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January 26, 2008


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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January 26, 2008

Property Taxes And Sprawl

The Governor dances around the only solution to
New York’s fiscal crisis

New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer has created two new high level panels, that is, excuses for people to meet and drink coffee and discuss important things. If the donuts are tasty enough, these meetings will produce some productive policy initiatives that the Governor can implement, and maybe even solve some pressing problems.

The first panel the Governor calls a Smart Growth Cabinet. This has been created by executive order, by waving his hand and letting his will be known. According to the press release:

The Cabinet will review state agency spending and policies to determine how best to discourage sprawl and promote smart land use practices. It will coordinate cross-agency activities and develop “smart growth” policies that cater to New York’s unique regional needs.

Automobile Slum, Town Of Bethlehem
Automobile Slum, Town Of Bethlehem

A long time ago, back in the 1960s, there was a dark joke that made the rounds: You can’t find anyone who is in favor of nuclear war. (Until Ronnie Reagan came along, that is.) These days sprawl is a dirty word, a thing like nuclear war that everyone says is bad and no one wants. But like nuclear war, our society supports an entire system of subsidies and legal encouragement's that makes the sprawl that no one wants quite possible.

Mr. Spitzer, with this new “cabinet,” appears to be taking the next step, actually doing something about the problem rather than issuing occasional platitudes. His seriousness is reflected by assigning the co-chairmanship to two of his top lieutenants, Deputy Secretary for the Environment Judith Enck and the Deputy Secretary for Economic Development and Infrastructure Timothy Gilchrist.

But he is likely to step on some very big and expensive toes if he is serious. After all, the suburbs did not appear magically or by accident, they are the result of a government program that has spread this vast disposable scab on our landscape. The only way to get rid of sprawl is to dismantle this program.

Some very big and bloated creatures, such as Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno, work very hard to promote sprawl. One example of Joe’s handiwork is the pricey infrastructure created up in Malta for Advanced Micro Design (AMD) at Luther forest. Well surprise, surprise, it looks like AMD not only is not going to take advantage of New York State’s cutting edge foray into corporate socialism, the chip fab corporation may actually go down the tubes.

Growing Sprawl At Northway Exit 12 Near The AMD Site
Growing Sprawl At Northway Exit 12 Near The AMD Site

But see, we have in the works a massive ten mile water line bringing clean, sparkling Hudson River water deep inland. We have five, count ‘em, five roundabouts planted near the Northway, designed to facilitate auto traffic and discourage pedestrians and bicyclists. And also for the autos we have the Round Lake Bypass, currently under construction. Sewer and power lines, a generic environmental impact statement to fend off those pesky environmentalists, special zoning designations, the list goes on.

So if AMD never shows up long enough to pocket our tax dollars, the welcoming committee is in position and ready to party. We can’t let all that infrastructure go to waste, can we? What a perfect spot to drop another sprawl “development,” a big opportunity for some sprawl “developers” to make some real cash on the backs of the taxpayers.

Another example of Bruno’s genius is right across the river in East Greenbush. Joe’s vision for the area along Route 4 and Route 43 is a big automobile slum. Millions of tax dollars have been poured into turning this intersection into an eight lane horror.

Bruno's Legacy, the Intersection Of Routes 4 And 43
Bruno's Legacy, the Intersection Of Routes 4 And 43

After years of pitting state lawyers against the outraged residents of East Greenbush who don’t want unlimited sprawl in their backyards, Bruno’s vision of Hell has finally come to rotten fruition. The series of lawsuits paid for, filed and maintained by the locals have finally all been defeated, and a 254,000 square foot plaza will be planted in the now empty fields. Construction began immediately.

And this carries us right up to the Governor's other panel, this other collection of persons who plan to get together and compare donuts. This is the much touted New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief, chaired by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, also created by a wave of the Governor's hand. From the press release:

This bipartisan commission, which will have Moreland Act powers, will examine the root causes of high property taxes, identify ways to make the State’s property tax system fairer, and develop a fair and effective school property tax cap to hold the line on property tax growth.

Now, this sounds really serious. The Moreland Act dates back to 1907. It empowers the Governor to appoint a public board: examine and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or commission of the state." Investigators [are] empowered to subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, hold hearings, and subpoena "any books or papers deemed relevant or material."

Everybody who owns property wants to pay lower property taxes, right? I know I do. And nothing shows the property owning voters that you care about them like appointing a commission with subpoena powers. And what will this commission actually do? Again from the press release:

...The Commission will study... the root causes of New York’s high property tax burden, including the expenditures of local governments and school districts, unfunded mandates imposed by the State, and other factors driving the growth of local property tax levies.

Tom Suozzi And Eliot Spitzer Announce The Commission On Property Tax Relief
Tom Suozzi And Eliot Spitzer Announce The Commission On Property Tax Relief

So the question here is whether the idea behind this Property Tax Relief commission is to come up with new ideas, or to promote Mr. Spitzer’s personal opinions on the subject. The press release quote from the Governor suggests the latter:

“Our efforts to address this crisis – including unprecedented increases in State education aid and more than $5 billion in STAR school tax relief – have not slowed the growth in local property taxes. We need to explore new approaches, including reducing unfunded mandates and placing a cap on the growth of school property taxes.”

Notice how they keep mentioning “caps.” When the State imposes a limit on how much in taxes a municipality can collect, is that not an unfunded mandate? The State would be saying, in effect, the municipalities are no longer allowed to raise taxes. If you want to see an economic collapse across Upstate New York, why, that ought to do the trick nicely.

If you’ve been following the news, you are aware that the corporate media has finally admitted that our nation is entering a time of economic recession. That means that the State of New York and all the local counties, cities and towns are going to bring in a lot less money this year, and what they bring in won’t be worth as much as it used to. Under such conditions, only a self-destructive lunatic bent on creating economic collapse, like with crowds starving in the streets, would impose a cap on local tax collection. You know, a Republican.

Decayed Auto Slum In Menands
Decayed Auto Slum In Menands

Let’s stand back from this and take another look. Could it be, maybe, just possibly, that there is an underlying reason for rising taxes, year after year, for the ever spiraling upward cost of government?

Yes, of course, the nitwits in the White House and the doodleheads in Congress keep cutting taxes for corporations and for the rich. Therefore, state and local taxes have to go up to compensate for the resulting deficit. There’s nothing Governor Spitzer can do about that.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to cut local property taxes.

They oughta listen to me. Here’s my suggestion. The Property Tax Relief commission should go talk to the Smart Growth Cabinet.

Why? Well, I’ve written about this before. Thank you for asking. Here’s a quote from an article I wrote for the Save The Pine Bush newsletter back in 1999:

The cities of upstate New York, in particular Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, have seen a population increase of 4% since the 1960's (Albany's population has declined). Yet these same cities have increased their land use by 80%! Land use has almost doubled, while the population has remained virtually the same. Someone is paying for this increased land use, and it's not the developers. Guess who does.

Yes folks, sprawl makes our taxes go up. This is not rocket science. Automobiles not only allow us to use more land than ever before. Autos demand that we use more land, to drive and park the damn things.

Global warming is not the only price we pay for our gas guzzling pollution machines. The more we drive our automobiles, the more land we need to use and pay for. Driving your car raises your taxes.

Former Pine Bush In Western Albany
Former Pine Bush In Western Albany

May I make a modest suggestion? To stop property taxes from increasing, we need a crash program to reduce dependence on automobiles. Not to eliminate automobiles, mind you. To reduce dependence.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have choice? Imagine how delightful it would be to take a pleasant train ride to work, scanning your favorite electronic device or printed material, sipping your favorite coffee concoction and maybe even having a donut. I’ve lived in places where I could do that, why can’t I do that in the Capital District?

Or imagine being able to hop a bus home at two o’clock in the morning after a raucous night out in a neighboring city. Don’t we all want to reduce drunk driving? Again, I’ve lived in places where late night busses are expected and reliable.

I don’t want to give up my pickup truck, nosiree. I need it to haul refrigerators and zip off to lumber yard when I want to. What I want is a choice, to not have to keep it full of expensive imported gasoline, to not be dependent on the damn thing. Is that too much to ask?

To reduce dependence on automobiles would require rebuilding our State. It would require transforming suburban sprawl hellholes into communities where it is easier to walk than to drive. It would be a massive job generator, very attractive to job-creating developers.

And while we’re at it, why isn’t New York State energy independent? We have wind, water and sunshine. We could cut loose from parasitic international energy corporations would make us a boom state. Our state could become virtually reccession-proof.

No Caption

Well, I learned a long time ago not to expect miracles from the authorities. And I’ve learned relatively recently that the only way the authorities are going to do the necessary things is if we tell them what they need to do. And we need to tell them in no uncertain terms.

Will Eliot Spitzer figure out the connection between property taxes and sprawl? I’m not holding my breath and waiting. I mean, who’s gonna tell him?


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Posted by: Grogger
Posted on:
People move to the burbs for a number of reasons. The main reason is that it's the best option for the vast majority of people.

They don't want to live in a 100 year old house surrounded by filth. Instead of spending 45 minutes on a bus to travel 5 miles, they'd rather do the drive in 10. They want a safe place to send their kids to school. They don't want to live in a sewer of political corruption. The burbs are often where they work.

Your "taking the train to work" works in a place like NYC, where Manhattan is a super commerical center. It doesn't work in Albany, where other than state workers, most people in the private sector work in places like Guilderland, Latham and Saratoga county.

75-100 years ago, when people were actually building things in places like Albany, property in Latham and Guilderland wasn't accessible to most people. Affordable mortgages weren't available, transportation to work (in Albany) were only available in places like Voorheesville, Delmar and Altamont.

The state doesn't have the power to declare "thou shalt not sprawl". But capping property taxes is ultimately a means to your end... ie discouraging suburban development.

Highways aren't where the growth in government spending comes from -- personnel costs (schools, police, etc) and entitlement programs, particularly healthcare are. Capping taxes will limit the ability of towns to grow.

Posted by: Roger Green
Posted on:
Eh, the donuts aren't nearly as good since they got rid of the transfats.

Posted by: nycowboy
Posted on:
The state very much so has the power to declare "thou shalt not sprawl". It's called the Adirondack Park Agency, which has done a solid job since 1970 at keeping the lands within the park relatively un-sprawled, and looking much like they did in 1970. Go to any Adirondack Town and compare to pictures of 1970.

The APA is also (unfairly) blamed for killing almost all economic growth of the park since 1970 -- but a lot of the blame comes from the collapse of resource-based industries, which where outsourced to lands easier to rape without so much regulation.

A lot of towns are rethinking growth these days. But it's going to require a lot of use of eminent domain and regulation to save our pre-built areas, which people will claim is racist, pro-big donors, and anti-freedom.

The science of what makes a desirable community is changing. People are seeing that walkablity is key, as is finding ways of integrating low-cost mass transit. But it's not always easy -- people want to have parking, room for cars to speed along, and they don't want mass transit which might have to be shared with people of another skin color.

The entire city law in New York State should be repealed and the distinction between towns and cities blended into one. The fact that we still draw a difference is an aberration. It's not fair that a town of 80,000 has drastically different responsibilities for people and costs, then a city of 80,000.

Laws and ultimately governing units should be density driven and not by artificial lines drawn centuries ago. Farming areas with 75 people per square miles should be regulated differently then suburban centers with 300 people per square mile or urban centers with 10,000 people per square mile.

Right now, due to the way lines are drawn you can insane laws that apply to both areas, because of municipal boundaries. This more then anything, causes sprawl.

I believe the Adirondack Park model is the future of all of New York State. People may have visceral reactions about the power that this regional agency takes away from local government, but this area of the state would be much di

Posted by: nycowboy
Posted on:
In case you are curious, the legislative findings of the Executive Law, Article 27, Section 801 (the APA Law), accurately represent what our state should be doing as it comes to development across our state:

S 801. Statement of legislative findings and purposes. The
Adirondack park is abundant in natural resources and open space unique
to New York and the eastern United States. The wild forest, water,
wildlife and aesthetic resources of the park, and its open space
character, provide an outdoor recreational experience of national and
international significance. Growing population, advancing technology
and an expanding economy are focusing ever-increasing pressures on
these priceless resources.

Our forefathers saw fit nearly a century ago to provide rigid
constitutional safeguards for the public lands in the Adirondack park.
Today forest preserve lands constitute approximately forty percent of
the six million acres of land in the park. The people of the state of
New York have consistently reiterated their support for this
time-honored institution.

Continuing public concern, coupled with the vast acreages of forest
preserve holdings, clearly establishes a substantial state interest in
the preservation and development of the park area. The state of New
York has an obligation to insure that contemporary and projected
future pressures on the park resources are provided for within a land
use control framework which recognizes not only matters of local
concern but also those of regional and state concern.

In the past the Adirondack environment has been enhanced by the
intermingling of public and private land. A unique pattern of private
land use has developed which has not only complemented the forest
preserve holdings but also has provided an outlet for development of
supporting facilities necessary to the proper use and enjoyment of the
unique wild forest atmosphere of the park. This fruitful relationship
is now jeopardized by the threat of unregulated development on such
private lands. Local governments in the Adirondack park find it
increasingly difficult to cope with the unrelenting pressures for
development being brought to bear on the area, and to exercise their
discretionary powers to create an effective land use and development
control framework.
The basic purpose of this article is to insure optimum overall
conservation, protection, preservation, development and use of the
unique scenic, aesthetic, wildlife, recreational, open space,
historic, ecological and natural resources of the Adirondack park.

A further purpose of this article is to focus the responsibility for
developing long-range park policy in a forum reflecting statewide
concern. This policy shall recognize the major state interest in the
conservation, use and development of the park`s resources and the
preservation of its open space character, and at the same time,
provide a continuing role for local government.

The Adirondack park land use and development plan set forth in this
article recognizes the complementary needs of all the people of the
state for the preservation of the park`s resources and open space
character and of the park`s permanent, seasonal and transient
populations for growth and service areas, employment, and a strong
economic base, as well. In support of the essential interdependence of
these needs, the plan represents a sensibly balanced apportionment of
land to each. Adoption of the land use and development plan and
authorization for its administration and enforcement will complement
and assist in the administration of the Adirondack park master plan
for management of state land. Together, they are essential to the
achievement of the policies and purposes of this article and will
benefit all of the people of the state.

Accordingly, it is the further purpose of this article to adopt and
implement the land use and development plan and to provide for the
plan`s maintenance, administration and enforcement in a continuing
planning process that recognizes matters of local concern and those of
regional and state concern, provides appropriate regulatory
responsibilities for the agency and the local governments of the park
and seeks to achieve sound local land use planning throughout the

Pro-development factions probably would fight the expansion of the law, but I think ultimately it would be was is right for our state -- an Capital Region Park Act, an Central New York Park Act, an Hudson Valley Park Act, an New York City Park Act, and so forth.

Imagine our state if it was a series of massive parks, where people work, live, love and enjoy, represented by strong laws guiding development in appropriate places such as hamlets.

Posted by: Grogger
Posted on:
Cowboy -

The last time someone (ab)used laws intended to preserve the Adirondack Park, it was Robert Moses, who basically used it as a club to bully landowners and farmers with limited means and reward political allies on Long Island. Just look at the meandering paths of the Northern State and Southern State Parkways on Long Island.

The citizens of the state will not put up with granting essentially unlimited power to some bureaucrats to meet the needs of your agenda.

Sprawl exists because there is an economic incentive to build that way. Until the market changes, that will continue.

Posted by: Lucy
Posted on:
Doesn't anyone remember Proposition 11 (or was it 13) in California from the 70's? It was a school/property tax cap measure. Up to that time California had one of the best public school systems in the country (my grandparents, father, cousins, etc. were all beneficiaries). Since the proposition passed, California schools have lost ground significantly, are struggling and are now some of the nation's worst.

I agree with Dan, move the taxes from individuals to corporations! My town (Niskayuna) would be rich! (We have G.E.).

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