Oped by former Supervisor Sandra L. Frankel of Monroe County, Brighton, New York.

In the late 1980s, a small group of citizens formed an advocacy group to lobby local government on the need to protect the remaining open space in their mostly developed residential community adjacent to the region’s city.  They named their initiative Save Our Space (SOS). They did this because of environmental concerns and because of the need for healthy recreational outlets.

The Monroe County town of Brighton cradles the southeastern corner of the city of Rochester in upstate, western New York.   This 15.6 square mile, crescent-shaped urban suburb has a diverse population of approximately 36,000 people.  Five school districts serve portions of the town. Local and state roads and federal highways crisscross the town, with commercial districts and light industrial zones located near main highways.  The Supervisor is elected to a two-year term and serves as the CEO of the municipality and as chairperson and voting member of the town board. 

In 1989, the town was 85 percent developed. With attractive open space within minutes of downtown Rochester, it was ripe for new residential and commercial development. That year, I ran for Supervisor and nearly won.  I supported the goals of SOS and was concerned about need for balanced development that would include the preservation of open space. I hoped that the incumbent administration would heed the message, and if they did, I would have been content to continue my service on the school board. Unfortunately, little was accomplished on environmental and parkland fronts.

Thus, two years later I ran again and won, and over the course of the next 20 years, I led the community on a green journey to protect and preserve our local environment. At that time, the community consensus was clear: the town needed public parks for playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, baseball, softball and soccer fields, lodges, and pavilions. Residents wanted to protect environmentally sensitive areas and provide opportunities for passive recreation for all ages with trails and connections to nature.  These needs had been neglected for years.   

In 1992 with support from the community to embark on a long-range visionary project to create a town-wide park system my administration established the foundation required to make this dream a reality.

Upon taking office we learned that we had inherited a major financial problem. The prior administration had over-estimated revenue, under-estimated expenses, applied one-time revenue from FEMA to pay for ongoing operational expenses, which created a structural budget deficit, and spent down the fund balance. We corrected the problems and built back the reserves.  

Then we updated the Open Space plan to understand the status of the remaining 15 percent of open space.  We identified wetlands, woodlands, streams, ponds, river watersheds, steep slopes, a waterfall, and animal habitats. We incorporated this inventory into an update of the 20-year-old Comprehensive Plan. With citizen participation the plan outlined specific parcels that should be protected and preserved as public parkland. Next we created a parkland task force that recommended how each of those parcels should be used, estimated cost of open space acquisition, park development, and future maintenance. 

Because we would be acquiring land that would come off the tax rolls to be used for public purposes, and because we sought authorization to bond a portion of the costs, a public referendum was required.  I asked two town board members to work with neighborhood associations and environmental and civic organizations to ensure that the community had the information needed for an informed vote. Town government could not tell voters how to vote, but we could educate the voters about the plan and cite the benefits.  The referendum was approved by four-to-one and gave us the green light to move forward. 

During negotiations for land purchases and donations, and while planning park development, we involved the town’s boards and committees, relied on our dedicated professional staff, the commitment of residents, and engaged New York State elected representatives as well as governmental offices that assisted with grants and technical advice.  The Genesee Land Trust facilitated the purchase of one of the parks, because property owners declined to negotiate directly with the town.

Incentive Zoning provided greater flexibility than current zoning and helped to achieve balanced development on certain parcels.  For example, on a 72-acre parcel we negotiated the construction of an assisted living facility with a memory unit on 10 acres, and the remaining 52 acres became a nature park with a major trail in the center of town. This trail linked with other on and off-road trails throughout the town and beyond, helping to create a “green necklace.”  The negotiation also achieved the donation of a portion of the land for a public park, and a reduced price for the remainder to support park development. 

We partnered with the Brighton Central School District to share the cost of an upgrade to the district’s indoor swimming pool and established a plan for shared school-town use of this athletic/recreational facility.

Today we have eight major parks and trails on more than 500 acres of open space. Residents and visitors alike have enjoyed these public improvements over the years. By investing in our town, we have not only contributed to our community’s quality of life, but we have also helped to stabilize and improve property values even during difficult financial times. Finally, by preserving open space we have also controlled the future carbon footprint that residential or commercial development would have generated on what is now protected parkland. Addressing climate change is critical to our health and well-being, and we took seriously the imperative to do our part in the place we call home. We chose to: “Think globally and act locally.”

When I retired from my position as Supervisor my successor, our town attorney for 18 of my 20 years in office, shared the community’s vision and understood the value of preserving open space. He has continued to expand the park and trail system, which remains a point of pride for our community.

The Hon. Sandra L. Frankel was Supervisor from 1992 to 2012.