Village of New Paltz Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) chair Tom Olsen brought a new proposal to the Village Board at their March 24 meeting: make the HPC into a design review board. This latest idea to tap into the expertise of HPC members to help developers keep their projects from becoming contentious might resonate with village residents who are tired of new construction that doesn’t seem to fit in with the character of the community, but there are concerns that this would add layers of bureaucracy that would make building all the more difficult.
Renaming the volunteer group a “design review board and historic preservation commission” would better reflect what Olsen thinks that board ought to be doing, but there would need to be some specific authority baked into law to make it a reality. The HPC does have design review powers for projects in the historic district, as well as for any village landmarks, but ironically that doesn’t even include the stretch of Main Street which is a federal and state historic district. The Planning Board’s control over aesthetics is also limited. “There have been some mistakes on Main Street,” Olsen said, and if HPC members got to weigh in, then perhaps some of them could have been avoided.
After renaming the group, Olsen recommends creating an historic district that reflects the portion of Main Street which is on the state and federal registers, which pursuant to current village ordinance would give HPC members the right to provide insight on designs there. However, Olsen feels it is critical to shift more toward design review overall, because shifts in zoning such as the creation of the NBR zone on North Chestnut Street is driving interest in large projects that could impact the character of the village for decades to come.
Mayor Tim Rogers asked Olsen about the design standards in the NBR zoning itself. They are a good start, Olsen said, but they aren’t detailed enough to capture the aesthetic nuance that might be troubling to neighbors. Framing this as a free consultation with historic design experts, Olsen explained that it’s often easy to make different decisions that improve the exterior of a building without necessarily increasing the cost of construction.
“When you talk about ‘uniformity,’ it gives me pause,” said deputy mayor KT Tobin, who took credit for ensuring that the standards in the NBR zone were not terribly detailed. The concern that Tobin has is that if a process appears to be too complex, homeowners might choose not to follow the law at all and instead just have work done on the sly. A policy that is not a barrier to resident homeowners, but discourages house-flippers and developers to ignore concerns about community character, must be nuanced to achieve such goals.
Olsen will return with more details, as well as maps to consider.