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Ancram Town Board dithers over plan for its plan

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ANCRAM–Conflicting advice from two experts seems to have the Town Board wondering how to proceed now that the final version of the town’s new Comprehensive Plan is complete.

In July, the new plan was handed over to the board by the committee that worked for 26 months to develop it. At the September 17 Town Board meeting, some board members said before they will take the next step, they need more time to review the new plan–even though they attended Comprehensive Plan meetings and received updates all along the way.

Part of their hesitation may be connected to what they’ve heard from Town Attorney Jason Shaw and from the town’s Comprehensive Plan consultant, Nan Stolzenburg of Community Planning & Environmental Associates in Berne, each of whom reached different conclusions based on the same section of Town Law regarding the “effect of adoption of town comprehensive plan.”

Section 272-A, subsection 11, states, “All town land use regulations must be in accordance with a  comprehensive plan adopted pursuant to this section.”

Mr. Shaw advised the board that the new plan and the accompanying zoning revisions must be adopted at the same time. If the Comprehensive Plan is adopted now and the revisions to the zoning law are adopted two years from now, the two will not be in agreement for those two years, he said in a phone interview Tuesday. Lawsuits have been filed over such inconsistencies seeking to strike down the zoning laws, he said.

“The bottom line is everyone worked really hard on the plan,” he said, describing the committee as intelligent people “with vision, who want to see the fruits of their labor happen. I think most people do, it’s just a matter of when.”

Ms. Stolzenburg, AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners), told The Columbia Paper Tuesday the Comprehensive Plan must be adopted first, so that the zoning revisions that follow can be in accordance with the plan.

“New York State law says all land use regulations must be consistent with an adopted Comprehensive Plan,” she said. The plan “is the policy and the reason for doing the zoning.

“When it’s done together, the zoning ends up driving the Comprehensive Plan,” she said. And that undermines the plan’s land use goals. “Zoning is the legal expression of the goals the community set in the Comprehensive Plan,” said Ms. Stolzenberg.

Another reason the Comprehensive Plan should be adopted first is logistical, said Ms. Stolzenburg. “Rezoning can be complicated, emotional, controversial and sometimes goes on for years,” leaving the Comprehensive Plan unimplemented.

“The Comprehensive Plan is way more than zoning” and contains many programs not related to land use that the town could work on, such as, economic development, hamlet revitalization, affordable housing, grant writing and trail development, Ms. Stolzenburg said.

Councilman James Miller, who served on the committee, called on his fellow board members at the September meeting, saying “overwhelming support” for the Comprehensive Plan was expressed at an August 31 public hearing, “why not adopt it?”

Town Supervisor Tom Dias said he thought the board had already agreed to wait on passing the Comprehensive Plan until zoning revisions were complete.

Councilwoman Donna Hoyt said she was not done going through the Comprehensive Plan and had not decided what the best alternative was–to adopt the plan first or not.

Councilman John MacArthur also said he wanted more time to review the plan.

Councilman Robert Mayhew said the Town Board had heard from some people who have “problems” with the plan.”

Mrs. Hoyt and Mr. Miller said he had not seen any such communications, though Supervisor Dias said he had put copies of them in everyone’s packet.

No letters in opposition to the plan ever appeared, but there was a petition signed by 64 residents, who did not oppose the plan but called for their concerns to be addressed. Among the concerns listed were: streamlining the review and permit process; allowing gravel mining; ridgeline protection; density control; and excessive regulation.

Mr. Miller pointed out that several steps remain before the plan can be adopted by resolution, such as, public hearings, review by the county Planning Board and a State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) determination.

A zoning revision committee must be appointed and a Comprehensive Plan implementation management process developed.

Town Historian Clara VanTassel asked how much the town had paid Ms. Stolzenburg, and when Comprehensive Plan Committee Chairman Art Bassin said the amount was $33,000, Mrs. VanTassel questioned why the board had paid her that amount and was not following her recommendation.

The town allotted a total budget of $60,000 to be used to develop the Comprehensive Plan over 3 years, so far, about $57,000 has been spent. The 9-members committee worked on the plan sometimes twice a week beginning in April 2007, and hundreds of residents participated in workshops and answered a townwide survey; reviews, analyses and studies were conducted and mapping done.

The final draft offers a recommended “Top 6 Zoning Improvements,” which are: protect open space, provide lot size flexibility, make zoning more business friendly, expand affordable housing, use common sense design standards and site plan review.

Mr. Bassin said by email that he thinks the board should finish its review, make whatever changes it wants, adopt the plan, then do the zoning. He said the remaining steps in the process toward adoption will probably take 90 days.

The issues raised in the recent petition had come up earlier and most will be “dealt with and clarified during the zoning revisions process,” said Mr. Bassin.

“I think the delays we are seeing are designed to have that final review and adoption effort done after the election, perhaps by the town board elected in November, which is not an unreasonable thing to do,” Mr. Bassin wrote. He is running against Mr. Dias for town supervisor.

Ms. Stolzenburg praised the work of the committee, saying they “gave everything a lot of thought” and made an effort “to educate and inform the public every step of the way. It was more than most communities do.”

Supervisor Dias did not respond to either a phone call or email for additional comments for this story.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.com

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