Yet Another "Development"
in the Greenwich Zoning Saga
by Tracy Frisch
On March 12 - following two public meetings and a public hearing - the Greenwich Zoning Commission was wrapping up 18 months of deliberations in a joint meeting with the town board when Town Supervisor Don Wilbur casually floated "an idea for consideration." Wilbur suggested that the town rezone some land in the rural agricultural zone to encourage high-density residential development out North Road as far as Derby Road (more than a mile beyond the village line) and out Cottage Street Extension (County Route 52) up to Meader Road. Wilbur added that this was feasible due to the proximity to village water and sidewalks.
While it is unclear how far Wilbur intends to push his rezoning idea, the mere suggestion was provocative. As one resident observed, the idea was a bombshell that set off shock waves throughout the meeting room where 20 spectators had assembled to witness the proceedings.
Large-scale subdivisions along rural roads are a type of development that the zoning commission explicitly sought to avoid when carrying out the mandate of the town's 2004 comprehensive plan. In that plan residents overwhelmingly indicated that they would like to maintain the rural character of Greenwich.
The magnitude of impacts from Wilbur's last-minute proposal could be huge for Greenwich. By reducing the minimum lot size to a half acre (less with public water and/or sewer), it would allow large subdivisions of hundreds of houses, condos, or other units to be built on a single farm or open parcel. This means that large intact properties, which comprise almost 350 acres, could potentially be developed to accommodate more than 1,000 housing units.
Under the proposed zoning ordinance handed over to the town board on March 12, most new lots in the rural agricultural zone must have 300 feet of road frontage, although the first four lots from each parcel are exempt from this requirement.
Wilbur's last-minute proposal flew in the face of painstaking negotiations to fashion the compromises necessary to achieve—what commission member Al Barber termed - "a balanced product." "It's important to keep the whole zoning ordinance in mind," said member Tammara Van Ryn, who subsequently stressed that zoning should be seen as a package, not an a la carte menu to pick and choose from. Changing the boundaries of one zone will throw another zone out of whack, she explained, because the rules for a given zone were deliberately made taking into account its size and what is permitted in other zones.
Supervisor Wilbur and I jointly examined the town tax map to identify which parcels might be available for subdivision in his suggested expansion of the residential zone. A few of the larger parcels could be ruled out for the time being, due to the perceived intentions of their current owners. Prominently remaining from this process of elimination was North Fork Farms, owned by a limited liability corporation whose address is the same as Jamey and Patricia Gibson's residence across the road. These properties are located farther up North Road than the 13-house Queensgate subdivision. In 2005 a realtor listed the approximately 175-acre North Fork property (two parcels) for $1 million as "a horse farm or Major Development Opportunity." It appears to have been taken off the market in July 2006, but son Dustin indicated the family's desire to sell for development at the February public hearing on the zoning ordinance.
Wilbur justified his proposal by invoking the need for affordable housing. He also contended that much of the existing residential zone is already developed.
Zoning commission member John Farndell was one of several who rebutted Wilbur's first rationale. Developers are looking for "the biggest bang for the buck," he explained. To build affordable housing, developers want tax incentives and subsidies - which are beyond the scope of zoning.
Zoning commission chair Bill Tomkins, who chairs the planning board, pointed out that affordable housing is being built on the back roads. He also said that nothing guarantees smaller lots will be affordable.
After Wilbur's proposal was made, Stuart Mesinger of The Chazen Companies was instructed to determine how many building lots could be created for high-density residential development under the proposed zoning ordinance, considering natural resource limitations like floodplains and steep slopes. But he will only look at the build-out potential in the residential zone, and the hamlet/mixed use zone at the start of Cottage Street Extension and probably in Middle Falls.
Mesinger's figures will not answer the critical question of how many building lots the rezoning of North Road and County Route 52 would release for development. And the potential for small residential building lots in the other seven or so designated hamlets, with a half-acre lot minimum (without public water and sewer), and in the rural agricultural zone, will also not be calculated.
By the March 13 town board meeting, the affordable housing argument was downplayed. To refute the fact that residential development almost always requires more community services than property taxes pay for, the possibility of luxury homes was raised.
A final rationale for expanding the residential zone was a slight fall in school enrollment. Town board member Eric Whitehouse warned that class sizes are going down and teaching positions would be eliminated. But last summer Superintendent John McGuire stated that the Greenwich schools could only accommodate approximately 100 more students as long as they are distributed among the grades. The school census has fluctuated between 1,150 and 1,300 students in the last 10 years, and is currently around 1,156, similar to 1997 to 1999 levels.
The zoning commission touched on several other issues before disbanding. Eight members voted to approve the zoning ordinance, with only Jeff Duxbury voting no. Language will be added to the draft ordinance to allow solid waste landfill facilities, likely in the rural agricultural zone, as well as landfills for the sludge generated by the town's paper mills. Town law bans incineration and dewatering plants. Also clarified were how to calculate property setbacks and rules for mailboxes and driveways.
The only stream protection language added to the ordinance at the request of the commission was "or the area adjacent to watercourses." Recommending an ounce of prevention, Battenkill Watershed Alliance board member Peter Hetko stated, "Your fear of over-regulation is outweighing your prudence. If you rely on the biological expertise and good intentions of whatever planning board you have at the time, you're in dangerous waters."
The town board has the ultimate say on the zoning ordinance and is able to make unilateral changes. Their next regular meeting is 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, April 10 in the town building. Before zoning can become law, the town must comply with the State Environmental Quality Review Act, refer the ordinance to the county planning board, and hold a public hearing. Minimum notice for a public hearing in Greenwich is five business days.