Approval of New Zoning Code Moves Focus from Drafting to Application

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

With no protests either on the Town Board or from the floor, enactment of Philipstown’s new zoning code last Thursday (May 5) capped 10 years of effort and moved the focus from the drafting of law to its application. Upon their 5 to 0 vote approving the draft – the eighth of a series that began in May 2008 – Philipstown’s supervisor and councilors garnered a standing ovation from the audience of about 50 and praise from across the local community, with even former critics joining in.

According to the new code’s introduction, “this zoning law enables Philipstown to protect the diverse character of the Town while also giving landowners a range of options and choices for the use, development, and conservation of their land.” One Town Board member, Nancy Montgomery, said after the vote that the rezoning “fulfills the fundamental goal that, as a community, we are committed to retain the town’s character and authenticity while we manage future growth. This document paints a clear picture of how a community can get together and invest in itself.”

Supervisor Richard Shea, who led the board in extensive legislative mark-up sessions penciling in changes line by line, said the protracted development of the new code was “absolutely” worth it. Over the course of several months, he helped defuse the acrimony by presiding over several “initially raucous” public forums and holding numerous individual conversations with residents. “I wouldn’t do anything different,” he said after the vote. “I got a lot of great input from the town and the board produced a better law as result,” he said. “We’re a unique community and we continue to show that in a lot of ways.”

The Citizens of Philipstown, (COP) a group spawned largely by opposition to the August 2009 (second) rezoning draft, expressed similar views May 5. “We salute the Town officials, zoning specialists, volunteers and everyday citizens that spent thousands of hours perfecting the document,” COP said in a statement read at the meeting by Acting President Tony Bardes. “Philipstown should be proud that voters and elected officials were able to open the space and arena for a vigorous exchange of ideas at several critical junctures in doing so honoring the best tradition of our democratic system.”

The organization sounded a note of caution, however: “As significant as the enactment of this law is, the success or failure of the brand-new zoning law will be measured in great part on the basis of its proper implementation.”  COP added that “an adequate supervision of its execution by those knowledgeable in the development of this law is vital [and] the retraining of those with the task to implement it is essential. We are now at the point when theory is about to meet real-life, day-to-day application.”

Adoption of the new law, “I think, is an important milestone,” said Andrew Chmar, executive director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, after the board meeting. “It really does offer the greatest chance for preserving the character of this town than perhaps ever.” He noted that the code being replaced by the new zoning law dated from around 1968. Supervisor Shea and his Town Board colleagues, Councilman John Van Tassel and Councilwomen Montgomery, Betty Budney, and Barbara Scuccimarra, all “deserve the greatest appreciation of this town,” Chmar said.

Seconding that sentiment, several Philipstown residents began circulating a draft message late last week, proposed as a newspaper advertisement, to congratulate Shea and the councilors for “the enactment of Philipstown’s new zoning plan [and] thank them for their careful consideration, responsiveness to community input and dedicated leadership.”

Nonetheless, one rezoning critic seemed unconvinced. Reacting to the vote in a comment to Philipstown.info, F.J. Spinelli said the board action might best be described as “conservation zealots win over personal property rights 5 to 0.”

Conservation Advisory Council becomes Conservation Board

Along with adopting the zoning code, on May 5 the Town Board voted unanimously to convert the Conservation Advisory Council, sometimes known as the Conservation Advisory Committee, into a full-fledged Conservation Board, effective immediately. As explained in the text of the resolution re-naming it, the panel will carry out “all functions and responsibilities heretofore granted to the Conservation Advisory Council” but also have an important role in conservation analysis of land subdivisions, on matters of slope restrictions, and with regard to special permits and site plans. Moreover, the resolution announces the Town Board’s intent to transfer to the Conservation Board the power to grant wetlands permit, pending an amendment to another section of town law.

Eric Lind, acting chairman of the six-member Conservation Board, May 10 described the ability to oversee wetlands permits as one of the more notable changes in its purview. In the past, he said, the town wetlands inspector generally handled the permits, though the Planning Board issued some as well. “This makes it a lot more cohesive,” he said. The Conservation Board also will review potential projects on properties included on the town Open Space Index, allowing it to take a closer look, determine why the property is listed, and “do the best we can to protect the resources,” Lind said.

Overall, “it’s a more detailed role,” he said of the board’s enhanced responsibilities. In addition, “what it does is more or less formalize the relations we have with other [town government] boards. I’m really looking forward” to a higher level of interaction with them, building on the strong ties the CAC always already had enjoyed, he said. “I think it will be really good.” As for “the minutiae of the job – a lot of it won’t change,” Lind added.

New code creates 9 districts, 7 overlays

To take effect upon the routine filing with New York State, the new zoning code sets up nine districts: 

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 - in a particular area, the draft rezoning superimposes seven “overlay districts'”

I.  Floodplain (FPO), “to control development within the 100-year floodplain in order to minimize flood damage and protect water resources.”

II. Cold Spring Watershed (WSO), “to protect the water supply of the Villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville, which includes the entire watershed of Foundry Brook.”

III. Aquifer (AQO), encompassing the entire town, “to protect groundwater resources that provide drinking water for private wells‚ and in the future could “provide public water supplies.”

IV.  Open Space Conservation (OSO), to offer special protection for tracts of 30 or more acres found on the Philipstown Open Space Index.

V.  Scenic Protection (SPO), “to protect the character of scenic resources in the town, including designated scenic road corridors and the Hudson River viewshed.”

VI.  Soil Mining (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.”

VII.  Mobile Home Park (MHO), to cover “appropriate locations for mobile home parks.”

In its last round of revisions this spring, the Town Board changed the November version of the rezoning to, in several cases, provide more clarification or give property-owners increased flexibility in meeting provisions of the law. For example, a section dealing with parking in the office-commercial district specifies that “buildings shall be placed in front of their parking lots to screen the parking from the road.”

The zoning draft had already allowed the Town Planning Board to “modify or waive this requirement where environmental or topographic constraints or unusual lot configurations such as corner lots or through-lots make compliance with this requirement impractical or impossible, or where the predominant character of surrounding development is such that compliance with this requirement would serve no useful purpose, provided that the applicant minimizes the visual impacts of such parking areas.”

The board added a line also permitting the Planning Board to exempt a building “where the business needs of the applicant require parking to be visible from the road.”Similarly, to a subsection on the screening of small-scale businesses in the rural conservation and rural residential districts, the board added a line stating that “the screening requirements in this subsection may be modified by the Planning Board where it is not feasible to comply with them.”

Town advances toward realization of Comprehensive Plan goals

As well as giving the town a sweeping new zoning law, the board vote moved the town forward in implementing the Philipstown Comprehensive Plan, itself the product of five years of work. Adopted by the Town Board in March 2006, the Comprehensive Plan, as its first page states, constitutes “an  important first step, but to have effect its recommendations must be translated into zoning laws” and other policy initiatives.

With 10 basic goals, the Comprehensive Plan seeks to “conserve Philipstown’s rural, historic and river-community character; maintain and enhance the socio-economic diversity of  Philipstown’s population; strengthen the town-wide sense of community; expand recreational opportunities; control real property taxes and ensure they are reasonable and equitable; pursue an economic development strategy focused on maintaining the town’s diversity and authenticity; protect Philipstown’s natural resources; improve safety and aesthetics of roads; locate new development where it can be supported by existing infrastructure and develop new infrastructure only [when] supportive of development and conservation goals; [and] revise land-use regulations to implement the Comprehensive Plan and streamline the land-use approval and enforcement process.”

Photo by L.S. Armstrong

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