There will be a committee formed to look at zoning along North Chestnut Street, and whether the code largely pulled together by the late Maurice Weitman when he chaired the New Paltz Village Planning Board truly makes sense. As to whether that review will take place during a moratorium-imposed development freeze in that district is still up in the air. A public hearing has been set to help village trustees make that decision.
Public comment during last week’s village board meeting was largely focused on the Neighborhood Business Residential (NBR) District, and how to make changes to that code.
Cara Lee commended trustees for considering a moratorium on the NBR. The Zero Place application shows that the “NBR is fundamentally flawed” and needs to be refined. Lee identified the tremendous flexibility given to planning board members — which was intended to be one of strengths of the zone — as being central to its problems. With special-use permits required for each retail use and considerable leeway given for parking requirements, Lee said that planning board members are forced to design each project. Changes to that approach would provide “more certainty for developers,” and a moratorium is needed during that retooling to prevent “speculative applications” being submitted in the interim.
The moratorium should also be used to conduct a full build-out analysis of the district, trustees were told, as well as to create a set of design standards to be applied to each proposed structure. Former mayor Tom Nyquist railed against the “vague guidelines” in the current code, and argued that a “more thoughtful and predictable process” would benefit anyone involved in or affected by an application.
A build-out analysis needs to be considered in context, said Ellen James. She pointed out that the idea of a more dense zone along North Chestnut Street is that it makes it possible to preserve open space in other areas, such as west of the Wallkill. Analyzing what might have been built on those areas as well would be instructive.
Anne Quinn told trustees that “it can’t do anyone any harm to take six months to revisit the NBR,” adding that to do so would be for the greater good, “not for the greater good of several developers.”
David Shepler, the village resident trying to develop Zero Place, had a different perspective. Board members have signaled that, should a moratorium be passed, they would prefer to exempt Shepler’s project, but he nevertheless has come out swinging in defense of the new zone. His first salvo was to create an online petition on change.org, the same site where nameless members of the Friends of New Paltz launched a petition requesting this moratorium several months earlier. Whereas the pro-moratorium petition stalled out at 51 signatures (not including any that might have been collected on paper), Shepler’s defense of the NBR zone has garnered 137 as of this writing. While the difference in numbers is stark, the total number of signatories on both petitions represent less than three percent of the village population. Another comparison to place the numbers in context is that the Friends of New Paltz Facebook page has 20 “likes,” while the Zero Place Advocates Facebook group has 199 members. Individuals can be added to groups without their consent on Facebook.
At the meeting, Shepler told trustees he agreed that changes, including a shift to form-based zoning with design standards, would be helpful, but that a moratorium is “not the right tool for the job.” The threat to that part of the community, in his view, is actually underdevelopment, not the opposite, and he urged board members to “stand up for your vision” and “defend your code.” A moratorium is best suited to making changes to code that’s old and outdated, he said, but the NBR is new, with his application the very first. He also rejected the idea that this zone was “written for my project,” saying that he did not become aware of it until after he got the idea to build net-zero-energy apartments.
Shepler’s rather lengthy presentation included pictures of the buildings as seen from the rail trail, where piles of tires and cinder blocks are tossed. “The NBR fixes that,” he said, by encouraging designs intended to engage that traffic corridor. He also encouraged trustees not to let historic preservation become “a noose around the neck” of the community, a comment which was not received well in some quarters.
Mary Etta Schneider, president of the board at Historic Huguenot Street, told Shepler, “Shame on you tonight” for that remark in particular. The goal of a moratorium, in her mind, is not to prevent development, but ensure it’s done right.
Later in the meeting, trustees discussed their strategy by first inviting planning board chairman Michael Zierler to the table. Zierler identified himself as invested in the vision that Shepler would like to see defended, but not so much in the notion of a moratorium. He told board members that the planning board’s attorney, Richard Golden, agreed that it wasn’t necessary at this time. The attorney’s position was that if village personnel — namely building inspectors, planning board members and anyone who might be the initial point of contact for developers — consistently warn applicants that the zoning is expected to be changing, then they would be proceeding at their own risk. If a plan isn’t approved before updates are passed into law, those applications will be reviewed against the new standards.
Jo Margaret Mano was tasked with being “convener” of the committee to undertake this review; Mayor Tim Rogers had asked her to chair it, but she would prefer that decision be made by committee members. It will include representatives from the village, planning and zoning boards, as well as other residents. When Rogers suggested several other locals who might be interested — Jason West, Floyd Kniffen, and New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez — Mano seemed reticent, saying that too large a committee would make it challenging to get work done; there would be eleven in all if all three were appointed. Rogers warned that a committee with an even number can easily stall on challenging votes, but Mano hopes this body will operate on consensus alone. Mano appeared to believe she is the sole arbiter of who ultimately serves; no trustee challenged that position, but those interested in participating should e-mail email@example.com.
Mano also stressed that the job will take considerable time, much of which will be educating committee members on the issues and existing code. While she is in favor of a six-month moratorium, she did not believe a law could be finalized by June. She said it would be jumping the gun “to lay out a timetable at the start of the race.”
Trustees were divided on whether a moratorium would help or not. Deputy Mayor Rebecca Rotzler suggested deferring that question to the committee members, but trustee Don Kerr disagreed, saying, “we should wear our big-boy pants” and make that call. Ultimately, they set a public hearing on the question for January 25.