In late 2014, news that rural Thompson, New York had been selected by the state as the new site of a $920 million luxury resort and casino was met with applause by many local residents, who cheered the potential for economic growth.
Soon, the town and surrounding Sullivan County was seeing a boom of development proposals for new hotels, restaurants, and other amenities to service a projected 4 million annual visitors — more than 50 times the actual population of the county.
As the projected economic impact swelled, the stakes grew higher and higher for the region’s environmental resources. Seeing a need, several land trusts, with the Open Space Institute’s (OSI) support, stepped in to help. Now, thanks to their conservation planning efforts, the exciting new development not only has the potential to transform the local economy, but also create a blueprint for planning around watershed protection within the entire Delaware River Watershed.
Gathering to Plan
Due to its location atop the far northern reaches of the Delaware River, rural Sullivan County is critical for protecting the forested headwaters streams that empty into the larger watershed — the source of drinking water for 15 million residents living in Philadelphia, Trenton, and other major cities. Since 2014, OSI, with support of the William Penn Foundation, has partnered with organizations through the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI) to mobilize land acquisition in the watershed, while helping stakeholders conduct long-term planning to protect local forests.
In the case of Sullivan County, OSI became involved after the county secured funding from the United States Department of Agriculture to commission a strategic land use and development plan. Hearing news about the plan, which came to be called “Grow the Gateways,” DRWI partners Natural Lands and Delaware Highlands Conservancy secured a Catalyst Grant from OSI to collaborate with the Sullivan County Division of Planning on a supplemental Water Resource Protection Strategy (WRPS).
From the beginning, the County planning staff were excited about the potential for the project. “We’re a small planning department in a big county,” said Freda Eisenberg, Commissioner of the Sullivan County Division of Planning. “The Catalyst Grant provided an opportunity to expand our work and bring more attention and resources to water quality protection, which otherwise would not have received much focus.”
“We’re a small planning department in a big county. "OSI's Catalyst Grant provided an opportunity to expand our work ... (around) water quality, which otherwise would not have received much focus.” - Freda Eisenberg, Commissioner of the Sullivan Division of Planning
The partners got to work. To provide a baseline of information relevant to land use decisions in the project study area, which includes portions of Thompson, the Village of Monticello, and Fallsburg, NY, Natural Lands inventoried existing natural resources, and produced a series of maps showing features like wetlands, floodplains, topography, and land cover.
Meanwhile, Delaware Highlands Conservancy interviewed municipal officials to better understand their conservation priorities, and then suggested areas where land management and protection could contribute positively to the region’s rural character and recreation economy, while providing benefits for water quality and flood resilience.
A Meaningful Impact
While work on the water resource plan is still ongoing, the effort is already having an impact. Natural Lands recently completed a review of Monticello and Thompson’s subdivision and land development ordinances and offered guidance for revising design standards for new development, updating zoning districts, and incorporating low-impact development techniques to protect water quality.
Based on Natural Lands’ recommendations, Thompson is now taking a critical look at its parking space requirements and design standards, and considering steps to manage stormwater runoff with green infrastructure features like porous pavement, and rain gardens featuring native plants.
The ultimate goal, explains Ann Hutchinson, Senior Director of Municipal Planning at Natural Lands, is to move from planning to implementation. OSI’s grant will equip communities with recommendations and best prospects to strengthen protection of water resources, but towns will likely need further support to take the next steps. At that point, organizations working together through the four-state Delaware River Watershed Initiative can provide municipalities financial and technical assistance to see priority projects over the finish line.
“I see the Catalyst grant as a great opportunity to work with the County and Delaware Highlands Conservancy to try to drum up interest from the municipalities,” Hutchinson stated. “And then once you have interest, you’ve got to have some vehicle for following through, which is what the Delaware River Watershed Initiative provides.”
Looking ahead, the OSI grantees envision the water resource plan, or WRPS, as a blueprint for municipalities with proactive steps to safeguard water quality, mitigate impacts from the built environment, and make the region a more attractive place to live and visit.
Abigail Weinberg, OSI’s Director of Research sees this project as evidence of how conservation can work hand in hand with regional planning to ensure smart development that retains clean water. “Our success in protecting water quality in the Delaware Basin will depend on strategic and proactive partnerships,” stated Weinberg. “If conservation is posed as a threat development, we’ll get nowhere. Examples like this are critical to the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.”
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