sponsored by the Columbia Land Conservancy, but that’s the extent until now.” She estimates the brochure has been one to two years in the making.

By the time an applicant gets to the town building inspector or planning board, “they have already bought the land and spent lots of money on surveys and site plans.” They “are already highly-invested in the project of their dreams,” wrote Ms. Stewart.

“Introducing conservation concepts earlier in the process, can eliminate some of the problems that can arise at the planning board stage and avoid disappointments and hard feelings,” she noted.

Taghkanic CAC Chair Tony LaSalvia, a retired teacher of earth and environmental studies in the New Lebanon School District, said by phone this week, the brochure will be most helpful if it gets to the right people. It is designed for those who have already purchased land or are thinking about it. Features like breathtaking views, clean air and water are the reasons people want to buy land here, “the goal of the CACs in creating the brochure is to keep it that way,” he said.

The brochure expresses conservation-minded, voluntary ideas, “nobody is bound to anything.” He gives the example of building sites, suggesting that instead of clear-cutting trees on a hilltop to build, why not build a house into the side of the hill?

“If everybody clear-cuts trees on the ridgeline so they can see the beautiful view, then no one will be able to see the beauty because there will be none,” said Mr. LaSalvia, suggesting that trees and the natural landscape go a long way in preserving the scenic views.

With a modicum of experience in the real estate business assisting his wife, Mr. LaSalvia said real estate agents are among the people who will be asked to hand out the brochures. They will also benefit if home builders take the brochure’s suggestions to heart, because the views will be preserved and more properties will be sold.

The brochure addresses topics such as: color and lights, slopes and driveways, views and viewsheds, wetlands and streams, trees and forests and meadows. It points out agricultural, wildlife habitat, building material and aesthetic considerations for potential home builders to think about.

It asks landowners to consider the natural features of the land and how to best take advantage of those features.

Erin Robertson, a landscape designer, an Ancram Planning Board member, Ancram CAC member and a Zoning Revisions Committee member, said in a phone interview this week, the brochure is meant to help folks in the beginning stages—the design process. Ancram Zoning Law and the Comprehensive Plan are both aimed at guiding applicants through the process. She said the brochures will be given to real estate agents, planning boards and architects to help direct folks before designs are completed.

Ms. Robertson said there are a few triggers that cause new home applications to come before the Planning Board for review, such as, if it is situated within 500 feet of a working farm, near wetlands or streams, has steep slopes, is within the Scenic Corridor Overlay Zone or other environmentally sensitive areas or is larger than a certain square-foot threshold.

All the town CACs involved in producing the brochure have worked hard, Ms. Robertson noted. In Ancram, volunteers have helped develop Comprehensive Plans, Natural Resource Conservation Plans, Farmland Protection Plans, “amazing” biodiversity maps and Zoning Revisions—all to protect the environment.

There is a lot of information available, she said, all meant for this purpose and the brochure is another great tool to get the message to new property owners.

“Because different municipalities in Columbia County have different laws, this brochure presents general considerations to guide the new home builder,” Ms. Stewart said by email.

“Most people are well-intended but the process of planning a new home is a very complicated one. We want to make sure that protecting the visual and ecological landscape is as much of a consideration as personal design choices and individual needs.”

The four CACs involved plan to distribute the brochure throughout the county to get it into the hands of everyone who is thinking about buying land to build a new house.

The Columbia Land Conservancy provided $500 to the Hillsdale and Ancram CACs to fund the first printing of the brochure through its municipal mini-grant program.

The brochures are currently available at the CAC table at the Copake Hillsdale Farmers Market, 9140 Route 22, open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or email carolinecstewart@gmail.com.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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