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EDITORIAL: Is a bigger law better?

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EVERYBODY NEEDS AN EDITOR whether you write for a living or occasionally tweet your thoughts. Even editors need editing, as readers of editorials might have noticed.

The software in our gadgets reduces misspelling but doesn’t yet reliably correct for missing context or lack of clarity, though gmail will gladly finish your sentences.

From corporate PR spin, to academic jargon and semi-translated instructions for foreign-made products, there’s a world of misinformation and confusing prose unrelated to malicious disinformation and hate speech. Sometimes you find it in legal documents.

That’s part of what drew over 100 people to a meeting in Chatham last week for a discussion on the proposal for a top-to-bottom rewrite of the town zoning law. The proposed law runs a mere 226 pages without the zoning maps. It’s available on the town website www.chathamnewyork.us. It took volunteers and Town Board members and lawyers and a zoning consultant a total of 12 years to produce the document. Now all members of the Town Board are prepared to approve it.

State law requires that the zoning regulations of a town must be consistent with the vision for the town laid out in the town’s comprehensive plan. That’s addressed in the first item of Chatham’s proposed zoning law under the heading “Purpose,” where Paragraph A says that the proposal is intended to function “in accordance with a comprehensive plan designed to preserve and protect, for the benefit of the town as a whole, the basically rural-agricultural character of the town.”

Editors would call that short and sweet. But, uh oh, then comes Paragraph B, with the heading “Further purposes are to:…” followed by 14 further purposes covering about a page. There might be general agreement that these are worthy goals arrived at by the brain trust that labored over this document, but it seems like too heavy a lift for one local law.

The biggest problem for the proposal now is a public perception that, far from the visionary document the framers intended, the document is a plot to deprive local property owners of the right to do what they want with their land and that it was hatched in secret.

It wasn’t done in secret, but revising the old law dragged on for so long that nobody paid much attention to it until recently, when the debate flared over how the town should handle short-term rentals. At this point the Town Board probably can’t change minds about the origins of the proposal, but it does have an obligation to inform voters what’s in the law and why. That process has already started with the scheduling of a public meeting July 8, but it will take a more vigorous and wide-reaching effort to build public support for the proposal.

The leading flashpoint lies in 11 pages of new rules for short term rentals (STRs), where people rent part or all of their home for a day or week at a time through an online service like Airbnb. Under Chatham’s current zoning law that’s not legal; the new law permits STRs in a residential zone but with restrictions and costs.

The board has reason to act. There could be 50 or more such rentals operating in the town and the experience of other communities indicates that as STRs increase, the available supply of affordable long-term rental homes drops.

Enforcing compliance with the STR regulations would be very expensive but Chatham has been contacted by a company that digitally monitors places rented for short terms. That might be efficient but it sounds creepy.

A couple of folks at the meeting last week said that zoning laws were unnecessary–that people of the town could work out their differences in a town meeting. But that would make every case subject to the mood of the audience. Although the statements received applause, they amount to a profoundly undemocratic approach to resolving disputes. We are a nation of laws. The alternative is not better neighbors. It’s chaos.

There were other moments of democratic disconnect too, like when some speakers demanded to know who had been born in Chatham. They seem to have forgotten that where and into what circumstances you were born should make no difference in a free society. The Constitution forbids an American nobility.

Some in the room said there were moments they felt threatened by the tone of some questions. That kind of bullying taints the whole procedure, including the concerns of thoughtful zoning opponents, whose ideas, combined with some editing, would lead to a better law.

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