Open up Parkway to boost tax base, population

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 21 March 2013 at 12:00 am
Lake Ontario State Parkway Bridges

Photo by Tom Rivers

The bridges over Oak Orchard River were built for the Lake Ontario State Parkway, which ends abruptly 2 miles from the bridges.

It is a beautiful stretch of land, the 12.5 miles along the Lake Ontario State Parkway in Orleans County.

The land is lush with vegetation, wildlife and the sounds of birds singing.

But for a county with the third lowest property values in the state, it feels like a lost opportunity, our best chance to grow the tax base and draw some new blood into the community.

The Parkway has two east- and westbound lanes, split by a wide grassy median. Both sides are lightly traveled. Whenever I use the Parkway, about once every three months, I may see three cars in the drive from Point Breeze to Kendall. (I drove on it March 20 and saw one truck in a 10-mile stretch.)

I imagine big houses in some of the open fields, or picture apple orchards generating jobs and revenue for the community.

Instead, we have a recreational expressway that stops in the middle of nowhere, 2.2 miles past the Oak Orchard River in Carlton. What a colossal waste for the state to put up the two big bridges 40 years ago, only to stop the Parkway one exit later at the entrance of Lakeside Beach State Park.

Lake Ontario State Parkway

Photo by Tom Rivers – These signs on Route 98 in Point Breeze point motorists to the Lake Ontario State Parkway, which runs along some of the county’s most valuable land.

The road was supposed to connect Rochester with Niagara Falls, but that never happened. The “dream” of Robert Moses instead ended abruptly by Lakeside Beach.

The Parkway’s legacy gets worse for Orleans County. The road was classified as a park. There can’t be any development along it, so some of our most coveted land sits vacant.

County officials have looked into changing the classification of the Parkway, switching it to a regular state highway. That way developers could pick some pockets along the road for houses, while still maintaining big chunks of land for wildlife. The state Legislature and governor have to approve any changes.

“It’s a tall order,” said Chuck Nesbitt, the county’s chief administrative officer.

He looked over the 150-page application to disband parkland in a process called “alienation.” The hardest obstacle may be getting the state Legislature, especially those from downstate, to vote to remove any parkland.

Nesbitt doubts the downstate legislators would put in the effort to understand the issue, that this “parkland” is a grossly underutilized resource, deprieving a poor county from a precious asset.

“It’s miles of undeveloped land along the lakefront,” Nesbitt said. “It would seem there are some opportunities there.”

Orleans shouldn’t give up on the potential along the Parkway. The county may be able to sway the state, especially the governor, with a detailed study showing the costs of maintaining the Parkway, including the looming expense of repairing those two long bridges over the Oak Orchard River.

A fiscally strapped state may let dollars and cents dictate the issue. In that case, I see the two westbound lanes being shut down and the eastbound side being turned into a regular two-lane road. That would be the ideal situation for the county, and the towns of Carlton and Kendall, letting them tap into this resource.

If the westbound lanes were shut down, it would eliminate 12.5 miles of road maintenance and plowing. It would be a significant savings. This winter the state Department of Transportation closed a 2-mile portion of the Parkway, which saved $70,000 in plowing and salt costs, while also easing some damage to the bridges from the plow trucks.

Lake Ontario State Parkway

Photo by Tom Rivers – The Lake Ontario State Parkway is a lightly travelled road that prohibits commercial traffic.

A new state funding round will soon be announced for economic development projects. Some money will go towards studies. I’d suggest the County Legislature apply for a grant to study reclassifying the Parkway, looking at the road maintenance savings and potential for housing and agriculture development, as well as more people. The study should look at the positives impacts a disbanded Parkway could have on our community.

Here is some grim data that should be part of the application: Orleans County, despite its location along Lake Ontario, has the third-lowest median home value in the state at $77,000. Of 57 counties, only Cattaraugus ($75,000) and Allegany ($62,750) fare worse, according to a report from the Empire Center last year.

Other southshore counties do much better: Wayne, $110,000; Oswego, $95,000; Monroe, $125,000, and Niagara, $97,000.

Opening up some of the land would also attract a needed resource to Orleans: people. The county’s population dropped 3 percent from 2000 to 2010, down from 44,171 to 42,883. The United States as whole grew by 10 percent. More people would represent more customers for our businesses, helping them be stronger while increasing our sales tax revenue, making us a little less dependent on property taxes.

County officials aren’t optimistic much will change with the Parkway. The local governments should all pass resolutions of support, urging the Parkway to be studied and reclassified to allow for development. If that doesn’t work, we may need to march down the desolate road, demanding action. It is our land, after all.