February 6, 2013

Editorial: Zoning protects communities


---- — It takes some amount of bravery to change zoning around here, and we commend the Town of Plattsburgh for updating its laws at regular intervals.

The word “zoning” is an expletive to some people, who relate it to government interference and an assault on individual rights. The word got so scary for a while that it has been replaced in many places with phrases like “comprehensive land-use plan” and “unit-management plan.” 

What zoning actually does is protect everyone in a community. It prevents, for example, a busy commercial venture from being built in a residential neighborhood. It ensures shoreline access in certain parts of communities. At its best, it encourages the right kind of development in the right places.

The Town of Plattsburgh has been updating its zoning laws almost every 10 years, and its citizens should applaud that action. Over more than a year, Philip Von Bargen, who leads the Town Planning Department, worked with a committee comprising town officials, residents and a consultant. They discussed revisions and sought public input.

One interesting adjustment was made in a part of the town that lies in what used to be Plattsburgh Air Force Base. The new ordinance rezoned areas there for medium-density residential development. Developers won’t need as big a lot for these projects, with four-unit housing now allowed on one-third of an acre. That will encourage more multi-family rentals and condominiums, which, in turn, will goose property-tax income.

Some limited commercial uses are also going to be allowed in those neighborhoods, as well as along Connecticut Avenue and near The Barracks golf course.

Another productive change is something called Planned Development Districts. Those allow developers who have a project that doesn’t meet zoning codes to pitch their vision to the Planning Board and then the Town Council for approval. Those will be allowed only on parcels of five acres or more in commercial districts or two acres in neighborhood commercial districts.

The town has also protected almost half of the 11 miles of shoreline along the Saranac River. Sections of between 150 and 300 feet along the riverbank will be restricted to recreational use, which could extend the Saranac River Trail. If you have driven along North Margaret Street in the City of Plattsburgh — where it is nearly impossible to see Lake Champlain in many areas — you can see the impact of zoning mistakes made years ago. It is important that the town has the foresight not to let that happen along the Saranac.

Clarifications in the town’s new zoning rules should cut down on frequently requested variances.

All communities in the North Country should consider whether their zoning laws need updating to protect their vision of beauty and vitality.