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New zoning update work now in full swing

Dan McClelland

Meeting 5.jpg

by Dan McClelland
The process by which a local committee of volunteers directed by a professional consulting firm will update this community's zoning laws to guide, among other things, future development was explained at a information session Tuesday.  Judging by the more than 60 people in attendance there is considerable interest here in the project.
The hour and one-half long session took place at the Emergency Services Building's community room.
The zoning project update was directed by David West of the Ithaca-based firm of Randall and West, a firm which works with villages and towns on issues of zoning and green design.
The community's zoning law and land use code were created in 1962 but were substantially revised about 20 years ago with assistance from the Adirondack Park Agency planning staff, directed by Jim Hotaling.  It has been stressed by planning board members and others in recent years that the law, as it is written today, is badly in need of changes.
Opening the session Community Development Consultant Melissa McManus, who has won millions of dollars in grants for the village and town this past decade, explained the zoning update work came about from funding the community won in 2014 to develop a revitalization strategy.
She said that work developed “a new vision for Tupper Lake.”
As part of that new strategy, a representative from the New York State Department of State, which funded the work, thought that the community's zoning laws were again in need of updating, she told the group.
She said Planner Paul O'Leary agreed “so we put in a request for the money and got it.”
That led to hiring of Randall and West and the appointment of a town and village committee to work with them all this year.
She said of the new ordinance and plan to be developed this year, “I would wish for you a new zoning code you all want...which prohibits what Tupper Lake doesn't want!”
She hopes what will be produced will be “a clearer code” that will be easier for residents and new arrivals “to understand what can and cannot be done!”
The successful grant writer  said that later this year the task force will produce “a draft” of a new zoning code which community residents and others will get to review before adoption.  A second public meeting will be held at that point in the process.
“This is a serious process and we want to make sure everyone gets a chance to weigh in on it!”
David West explained the zoning update process now underway is “part of a larger process” which began with a state Smart Growth grant and the development of the community revitalization strategy.
He said he has been meeting with the community's new land use code steering committee, who include Planning Board Chairman Shawn Stuart, planning board member Jim Merrihew, school district business manager Dan Bower, Councilman John Quinn, Village Code Enforcement Officer Pete Edwards, Matt Kendall, a member of the village's zoning variance board, Trustee Clint Hollingsworth, Town Attorney Kirk Gagnier, retired Sunmount administrator  Mary Chartier, Noel Short, acting superintendent of schools in Long Lake, Department of Transportation Engineer Tom Maroun and Main Street resident Jen Beauchamp.
Mr. West said that unlike most communities in New York, Tupper Lake also has the requirements of the Adirondack Park Agency to comply with in its zoning laws.  “You're in your own different bubble!”
The professional began with a discussion of zoning and land use planning in general.
He said the current laws “need to be changed” in some areas, because otherwise the community and its leaders could be liable for lawsuits by disgruntled people.
Mr. West said “zoning protects private property owners” while advancing public interest.  It also manages development in a community in a way that should be clear to everyone.  “When you buy a piece of property is should be clear what you can do with it!”
He also noted through the zoning process, it gets the person to the “permitting stage” and forward with a project from there.
Zoning laws, which sometimes include design guidelines, can strengthen communities by setting rules, he continued.
He said traditionally communities have been created two ways.  The first or the traditional way is when a community has a center “with a variety of uses” and then houses were built around it, “from which residents can walk to businesses or schools.”
The other planning method, adopted in recent years, is to set aside separate areas for different things, he said.
“Tupper Lake has some of the traditional format and some single uses in a large pod!”
Mr. West said “a planning overview” includes three things: assessing existing conditions, by looking at the current code; creating a new vision within new regulations; and updating procedures in the existing code, many of which are likely outdated by law or common practice.
He pointed out, as an example of an outdated procedure, there's a requirement in Tupper Lake's current zoning code that “plans be submitted in India ink on vellum.”
Mr. West said Tupper's current code is “hard to deal with.”  One table on one page sums up all the zoning uses, for example.
The existing zoning law here also contains what he called “a huge list of special review uses,” which call for each application to be subject to a public hearing.  “The courts have not looked well on special review uses” and it could result in the town and village being liable.
“They are not the best way to a permit.  When the planning board says no, for example, an applicant may consider a lawsuit to determine if there was good reason for that.”
He said a better way is to create a list of permitted uses (types of businesses) and decide how many you want to see in the center plan.
In the existing plan, a person can't open a hair salon in the village or town without a special review use permit.
“It's up to the planning board (for every type of business proposed) and that's not a  good way to get your storefronts filled, said the consultant.
Mrs. McManus noted at that point that the state has seen “a real evolution” in zoning in recent decades.
There are many difficulties in the local laws, Mr. West noted.  In the village, for example, the code requires building lots to be bigger than what currently exists.  “You want to be able to maintain existing densities in your should allow neighbors to be able to build just like what's next to him.”
In Tupper Lake, he said, the rules of the APA also come in to play.  “You want to make sure your zoning in town jives with APA rules.  For example, if APA law requires a 40-acre lot (on which to build), there's no point in having the town code require less!”
Mr. West said that one of the benefits of adopting an APA-approved land use code is the gaining of local jurisdiction of what are called Class B size projects. Typically these are moderately sized projects.  He noted, however, that comments to him already indicate  that most community leaders are  not interested in that.
He said it is important for communities to “make the code process as smooth as possible for landowners.”
Mr. West said Tupper Lake has adopted some excellent architectural design and site guidelines, as part of its revitalization strategy, and they need to be considered in any new zoning plan.  He pointed to the design work formulated in recent years for future Demars Blvd. development.
He outlined the process this year.  The first step was a review of the existing laws by his firm and the committee, which has been completed.  The second step was that night's public session.  In the months ahead his firm and the local committee will draft a new ordinance- based in part on suggestions from the group that evening.  The draft, which will be completed by early summer, will be studied by town and village leaders and a second public meeting will be scheduled later in the years, after which a state environmental quality review will commence, before the final plan is accepted.  He said the entire project should be “wrapped up by year's end.”
He listed the various categories in the existing law, each which come with their own set of setbacks and minimum lot sizes.  They included: high density residential, which is most of the village, high density residential special zone, medium density (one acre minimum lot size), low density, medium density shorefront (three acre minimum lot size), rural residential (eight acre lot minimum), low density shorefront residential, residential/commercial (mix of residences and businesses), highway residential/commercial (one acre minimum lot size), commercial, shorefront residential development, conservation zone, open space recreation, recreation/timber and the planned development district, created for the Adirondack Club and Resort.
He said one of the things the group will study is the permitted uses which may be allowed outright in the various zones. Few exist now.  Those things should be permitted “by right.”
Mr. West said the job of the planning board would be clearer and easier if there were specific permitted businesses in commercially zoned areas.
When those types of businesses come before the planners, it is what is called a “site plan review.”  That way the board could review the applicant's plan and approve it without a public hearing and a month's delay.
He said some types of businesses which are not typical to a commercial district could be kept in the special review use category, where the planners would examine on a case by case basis and who may reject it if there are good grounds.  One such special review use, he said, might be the operation of a dog kennel, where there may be concerns for the neighbors.  “The planners may require conditions for insulation for noise,” he gave as an example.
Jim Lanthier told Mr. West that Tupper Lake needs new businesses, and he said “hopefully there will be a day when we need this new plan!”
Mr. West said the intention of their work is for the community to be ready “when these new things come!”
Mr. Lanthier said a more pressing need for the community is addressing the out of date and deteriorated signs of many businesses here- particularly those on Demars Blvd.
Mr. West new sign guidelines will be part of any new zoning ordinance here.
Retired high school principal Jim Ellis, a long time member of the planning board here who worked extensively on the 1990 revision to the current laws said the APA staffers were instrumental in achieving those revisions.
There are still many flaws, including the fact timber harvesting is a use found in every land use category, he told Mr. West.
The biggest challenge with zoning, he said, is administration. “You can have the best plan,” but you need enforcement.  He said one building inspector for the entire community is not enough.
“There's nothing new in the world of zoning...unless you administer it properly,  you lose!”
He recommended submitting any new zoning and land use law to the APA for its adoption, so the community can obtain jurisdiction over what the state agency calls Class B-sized development projects.
On the issue of enforcement, Mr. West said that “with small staffs, there's only so much you can enforce!”
Little Wolf Lake resident David Reed asked if the new code would have less rules to follow.
Mr. West said it wouldn't- only it would be simplified.  “We don't want to throw out the important things...just to make sure the process is as clear as possible.”
“Is the goal to get an APA-approved plan?” Mr. Reed pressed.
“This is an APA-approved plan, as it currently exists,” Mr. Ellis told him.
Wes Jennings said a lot can be learned by the examination of other communities' zoning plans.  “In Albany, for example, every business must leave 20% of the property green!”
Mr. West said that generally zoning effects new construction and major changes to a parcel.  “The way zoning works is that whatever is there before adoption (of a new or revised ordinance) can continue!”
Most things in the village right now don't comply with minimum lot sizes in the code, he said.  “They are called existing non-conforming!”
Pointing to the uptown business district between Stewart's and Wawbeek Quick Stop, Planning Board Chairman Shawn Stuart wondered what is the purpose in that area of establishing a minimum lot size, since no place complies.  “What's wrong with a tiny store?”  The more the better for the community, he stated.
Mr. West figured the community might want to look instead at setting maximum sizes of lots in business districts, so one large firm couldn't buy an entire block “and put up a huge store.”
Mr. Stuart wondered that within the current zoning, if someone could build a new store in the vacant lot beside Trillium Florists- given the required set backs and parking requirements, even in the current law.
Mr. West thought someone could, with the current processes in place.
Betty Woods thought there should be a category in  any new zoning code for churches and public services buildings.
She was told in the current code they are called “assembly”- defined as places where people gather.
Mr. West said that the various definitions in the existing code- many of which may be outdated- would be examined for clarity.
Realtor Rob Gillis called for the creation of more commercial zones- and particularly the entire route from the village down Route 30 to Moody where the Adirondack Club and Resort will be built.
“All of Moody should be commercial/residential all the way to Blue Jay Campsite,” Mr. Gillis reasoned, saying the entire corridor is serviced with village sewer and water.
Mr. West called Rob's point a good one, saying the availability of water and sewer services should always be part of lot-size and use  discussions in zoning.
Mr. Gillis said there should also  changes made with building set-backs in the various zoning codes, most of which, he said,  are not realistic here.
The consultant suggested the community may want to consider asking the APA to make the Moody corridor part of the less restrictive “hamlet” zoning, like the village.
“You may want to ask the APA for a map amendment, now that there are sewer and water services there!”
Planning board member Bob Collier suggested that things like sign and lighting rules be “addressed more broadly” and perhaps separately than just in the code.
Mr. West thought they could be.  He said a planning board typically looks at the plan, with respect to the code and any additional guidelines in play.  “A board can approve a project that does not meet all the it has the power to enforce or not enforce certain ones.”
Jim Ellis also recommended there be only one zoning board which grants variance to the code here in the details of the revised plan, rather than separate village and town ones.
Jim Lanthier suggested the group look at the recent changes Lake Placid and Saranac Lake made to their codes.  “They are quite good!” he told him.
Mr. West said the group would examine their laws in the study process.
There were cards distributed that evening for people to jot down their ideas and letters can be sent to either the town or the village.
As a final exercise that evening the attendees were encouraged to write down all the “permitted uses” they thought should be included in the four main commercial/residential zones and also those types of business that should be examined as a special review use, which requires both planning board and public scrutiny.
Mr. West called that evening's room full of people “a great turnout.”  Typically in many communities, he said, you have to pull teeth to get people to attend.