BETHLEHEM – At the Nov. 9 Town Board meeting, members quickly approved the 2017 budget and then spent the better part of the two and a half hour meeting discussing development.
Specifically, they talked about proposed changes to town zoning regulations and how to approach a plan to preserve open spaces that balances preservation with the rights of large landowners.
Residents (and one from neighboring Guilderland) spoke for more than an hour during the public comment period that preceded the meeting, sharing their thoughts on open space preservation and a raft of proposed zoning amendments that was first brought before the board on Oct. 13.
Residents remarking on the preservation of open space highlighted the divergent priorities of those who live in Bethlehem’s more populated neighborhoods, and those who live on larger parcels of land in rural areas. Some maintained large landowners disproportionately bear the costs of preservation efforts implemented to appease the suburban population.
One potential mechanism for preserving open spaces is offering landowners a conservation easement, essentially a payment for leaving some or all of their land undeveloped for a specified amount of time. Called a “wonderful tool” by board member David VanLuven, local landowners seemed to feel differently.
“All we’ve asked for is to be left alone,” said Linda Jasinksi, a large landowner in Selkirk. Noting that previous efforts to achieve consensus on land preservation have failed, she accused the board of continuing to press the issue, saying “you people did not get what you wanted.” Jasinski went on to say she knows landowners who have been bullied into conservation easement agreements by “the gods of the Planning Board” in exchange for the approval of development projects.
Another resident commented that he had agreed to a conservation easement on his property and felt he had been “disrespected” by town government. Yet another spoke for several minutes on the disparate concerns of rural landowners and suburban homeowners. Several chastised the board for raising taxes and then offering easements as a way to mitigate the increased burden.
“Easements and other forms of change in the ownership’s rights only occur if they agree to do it and if they want to do it,” said Bethlehem Supervisor John Clarkson, noting that compelling landowners to make such decisions is not only against town policy, but also against the law.
Following up a dialogue on preserving open spaces that took place during both October board meetings, Robert Leslie, head of the town Department of Economic Planning and Development, presented a framework for the development of a comprehensive plan that could serve as a guide in developing a program by which preservation would be accomplished.
Leslie proposed building on work already done for the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program (LWRP), for which the town has been mapping natural resources between the Hudson River and the state Thruway. “We’re looking at it from a standpoint of where we should encourage development and what areas are more environmentally sensitive,” he said. “Where are the wetlands? Where are the slopes? Where are the agricultural and farm lands?
“In doing so,” he continued, “you can identify where you have this intersection of natural resources, existing conservation efforts, and other areas that pop out to us that highlight where we want to pursue further conservation.” Leslie and Clarkson repeatedly stated throughout the meeting that, where the land they wished to be conserved was under private ownership, conservation efforts would be entirely subject to the will of the landowner.
Board members Julie Sasso and VanLuven echoed the intention that any lands “targeted” for preservation should be chosen, not by specific property but by the property’s intrinsic environmental value — a method also clearly preferred by Clarkson and Leslie.
“We’re talking about qualities or types of land,” said Sasso. “Not about specific parcels.”
“We’re talking about values,” said VanLuven. “There was a lot of community input that went into identifying what these values were, and these maps will just present those concepts graphically.” He said building on the LWRP is a smart way to undertake the planning process.
MJ Engineering, the firm hired to help develop the LWRP, has been working with a citizen advisory group and will be holding public meetings to gather input until early next year. Leslie proposes expanding their scope to include the rest of the town and use that information to develop a resource inventory list and town-wide open space preservation map, modeled after the Town of Pheasant Valley. (http://pleasantvalley-ny.gov/government/environment/open-space-and-farmland-plan)
Concurrently or subsequently, Leslie recommended a series of public participation activities like those MJ is conducting for the LWRP. The final step would be drafting a document “that addresses public comments and includes the natural resource inventory, open space preservation map, and goals and implementation strategies.”
A public hearing, specifically on the proposed zoning amendments, allowed residents to raise questions about various aspects of the zoning proposal related to land allowances, municipal exemptions and a new overlay zone called a Planned Hamlet District (PHD).
Large landowners criticized changes proposed to the Rural Light Industrial (RLI) zoned districts, where much of their land is located. The amendment would restrict residential development to one- and two- family units, and regulate the frequency with which residential structures may be built.
The justification provided by the Planning Department stated “a review of the Comprehensive Plan indicates that residential uses were not envisioned as a supportive or compatible use within the RLI. The purpose of the district is to promote light industrial and related uses.”
Critics, some of whom claimed they were present when the Comprehensive Plan was being developed, said they believed the intent of the RLI district was to promote flexibility and said the amendments would only serve to stifle the options of RLI landowners. Still angry over recent property value re-appraisals that resulted in significant property tax increases for many large landowners, Jasinski and others lobbied the board to reconsider changes that would make it more difficult for them to develop their land in economically viable ways.
Sasso said that the concerns of residents seemed legitimate, and asked Leslie if it shouldn’t be the right of those landowners to develop their lands in ways they deem fit. Leslie responded that the change was meant to promote consistency within that district, and to avoid the sort of situations in which large multi-family residential developments might be built immediately adjacent to loud, potentially hazardous industrial developments.
“The rationale,” said town Planner Jeff Lipnicky, “is to allow some use of the property for residential purposes, but to limit the amount of residential uses that get built. The fundamental issue here is really that you have a light industrial district and, if you allow larger-scale, either multi-family condominiums or large single-family subdivisions and ownership housing, you’re building in opposition to the purpose of the district that you’re trying to create.”
A number of residents questioned an addition to the zoning code that states the board, “shall have exclusive jurisdiction over any town sponsored public and quasi-public projects and improvements, including any special districts of the town, or projects constructed with approval of the Town Board on town owned or controlled property. Such projects and improvements shall not be subject to the provisions of the town Zoning Code.”
“You’re no better than anybody else,” said Jasinksi. “And if these are such good zoning laws, you should follow them.” She pointed out that the town could go before the Zoning Board to request exemptions when needed.
Concerns about this addition were raised at the Oct. 13 meeting, at which point the Planning Board agreed to review the practices of other municipalities to see how they approach public projects. In all but one of ten cases, there was no language in the municipal code specifically exempting public projects from zoning laws, but Leslie said that, in practice, all consider those projects to be exempt. “However,” he said “they do consider the intention and potential impacts of the proposed project in their decision [whether or not] to request assistance for review and recommendation by their town Planning Board.”
The amendment, said Leslie, was meant to streamline the process for projects such as the building of cell phone towers, or the expansion of the water treatment plant. VanLuven asked why the additional step of going through the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) was so prohibitive and was informed it’s only happened twice in the last ten years. Once with a public-private endeavor to install a solar array, which was send to the Planning Board; and again when the ZBA determined the public benefit derived from expanding the town’s water treatment facility superseded the need for site plan review by the Planning Board.
Town Attorney Jim Potter also mentioned the amendment places the responsibility for such decisions squarely on the shoulders of the town’s elected officials, rather than the ZBA, which is an appointed body.
Another amendment that was questioned by residents was the addition of a new, floating zoning district called a Planned Hamlet District (PHD). The new district would target mixed residential and commercial projects in areas where residents desire a walkable community that offers a mix of residential, retail, restaurant and office spaces. The new district was recommended by a community advisory group as a way to help facilitate the New Scotland Road Master Plan, a plan conceived by neighborhood residents.
Essentially, said Leslie, the PHD would be very similar to a Planned Development District (PDD), except that it requires a certain amount of commercial development to occur alongside residential growth and would require discretionary approval by the Town Board.
“Over the past three or four years, as staff has applied zoning law and subdivision regulations to projects,” said Leslie, “we’ve been taking notes on what is working and what isn’t. How can we make things better? How can we improve procedures? What items are inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan?”
Clarkson said he and Sasso have plans to meet with residents to solicit feedback on the proposed amendments. “It’s nice to have an informal dialogue,” he said.
“We’ve heard a number of people here tonight talk about, I believe the phrase was ‘the gods of the Planning Board,” exercising discretion and saying what you can do with your property,” said Clarkson. “Then, we hear from the other people who want that to