Ordinary Citizens Concerned

Greenwich Citizen's Committee, Inc.

Greenwich Zoning

Crafting Greenwich's First-Ever Zoning Ordinance

by Tracy Frisch

Carefully navigating between residents' desire to avoid becoming another Clifton Park or Queensbury and a reluctance to restrict what landowners do and have customarily done with their own properties, the Greenwich Town Zoning Commission has been deliberating for more than a year and will soon reach a milestone - crafting the town's first-ever zoning ordinance.

On December 7 approximately 45 people attended an evening public meeting where the zoning commission presented its draft for questions and comments. There will be additional opportunity for community input since the zoning ordinance cannot be adopted without a public hearing.

Last year the town board gave unanimous support for enacting zoning as a step toward implementing Greenwich's 2004 comprehensive plan. Supervisor Don Wilbur and other board members have been following the commission's progress and it seems likely that the ordinance will be approved.

A main thrust of the zoning document is to "protect people from big things that are transformative," according to Bill Tomkins, a HUD planner who chairs both the zoning commission and planning board. The "big things" he was referring to are ubiquitous manifestations of suburbia like big-box stores and large-scale residential developments.

In contrast to the restrictive treatment given to these larger development projects, the ordinance goes easy on less dramatic, homegrown forms of growth, like several lot subdivisions - even though numerous rural property owners subdividing off small numbers of house lots could also cumulatively push the town over the tipping point into suburbia.

Those who voiced objections at the meeting to specific aspects of the document generally made constructive suggestions. A couple of people offered recommendations outside of the scope of zoning - including a village resident who called for a referendum on the document. In response, he was told that the state attorney general has issued the opinion that zoning ordinances cannot legally be put to a public vote.

Discouraging large projects that could reshape the community

The draft zoning ordinance caps new stores at 60,000 square feet (1-1/2 acres). This is 20 percent larger than the Hannaford in Greenwich and much smaller than a Wal-mart. The zoning commission received more public support for this cap than for any other provision after its first public meeting last spring.

The ordinance also sets forth architectural design guidelines, primarily for commercial buildings, to protect community character and to promote a walkable, village-like commercial district.

Other requirements would seem to discourage developers from building large, residential subdivisions. At the least, these regulations would tend to significantly reduce the number of units possible on a parcel, depending on its topography, hydrology, and other features.

The entire rural agricultural (RA) zone, which constitutes roughly 90 percent of the town, would become a critical environmental area. This designation under the State Environmental Quality Review Act establishes a higher level of environmental review for subdivisions of five or more lots.

Then, in lieu of setting a minimum lot size, which planning consultant Stuart Mesinger of The Chazen Companies and commission chair Bill Tomkins say would serve as a blueprint for development, lots in the RA zone must have at least 300 feet of road frontage (see exemptions below). The theory is that the cost of road construction - $200 to $300 per linear foot or $30,000 or more per lot - would discourage developers, though the jury is out on the extent to which this prediction would hold true.

Development is to be avoided or "appropriately mitigated" on environmentally sensitive sites, such as those with slopes more than 15 percent, shallow bedrock, a high water table, in wetlands and their buffers, on ridgelines, or important agricultural soils. And in order to limit the impacts on schools and community services, no more than five building permits for new houses could be issued per year in a given subdivision.

Allowing customary uses and small subdivisions

The commission has strived to avoid interfering with the customary rights of landowners to do what they wish with their property. For instance, home occupations would be allowed in most parts of the town, with the level of review and regulation commensurate with the intensity of use and the potential impact on neighbors.

On the question of how much subdivision should be allowed, the commission recognized that for some, land serves as a retirement or savings account, and these landowners expect to subdivide and possibly develop when the time comes. Partly for this reason, the zoning ordinance exempts the first four new lots in each parcel from the 300-foot road frontage requirement.

Tomkins explained that he favors this type and rate of development because in his view its pace allows people to be absorbed into the community, rather than the community being changed by the development.

However, this pattern of development could accelerate and potentially overwhelm the rural fabric. There are plenty of parcels from which lots could be subdivided. According to Kellie Blake in the town assessor's office, Greenwich has 460 parcels over 10 acres. Presumably most are in the RA district and many of these would have adequate sites for septic leach fields and wells, and would be eligible for the up-to-four-lot exemption [see sidebar below].

Protecting farmland and agriculture

Teri Ptacek, executive director of the Agricultural Stewardship Association (as well as others), called on the commission to strengthen protection for farmland. She is concerned that even small-scale residential development impacts the viability of agriculture.

Besides agriculture, forestry, and rural residences, many other uses are allowed in the RA zone. Some of these could usurp important farmland or create other impediments, such as traffic, to agriculture. With a special use permit, offices, nursing homes, hospitals, retail, and self-storage facilities - among other types of businesses - could operate in the RA zone. In addition, under existing law, "manufactured home parks" are allowed.

Ptacek explained that all soils are not created equal. She said that the large, flat fields and black soils of the Bald Mountain area have some of the finest soils in Washington County. She suggested an incentive overlay district where a tax abatement or bonus would encourage any residential development to be clustered, in order to leave the majority of the good farmland available for agriculture.

Clustering houses to protect open space not encouraged

Clustering is a planning concept that prevents whole parcels from being broken up into housing lots and keeps the vast majority of land in a parcel open and protected by situating houses close together.

The Greenwich comprehensive plan recommends that the town "require the presentation of a clustering alternative for subdivisions in excess of a specified number of lots." But the zoning commission has been uneasy with putting this requirement into the zoning ordinance. Recently, this requirement was weakened to simply allow the planning board to request such a plan.

Anne Casselman suggested that Greenwich have an open space specialist look at the zoning ordinance. Zoning commission member Tammara Van Ryn responded by noting that Greenwich is not being proactive about protecting its open space resources.*

Protecting rivers and wetlands

Representing the Battenkill Conservancy, Ann Whalen opened audience comments by thanking the commission for creating buffers to protect the Battenkill and Hudson Rivers. She urged stronger protection for these and other waterways and for wetlands.

The draft zoning ordinance prohibits all structures within 100 feet of the high water mark of these rivers and protects all vegetation within a 35-foot buffer zone. Tree cutting is regulated for an additional 65 feet, with the cutting of half the trees in this zone allowed every seven years. Whalen believes that allowing a 20-foot-wide swath to be mowed to the river's edge is excessive. A narrow footpath should be sufficient for access.

Whalen also suggested that the commission add a clause to prohibit modifying the "natural state" of these rivers through dredging, drainage, or filling except for DEC-approved restoration.

The zoning map codifies historic settlement patterns on the banks of the Battenkill and Hudson. While it is no accident that mills developed on these waterways, riverside sites are "not ideal for mixed use," noted Whalen.

Kathleen Bartholomay represents the Thomson-Clarks Mills Residents Committee for a Heritage Corridor on the west end of Greenwich. She wondered why the town's major natural resources - the Battenkill and Hudson and their streams and wetlands - were left out of the critical environmental area. (The town of Easton includes the rivers in its CEA.) She also objected to designating Thompson as a hamlet and therefore zoning it for mixed use when it is entirely residential.

Richie and Lynne Bittner, who live on State Route 29, pointed out that a property almost next to theirs had been zoned erroneously as industrial, perhaps because Hollingsworth and Vose is the owner. Richie said that the only industry on "this beautiful spot" during the last 20 years has been growing corn. He suspected that the mill had bought the land as a buffer from neighbors. In this case, the zoning commission chair promised to look at the site and to reconsider.

*Other communities facing development pressure have inventoried their open space assets. They create open space plans and overlay districts showing the location of important farmland, fragile ecosystems, and other open space resources to be protected. Such a process has begun in Saratoga County. Some municipalities also require that all new subdivisions be clustered.


Why not cap the number of lots?

Greenwich's draft zoning ordinance, as written, neither puts a limit on how many times a rural parcel could be subdivided nor a cap on how many lots could be carved out of a given parcel. The first type of limit would encourage landowners to plan ahead. The second type of cap could be on a sliding scale based on acreage and other factors.

The Town of Easton uses such a system to protect land in its agricultural area. Easton's approach does not require a minimum lot size, and often, new lots are just a couple acres, sufficient for a residential well and septic, leaving most of the parcel to remain in agriculture or open space.