August 06, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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'City' on a hill 

Perinton, front and center

American suburbs are schizo. That's clear even from the dreary landscape of academic prose.

            Look at these two diagnoses.

            On one hand, suburbanites think small is beautiful. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk put it this way in The Second Coming of the American Small Town: "[They] sense what is wrong with the places they inhabit... The classic suburb is less a community than an agglomeration of houses, shops, and offices connected to one another by cars, not by the fabric of human life. The only public space is the shopping mall, which in reality is only quasi-public..." No wonder, say the authors, that "the signs of a revival of interest in community on a smaller scale are everywhere" (emphasis added).

            Well, maybe not everywhere. In many places, suburbanites are retreating into even more isolationist behemoths of bedrooms and boredom. Hence Australian urbanist Brendan Gleeson's diagnosis. He describes the rise of "privatopias," that is, "new exclusionary residential developments both within the older suburban fabric (enclaves) and at the outer suburban edge (exclaves)." Looking at his home base of Western Sydney, Gleeson concludes: "A private constellation of health, education, human service, and recreation facilities is emerging to cater for the needs and desires of the more affluent and the more anxious."

            But are these tendencies like oil and water? Are there places where the traditional, even stereotypical small town and the new isolationism exist side-by-side --- or even in harmony?

For something like an answer, look at Perinton.

            Perhaps more than any other Monroe County town, Perinton, population 46,000, blends dual identities. It's simultaneously a commuter-packed, road-dependent suburb (out of 24,000 workers, only 80 use public transportation, according to the census) and an official "Trail Town USA" (an honor conferred in 1996 by the American Hiking Society and the National Park Service). Moreover, Perinton is reaching its limits of physical growth, partly because of wise land-use and preservation policies. But the town is also expanding services to residents as a means of building community and cohesiveness.

            And nowhere can you see these tandem tendencies more easily than at the heart of town, where recent and ongoing construction is literally bringing the townsfolk together.

            "Heart" doesn't mean the village of Fairport, though. With 5,700 of the town's residents, Fairport still is a major commercial center for Perintonians, though retail areas like the intersection of routes 31 and 250 are coming up fast. The village, which once had all the non-farm action, still draws residents and visitors to offices and restaurants along the newly refurbished Erie Canal.

            But decades of economic change have gutted Fairport-Perinton's old industrial sector. The community that once was dominated by the former American Can plant, the barge traffic on the canal, a major rail freight line, and a hinterland of farms, now must bow to the housing tracts.

            No, the new center of gravity in Perinton is a bit south of the village limits. It's the town hall complex on Turk Hill Road. And the change in this hilly neighborhood is palpable. Only a few years ago, it was, well, pretty dark in Perinton after dark. Now as you glance out your car window from the high points along Route 31, you can't ignore the town hall bathed in its own candlepower.

            It's impressive closer up, too. It contains the usual offices for the supervisor, town clerk, town court, and so forth. But it also houses a 45,000-square-foot Community Center, finished in 1997, which contains a large gym with an elevated running track, meeting rooms, a "Fitness/Wellness" area with exercise machines, and a four-season schedule of programs and classes.

            "No town in Monroe County has a facility that compares," says Kenneth Zeller, Perinton's superintendent of recreation and parks. "It's unique to the area, but not to other areas of the country" like the South and Southwest. "We're looked at [as an example] statewide."

            Zeller points to new construction underway behind the center: a 23,000 Aquatics Facility. The addition, set to open in 2004, will house a 75-foot pool, a whirlpool, and other amenities; aqua-aerobics and other classes will be offered. According to a town fact-sheet, a reserve fund will pay for the construction --- not new taxes. "For every new home built in the town, there's a fee that developers pay toward a special recreation and park fund," Zeller says. The fee, now $850 per new home, goes only for capital development and not for program costs, he says.

            Perinton's park-development strategy, says Zeller, got a head start decades ago. "As development grew in the town," he says, "the town had land set aside for parks." And the parks department, he says, grew along with the development.

To the casual visitor, recreation seems to have become Perinton's main industry. (It's an odd replacement for entities like American Can. The successor to Cobb Preserving "was one of the first companies to perfect the use of the open-top sanitary can," says a town history.) And this can be gauged from the full range of activities at the Perinton Community Center.

            The activities aren't just gym or fitness classes. There are summer concerts and theater at the lofty, white-roofed "Center Stage" in Center Park, a 120-acre open space just downhill from the town hall. Center Stage is the focal point, moreover, for a semi-natural amphitheater carved into the hillside.

            The town maintains recreational open spaces, too. Some, like the 157-acre White Brook Nature Area, are large enough for extensive exploration. And of course Perinton, as a "Trail Town USA," is loaded with hiking/biking trails. There's the Erie Canal Trail, which cuts through the town east to west. And the Crescent Trail, built on an old trolley right-of-way and maintained by a volunteer association, connects directly to Center Park and many other access points.

            There's also a lot of upscale recreation on private property --- as befits a town whose median household income in 1999 was almost $70,000.

            You get a sense of this by visiting Eagle Vale Golf Club on Route 250, just south of the town's border with Penfield. Not even two decades old, the course has 18 holes, an immense clubhouse and pro shop, and a driving range. Eagle Vale staff couldn't be reached for comment. But in a recent issue of Rochester Golf Week, commentator Dave Eaton notes the club has "banquet facilities for 400 people and a full-service sports bar to go along with the amazingly mature golf course."

            Eagle Vale is open to the public. But it's also the nucleus for several large housing tracts, like the "Carriage Homes at Eagle Vale," a string of small, garage-fronted units being built near the clubhouse.

            The worldwide golfing boom has been generous to the Rochester area --- and the leisurely lifestyle has molded the local character. It certainly shows in Perinton. Besides Eagle Vale, the town has the semi-private Lodge at Woodcliff Sports and Golf Club and the Island Valley Golf Course. Moreover, Shadow Lake Golf and Racquet Club, Midvale Country Club, and Penfield Country Club are not far beyond the town line.

            Perinton government has a link in this chain, too. Eagle Vale staffers give basic golf lessons at their course, in cooperation with the Perinton Recreation and Parks Department.

"That's a beautiful course," says Fairport resident Peter McDonough, speaking of Eagle Vale. There are plans to do a community pops concert in the banquet hall there, he says.

            As a former mayor of the village, McDonough is well situated to reflect on the whole community, past and future. "They're a very community-oriented government, both the village and the town," he says. But he disputes one matter of geography. "There's no center for the town of Perinton but the village of Fairport," he says.

            "The village is landlocked; there's little land left for development," says McDonough in another mode. Indeed, Fairport and Perinton stand separately, as well as together --- and there's some tension between old and new that hasn't vanished with some shared development possibilities along the Erie Canal. (Just like cities, incorporated villages in New York State cannot legally grow by annexation.) But McDonough isn't negative. "The town, they had the land and the potential for allocating resources for development, and they've done a tremendous job," he says. "They have a broad range of activities that appeal to senior citizens and young mothers with children... It took a lot of work and foresight."

            Perinton Supervisor Jim Smith, responding to our questions by e-mail, says much the same. "We have an excellent history of good planning" since the 1950s, he says.

            But Smith points out some other factors --- advantages and challenges alike --- in the Perinton success story.

            "Perinton's significant growth is behind it," he says. "We were the fastest growing suburb in the '60s and '70s." But now "the easy development land is gone, and we are experiencing development in more environmentally sensitive areas. These entail a need for less density and increased review, all of which results in slower growth." (The town-village population stood at 31,500 in 1970; by 1990, it had climbed to 43,000. The increase from 1990 to 2000 was much less dramatic. But Fairport village actually dropped by more than three percent during that decade, while the town overall grew by seven percent.)

            So how will Perinton cope with the inevitable slowdown? Will it experience what inner-ring suburbs like Irondequoit have been hit with --- population loss, commercial vacancies, and so forth? Will the town succumb to the lethal contradiction, as given above: the gulf between isolationism and community?

            It's probably too early to guess. But there's at least one certitude: Perinton's plan is to avoid spreading itself too thin.

            In this regard, Jim Smith puts emphasis on open-space preservation. He touts Perinton's Conservation Easement Program, calling it "a first-of-a-kind in New York State." He points to a town map that shows numerous parcels covered by farming and conservation easements, by which the owner cedes development rights to the land in exchange for tax benefits. A fact sheet on the program admits the arrangement isn't foolproof; property owners can end up selling or developing the land and paying back the tax benefits they've accrued. But the town believes the program is "a workable, effective, short to medium term" solution.

            Most of the parcels are clustered in the southeastern part of the town, but some are along the northern border with Penfield. (Three adjacent conservation easements cover the Eagle Vale golf course, by the way.) All in all, the town has 116 conservation easements in effect, covering around 16 percent of the town's land area.

            But again, the program is not ironclad: A chart shows that the number of acres covered by easements has declined quite steadily from almost 6,268 in 1976 to 3,675 today.

            "Our open space program is one of the finest in New York State," says Smith, regardless. "We currently own over 1,800 acres of open space and parkland. This land serves many functions, including the preservation of environmental areas, active parkland, forever-wild areas with scenic vistas, and agricultural lands... We have set aside funds for these acquisitions... This eliminates the need for bond issues and increases in taxes."

The neighborhood around High Acres Landfill, at the southeastern edge of town, is firmly under the "challenge" heading on the ledger.

            Operated by Waste Management Inc., the landfill appears to be growing (and peppering nearby conservation areas with some airborne litter). But the town is already planning long-term. The goal, says Jim Smith, is eventually to integrate the current conservation areas with a closed landfill. He says an "original landfill" on-site, one that's already closed, is now "providing habitat for many species."

            Apart from land-use policy, Perinton's got an ace in the hole, thanks to the foresight of previous generations. The ace is Fairport Electric, a municipally owned power company with 14,000 customers in the village and town. The village website notes that these customers pay around one-third of what the customers of "nearby utilities" pay.

            Smith says Fairport Electric serves "roughly the eastern two-thirds of the town." The service, he says, "is a plus for both homeowners and businesses. We have developed/encouraged industrial development in certain areas of the town with cheaper electric as a major incentive..."

            So there you have it: Mix high household incomes with low utility rates, and leaven the mixture with conservation policies, and you have one recipe for success.

            But the future can't be pinned down. You also could have the makings of a town-wide "privatopia," with local government playing a crucial role as coordinator. And that would be partial success, at best.

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