By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Already more than two years in the making, Philipstown’s rezoning effort could end in early winter, under the latest timetable. Delivery of a new “build-out” analysis, expected by Friday (Sept. 24), and completion a week or two later of a New York State Environmental Assessment Form will help clear the way for reviews of the rezoning draft by the town Planning Board and Putnam County Planning Department.
As part of the run-up to enactment of a new zoning code, Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea also wants the Town Board to adopt the Putnam County Pathways program, the county version of the Hudson Valley Greenway, and make Philipstown a participant in the Greenway Compact. Compact benefits include having the state attorney general defend the town against legal challenges to zoning changes. When those final steps fall into place, the Town Board can schedule a formal public hearing and look toward its own vote to turn the draft rezoning into law.
“We’re hoping that by Oct. 1 we have everything together” in the build-out study and EAF, Supervisor Richard Shea said last Friday (Sept. 17). A build-out analysis gauges the pattern and intensity of future development, its impact on infrastructure needs, and the cost to town and taxpayers. The last build-out study, in October 2006, predicted that under the current zoning — the code to be updated by the rezoning — both population and pollution would increase, and so would expenses. The EAF determines the likely effect of a proposed law on the environment.
After they receive the rezoning draft, the Planning Board and Putnam County each have 60 days to comment, but may react much sooner, Shea said. “We’ve never had to wait a full 60 days” for a county response. And for the Planning Board, the rezoning “is not going to be a surprise. I’m not expecting a lot” of pleas for changes from that quarter, Shea said. “The Planning Board does not have veto power,” only the authority to offer “a review and recommendations, which places no obligation on the Town Board,” Planning Board Chairman Anthony D. Merante noted.
Overall, the Planning Board has already been involved. To implement the 2006 Comprehensive Plan, the town set up a Zoning Advisory Committee that produced the first rezoning draft, in May 2008. The Town Board forwarded it to the Planning Board. A public hearing followed, generating relatively little interest. But the Town Board sought modifications, resulting in the August 2009 draft. Despite the apparent public apathy over the first version of the rezoning, the second sparked a furor. In the next several months, the Town Board worked through successive revisions, releasing new drafts in March, June, and July; discussed the issue at both at regular Town Board meetings and in special workshops, and invited citizens to meet individually with the supervisor. With time and the release of the ever-finer-tuned drafts, vehement opposition diminished. On July 13, when the Town Board held a mark-up session to consider a few more changes into the June draft, many chairs in the audience remained empty. The July draft, now the operative one, came out the next day.
Shea sounds eager for the public hearing to get underway. “I’m hoping to be able to schedule it in November and wrap this up by the end of the year. We’ll be lucky to get it done in December,” but that’s the goal, he said Sept. 17. Whenever the hearing occurs, he thinks it will be less acrimonious than some previous public forums, including a raucous session in September 2009. “I just don’t think it’s going to be as contentious” going forward, Shea said. “A lot of concerns have been put to rest.” Nonetheless, he said, one or two residents will probably continue to object. “There’s not going to be 100 percent satisfaction.”
Nonetheless, a Philipstown.info reader wondered in mid-summer if peace had broken out in the “Philipstown Zoning Wars,” given the quietness that followed the July draft. “I think the gap has closed significantly. I think a tweak here and a tweak there and it’s a fairly balanced document,” Lee Erickson, president of Citizens of Philipstown.Org., told Philipstown.info at the Sept. 2 Town Board meeting. “It’s a lot better balanced” than the August 2009 draft, he said. COP formed last year, largely in opposition to the second rezoning draft. In a written statement, the group also discounted the notion of a zoning war. “From our point of view, we do not think Philipstown was engaged in a `zoning war,'” COP declared. “What we experienced instead was a true grass-roots exercise of Constitutional rights, both in favor and against the provisions of the proposed rezoning, a public dialogue at the basic local level. That is not war; that is democracy in action.”
Another observer, Andrew Chmar, executive director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, said that “no matter the topic, there will always be both suspicion and opposition to anything new. But I’m confident that the current draft of the zoning is truly a product of an open and deliberate process and that it truly reflects the wishes of an informed community for both economic vitality and preservation of the community’s character.”