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Ancram looks to balance ridgelines and property rights

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ANCRAM—If a house on top of a hill where everyone can see it is what you dream of, perhaps you should dream of building that house somewhere else.

The continuation of a public hearing on Zoning Revisions Package 4 focused on ridgeline protection and drew some criticism from landowners and real estate agents prior to the regular Town Board meeting last month.

Opponents say the proposed ridgeline regulations will infringe on landowners’ rights to do what they want with their property, cut property values and cause buyers to look for land in less restrictive areas. But those are not the results nearby Hillsdale has seen.

The ridgeline protection regulations are part of the latest package of zoning ordinance revisions to be submitted to the Town Board by the Zoning Revisions Committee (ZRC), which has been meeting since March 2010 to revise the town’s 41-year-old zoning ordinance to coincide with the vision, goals and strategies of the Comprehensive Plan adopted in April 2010.

Councilman Hugh Clark, who also serves as ZRC chair, said during the board meeting that ridgelines designated for protection were chosen according to Comprehensive Plan guidelines based on “topographical prominence and scenic importance” not elevation. He defended the process of ridgeline selection not as arbitrary, but “quite objective. Was there judgment involved? Absolutely.” He said the ZRC’s aim was to strike a balance between the rights of property owners and the rights of those looking at the structures built on ridgelines. “It’s not an unusual concept,” he said, noting the matter has been the subject of court cases.

Councilman Chris Thomas said he was conflicted over the issue of taking away the rights of private property owners who had envisioned building where there is a view. Property owners must be notified of such a “drastic change that will hinder them,” said Mr. Thomas, adding that he would not be in favor of making such a change without the notifications. “I’d be angry if I wasn’t notified.”

Councilman Jim Miller called the regulations, “a little restrictive” and noted that from his place he can see “six houses on ridgelines that would be in violation” of the proposal.

The proposed regulation calls for the top of the roof of a structure to be a least 35 feet below the protected ridgeline or 500 feet distant from the ridgeline. The wording does not make clear that the maximum 500-foot horizontal setback only kicks in if the 35-foot vertical setback cannot be met. Public comments led officials to believe that part of the regulation was not understood. Standards for lighting, tree cutting, structure color and roads/driveways are also part of the ridgeline protection measure.

ZRC member Donna Hoyt said that the point of the regulation is to protect the ridgeline, not to prohibit building. She said a way to make the law “more palatable” may be to designate protected ridgelines based on elevation rather than scenic value or prominence.

“A lot of things look good on paper, but there has to be a way of not hurting some people to help other people,” said Mrs. Hoyt.

Real Estate Broker Drew Hingson, a vocal opponent of the regulation who spoke during the public hearing, also submitted a five-page letter on the subject. He pointed out that “Ancram already has more land in the two principal area land trusts percentage-wise than any other town in Columbia County,” making the town’s ridgeline regulation unnecessary because a considerable amount of the “conserved land overlaps” and is contained in the area designated for protection.

Mr. Hingson said the proposed regulation directly “assaults” real estate values of ridgeline landowners and indirectly affects all town residents. He estimated the devaluation at 30 to 50% over time.

Columbia Land Conservancy Executive Director Peter Paden confirmed that Ancram has the most acres protected by conservation easements in Columbia County at “just shy of 6,000.”

In second place with about 4,800 acres is Stuyvesant, he said.

But Mr. Hingson’s prediction about a downward spiral of land values has not proven true in Hillsdale where a ridgeline protection law has been in place since 2007. Town Planning Board Chairman Howard Henward who was part of the committee that prepared the document, told The Columbia Paper that Hillsdale’s Ridgeline Overlay District includes everything at least 1,100 feet in elevation.

The local law that established the overlay district also includes sections on ridgeline protection, clear-cutting, driveways and building on steep slopes.

The law pertains to all building proposed above 1,100 feet “unless the construction is not visible from any public road,” said Mr. Henward.

Proposed activity or development within the ridgeline overlay district “will be at least 40 feet below the crest line of any ridge and will not disturb the continuity of the tree line when viewed from any publicly accessible road… The only portions of a structure that may project higher than 40 feet below the crest line shall be a chimney, satellite dish, antenna, or cupola, which shall not be higher than 30 feet below the crest line,” according to the law.

“The law does not prevent construction but sets out rules for how that would occur and reduce visual impact,” said Mr. Henward.

The Ridgeline Overlay District covers between 25 and 30% of the town’s land with the predominant areas running north/south along the eastern edge and down through the middle. Unlike Copake and Ancram to the south, Hillsdale’s mountainous eastern edge is not part of the Taconic State Park.

Since the ridgeline district was established six years ago, land within it has “absolutely not lost value” according to sales price information from the assessor’s office, Mr. Henward said. It is land in the valleys that has remained flat or decreased in value, he noted. A number of ridgeline subdivisions have gone forward in recent years. The Planning Board works with applicants on the ground rules, such as establishing screening, he said, “there’s no fundamental reason why [ridgeline properties] would be adversely impacted.”

The Ancram Town Board adopted zoning revision package 4 excluding the ridgeline protection section at its February meeting. Town Supervisor Art Bassin said research needs to be done into what other town’s have done in the way of ridgeline protection and what they have experienced; the effect of ridgeline protection on property values and buyer preferences.

Since then the ZRC has also been reviewing the ridgeline protection regulation in light of public comment at its weekly meetings.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

 

 

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