Last week’s 14-2 vote of the Livingston County Planning Board to give a thumbs down to the proposed new Village of Geneseo Master Plan may have come as a surprise to some, but only if they were not paying attention. The village’s plan was only the latest casualty in the ever-widening Big Box War that has raged through the northern part of the county for going on two years now in the wake of the Geneseo Lowes and the Lima Super Wal-Mart proposals.
A village Master Plan is not usually something that draws a lot of public interest. I daresay that there are very few people, aside from the professional planners who actually draft them, who have ever read one all the way through. In the heightened environment of political struggle that has engulfed Geneseo recently, however, there is precious little neutral ground left on any issue at all related to development.
Tensions are increasingly frayed between local advocates of Smart Growth and those around the county who are quite happy with Geneseo’s role as the sales tax Cash Cow for the county. This was a view expressed by many of the County Planning Board member’s who voted against the plan.
The clear message is that residents of other towns want to have more, not less, large-scale retail development in Geneseo. They like the convenience of not having to travel to the city, the selection and low prices that are brought by Big Box competition, and most of all, they like the increased sales tax revenue that they believe will be captured by Livingston County. (Whether there will, in fact, be much of an increase, rather than just a shift of collection from small retailers to large and from outlying towns to Geneseo, is also the subject of fierce debate.)
The dirty little secret of this debate is that, if there is any increase in county sales tax collections, 95 per cent of it goes directly to the county government. While the municipality that hosts the store does get some increased property tax revenue, the remaining 5 per cent of the sales tax is distributed around the county according to a formula based on population and assessed value, regardless of where the store collecting the tax is located.
This is a great boon for the county, which after all, has lots of Medicaid and other state-mandated bills to pay, and good for residents of outlying towns, who hope to see at least a stabilization of their county property tax bills, but what exactly is in it for Geneseo? Residents of Geneseo are the ones left to deal with all the nasty side effects of having their Historic Landmark Village turned into a traffic-clogged retail center.
While residents of surrounding towns will make the occasional trip to Geneseo to shop, they can always escape back to their quiet little country homes or villages the rest of the week. In contrast, residents of Geneseo, particularly those of us who live in the village, are forced to suffer with the traffic and other harmful effects of sprawl every day of the week. Is it any wonder that the proposed new Master Plan seeks to put some restraints on the type of development that can come into our village?
In the fullness of time, of course, the only reasonable outcome to all this is compromise. I believe Geneseo citizens are willing to bear their fair share of retail development for the good of the county, but it has to be a two way street.
If more Big Boxes are to come, then other communities need to be willing to consider hosting some of them. There also needs to be a recognition that not every dollar of retail sales in the county needs to or should take place in Geneseo.
Finally, to the extent that some of the new development does take place in Geneseo, county leaders need to be willing to share some of the new wealth generated, by helping build the infrastructure needed to handle the increased traffic that surely will come. If a serious cooperative proposal were to be offered on funding the needed improvements on Geneseo’s already over-burdened road system, the Big Box War could probably begin to be settled.
As of yet, however, no such discussions have taken place, and leaders on both sides seem content to just dig in and lob grenades across the lines. Keep your head down!