An emergent marsh shown here in New Paltz, New York.

Cornell, DEC team up for green Hudson Valley land planning

By the start of 2023, the small college town of New Paltz, New York – about eight miles from the Hudson River – will be exercising its planning authority in a new way to protect the community’s wetlands, forests and other natural areas from overdevelopment.

With credit to the partnership between Cornell’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Hudson River Estuary Program (Estuary Program), many communities throughout the Hudson estuary watershed have received training, tools and assistance to advance conservation land-use planning and policy.

The estuary watershed covers more than 5,000 square miles and more than 250 municipalities.

Cornell impacting New York State

Through Cornell’s Conservation and Land Use team at the program, the university is a key DEC cohort in implementing the strategic plan – “Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda 2021–2025: Opportunities for Action” – by adding science-based conservation priorities to community watershed planning.

“One of the unique aspects of the Hudson River Estuary Program is that they're looking at the whole estuary,” said Neil Bettez, Ph.D. ’09, town supervisor for New Paltz, which received a technical assistance award to create conservation overlay zoning. “A lot of zoning decisions and policies are not driven by a watershed or ecosystem perspective. That’s one of the strong points of the Hudson River Estuary Program. Here in New Paltz, I think we’ve really benefited from the program’s science behind the zoning.”

Bettez said the program is more critical than ever. Over decades, the Hudson River has been cleaned up from factory pollutants. “Now, our problem is many non-point sources of pollution and all of the pollution problems spread out through the watershed,” he said. “The program is looking at the whole picture to make positive change.”

The town of New Lebanon, New York, received a DEC grant and assistance from Cornell staff to create a natural resources plan and open space inventory. Earlier this year, those planning tools helped to designate two “critical environmental areas,” or CEAs, to bring attention to a cool ravine habitat and a unique warm-spring environment.

With the help of the program, the city of Kingston, New York, developed a natural resources inventory and then an open space plan, which connects parks and paths and aims to preserve quality-of-life through green infrastructure. The city is now pursuing conservation financing to protect priority natural areas.

Much like New Paltz, the town of Olive, New York – also in Ulster County – was awarded a technical assistance opportunity from the program to advance local conservation policy. Cornell staff is helping Olive use a natural resources inventory to recognize ecologically important features in the town, leading to a CEA designation, useful in future land use reviews by the planning boards.

“In terms of the kinds of assistance we’re delivering to Hudson Valley communities, we’re fairly unique as a program,” said Laura Heady, Cornell’s conservation and land-use program coordinator at the Hudson River Estuary Program. Volunteer boards in towns throughout the watershed are routinely confronted with tough decisions.

The Conservation and Land Use group – a collaboration between Cornell and the estuary program –  is led by Shorna Allred, professor in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and the Department of Global Development. Ingrid Haeckel and Christine Vanderlan '95, Cornell’s conservation and land-use specialists in the program, assist communities in the Hudson Valley to integrate conservation priorities and biodiversity into community inventories and plans.

“The Hudson Valley is the most biodiverse part of New York,” Heady said. “We have incredible habitats, incredible wildlife, but siting development in the wrong places that are ecologically sensitive or further chop up our forests, these areas can become unsuitable for biodiversity and vulnerable to climate impact.

“Our role is to help communities and local officials appreciate the value of biodiversity and to understand the threats,” Heady said, “and to show how local decisions – sometimes made on a weekly basis – can impact or sustain those resources.”