New zoning code creates nine districts
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Against a screen showing colored maps and a scattering of initials —AQO, WSO and more — Philipstown governmental boards, including the Town Board, last week got a crash course on the ins and outs of the town’s new zoning law. With consultant Joel Russell presiding, the 90-minute session featured an overview of several of the most noteworthy aspects of the 108-page code, unanimously adopted by the Town Board on May 5. The code took effect at the beginning of June.
Philipstown Supervisor Richard Shea opened the workshop by stating its purpose. “We all want to be on the same page” in understanding the new law, he told the participants, members of the Town Planning Board, Conservation Board (formerly the Conservation Advisory Council-Committee), and Zoning Board of Appeals, as well as three of four town councilors. Together, the councilors and supervisor form the Town Board.
Alphabet of Acronyms Spelling Out Protections
Through the zoning, Russell said, “Philipstown is trying to protect as much as possible of its natural environment.” The introduction to the new code states that it “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.” To do so, it creates nine basic zoning districts: Rural Conservation (RC), Institutional Conservation (IC), Rural Residential (RR), Hamlet Residential (HR), Hamlet-Mixed Use (HM), Suburban Residential (SR), Highway Commercial (HC), Office-Commercial-Industry-Mixed Use (OC), Industrial-Manufacturing (M). It also imposes seven “overlays”: Floodplain (FPO), Cold Spring Watershed (WSO), Aquifer (AQO), Open Space Conservation (OSO), Scenic Protection (SPO), Soil Mining (SMO), and Mobile Home Park (MHO).
“Most of the town is zoned what is called ‘rural conservation,’ the predominantly undeveloped parts of the town,” Russell explained. In contrast, he said, “there’s a small part of the town that’s zoned for suburban residential,” or subdivisions using a typical suburban-housing pattern. Delineation of these through the mapping “was debated intensely” during the three-year drafting process that produced a revised code, he recalled. According to the document, zoning overlays “provide additional protection of important environmental resources” and “permit certain types of economically productive uses that would not otherwise be allowed” in a particular area. Several, such as the Scenic Protection Overlay, also sparked controversy during the long run-up to adoption of the new law.
Russell told the boards that “the Scenic Protection Overlay includes all the riverfront in the town between the river and Route 9D, with the exception of areas zoned for higher-density use like hamlets. And then a lot of the road system is in that [SPO],” prompting what Russell termed “one of the more misunderstood concepts” in the new law. The code establishes a 250-foot swathe bordering a protected road and “any development above a certain size within that area is going to be subject to site-plan review” by the Planning Board, giving that board an expanded role, Russell said. “Now,” he informed Planning Board members, “that site-plan review means you have to give them [applicants] approval, but you have to condition it to make sure the scenic quality of those areas is protected.”
Other overlays he cited as important include the one intended to safeguard the watershed for the Cold Spring reservoirs. “It has a few additional restrictions on things like clear-cutting [trees] and stream protection,” he said. Likewise, he mentioned the aquifer overlay, covering much of the town: “It doesn’t affect anything except uses that are likely to have hazardous materials associated with them. It’s not going to affect the average homeowner, the average subdivision, or even the typical small business, if you’re not handling materials that are potentially bad for the water.”
Another new and significant change is the creation of the Institutional Conservation District, Russell continued. “The idea behind this is that Philipstown still has a number of large institutional uses. They employ people; they don’t really have that much of an impact on the landscape or generate huge amounts of traffic. So they’re considered an important part of the community. And if they were to be sold for residential development, there’s a feeling that wouldn’t be so good for the community.” The district gives non-profit institutions on parcels of 20 or more acres flexibility for small-scale expansion or changes, he said. “The more they’re going to add, the more rigorous the application process.”
Aiding Applicants and Balancing Interests
The last half of the 90-minute training session featured options for residential development through use of conservation subdivisions, “which reserve open space by concentrating development on a portion of a parcel,” according to the new law. “It’s a density incentive,” Russell said. By grouping new homes, “you may end up with twice as many units” as someone trying to develop the usual subdivision. Several times, Russell also mentioned another goal of the new law: streamlining the approval process to make it easier for applicants. Under the new zoning, if an envisioned project or activity “is not prohibited and it’s not listed as a use,” an applicant can go to the Town Board and seek a special permit, he said. This, Russell told the supervisor and Councilors Betty Budney, Nancy Montgomery, and John Van Tassel, provides more leeway, “so that you don’t have to say ‘no’ to somebody.”
Overall under the law, Russell told the boards, “you want to make it as easy as possible for the applicant, but there’s a tension” between that and respecting the rights of neighbors, he said. “That’s a balance the Town Board struck” in the new law. “If it doesn’t work, tell the Town Board,” he advised the handful of members of the public present. “The next thing we’d like is to get rid of all the paperwork,” Councilor Montgomery observed.
Kevin Donohue, town code enforcement officer and leading staff member of the Philipstown Building Department, replied that he is “about half-way through” devising new applications, to reflect the provisions of the new zoning. “I’m trying to keep it simple,” he said. Under the prior zoning, applicants had to submit 12 sets of plans or application papers, but he wants to reduce that to no more than six copies and to also make the applicant’s plans available on the town website, he said. “We are a bureaucracy, but we don’t have to complicate it with more paperwork.”
Although the board adopted the zoning code in May, more minor work lies ahead. Shea and Russell explained that vagueness in the scenic ridgeline mapping led to confusion over where a so-called “visible no-build area” lies. Shea said that to avoid further uncertainties the Town Board will pursue “a simpler solution” and write an amendment, the subject of a public hearing in coming weeks. Russell said that the amendment would deal with the land 50 feet below a ridgeline and “give the Planning Board some control over what happens” in that area through site-plan reviews.
Photo by L.S. Armstrong