by Dan McClelland
Town leaders made it very clear Thursday that any adoption of the proposed and revised zoning ordinance is a long ways off and will be adopted by local boards only after extensive study and review.
Attending that night's monthly town meeting were about a dozen citizens, most of whom were troubled by the zoning proposal released in May.
Supervisor Patti Littlefield welcomed the people, telling them that while most meetings permit members of the public to make comments to the board for up to five minutes, the public input time that evening would be limited to about two minutes a person, given the numbers in attendance.
She asked the group's permission to be the first person to speak in that night's public comment session.
“I have a good idea of why you are all here. Regarding the zoning update plan presented at a public meeting in May and again in July, it is a joint village and town project.” She said Town Councilman John Quinn, who served on the 13-member volunteer public advisory committee (PAC) which worked with the consultants to formulate the new zoning law proposal, and Attorney Kirk Gagnier would detail some of the changes that evening after she was done.
She said the first meeting drew a good crowd as did the second one last month, organized to give summer residents a chance to hear about the proposal and the work done by the drafters.
“I understand there's a lot of people shook up about the campsite business,” she said of the time restrictions in the new plan for occupying recreational trailers in the town each summer and fall.
“This is the very, very, very beginning of reviewing” the current proposal. “This is in no way going to become effective in the near future. We have a long way to go before that happens!”
She said she welcomes the community “getting involved” in the process by reading the 140-page document and comparing it to the existing law.
“Thank you all for coming. I hope that everyone who has something to say formally will do so respectfully. We're not here to point fingers or make trouble for anyone! We're here to be intelligent-speaking adults” talking about what we feel about the new code draft. “Remember, it's a draft!”
“This board as well as the village board have not even been presented formally with this draft to review it. We will do this soon.”
She said she recently penned a letter to Mayor Paul Maroun, to the PAC members and to the two code enforcement officers “to sit down soon as a group and review all the parts of the draft, so we all have a better understanding of it. No one understands all of this thing cover to cover, unless you have lived with it in past months.”
She said most people here don't know the draft document or the original law well at this point in the discussion process.
“Both boards will review it intensely before any action is taken.” Before it is ever adopted, however, it will come before the public in one or more public hearings “so the public will have many opportunities to make comments on the next version.”
She called the draft document “the very first draft.”
She asked those in the room to cite their concerns, noting that the entire code wouldn't be dissected that night piece by piece. “That's the purpose of the public hearing(s).”
She held up a new red folder where she said the town board would keep all the written comments of people here for its later review. She presented her business card carrying her e-mail address for people to e-mail the town with their questions and concerns. E-mails should also be sent to Mayor Maroun, she advised.
“So when it come time for review by both boards, and possibly another committee, we will have written information we can rely on,” as opposed to verbal comments. “When things are in writing, we can refer back to them. Put your comments in writing...we want to review them all!”
Councilman John Quinn said the town and village zoning and planning boards, plus the code officers, have for years “expressed deficiency with a lot of the existing land use code. It's out of date, it's years old, it shouldn't be a static document, but it is!”
He said they wanted a code that was more “dynamic” and could be easily updated regularly “to bring it into the 21st century.
“Hearing this we, the town board, discussed with Melissa McManus, who works for the village as a consultant, about getting grant funding to hire professional land use/zoning experts to take a look at our code, make recommendations, work with a local committee (the PAC).”
He said the committee, of which he was a member, went “line by line” through the consultants' proposals. There was a kick-off meeting last year with good local press coverage. That was followed by another public information meeting in May and another in July.
“There were many thoughtful comments” at both the recent meetings.
“The PAC met again to discuss the comments that had been made. We tweaked it further. The PAC is local citizen volunteers, who included people on the planning board, local code enforcement officers, school district employees, a local attorney and a few citizens at large.”
The goal of the PAC members, he said, was to take “a common sense” look at the work of the consultant.
“We went through the earlier drafts and made comments” to the consultants.
“It was very informal...no one was a professional (land use expert) who served on the PAC. If we were to hold these volunteer organization to have agendas and minutes of their meetings, you just kill volunteerism here!”
“It's hard enough to get people to come in and take time out of their busy days and read this stuff and work with it.”
The PAC, he said, was not a public body with any decision-making authority. There was also no requirement for a quorum. “Whoever showed up, that was the group that reviewed what we had going on that meeting.”
“If you read the state's open meetings law, there is no requirement for advisory bodies to have minutes (of the meetings). Our minutes were the work product...the draft document which is available on our web site” or from the local code officers.
After the meeting in July, he said, the work of the PAC was essentially finished. “It's product is done...it no longer needs to meet, although there may be merit to reconvene that group or a subset of it to take a look at further changes.”
“It is my understanding that we have a draft code now and we are accepting comments on it or the adoption of it, how long that may be. It will go to the planning board for its review.” Both the town and village attorneys will review it. “Ultimately the planning board will make a recommendation to both boards.” He added before it could local law, it would require both boards to approve it after public hearings.
“So that's how we got from frustration on the part of our planning board and our code officers to something that makes a little more sense and is more modern, not 30 or 40 years old,” he concluded.
When it was Attorney Kirk Gagnier's time to address the group, he said “the biggest thing is don't panic; there's still a long way to go, in terms of this whole process!”
“It's not in the hands of the two boards yet, and it may not be this year!”
The reason there is no hurry in approving the new proposal is that zoning already exists here, the attorney told them.
“The town was fortunate enough to get a grant to look at its code...to hire someone professionally to do that and not have to pay for that work!”
He said these types of consultants work for all sorts of communities- both big and small- across the state. “They look at all the issues, they listen to local people on the advisory board and they come up with a list of recommendations that is a start!”
“That's where we are right now! We are early in the process and there are still a number of things to look at!”
He said the supervisor's request for written public comments “is a good way to go, because it gets to the people” who serve on the town and village boards. Verbal comments often get lost in the mix, he added.
The comments may address things that the consultants or the PAC members never considered, he speculated.
He said those people “can only think of so much. That's one of the things about zoning...you can't create a code or a law that contemplates everything.”
“Having been at some of those meetings, and feeling the spirit there, it's not about hurting businesses or residents or trying to take things away. It's about trying to come up with a land use code that better reflects the new realities today, versus 40 years ago.”
He said in any zoning code there are “pieces that are going to affect people in different ways. Some pieces will be misunderstood.”
Parts of the law will be misinterpreted in different ways and when those things are pointed out they can be fixed, he said of the process ahead.
“Don't panic, because I can tell you it's going to take a long time.”
He said it took Lake Placid five years to update its land use code. “It can be a really long process.”
Mr. Gagnier said the Town of Santa Clara is currently overhauling its land use code, clarifying some things. “The reason officials there are doing this is because some landowners pointed out some things in the code there” that no longer work in that township.
The updating process, he said, is all about local governments and the people working collaboratively to get all the information in any new code so everyone can review it.
“Zoning is not going to go away. It's here and it's here to stay.
“The aim is to refine it so it helps people in the community. That's really the goal!”
He said by the time the process gets to the two boards for a vote, a lot of local people will have had a lot of input and there will have been many changes.
“This isn't about the town or the village trying to ram something down (your throats). It was an opportunity to re-tool something that needed a lot of help!” the town attorney concluded.