2011-02-09 / Front Page

Zoning: Public Hearing Part I

Staff Reports

At the Haldane School gym on Wednesday night, a crowd of about 75 Philipstown residents gathered for the first installment of the public hearing on the proposed overhaul of the town zoning law. Public comment varied from overt criticism, to minor suggestions, to ringing praise for the town board and the document that has been years in the works.

Supervisor Richard Shea started the discussion by addressing a “hot button issue,” the Historic Preservation Overlay, which raised many eyebrows and created a good deal of controversy when it was added to the proposed law late in 2010.

The overlay provided the opportunity for owners of parcels 15 acres or larger, containing a property designated as part of the National Register of Historic Places, to convert former residences into certain businesses, such as a spa.  

However, concerned citizens pointed out that only one property in the town seems to meet those stipulations, leading many to proclaim this as a case of special treatment.

“I think there was some misperception about this being done so late in the process,” Shea said. “Do you think we would bring it this far, and then try and sneak something in at the end and derail the process? It just wouldn’t make sense.”

Shea explained that the owners of the large piece of land in question approached the town with the request to use their property for commercial use since it was no longer a private residence. “That was the kick-off for the discussion,” Shea said. “It wasn’t doing favors for someone. It was as if another member of the Philipstown community came in, just as many have, and said ‘I have this issue, can you address it?’ And we thought it was important to be able to address it. It’s important to be able to use historic properties in this town.”

Addressing the public’s question of why 15 acres became a requirement, Shea said that the board felt it was important to provide a buffer between residences and a building used for commercial use.

Albert Butzel, an attorney forCitizensofPhilipstown.org, which has become the home of those with criticisms of the rezoning in whole or in part, encouraged the town board to reconsider the acreage requirement.

Butzel, who represented environmental interests in the 1965 battle to prevent ConEdison from blasting away the side of Storm King Mountain, said his clients were otherwise generally  pleased with the proposed law--a shock to some, given the concerns many of the organization's members have expressed during the past year.

Public comments

Glenn Watson of Badey & Wattson Surveying and Engineering surprised many with his studied skepticism of the proposed law. Watson, who frequently appears before the planning board on behalf of residents, is widely seen as the best expert on the town’s current zoning law. He pointed out that there has not been any real population growth in the town since the 1970s, when the current zoning law was adopted. But the build-out analysis prepared  for the town by environmental planning firm GreenPlan warns that if the current zoning is kept in place, the town will become overpopulated.

“I am fairly resigned to the fact that we are getting a new zoning law,”  Watson said. “Therefore, I would like to see the reasons really articulated in terms of numbers as opposed to euphemisms.”

Many have criticized the impartiality of GreenPlan’s analysis, which was paid for on behalf of the town by the Hudson Highlands Land Trust. The Trust has supported the rezoning every step of the way.

Architect and resident Ming Wang got straight to the point, telling the board how the new 80 percent open space requirements of the law will affect her and her husband. “I protest the proposed zoning because it would effectively take away my rights to a parcel of 80 acres for which I paid tax for over 30 years,” she said. “Both my husband and I are architects and have dreams to develop ecologically sensitive green housing. This proposed zoning will impose a conservation overlay on my land, declaring the measure for ‘the good of our community.’”

“Is this fair?” she added. “Can the government force me to voluntarily donate so much land for open space and forfeit my right to develop? For those who desire more open space, they can purchase additional acreage to create open space at their own expense.”

Andrew Chmar, director of the Hudson Highland’s Land Trust and a retired Army colonel, sang a different tune, encouraging the board to “move swiftly toward adoption.”

He explained that his enthusiasm for the document comes from his and his wife’s military backgrounds, the two of them living in a combined 30 different communities.

Philipstown business owner Cathy DiSalvo expressed concern over the clarity of the document when she asked the board and its zoning lawyer, Joel Russell, how her business would be classified under the proposed law. Russell was able to say what he thought the classification would be, but could not provide a definitive answer.

“If you, who wrote the law, don’t know the answer, then how am I supposed to know?” DiSalvo asked. The 2006 Comprehensive Plan had called for the town to create a simpler zoning law that was easier to understand.

Russell said that he was being put on the spot, citing lack of information about the business, and tried to clarify some of the language that DiSalvo thought was unclear.

Butzel, the lawyer forCitizensofPhilipstown.org, addressed the board on behalf of his clients. “Their concern was that the proposal would, in one way or another, restrict existing businesses,” he said.

Butzel thanked the board for incorporating all but one of the provisions that he drafted into the plan. “Needless to say, we are very pleased this has taken place,” he said.

Another attorney to speak on behalf of someone else was Micci J. Weiss, representing T-mobile. Weiss said the town’s proposed zoning law had conflicts with state and federal law that could affect his client’s ability to construct cell towers.

F.J. Spinelli, whom Shea referred to as “his neighbor,” very frankly protested the new document.

“In the case of this proposed zoning, there is no science or hard facts that support the proponents,” he said.

When Andree Monroe, a member of the Philipstown Republican Committee, listed her concerns about the rezoning, the town board of four Democrats and one Republican was unusually silent. Shea simply called for the next speaker.

After two hours, and a total of 20 speakers, the board voted four to one to keep the public hearing open and continue taking public comments next Wednesday at Town Hall.  Shea and Councilwoman Nancy Montgomery were of the opinion that the board had heard enough public comment to close the hearing, but Shea ultimately voted with council members John Van Tassel, Betty Budney, and Barbara Scuccimarra to keep the hearing open.

The board will continue taking public comment until the end of the month, and a meeting will be held March 9 to review all comments. Shea said that citizens will have ample time, once the final changes have been made, to review the document before it is put to vote by the town board. It has now been nearly 18 months since the first draft of the document was released to the public.

Look for further coverage of Wednesday’s meeting in next week’s PCN&R.

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