As one of her last actions as town board member, Doris Davis - far left - voted with her colleagues to approve a series of much-debated changes to town zoning laws // Photo: Town of Bethlehem
At Bethlehem’s Dec. 14 Town Board meeting, outgoing member Doris Davis’s last, members unanimously passed a raft of zoning changes that have been the major topic of conversation the last several times the board has met.
A few changes were made to the proposed amendments as a result of the last conversation between the Town Board and Department of Economic Development and Planning Director Rob Leslie, such as the removal of a mandatory minimum on the percentage of commercial property in newly created Planned Hamlet Districts (PHDs) and the addition of an expiration date of two years for approval of grandfathered projects (those for which applications were received prior to Sept. 1).
The rest of the approved changes, discussed at length in Town Board and Planning Board meetings since this summer, remained essentially unchanged after all concerns raised by board members and residents were addressed in the weeks following the Town Board’s Nov. 22 meeting.
The only remaining issue that board members seemed reluctant to approve involved tightening of land use regulations on property owned in areas that have been zoned as Rural Light Industrial (RLI). In an effort to clarify what the Planning Department viewed as the intention of the RLI, which Leslie said repeatedly was significantly more industrial than residential in scope, the new law removes multi-family residential developments from allowed uses and limits the way in which RLI parcels of land may be subdivided.
“I’m very conflicted,” said Board Member Joyce Becker, going on to say that she would prefer to support the rights of Bethlehem landowners, many of whom spoke out publicly against the amendment, to develop their property in whatever ways they choose. “I struggled with that,” she said. “I don’t like taking away the right of the landowner.”
Leslie responded that it was the opinion of the Planning Board that the industrial uses allowed within RLI-zoned areas are incompatible with large-scale housing development for a number of reasons. “By removing multi-family,” he said, “I believe it preserves the industrial nature of that district that was intended. Just based on the nature of where those zones are located — adjacent to the CSX rail yards, adjacent to lands along River Road that are zoned Heavy Industrial.
“In my mind,” Leslie said, “it’s consistent with the Comprehensive Plan to limit residential development in the RLI.” Leslie said he could envision situations where large multi-family development would become attractive in areas meant “to service industrial users,” an eventuality he called an “unintended consequence” of the original multi-family allowances.
Supervisor John Clarkson pointed out a residential development that would place more than 400 apartments within an RLI district was on the Planning Department agenda for the following morning.
“One of the challenges we have,” said Board Member David VanLuven, a vocal advocate of landowner rights in previous discussions, “is that zoning inherently affects individual landowners, but it’s the process through which we, as a community, ensure that what we do on our own lands don’t deleteriously impact what’s going on with other properties, and vice versa. It’s a way of thinking about community care and community structure.”
“Airports, animal hospitals, beverage bottling distribution and warehousing facilities, broadcasting facilities, cold storage facilities, commercial bakeries, commercial recreation facilities, contractor’s yards and cold storage facilities,” said Davis, reading from a list of uses allowed on RLI-zoned property. “Distribution centers, fabrication shops, farmer equipment sales,” she said, listing several more before concluding with,”and [the] list goes on and on and on.”
“I think most of us would not be comfortable living with some of the effects of those uses,” she said. “You have odors, you have noise, you have a number of different things that can happen within those districts and they’re not the kinds of things that most people would feel okay with having as our neighbors.” Davis went on to say that her hometown in the Catskills has virtually no zoning regulations because residents didn’t want government regulating what they can do with their land. “And, as a result,” said Davis, “it wasn’t always nice to live there.
“I don’t want that,” she said. “And I don’t want that for my community.”
Ultimately, Davis voted alongside her fellow board members to pass the changes and Leslie agreed that future amendments could be done more immediately and independently, rather than coming before the board all at once late in the legislative year, which several board members said they found to be overwhelming and somewhat confusing.
Other amendments clarified language; lengthened or shortened deadlines for project approvals; created a new, roaming Planned Hamlet District zone; defined “habitable structure” and “shopping mall;” and more.
Passage of the amended legislation means that incoming Democratic Town Board Member Giles Wagoner will escape a crash course in town zoning law next month when he takes his seat.
“This is a happy time of year,” said Clarkson. “But we are saddened by one thing. Doris Davis will be leaving us.
“She has served oh-so-well and admirably during this year,” he said. “She has done so without any personal or political agenda, just solely a matter of service . . . When people step forward to serve their town, to serve the town board, for no other reason than to serve is truly a wonderful thing to see.”
On behalf of the board, Clarkson thanked Davis for her service.
“It’s a real honor; It was a privilege,” she said. “Bethlehem is a very special place and this is a special board.”
Turning to her colleagues of the past year with emotion, she said, “You do really good things for this town and I was just proud to be a part of you all. Thank you.”