April 14, 2006

CRP Class Receives Planners Award for Work With Ostego Land Trust

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It turns out that urban planners aren’t just good at planning cities. A workshop in the Department of City and Regional Planning, CRP 558, recently received an American Institute of Certified Planners’ (AICP) award for its work with the Otsego Land Trust in Fall 2004.

The class, which was taught by visiting lecturer Ole M. Amundsen III and composed of masters students, received the AICP’s Student Project Award for Contributions of Planning to Contemporary Issues.

This is the second award the class has won after receiving notice of the Outstanding Student Project from the upstate New York chapter of the American Planning Association in Fall 2005.

Amundsen said he saw an immediate fit between the workshop and the Otsego Land Trust, which is run by Earle Peterson ’55. Not only was the region close enough for students to commute for field work, but the area also allowed a big enough project “for students to wrap their arms around the major problems” of conservation, he explained.

The Otsego Land Trust, located in Cooperstown, N.Y. and created in 1988, is a non-profit organization that works to preserve scenic landscapes and historic areas in the county, many of which were made famous by James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales in the early 1800s.

The Trust has a goal of protecting 10,000 acres by 2010, and the Cornell students involved in the workshop created Geographic Information System maps to simplify the process on deciding what areas are worth the significant and costly conservation efforts. The project was also intended to make the conservation easement application process, by which landowners can receive tax breaks for promising not to develop their land, more transparent.

Megan McDonald M.D. ’05, a student and TA in the class, said she believed the workshop helped to show the upstate New York area that there are resources available to help people preserve their historic landscapes.

“We’re a resource for our region,” she said. “It’s not all about the cities.”

McDonald, who had worked with private consulting firms before attending Cornell and now works as a preservation planner in Raleigh, N.C., likened the workshop to “our own little consulting firm.”

Because the workshop is very client-oriented, Amundsen explained, students spend a significant portion of the semester studying Otsego County to cater directly to the needs of the Otsego Land Trust.

“We wanted to provide a quick triage of all opportunities that are coming through their door,” he said.

According to the AICP prize website, workshop participants based their estimations of conservation necessity on scenic value, lands abutting protected areas, waterfront buffers, agricultural value and species richness.

The website states that the project succeeded “due to the students’ attention to context, use of innovative data analysis and the creation of user-friendly tools and references for … continued conservation efforts.”

McDonald said that she thinks the workshop won the “Contemporary Issues” prize in part because of new crackdowns on conservation easements. The Internal Revenue Service has recently been examining the legitimacy of easement values after a number of easement applicants across the country were revealed to have overvalued their lands.

By partnering with Cornell, McDonald explained, the Otsego Land Trust can be more secure and know that its land donors are being honest.

Despite tax concerns, however, land easements and other conservation efforts “are really taking off” as more people grow concerned about dwindling resources, McDonald said. “A lot of beautiful areas of the country are under development pressures.”

According to the Land Trust Alliance, there are more than 1,500 trusts across the country. Together, they own 9.4 million acres of protected land, which is more than the National Park Service oversees. Northern New York is at significant risk of losing valuable scenic and ecological resources, having been ranked among the country’s top 20 areas projected to turn from rural into exurban land due to poor planning.

McDonald will accept the AICP award later this month in San Antonio on behalf of the workshop and the University.

“It is, after all, a student project,” Amundsen said.

Amundsen will offer the same workshop next semester, this time working with the Tug Hill Tomorrow Land Trust.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Writer