Clarkstown’s Innovative Comprehensive Plan - LULA Case Study

LULA Case Studies

Clarkstown’s Innovative Comprehensive Plan

The Town of Clarkstown in Rockland County, New York has taken an innovative approach towards the wholesale revision of its Comprehensive Plan. According to Jose Simoes, Clarkstown’s Town Planner, “after the 1999 updating of the town’s 1966 Comprehensive Plan, we realized that it was time to start over” and create a Comprehensive Plan that was better equipped to help the community achieve its long term planning needs. With the help of the LULA training program, Clarkstown’s land use planners have been able to achieve this goal by developing a unique comprehensive plan that should be celebrated for realizing the benefits of an efficient, environmentally sound design, maximizing the use of town-wide resources, and embracing the value of a grassroots approach in their use of collaborative decision making techniques.

Innovation by Design

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Clarkstown’s Comprehensive Plan is that it is modeled after an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Clarkstown’s Town Planner, Jose Simoes, who has a background in biological science, developed this unique approach to the formation of the town’s comprehensive plan through his understanding of the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Since the town is required to draft an EIS that analyzes the Comprehensive Plan in accordance with SEQRA regulations, Mr. Simoes decided to economize the town’s approach and model the framework of the new comprehensive plan after an EIS. This creative approach not only eliminated the redundant use of planning resources, but also led the town to add a biodiversity element to comprehensive plan that equips the town to strategically map its future environmental needs.

A corollary to this EIS-based, biodiversity-minded approach is that the planning process has yielded for the town a multi-layered digital database of information. Through the utilization of grassroots resources, professional consultants, and a GIS specialist, the information gathered during the research phases of the planning process produced a wealth of functional data, which will enable the town to forecast potential environmental issues facing the town in the future.  As stated by Mr. Simoes, “the idea was to create a plan that is not just a stack of papers, but it is comprised of all the data that all of our departments will use every day.”

Grassroots Planning

Clarkstown’s commitment to a grassroots planning strategy is a fundamental reason why their new Comprehensive Plan is so promising. Clarkstown is a large community, with a population of over 80,000 people, spread out over 8 unique hamlets and one incorporated village. The town has been able to use this large and diverse community pool to its benefit because, unlike other townships that are fragmented by intermunicipal politics, Clarkstown has a centralized governmental structure that has allowed its land use leaders to maximize the use of the community’s resources.

In seeking to take advantage of the town’s governmental design, the planning department developed a three prong approach to the planning process. The first prong began with the establishment of a Comprehensive Plan Special Board. This board was charged with the task of developing the main elements of the new Comprehensive Plan, resulting in a town-wide roadmap that focused on Economic Development, Environmental Resources, Health, Safety & Welfare, Historic & Cultural Resources, Housing, Recreation, Parks & Open Space, and Transportation. Based on these focal points, the special board created seven subcommittees, each responsible for developing the respective components of the Comprehensive Plan. Using techniques acquired through the LULA training program, along with consultations by Professor John Nolon, the town initiated the second prong of its planning process: a grassroots-based community outreach program. Each of the seven planning subcommittees was open to public participation. This participation was achieved by engaging the community in a way that would ensure hamlet-wide participation.

Eschewing the practice of holding evening planning meetings at the Town Hall in New City, the town opted instead to conduct numerous meetings at local high schools throughout the township in order to increase the convenience of the planning process. In addition, the town incorporated the inclusion of local high school students in the planning process. An often neglected demographic, the town realized that Junior and Senior students from all of the town’s high schools could provide valuable information that would enable the planning department to understand how the new Comprehensive Plan could help to serve young adults within the community. As explained by Mr. Simoes, “we wanted to take the show on the road, involve the community, and create a feedback loop that would enable us to answer the needs of the community.” This feedback loop allowed the subcommittees to compile useful information that the Special Board could distill into elements of the Comprehensive Plan.

The culmination of this process, and the final prong of the community outreach plan, was a town-wide meeting entitled “Did We Get It Right?” Here, the public was presented with the direction and content of the Comprehensive Plan and given the opportunity to provide additional feedback. However, because the community had been an integral part in the research and reporting process, there was very little criticism offered on behalf of the public, indicating that the planning department did indeed, get it right.

To date, the town is in the final phases of adopting its new Comprehensive Plan. The next step in the process will be to develop a zoning analysis that will focus on beneficial use of state transportation corridors, hamlet center revitalization, and smart growth strategies. Keeping with the consistency in its approach, the planning department’s goal in creating the zoning portion of the Comprehensive Plan is to create zoning options that will satisfy the community’s needs. In addition to improving the streetscape of the town, the Comprehensive Plan will also provide the mechanisms for improvements in the commercial, recreational, and residential elements of the community.