After two years, four drafts, and numerous meetings, hope glimmers on the Philipstown horizon for an end to the town’s tortuous rezoning effort, intended to bring land-use law into line with the conclusions of the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, itself the result of a five year process.
Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea said June 28 that the town wants to launch the formal public hearing process in September or October, following completion of a “build out” analysis, updating one completed four years ago, which predicted that under the present zoning both population and pollution would increase, with likely costs to taxpayers for new infrastructure.
Released in mid-June, though its maps remained on the drawing board, the latest zoning draft eases some of its predecessors’ impositions, such as restrictions on roof designs on properties in scenic areas, while adding others, like a ban on parking more than one large boat in a residential lot.
While sharp criticism continues, the number of letters from concerned residents decreased markedly after the debut of the fourth draft, which Shea attributes to the dozens of meetings he and other Town Board members have held with individuals. Such sessions “cleared away many of the misconceptions that people had, while offering another opportunity for adding their own input” to crafting of zoning law, he said. “Many of the substantive changes in this current draft are a direct result.”
Like the existing code, the proposed rezoning has nine basic zoning districts, but scraps the old way of defining them in favor of terms more indicative of their character and purpose.
The nine proposed new districts are:
1. Rural Conservation (RC), “to promote land conservation, agriculture, forestry, recreation, and the preservation of open space, as well as other compatible rural uses, by encouraging such activities and by discouraging large-scale residential development, while allowing low-density residential uses.”
2. Institutional Conservation (IC), “to preserve existing institutional uses of property of 20 acres or more that maintain significant amounts of contiguous open space and/or historic structures.”
3. Rural Residential (RR), for “residential uses in a rural setting at a lower density than is allowed in the hamlets.”
4. Hamlet Residential (HR), with “the traditional scale, density, and character of residential hamlets such as Continental Village, as well as residential neighborhoods surrounding designated hamlet-mixed use areas.”
5. Hamlet-Mixed Use (HM), for “creation and expansion of hamlets in the traditional scale, density, architectural style, and mixed-use character of the existing hamlets of Garrison and Garrison Landing and of the Villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville.”
6. Suburban Residential (SR), “to maintain the character of existing suburban density residential developments and to allow a limited extension of suburban growth patterns.”
7. Highway Commercial (HC), for “commercial uses that rely heavily on automobile and truck access and that would not be compatible with a hamlet mixed-use area.”
8. Office-Commercial-Industry-Mixed Use (OC), “for light industrial, service commercial, office, and research facilities,” along with, “where compatible, housing and limited retail commercial development intended to support the primary uses or to provide adaptive re-uses for existing commercial or industrial buildings.”
9. Industrial-Manufacturing (M), for “industrial and related uses that are not compatible with most commercial, office, or residential uses, in isolated and well-buffered locations.”
Furthermore, to “provide additional protection of important environmental resources” as well as “permit certain types of economically productive uses that would not otherwise be allowed,” the draft rezoning superimposes seven “overlay districts,” some geared toward use of land and some toward safeguarding natural features, such as the Clove Creek Aquifer, a crucial water source for Philipstown and Fishkill potentially threatened by plans in Fishkill to build a 210-unit trailer park above it.
The seven overlay districts are:
- Floodplain Overlay (FPO), “to control development within the 100-year floodplain in order to minimize flood damage and protect water resources.”
- Cold Spring Watershed Overlay (WSO), “to protect the water supply of the Villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville, which includes the entire watershed of Foundry Brook.”
- Aquifer Overlay (AQO), encompassing the entire town, “to protect groundwater resources that provide drinking water for private wells and” could later “provide public water supplies.”
- Open Space Conservation Overlay (OSO), with special protection for tracts of 30 or more acres found on the Philipstown Open Space Index.
- Scenic Protection Overlay (SPO), “to protect the character of scenic resources in the town, including designated scenic road corridors and the Hudson River viewshed.”
- Soil Mining Overlay (SMO), “to provide appropriate locations for soil mining to occur where landowners can achieve a reasonable return on their land from sand and gravel mining” without adverse impacts on their neighbors.
- Mobile Home Park (MHO), with “appropriate locations for mobile home parks.”
As stated in the June draft, through the rezoning the town intends “to achieve the community’s goals as expressed in the town’s Comprehensive Plan while respecting the property interests of landowners and providing a development- approval process that is predictable, efficient, and fair.”
The result of five years of public meetings, consultation, and work by citizen committees, the Comprehensive Plan seeks to “conserve Philipstown’s rural, historic and river-community character,” enhance its socio-economic diversity, expand recreational opportunities, “control real property taxes and ensure they are reasonable and equitable;” protect Philipstown’s natural resources; improve both the safety and aesthetics of roads, “locate new development where it can be supported by existing infrastructure” and streamline the governmental approval process. Its introduction notes that in order to have any weight, the Comprehensive Plan’s recommendations “must be translated into zoning laws.”
New York State law demands that local zoning law reflect a duly-approved comprehensive plan. Thus, after approving the Comprehensive Plan in 2006, the Town Board created a Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) to rework the zoning code. The ZAC completed its draft in May 2008. Public hearings followed, producing additional ideas but no controversy.
In August 2009 the Town Board released a revised draft — and a furor erupted. “Concerned Land-owners of Philipstown: Your property zoning is changing,” a poster in Cold Spring declared late that summer. “Most residences and businesses are affected. Your value, your use, and your taxes will be affected. These changes are going to be adopted shortly by the Town Board without your knowledge.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Town Board initiated a series of public meetings, ranging from raucous special sessions in September and April that drew hundreds to questions-and-answer sessions at regular Town Board meetings and personalized interaction with individuals. Soliciting suggestions by letter as well, the board modified the August draft twice, producing the March and June versions.
“I think that the Town Board has been extremely willing to listen to and act on community input regarding each iteration of the draft zoning, and I think that as a result we will end up with a quality document,” Philipstown resident Kim Conner observed June 29. A member of the Philipstown Planning Board, which will further scrutinize the Town Board’s final rezoning draft, she emphasized that her comments represent her personal views and were not delivered as a Planning Board member.
The June rezoning draft, in particular, eliminated key sources of contention found in the earlier versions.
For instance, it allows a business that becomes “non-conforming” under the new zoning code to not only keep functioning but to remain in place if sold to another owner who continues to operate it. Likewise, the new draft removes a provision that banned non-conforming signs as of 2013.
Among other significant changes, the June draft also reduces setback requirements for various districts. Thus, the rear-yard setback for hamlet residential sites has been trimmed from 15 feet to 10 feet and for suburban residential parcels from 50 feet to 25 feet; the setback for properties on state, county or town roads in the Scenic Protection Overlay district has been decreased to 250 feet from 500 feet.
While the June draft states that “structures that are visible from public roads shall be compatible with each other and with traditional structures in the surrounding area in architecture,” placement, and similar considerations, it gets rid of a mandate forbidding flat roofs.
The March draft had already dumped a restriction in the August draft that forbade the removal of trees on mountain ridgelines if the cutting marred the appearance of the crestline, as seen from public vantage points. The June draft adds preservation of the property owner’s views as a legitimate reason for removing trees. It states that “no land disturbance or removal of more than 20 percent of the trees in any area of 1,000 square feet or more, other than as required for the creation and maintenance of footpaths, the maintenance of existing views, and the construction and repair of fences, shall be permitted within the Visible Ridgeline No-Build Area.”
The March draft did not include the reference to “maintenance of existing views.”
Moreover, the June draft permits owners “to cut, clear, or remove vegetation on their property to the extent necessary to keep and maintain views that existed on the date of original adoption of this” new zoning code — leeway that could conceivably encourage residents to get out their chain saws, before the law changes.
According to the June draft, “within the hillside protection area “¦ any land disturbance of 1,000 square feet or more shall be subject to site plan review” by the Philipstown Planning Board.
The Citizens of Philipstown. Org (COP), a non-profit group with federal 501 C 4 tax-law status, allowing political advocacy, suggests that, among other implications, the measure threatens gardening. Initially called the Concerned Citizens of Philipstown, the group coalesced in 2009 during the initial rezoning ruckus. In a notice placed on the want-ads page of the June 16 Putnam County News and Recorder, COP took issue with the land-disturbance measure, alleging it “will cost $$$$$ for permits for a potato patch.” However, the rezoning draft specifies that “agricultural structures and practices shall not require site plan review or special permit approvals,” except for buildings larger than 10,000 square feet, which would need minor-project site plan approval.
Overall, through the ridgeline and hillside protection provisions, the rezoning seeks “to maintain the scenic beauty and rural character of the town by minimizing visual intrusions into the landscape and preserving the important aesthetic, scenic, and ecological character of the town’s ridgelines and adjacent hillsides.”
COP also expressed reservations about a draft provision that cracks down on proliferation of water-going vessels in residential areas. The June rezoning draft provides that “no more than one motorboat or sailboat may be stored outdoors on any residential lot.” If boats can’t be stored on a residential lot, “where then?” the Citizens of Philipstown asked in an ad on June 23.
Likewise, in a full-page ad in the PCNR June 2, the group said that “moderate rainfall is 50 decibels. Therefore, heavy rain would be prohibited in our town” under a proposed rezoning noise restriction. The latter stipulates that “no person, firm, or corporation shall allow the emission of sound which, as measured at the property lines, has a sound level in excess of: 50 decibels “¦ between the hours of 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.; or 40 decibels “¦ between the hours of 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.”
Without mentioning any entity by name, Shea linked much of the negative reaction to “a small group that has been intent on disrupting the process. Regardless of the efforts to listen to every point of view and make changes to the zoning draft, this group has continued to spread misinformation, with the sole objective of derailing the efforts to protect and preserve the rights of all residents of Philipstown.”
Conner, too, described the anti-rezoning voices as relatively few in number. “I believe that the perception that a huge number of people are against new zoning is incorrect,” she said. “Anyone who attended the Town Board workshop at Haldane a few months ago could tell you that there were many, many people who stood up and thanked the Town Board for all the work they have done on the zoning, and asked them to continue to stay the course and see it through. Many others have written letters to the Town Board supporting the draft zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.”
Such backing could be crucial as the rezoning reaches its final stages. As the 2006 Comprehensive Plan warned, “Without strong community support, a town board will be reluctant to pass implementing legislaation” to make the visions of a plan into zoning reality.
And only a town board can do this, because contrary to some local perceptions, a public referendum on zoning law changes is not an option in New York State.