The spring, the Common Council adopted the first citywide comprehensive plan since the first one was adopted in 1961. The plan lays out an ambitious vision, covering everything from preparing for rising sea levels to accounting for changes in how Americans live and work. Now a committee is hashing the details of a comprehensive update of the city’s zoning code in line with the comprehensive plan’s goals.
“Our current zoning is as laid out in the ’60’s for cities of that era,” said Mayor Steve Noble. “That’s not the kind of nimble zoning we need today.”
The committee, composed of lawmakers, planning officials, the city’s attorney and business and community leaders, met last week to take on the arduous task of going line by line through the city’s zoning code making revisions. The effort will continue when the committee meets again in January. Sometime next year, the committee will present the revamped zoning code to the Common Council for approval.
“The goal is to have it all go through as one package,” said City Planner Suzanne Cahill.
Part of the effort involves synthesizing design standards and planning guidelines contained in some 15 separate documents adopted since the 1980s to guide development in different neighborhoods of the city. The comprehensive plan identifies three “urban cores” in the city: Uptown’s Stockade District, the area of Broadway around City Hall and Kingston High School and the Rondout’s lower Broadway. Each of these areas, planners noted, has different design guidelines, historic preservation protocols and other restrictions. Part of the committee’s work, Noble said, would be to standardize those guidelines while allowing enough flexibility to maintain each neighborhood’s distinctive character.
“Right now there are different design standards for each of those core areas, overseen by different agencies,” said Cahill. “We’d like to make that more consistent.”
We’re all getting overlaid
The committee is also expected to significantly expand zoning provisions that currently apply only to the city’s “Urban Overlay Zone.” The zone, established in the 1990s, currently covers much of the city’s “core” areas like the Broadway Corridor and the Rondout. It was instituted to allow for and encourage greater density, more mixed-use commercial and residential development and more compact, walkable neighborhoods. Under the revamped zoning code, those changes are likely to expand to cover the greater part of the city. Noble said other changes would take into account new trends in the workforce, including eliminating special live/work designations to allow the increasingly common combination of small office or studio space with a residence as an “as of right” use citywide.
The expansion of the guidelines governing the overlay zone will also expand the area of the city where developers of five or more housing units will need to set aside a certain proportion of them for affordable housing. The affordable housing requirement has governed development in overlay zone, and been negotiated into agreements with large developers outside of it for years. Under the new code, those provisions could be put into effect across a much larger part of the city. Noble said that he expected the affordable housing rules to spur discussion, and perhaps debate over the new code.
“I don’t necessarily think it will be controversial,” said Noble. “But anytime you talk about housing, it brings more people into the conversation.”
Environmental aspects of the new code will likely include a number of provisions intended to promote conservation and account for rising water levels on the Hudson River. Cahill said that the code would include a survey of natural resources and requirements to take into account soil erosion and the impact of vegetation removal on slopes. The new zoning code will also accommodate a trend towards urban agriculture. Cahill said that a number of successful community gardens had taken root in the city over the past decade, but they remained technically illegal under the old zoning ordinance.
The new code will likely address another, potentially more controversial facet of urban farming — raising livestock. Keeping chickens, goats and other small livestock in backyard enclosures has become increasingly popular among young urbanites while raising hackles among traditionalists. Currently the zoning code prohibits raising any type of livestock on a parcel of less than five acres — effectively banning the practice citywide. Earlier this month, after nearly two years of debate and controversy The Town of Ulster earlier this month adopted the so-called “chicken law,” which bans new roosters and establishes other limits on backyard chicken coops. Cahill said that the new city zoning would probably address the issue.
“That has been brought up, but no decisions have been made,” said Cahill.