In light of the intensifying pressures of population growth exerted on this area, it is heartening to see the spate of recent conferences and seminars focusing on smart planning and strategic development of our economy and resources. To cite only a few examples: the recent countywide strategic plan, Sullivan 2020 initiative, the Hinchey-sponsored seminar presented by the Pace Land Use Law Center, the Upper Delaware Visioning Committees ongoing efforts and the November 19 Defining Strategic Development conference held at Sullivan County Community College. These activities are not entirely new; for some years now, officials, concerned residents and planners have been engaged in analysis and discussion of the best ways to take our future into our own hands.
But while engaging in conferences and forming committees is all very good, it is pointless unless we start actually applying their findings in our real-life planning decisions. In this regard, the D.R. Horton housing development proposed for the Town of Fallsburg may provide a valuable case study.
The development will entail the building of 111 houses on 15,000 square-foot lots spaced over 60 acres. Each house will have four bedrooms and will use town water and sewage facilities. The price of each house is anticipated to be $250,000 for the earlier models and closer to $300,000 at build out three years from now.
One point on which many of the analyses of Sullivan County seem to agree is that, with regard to housing, the particularly pressing need is for workforce housing—quality housing for the people who already live and work here, priced in a range that they can afford on prevailing salaries. According to research conducted by the Sullivan County Division of Planning, prices for workforce housing need to range from a low of $65,000 to a high of $172,000 for incomes ranging from $34,000 to $52,500. With the median income in Sullivan County for 2004 at $48,600, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, it becomes obvious that the Le Grande at Hurleyville does not, for the most part, answer the need for workforce housing identified by the officials, planners and residents who have been so diligently engaged in the planning discussion. In fact, in order to purchase a $250,000 home with school and town taxes at $5,000 per year, an annual income of $60,500 is required under typical bank financing, which could require $42,500 as a down payment with 10 percent down and seven percent closing costs.
With this $12,000 gap, the natural clientele for this type of housing is not county residents, but people who work in surrounding counties with higher salary levels, who will come here to find what, from their perspective, is cheaper housing. Not only does this leave current residents in the cold, it will also tend to impose significantly higher costs on them as schools and infrastructure need to be expanded.
The annual price tag on putting a student through public school is $7,000. In four-bedroom houses, one can certainly expect a large influx of children. Will three-child households be paying $21,000 in taxes per year to defray that cost? (Fallsburgs taxes may be high, but not that high!) Or can we expect already onerous school taxes to go up even more for the rest of us ?
The development is being placed so that it can take advantage of municipal water and sewage. Will the town receive enough in taxes to offset the additional development and maintenance on these systems, not to mention the additional miles of road? This question also raises another critical point highlighted by Sullivan 2020: are towns, in this case Fallsburg, really thinking about the long-term picture of what types of development they are encouraging within their jurisdictional boundaries that can cover the cost of services?
All this is not to say that there is no place in the county for upscale housing aimed towards higher-paid professionals such as those who will work at Crystal Run Healthcare. To this extent, a development such as Le Grande at Hurleyville is not in and of itself a bad thing. But surely we can employ tested land-use strategies that require developers of upscale housing to set aside five to 10 percent of the project for the creation of workforce housing.
Our priorities and our energies ought to be focused on serve our current population and conserving our current amenities. That means not only providing decent affordable housing for our existing workforce—perhaps in some form of condominium or townhouse—but managing development in such a way as to put minimum strain on existing infrastructure, while maximizing the preservation of the rural character that makes this area an attractive area to live.
Let us resolve in moving forward that we promote and encourage housing construction that fills this bill. Otherwise, all the seminars, conferences and committees in the world will not keep us from becoming a bedroom community of suburban sprawl, with no housing for the workforce population that currently resides here.
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