The illusive concept of sprawl


By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette


        Today I wish to explore a topic close to the hearts and keyboards of the Gazette editorial staff—sprawl. They're agin'it. Perhaps I should be too, but the scientist in me says that first we should define it so as to know it when we see it. Oh, the conventional meaning is clear enough. I can't count the times my wife told our teenage sons, now tripled in age, not to sprawl on the sofa. But more pertinent is the second definition given by the American Heritage dictionary: "Haphazard growth or extension outward, especially that resulting from real estate development on the outskirts of a city."

"Haphazard growth" is to be deplored, of course, but that "or" bothers me. Is any outward extension bad, even when an old city such as Schenectady or Saratoga Springs has long since used up its vacant land? Over the last four decades, the population of the City of Schenectady has steadily declined, but that of Schenectady County has remained about the same. Isn't this better than an overall decline, or do we think that upstate New York is overpopulated? And however hard it is for the county to continue to provide needed services at affordable tax rates, would it not be even harder in the face of an overall decline in population?

            In trying to tidy up some old papers, a lost cause if ever there was one, I came across a yellowed editorial that described one of the never ending series of attempts to foster greater consolidation of municipal services. This one was a forum convened by the Schenectady League of Women Voters. By the movie ad on the back, one touting the academy awards received by Nicholas and Alexandria (who were not present to accept them, of course), I deduce that the date was some time in 1972.

After the reported discussion of certain small scale consolidations, the editorial continued "But Niskayuna Supervisor Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. had another idea. He suggested 'the ultimate consolidation'—merger of the county's one city, two villages, and five towns into a single entity. Union-Star reporter Rutledge Carter described the reaction of Mr. Reilly's listeners as one of 'shocked silence'. Finally, Schenectady City Councilman Erwin Shapiro spoke out: 'I would like to see this in my lifetime,' Mr. Shapiro said, 'because I am looking forward to living a long, long time.'"

            Erwin, of course, passed away without seeing my recommendation come to pass, but the idea is revived from time to time, most recently by Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski. And the Gazette seems to approve. The usual reason given is that the county is the second smallest in the state, too small to support so many units of local government. But now, thirty years removed from my proposal, I have second thoughts. I do note that I recommended one "entity," not necessarily "city," but I can't imagine giving up the historic concept of a city as the embodiment of culture and civilization in favor of the more sterile title of "county." And what is considered too small for a county is, now that I check, far too big for a city. Schenectady County encompasses 206 square miles, an area bigger than that of Boston, Philadelphia, or Detroit, and only 21 square miles less than that of Chicago. And those cities have several thousand people per square mile, compared to our county average of 711.

            Also, by the very concept of a city, every citizen thereof has a right to expect access to municipal water and sewerage. At our current state of development, providing those services throughout 206 square miles would be financially impossible. As an alternative, New York State Town Law provides an excellent model for providing such services incrementally. The tool is called a "Special Improvement District," one that can be imposed on new housing developments or provided to older neighborhoods upon request of their residents. Only those who benefit from such districts pay an added tax long enough to amortize the bonds needed, and there is no proliferation of government because Town Board members serve as commissioners of such districts at no additional salary. It is in this way that Niskayuna, for example, grew its sewerage services from 20% of the town to virtually all of it in the relatively short space of 40 years.

            Even in the rare instances where a suitable site can be found, there is a certain inconsistency in advocation of concentration of new development within city boundaries while also recommending the "ultimate consolidation." Suppose that a certain project is about to be built in one of our towns, close to the current city but not in it, just as hypothetical legislation is passed that enlarges the city. Then suddenly, the same project that is deplored because it isn't in the inner city becomes so. Is it then to be blessed?

One of the longwinded definitions of "sprawl" that I found on the Web included the characteristic "great fiscal disparities among localities." That is certainly the case in Schenectady County, and there are at least two remedies. One is expansion of the city, but not out to county boundaries; just uniting the city with Niskayuna and the close-in highly developed parts of Rotterdam and Glenville would help. But State laws regarding annexation give veto power to those prospective annexees, and poor Erwin would have had to live as long as Methuselah to ever see this come to pass. But what could, and I believe should, be done is that the county and towns be much more generous to the city in the next multi-year sales tax sharing agreement. Sometimes just arbitrary empathy can work wonders.

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion page.