CHATHAM–A larger crowd than usual showed up for the Town Board meeting last Thursday. The crowd was so large–about 100–that the meeting was moved from the Town Hall on Route 295 to the East Chatham Firehouse. Most people where there to denounce the board’s proposed new zoning law, though there were some supporters too.
The board had planned to vote on the proposed new law at the June 20 meeting after board members’ statements were made, but due to a discrepancy involving state law, the Town Board must make a change and then wait ten business days before voting on the revised proposal.
“There will be no vote,” Supervisor Maria Lull said at the meeting. She and all the board members read their statements about why they planned to vote to approve the proposed zoning law. The board moved public comments to the end of the meeting after they conducted regular town business.
Many of the board members said the proposed zoning laws are not perfect but that the current zoning law from the 1970s needs to be updated. Councilman Kevin Weldon thanked the many volunteers who sat on the two different zoning committees to update the law. He said residents still needed to get involved as the town plans “for the future together.” He said he would vote Yes on the proposed law.
Councilman John Wapner said that from what he has heard, there was much debate over the zoning laws that were passed over 40 years ago. He talked about adding regulations on short-term rentals to the code, saying that this proposed regulations will keep the residential areas of the town residential. He said he would be voting Yes on the law and asked residents to “stay involved.”
Councilman Michael Richardson, who was appointed to the Town Board last winter and sat on the town’s Zoning Board Appeals (ZBA), pointed out that there had been four public hearings on the proposed law and that he’d heard several times that the Town Board is not listening. “And I have to say the Town Board is listening to many, many voices,” he said.
“There were compromises,” Mr. Richardson said of the proposed laws.
Councilman Bob Balcom said he has been on the board for 12 years and that he has worked on the Comprehensive Plan and the changes to the zoning law to make it more in-line with that plan, for longer than that. He said, “the pros for zoning outweigh the cons.” He supports passing the proposed law.
Mr. Balcom also mentioned some misinformation that he had heard–citing a statement that there is no “grandfathering in” in the proposed law. He said that if a business has a sign that complies with the current code, the business will not have to change the sign to comply with the new code. This does not apply to things that are not part of the current code, like short-term rentals.
He also said that people who are focusing on the penalty part of the code do not know the process. He said property owners who do not follow the zoning laws would get warnings and chances to make their property comply with the new code. “You are given time to get things right,” he said of violations under the new code.
Supervisor Lull, who also said she would vote to pass the proposed law, said the Town of Chatham was the first town in the county to institute a zoning law.
“At this point, the Town Board is charged with voting on a proposed new zoning law that has taken nine years to draft, six years by the first implementation committee and then three years by the current Zoning Advisory Committee,” she said. She thanked the nearly 100 citizens who worked on the Comprehensive Plan and the committees.
“The new zoning law will be better defined and more consistent than the existing law that it will replace and it will reflect Chatham’s needs as they develop,” she said.
“This zoning law is good for the Town of Chatham,” she said.
When the public comments started, it seemed most of the people in the room did not agree with her for various reasons. A former member of the town’s ZBA, John Henkel, said the proposed laws were more confusing and would be harder for the ZBA and Planning Board to apply.
Several people talked about the laws over-stepping and controlling too much of what people can do on their properties.
Some residents had questions for the board. The public comment section of the meeting is generally not a question-and-answer or time for the public to debate with the board, but some questions from residents were answered. The owner of Jackson’s Old Chatham asked about parking in front of her restaurant, which the board said would be grandfathered in.
Another resident asked if the town zoning laws would supersede the Village of Chatham zoning law. The zoning in the town and village are totally separate. The village has its own zoning law.
Several residents said the board had not done a good job letting them know about the zoning. One resident, Lucinda Buckley, asked if the board could send letters to all property owners letting them know about the proposed law. She also pointed out that last year the town’s website, where the proposed zoning laws are posted with a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document, had not worked. The town now has a new website.
A village resident, Lisa Light Rugen, said that she gets alerts from several organizations and that the town could do that to keep residents informed.
Ms. Buckley also said that residents she’d talked to didn’t know there were changes to the zoning being proposed or thought the changes just had to do with short-term rentals. She and her daughter, who also spoke, worried about how the changes in the proposal would affect the town.
Donal Collins, the Republican nominee for town supervisor, said that he was concerned with enforcement of the laws. He worried the town would need to bring in outside companies to keep up with the demands on the Code Enforcement Office.
Vance Pitkin, who is running for town councilman on the Republican ticket, asked Mr. Balcom about the enforcement section of the law. If it is boilerplate wording, he asked, why is it included in the law other than to intimidate people.
Residents also raised concerns about the noise ordinance in the proposed law. Mr. Balcom and Mr. Richardson said that chainsaws and mowers were exempt. Mr. Balcom stressed that residents needed to read the law.
Others asked again for the board to wait on passing the proposed laws and rethink the changes with new community input.
Those who spoke in favor of the proposed law stressed the importance of having zoning in the town and how much work has gone into creating the proposed law.
The proposed law is on the town website at www.chathamnewyork.us/government/zoning.php#
After the meeting that board announced that they will host an information session on the zoning Monday, July 8 at 6 p.m. at the Tri-Village Fire Company, 111 County Route 13, Old Chatham. “The sole purpose of this meeting is for questions and answers. It would be helpful for the Town Board to receive your question ahead of time….If you cannot attend, feel free to submit your questions in writing via email or letter to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org,” the statement about the meeting reads.
The board’s next regular meeting will be Thursday, July 18 at 6 p.m.
To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email email@example.com