Eli Ruiz | Democrat
Zoning Regulations Committee chairman Mike Woods speaks prior to the public comment portion of Thursday’s joint Town of Liberty Town, Zoning and Planning boards meeting. Woods heads one of the committees spearheaded by Town of Liberty councilman Dean Farrand more than a year ago to solicit ideas and solutions to the town’s zoning maps and land-use regulations.
They agree: ‘Change Liberty zoning!’
By Eli Ruiz
LIBERTY March 26, 2013 Town of Liberty supervisor Charlie Barbuti wanted two things out of last Thursday’s joint meeting of the Town, Planning, and Zoning boards: a strong turnout; and lots of great ideas from the public on how to move forward with improvements to the town’s zoning map and land use definitions.
He got both from the gathering, held at the CVI building in Ferndale.
Stated Barbuti in opening the meeting, “I’ve been supervisor for over a year now and I need to get our town zoning right… it’s probably the most important thing I can do here in the next year.”
In 2011 the John Schmidt administration made extensive changes to what has been termed the more “business friendly” 1987 town zoning map. It left more than 40 percent of the town zoned AC (agricultural/commercial) and inexplicably re-zoned properties like the Stevensville property more recently the Swan Lake Resort to R1 (residential). This made the property noncompliant and thus unmarketable for its current owners.
Barbuti ran for supervisor in 2011 on an economic development platform, and as a member of the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), admits to wanting to emulate in Liberty, some of what fellow supervisor Tony Cellini has been able to accomplish in regards to attracting businesses to the Town of Thompson.
Also in attendance for the special meeting were the Zoning Regulations Committee commissioned to work on getting the zoning code correctly written and more clearly defined and the Hamlet Committees comprised of residents of Liberty’s four hamlets: Ferndale, Swan Lake, White Sulphur Springs and Parksville. Councilman Dean Farrand suggested the Hamlet Committees more than a year ago, was to present the board the opportunity to solicit ideas on possible zoning changes and land use possibilities from those actually residing in the affected areas.
A long line of town residents and interested parties queued up at the sign-in table prior to the meeting. Folks like John O’Neil of Hurleyville who says that in 1999 he purchased a home “just over” the Town of Liberty line. Regarding his purchase, O’Neil affirmed, “It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made . . . the taxes are killing me.”
Zoning Regulations Committee Chairman Michael Woods spoke in favor of moving away from the current map, saying, “The cost to operate local government keeps rising, but the tax base growth does not keep pace with the growing costs… unfortunately, the more I analyze the current zoning map, it appears we have taken a step backwards in our efforts to encourage orderly growth and development.”
Addressing the town board, Woods offered, “If you want fewer and fewer of us to pay more and more of the tax burden then stay with the present code, otherwise this present code is flawed; it is regressive; it is too restrictive; and it’s counterproductive. I’d strongly recommend that the town board repeal the present ordinance map and bulk regulations, and return to the 1987 ordinance. It would be more practical to revise and update that code than to work backwards.”
Indeed, the majority of those who spoke Thursday backed a return to the 1987 zoning regulations and maps, while fine-tuning it to meet today’s needs.
Tom Edwards of White Sulphur Springs, said, “I go over this map [WSS map] and within 100 yards there’s three different zonings.” Edwards lauded the Parksville Hamlet Committee’s proposed map, saying, “Their map really simplifies things and I really like what they did there. I think the town board should go back to the ‘87 [map] and then we’ll take that and move ahead from there.”
Iris Borman of Swan Lake favors scrapping the new maps and charts altogether, and said, “The emphasis should not be on land, but rather on the marketing of this once beautiful land that we have here. I’d like to see a cohesive plan of what kind of businesses you feel would be appropriate for this area and then go out and market it. Then you can develop a zoning plan to accommodate not only the businesses, but also the people working there and the houses they’ll live in… and then you can have a more accurate idea of your tax base. “
Todd Gallo, whose family owns the improperly zoned Swan Lake Resort property talked about the two “major” boutique hotel developers he’s very recently attracted into talks, but subsequently lost to other property owners, due in- large-part to the R1 zoned land the old hotel sits on.
“The main thing when these guys come and talk to me [about building on and renovating the property] is the question: ‘What’s up with the zoning?’ [They say] You’re a non-conforming pre-existing structure as a hotel in a residential [zoned] town. So as far as marketing? I cannot market our place; I cannot market our investment, or our hotel as-is because we’re in an R1 zone.”
Continued Gallo, “My family has been committed here for 23 years. We’ve invested some $30 million into this area alone.”
Gallo talked about being in the same boat as everyone else in the audience in regards to the zoning issues, and added, “We cannot go on like this. We have to invite any type of development now, rather than shun them away… which I think we’ve unfortunately done.”
Said Barbuti, “I think that the decision that the board clearly has to make is whether the old (1987) plan would be a quicker plan to fix, or if the new (2011) plan is quicker to fix, because we need to be able to be ready [to make necessary changes] tomorrow so that whatever we do we have to set a timetable that says that this process will be over within a year.”
Asked what was next, Barbuti offered, “Next we’ll be bringing this all before the board; whether to rescind the 2011 changes or not.”
Regarding the overwhelming sentiment to go back to the old 1987 maps and bulk charts, Barbuti said, “It was my sense in the first place to go back to the old map, but I wanted to make sure that was the right direction to go, and from what I heard tonight… regardless, it’s going to be a lot of work.”
The issue will be brought up again at the April 1 town board meeting.