April 20, 2010

One vision for Varna: The 2005 Comprehensive Plan

One of the strangest things anyone has said to me in the conversations about the proposed Varna II development is "Haven't you read the comprehensive plan? It's all there." I was too startled to really respond about just how wrong a statement that was. The Comprehensive Plan doesn't call for development that resembles Varna II.

It's time, though, to take a closer look at what that plan - the basis for current zoning proposals, as well as the Town's Design Guidelines - really says. It reflects about a decade of work by the Planning Board, slowly building consensus before approval by the Town Board (then composed completely of Republicans) in 2005.

If you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find the Comprehensive Plan on the Dryden Environmental Planner's web page. I've excerpted the hamlet section (pages 52-58, minus figures and sidebars) below. All boldfacing is mine, as are remarks in [ ] brackets. I think, though, that this actually lays out a clear vision of how Varna (and Etna, McLean, and the area north of the Village of Dryden) should develop.

Hamlet Areas

The hamlets of Etna, Varna, McLean (Dryden portion), and Dryden (north of the Village of Dryden) require an approach to land use and development that differs substantially from the rest of the town.

The goals of development in hamlets should be:

  1. Encourage new development that would increase the attractiveness of the area by offering a diversity of development options, including townhouses, duplexes, small multiunit complexes, and mixed residential-commercial.
  2. Encourage home ownership.
  3. Regulate hamlet transformations so that the character of the community is maintained or shifts slowly, not in dramatic steps. [continued...]

Typically hamlets are more densely developed, with residential land uses mixed with or in close proximity to small scale commercial development. Lots tend to be smaller and population denser than in the rest of the town. However, it is important to maintain a healthy balance between home owners and renters. This balance encourages long-term residents who are invested in the community. Hamlets are attractive areas to live in because they can offer many of the amenities of village living.

To create a more attractive environment for new commercial and residential development within its hamlets the town of Dryden needs to create new land use regulations. These regulations should offer a mixture of opportunities, some that allow more dense development, on smaller lots and without the large yard setback areas typically found in suburban areas, and some that maintain the current average of onehalf acre lot sizes. Another feature of hamlet development is the use of two story structures that house commercial, office and residential use under one roof. With more compact development, amenities such as sidewalks are also possible.

The residential development density proposed for the hamlet areas is a maximum of 4 dwellings per acre. As with the Suburban Residential areas of the future, the Hamlet areas would be comprised of several types of residential zoning districts with varying maximum allowed densities. Multiple residence zoning districts could be appropriate within the Hamlet areas. Mixed-use zoning that would allow, for example, apartment-style residences above ground floor commercial space would also be an appropriate land use tool. To maintain the balance between home ownership and rental housing and to prevent rapid change in the hamlet character, multiunit developments should be limited to a maximum of 20 units.

Higher density single-family owner-occupied residential development, such as a collection of town houses, can be encouraged through the creation of small zoning districts, comprised of 1 to 3 acres each, that allow detached and attached dwellings on a few small lots scattered through the hamlet. These districts should be widely spaced through the hamlet at a minimum distance between them to minimize their visual impact on hamlet character.

Multi-family developments with a maximum density of 8 units per acre could be constructed in new multiple residence zoning districts. The size of these districts should be limited to preclude the construction of large-scale apartment complexes that could adversely impact the character of the community. Instead the Town should limit the size of such districts to between 2 and 2.5 acres in area so that a maximum of no more than 20 units could be built in any one complex.

Village- or hamlet-residential zoning districts have been developed elsewhere in Upstate New York to accommodate such development. These zoning districts encourage more compact development by reducing lot size requirements as well as setback requirements. Side yard requirements are reduced to 5-10 feet or less and lot coverage limits raised. These special districts should be established in a manner that keeps them from dominating a hamlet, but maintains a mixture of development opportunities.

Crafting land use regulations and guidelines that would allow the hamlets in the town to evolve into attractive, vibrant communities will require considerable care. Clear guidelines for mixed use development that might combine residential with retail commercial uses are necessary to ensure that future development results in quality affordable housing, adequate parking, and a design and character that is compatible with the existing community character. They must continue to encourage home ownership.

For most parcels in the hamlet the density should be maintained at its current level. To control the development process, the town should require that a developer seeking a higher density on a given parcel request a zoning change, placing the responsibility on the developer to prove why their proposal fits with the plan's vision for hamlet growth. This procedure for the approval of new development is much more likely to give the town the power to create the type of heterogeneous set of densities sought for the hamlets. These special districts within the hamlet could be designated for higher density opportunities with the following standards:

  1. Setback and design standards for the street-facing facades of buildings. Maximum front yard setbacks are a tool commonly used in many communities, primarily to encourage return to the historic pattern of downtown commercial buildings being built at the edge of the public right-of-way;
  2. No side yard setback requirements for attached structures, and minimal setback requirements for detached structures;
  3. Limiting parking in front of buildings to that provided for on the street. Off-street parking must be located to the side or the rear of the property;
  4. Increased lot coverage limits to 80 percent or more;
  5. Strict definition of the types of retail or service establishments that would be allowed within the mixed-use area. Automobile-oriented businesses such as gas stations, convenience stores and fast food restaurants should be excluded as permitted uses.
  6. Additional side- and rear yard buffers where a mixed-use zoning district would abut a residential district.

In communities where municipal water and sewer services are available lot sizes in the range of 11,000 square feet are used to encourage compact residential development in areas surrounding the core of a hamlet or village.

Specific standards for such development are critical, and should include:

  1. Limiting uses to single- and two-family homes;
  2. Street design standards that ensure on-street parking lanes, curbs and underground stormwater drains, and sidewalks;
  3. Standards for landscape plantings within the public right-of-way, including spacing, types and sizes of trees and shrubs;
  4. Provisions for garages, including prohibitions of free-standing garages in front yard areas, standards for alleys that could provide access to garages in the rear yard areas of lots, and for additional setbacks and shared driveways where alleys are not practical;
  5. Maximum overall site densities, building height limit of 2 stories, bulk limits and maximum site coverage limits;
  6. Development done in a manner that architecturally fits with the current styles of the town;
  7. A mixture of appropriate commercial and residential uses in the hamlets controlled through initiating maximum set-backs and preventing drive-through businesses.

Municipal water and sewerage services give greater flexibility in designing a hamlet environment. These are available in Varna, but not in Etna. Etna however is close enough to the existing water and sewer lines that serve the area around the NYS Rte. 13/NYS Rte. 366 intersection, that extension of service is possible. As with all areas designated in this plan to be logical locations for future implementation of water and sewer line, this plan does not advocate construction of new lines in advance of development. Such extension of service should be considered after a density has built up in the area to warrant supporting it. Once such service has been added, it can provide the catalyst for redevelopment of that hamlet and provide the infrastructure to support the envisioned Suburban Residential area to the hamlet's west.

In addition to the recommended changes in land use policies within the hamlet areas, there needs to be an investment in the physical infrastructure of the hamlet areas, particularly in Varna.

NYS Rte. 366 in Varna, with its wide travel lanes and road shoulders and attendant 40-MPH speed limit, is designed solely to function as a highway that allows traffic to move quickly and effortlessly through the hamlet. The width of the highway and attendant 40 MPH speed limit, while successful in moving traffic, have had a significant adverse impact on the quality of life of Varna residents, and the character of the community.

The roadway should be reconfigured wherein its original primary function of quick and efficient movement of traffic is subordinated to it functioning as a village "Main Street." Toward this goal the Town should work with the New York State Department of Transportation to redesign and secure funding to rebuild the roadway to:

  1. Eliminate the existing highway shoulders and replace them with curbing, tree lawns and sidewalks within the highway right of way;
  2. Provide for on-street parallel parking opportunities on at least one side of the on-street;
  3. Create a safe intersection at Freese Road and Mt. Pleasant Road;
  4. Reduce the speed limit through the hamlet to 30 MPH. [on its way in 2010]

Reconfiguration of NYS Rte. 366 from a road designed as a highway to one designed as a main street would significantly enhance the livability of Varna. This in turn would make the hamlet more attractive to investment in new family-oriented residential and neighborhood scale commercial development. Figure 5-3 [page 63 in the original] illustrates how the highway-to- main-street and proposed hamlet zoning concepts could be applied in the vicinity of the Freese Road/Mt. Pleasant Road intersection.**

It is important to the maintenance of the hamlet of Etna that the area south of the hamlet and north of Rt. 366 is kept as a green-space corridor of low-density conservation land use, with some rural residential land use surrounding the intersection where Rt. 366 leaves Rt. 13 to move north. A green-space corridor of low-density conservation land should be maintained to the west of this area along Rt. 13 as an important visual break for travelers on Rt. 13, separating the built-up areas surrounding Ithaca from the rural residential community of Dryden.

So far as I can tell, both the design guidelines and the zoning drafts are still following more or less along these lines. I did suggest returning to the denser-zones-by-request model in my comments about the zoning, but that is, I think, the only substantial variation from this proposal, and a way to implement the 20-unit ceiling suggested here.

Posted by simon at April 20, 2010 5:32 PM in ,
Note on photos