BY LOHR McKINSTRY
---- — PORT HENRY — An ad hoc panel has been set up to protect Port Henry’s downtown business district from being converted from retail storefronts to residential apartments.
The Port Henry Village Zoning Commission held its inaugural session recently, and Chairman John Viestenz said their next step is begin drafting regulations to prohibit conversion of first-floor business-district retail space to housing.
The commission will meet twice a month, he said, until a local law is ready for submission to the Village Board.
“Our role is to make the official recommendation to the Village Board,” Viestenz said. “Once we finish, we hand it over to the Village Board, and we go out of business.”
Anything that exists now would be grandfathered in, he said, and any new regulations would only affect future conversions.
The village currently has a moratorium in place prohibiting retail-to-residential changeover and recently renewed it for another six months.
Before the moratorium was imposed, at least two owners of downtown buildings indicated they were planning to convert vacant first-floor retail space in their buildings to apartments.
The moratorium was passed by the Village Board to give it time to put zoning rules in place to regulate the practice.
Viestenz said they don’t have a time limit or deadline for their work.
“What we are mainly interested in is protecting Main and Broad (streets),” commission member Sandra Lovell said. “The public is going to have a great deal of say in what restrictions are made.”
Viestenz said they’ll have a public comment period at the end of each meeting to get input on their work.
“We will (also) hold a public hearing before we submit it to the village,” commission member Jeff Kelly said.
LOSS OF BUSINESS
Fewer businesses downtown means fewer people coming to shop, said commission member Evelyn Celotti, who owns Celotti Wine and Spirits on Main Street.
“If it goes to residential, it doesn’t go back,” she said. “My business would suffer. Other businesses would be gone.”
They’ll look at creating a business zone for the village that would take in the downtown, Viestenz said. The zoning for the rest of the village could be as simple as “no restrictions,” he said.
The village doesn’t have zoning at present, but has a site-plan-review law for new businesses that is not implemented.
The Village Planning Board that enforced the law was disbanded about five years ago, and the Village Board now serves as the planning board and acts on all requests.
Viestenz said they’ve heard from people who want no zoning regulations whatsoever and others who say zoning is needed to plan for the community’s future.
He said the public can testify at public hearings on any proposed regulations or speak during the public comment part of the commission’s meetings.
He said he didn’t want to ignore the views of those who oppose all zoning, but it looks like “the Village Board has already determined that some level of zoning is appropriate, and our assignment is to define that appropriate level.”
The fifth member of the commission is Kelly King, who was unable to attend the first meeting, Viestenz said.
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The Port Henry Zoning Commission will hold its next meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, in the Literacy Volunteers offices on Broad Street in Port Henry. All sessions are open to the public.