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Zoning Ping-Pong in Greenwich

by Tracy Frisch

The January 4 meeting of the Town of Greenwich Zoning Commission was unusually tense and contentious, as significant elements of the zoning ordinance were revisited. In some cases previously agreed upon decisions were undone or changed by the zoning commission.

This three-hour meeting took place exactly four weeks after the zoning commission held a public meeting on its almost completed draft of the town zoning ordinance. The 11-member volunteer commission has been working on the zoning draft for roughly 16 months. Zoning is a step toward implementing the town's 2004 comprehensive plan.

At the December 7 public meeting, the zoning document was generally well-received by the community. For the most part, citizens urged strengthening, rather than weakening, the proposed land use controls.

Given this community reaction, several observers and zoning commission members were surprised and dismayed by the tone and content of the discussion at the January 4 meeting. Attendance at that meeting included Supervisor Don Wilbur and three other town board members (the zoning ordinance must be approved by the town board), a handful of concerned citizens, and several businesspeople concerned about how property they own would be zoned.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the recent changes and disputed issues, as well as on the entire zoning ordinance, at an official hearing at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, February 1 in the primary school cafeteria, or by written comment.

Public input is solicited particularly on those issues on which the commission cannot agree. For more background, download the optional zoning issues discussion and map files at www.greenwichny.org.

Size Matters - Commercial Zone Expanded and Store Size Cap

Prominent among the disputed issues are the size of the commercial zone (expanded significantly at the January meeting) and the previously decided cap on store size (almost overturned at that meeting). According to zoning commission member Annie Miller, "These are two measures [as previously agreed to] intended to reduce big-box sprawl and, in my opinion, are central to achieving the goal of a commercial area that looks like a town and not like Latham."

Three parcels were added to the commercial zone, resulting in a considerable increase in its area. The commission voted to add a very large property belonging to Joseph and Eleanor Facin on the east side of Route 40 north of Hannaford. Kyle McPhail, who owns the self-storage in Middle Falls, convinced the commission to also extend the commercial zone west along Route 29. Two parcels he owns, the current post office and the parcel behind it, were added.

Jeff Duxbury (planning board and zoning commission member) and Supervisor Wilbur were particularly vocal about increasing the store size cap to as much as 120,000 square feet (almost three acres). This is double the 60,000-square-foot size that the commission had agreed to at two or three previous meetings after exhaustive discussion and by consensus or a solid majority (by comparison Hannaford is 48,000 square feet). The higher size cap would make Greenwich more attractive to big-box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target. Public comments on the store size cap have been overwhelmingly in favor of the lower, 60,000-square-foot cap.

Protecting the Best Farmland, Bald Mountain Hamlet, and River Tributaries

Also open to discussion is the question of whether to protect the town's best farmland, located in the Bald Mountain area. One approach to conserving this important farmland is an overlay district with a sliding subdivision rule (based on parcel size) like Easton uses. The zoning ordinance currently lacks any special provisions to protect these good soils.

The commission also seeks input on the new Bald Mountain hamlet/mixed use zone it created at the January meeting. Located at the junction of Lowber and Anthony Roads, the Bald Mountain hamlet is currently strictly residential and has excellent agricultural soils. Making it a hamlet allows for denser development and a wider range of uses by not leaving it in the rural agricultural zone. Supervisor Wilbur, whose family farmland is in Bald Mountain, suggested this hamlet.

Battenkill Conservancy, Battenkill Watershed Alliance, and Trout Unlimited recommended that river and stream protection be strengthened. The commission reaffirmed the 100-foot building set back for the Battenkill and Hudson and decided to make this 100-foot buffer zone a Critical Environmental Area under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. It did not decide whether to protect tributaries of the two rivers and welcomes public input on this issue.

Other Issues

Reconsidering how to zone two separate parcels along the Battenkill was the touchy item that opened the meeting. In both cases nearby residents objected to zoning them industrial, just because they belonged to a paper manufacturer.

For the parcel in farmland on Route 29, the commission did not agree to change its zoning, but asked planning consultant Stuart Mesinger to contact owner Hollingsworth and Vose. This could set a dangerous precedent, warned one of a few commission members who objected to asking owners how to zone their land. After the meeting, it was found that Hollingsworth and Vose does not want an industrial designation for this buffer property, so the matter will go back to the commission. The other property on Pulp Mill Road was changed to hamlet/mixed use.

In the rural agricultural zone, although the exemption of the first four lots from the 300-foot road frontage requirement has been called a big loophole, the commission decided not to act to alter this provision.

The commission also increased advance notice for planning and zoning board hearings from 5 to 10 days, reaffirmed its designation of Thompson/Clark Mills as a hamlet/mixed use zone, and decided that the zoning ordinance is not an appropriate place for incentives or other special provisions for affordable housing.

SIDEBAR

Will Bigger Stores Be Good for the Tax Base?
by Tracy Frisch

Contrary to what some people have been led to believe, increasing the allowable size of stores—to as much as three acres—would not be good for Greenwich's tax base.

First, big retail establishments (like other new or reconstructed commercial and industrial buildings) would receive a partial tax abatement on property taxes under 486-B of the NYS Real Property tax law. Like most local government units, in Greenwich, the town, village, and school district have each opted into this program that cuts tax payments by 50 percent the first year, with declining abatements for a total of 10 years. According to Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute, the design lifetime of a big-box store is only 11 years (6 years less than a fast food restaurant)!

Second, studies show that municipal services - including roads and public safety - required by big-box stores tend to cost far more than the corporation contributes in local taxes. Fees for water and sewer don't include the capital costs for expansion and improvements. A 2006 national study of crime in more than 500 Wal-Mart stores documented their high and costly incidence of police calls.

Third, Greenwich would not get to keep the sales tax collected from a huge store, just like it doesn't keep sales tax from the stores it has now. In Washington County the local share of sales taxes are kept by the county, except for a small percentage ($1 million out of approximately $15 million) distributed to municipalities based on population.

Most important, big-box stores cannibalize existing businesses, decreasing the viability and tax contributions of independent merchants and other local businesses. We stand to lose good employers, generous civic donors, and involved community leaders in exchange for businesses that send their profits to faraway corporate headquarters and that lack any allegiance to southern Washington County.