New Paltz village to review mixed-use zoning

New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers and village trustees are ready to take a second look at the NBR (neighborhood-business-residential) zone to make sure it’s really going to accomplish what is intended with it. However, Rogers urged members of a local advocacy group to get involved in that process.

Some members of the Friends of New Paltz, a group which was created out of concern for the impacts of the NBR zone when the Zero Place project was first proposed, laid out the rationale for imposing a moratorium during which such a review might be undertaken.

“The public has been told repeatedly that this plan was worked on for years,” said Jo Mano. “While the concept of the zoning has been worked on for years, the fact is that basic planning was not done, and the NBR zoning code that was created is very flawed.” Among those flaws, she said, were insufficient review under the State Environmental Quality Review act, or SEQR, and the fact that “public input was not broadly considered.” A full build-out of the entire zone along North Chestnut Street could mean half a million more square feet of retail space, Mano continued, and enough new residential units to add up to 4,268 people to the village, which she calculated to be an 87% increase in the village population, excluding SUNY campus residents.

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Density of that magnitude would impact village water and sewer systems, Mano reasoned, and those are both under scrutiny at this time. Considerable progress has been made under a state consent order to fix failing sewer lines, but Mano wondered aloud if such a population spike would exceed plant capacity. She also pointed out that in the context of looming aqueduct shutdowns for maintenance, the lack of a sufficient backup supply would only create larger water security issues under a full build-out of that part of the village.

Brad Barclay stepped to the podium  during last week’s village board meeting to lay out the specific issues about the NBR zone that should be addressed during a moratorium, including a build-out analysis that would include impacts on water, sewer, traffic, parking and nearby Historic Huguenot Street. While Zero Place, at the corner of North Chestnut and Mulberry streets, was the catalyst to form the Friends of New Paltz, there are other properties the redevelopment of which could result in greater impacts to the national historic district. Barclay further recommended looking at bicycle and pedestrian needs, demands on recreational facilities and how such a build-out would impact needs for police and fire protection, as well as schools.

Further, Barclay suggested redoing the NBR code pursuant to the principles of form-based zoning, which stress the appearance of buildings and how they related physically to one another, rather than allowing the uses of the buildings to drive the discussion. The current code requires a special-use permit for each retail space, which while it provides great flexibility to planning board members, can be challenging for developers who don’t know what may be approved for any given space. Barclay argued that form-based zoning would provide clear criteria that would make the process easier for developers and volunteers alike.

A similar mixed-use zone in Lloyd uses the form-based approach, Barclay said, and Ulster County Planning Board members had recommended such an approach for the village law.

Miriam Strouse reminded trustees of the fact that “not everybody reads the paper” as explanation for why concerns about the NBR zone were not raised when it was being considered by trustees under the West administration.

Rogers was clearly receptive to these concerns, and asked that a discussion about what to do be added to that night’s agenda. However, the mayor felt that doing so without creating a moratorium first would be “more nimble,” since such a freeze on development is in fact another law that must be passed, which includes holding a public hearing and spending about $1,200 of taxpayer money for publication and attorney fees.

During that discussion, trustee Don Kerr apologized for voting in support of this law. He explained that during his first year in office he focused on “look, listen, learn,” and that while he understood the general parameters of the NBR zone, the maximum height in particular was something he’d missed. While most zones in the village cap buildings at 35 feet, it’s 50 in the NBR district, and that’s been a source of major contention. After reviewing the deliberations, Kerr said that he still wasn’t clear when and why that limit was added. “I take it on me,” he said, and “I deserve to be given hell for that.”

Thomas Rocco was in full agreement with Kerr on that and other points. He was much more involved in the NBR legislation, but also couldn’t recall when the 50-foot limit was added. Prior to joining the village board, Rocco had worked on a master-plan committee that studied what was then called the B-3 zone, and he clearly recalled that the 2006 rezoning draft included specific design standards of the sort Barclay recommended. By the time it became NBR zoning, those standards were off the table. Kerr and Dennis Young both agreed that design standards were important enough to revisit.

Another area on which Kerr and Rocco were in accord was regarding exemptions, should a moratorium be enacted. Neither man thought it would be wise to freeze progress on the Zero Place application in any case, as it’s been in process for nearly a year.

That sat well with Rogers, who simply didn’t believe a moratorium was needed. Board members present — deputy mayor Rebecca Rotzler was not at the table — hammered out the structure of a committee to look at the zoning language. It will include Kerr and Young, two members each from the planning board and historic preservation commission, and village residents willing to step up. The first of those was Jo Mano, who has considerable planning experience, including working on a joint town-village master plan in the 1980s. Rogers attempted to name her chair, but she demurred, saying, “The committee [members] should decide.”

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