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Governing With Purpose

Feb 10, 2018 CWN

How Policy Changes Impact Our Landscape

By Anne Pyburn Craig

    Call it the art of intentional consequences. Changes in policy implemented by governing bodies and executives impact our lives in hundreds of ways, some of them scary (net neutrality, anyone?) and some of them refreshing.

    Some policy decisions have unintended unfortunate consequences. The originators of Euclidean zoning (named for the village of Euclid, Ohio, and developed in the 1920s) undoubtedly meant to make life better with a system that would keep factory noise out of residential backyards. They didn’t foresee the development of the interstate highway system, and the two factors came together to eviscerate downtowns and create suburban sprawl.

    Since the latter part of the 20th century, communities in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere have been taking care to study up on available data and best practices, the better to implement evidence-based (yeah, I said it!) policy-making.

    Master plans and policies that were appropriate in the late industrial age offered no solutions for when industry left town, and left citizens with pretty brick buildings and not much else. Take Beacon, for example. In 2000, they had a few government offices and a lot of empty storefronts; the Beacon of today is a thriving destination for artists and outdoors-folk and those who love both. Many give credit to Dia:Beacon and much is due, but without a group of concerned residents influencing policy, it’s possible that the city would now have a museum, a handful of offices and a lot of empty storefronts. Instead, Beacon rocks.

    “It’s exactly the outcome we were hoping for 15 years ago,” says Sara Pasti, a founding member and past president of BeaconArts.org, a nonprofit that came into existence just as the transition began. “I was chair of a comprehensive planning committee, about half a dozen of us who realized that the master plan from the early ‘70s wasn’t going to be sufficient. Back in the day, cities were pretty much welcoming any and all development. We saw a danger of getting too suburbanized.”

    The answer wasn’t to roll up the welcome mat, but to implement common sense changes. “Thankfully, there were people on the city council who agreed there was a need, so we hunkered down and did two years of meetings and workshops, hired some planners,” Pasti adds. “If you want to shape a community, zoning is the key. We identified areas where growth would be welcome and made it easier there; we had a generic environmental impact statement that developers could use if they were in certain parameters, which saved them time and money. And Timothy Dexter of the building department was fantastic. He had people asking about things that weren’t covered in existing code, and instead of just saying, ‘Can’t do that, it’s not covered,’ he came to our group and asked if we could offer guidance.”

    Among other policy changes, Beacon decreed that all first floor spaces on Main Street were for commercial use.

    Good policy is the union of an overarching concept with data and collaboration. Ulster County Executive Mike Hein said that a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health study that ranked the county poorly has served as an overarching touchstone that’s informed a wide variety of the decisions of his administration. “At bottom, that priority informs everything,” he says. “So many things impact health and are impacted by it, right down to things like making wider bridges to encourage pedestrian use. Counties have reached out to us looking for the easy solutions. There are no easy solutions. It’s about holding that overarching goal and implementing things, brick by brick, that get you there.”

    Now, said Hein, “not only have our health rankings soared, but unemployment has been cut in half and property taxes are the lowest they have been since 2010. Environmental measures, more access to higher education (SUNY Ulster recently established a satellite campus at a former elementary school) and just generally viewing everything through that lens of community health have brought us from that low health ranking and being on the verge of bankruptcy to where we are now, with a lot of startups happening and a $550 million tourism sector.”

    Hein has plenty to be happy about, what with Ulster County’s bond rating just increased to AA and a budget rolling out that increases programs while lowering property taxes. In the $323.8 million budget are dollars for eliminating the waiting list for senior Lifeline Medical Assistance, repaving roads and implementing state of the art highway safety measures, a pilot program for greening the county’s vehicle fleet, free well-water testing for poor and moderate-income folks, and the establishment of a Restorative Justice Center that will help divert teens who might otherwise get caught up in the prison-industrial complex. “There is a belief that to do big things, you need big tax increases,” said Hein. “But we’re proving you can actually implement massive sweeping changes and lower taxes at the same time.”

    Much of the credit for the policy ideas that are helping the mid-Hudson stay viable and green goes to our local think tanks and dot-orgs, which have been closely studying the spot where the policy rubber has met the reality road for decades. Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress and the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz are constantly studying, surveying, and researching to offer the best in new ideas and track what works and what doesn’t.

    “Policy effects change all the time in ways that are less visible,” said Kathleen “KT” Tobin, the Benjamin Center’s associate director. “It’s non-obvious, but it’s central to our mission to not produce studies that sit on shelves gathering dust but to actually inform decision making. We’re not in some ivory tower; we’re here to serve the region.” For example, “we’ve contracted with both Poughkeepsie and Beacon to help with their charter revision processes, which has resulted in some changes to their governance. In Poughkeepsie, they’ve changed the number of council members and added an at-large member. In Beacon, we made a number of recommendations about sustainability, and it’s now prominent in their governing documents.”

    Governing bodies don’t always pay attention to policy wonks; for example, the Benjamin Center’s recommendation of regional rather than county-based jails isn’t happening, although Tobin said it’s been referenced a lot in the arguments surrounding jail-building in Dutchess and Sullivan counties. Other times, it’s a slow process: a 2014 Center report advocating for later school start times for teens hasn’t been implemented anywhere yet, but “Onteora, Rondout Valley and New Paltz are looking at it. There’s resistance, but we’ll see what happens.” Meanwhile, state education department officials have referenced the Benjamin Center in discussions of reducing the time spent on standardized testing, “and there have been small tweaks.”

    When people do listen, Tobin said, things can happen fast. Studies on volunteerism, food security, and the impact of the arts on the local economy have influenced how local governments and nonprofits look at the problems they are trying to solve. So what’s next?

    “The New World Foundation is funding us to study the cost of living in the Hudson Valley,” said Tobin. “A think tank in DC crunched the numbers, and this is the seventh most expensive place to live in the US. New World wants us to dig down into the specifics and different demographics; hopefully we’ll have a report about a year from now.”