July 21, 2010

A different approach to zoning Varna

While I've been marveling at the awfulness of the broad hamlet zoning proposed in the second draft of the law, Jim Skaley's been developing a proposal that does more than say "revert back to the first draft."

Skaley saw the huge undifferentiated splotch of hamlet zoning as something that could be improved upon.

Varna zoning map.
Undifferentiated hamlet zoning - a big blob of goldenrod color.

He knew from his previous planning experiences that it's possible to zone hamlets much more precisely, and spoke at the July 7th Varna discussion of other hamlets that have gone that route, including Cheshire, in the Town of Canandaigua (19.3MB PDF), Jamesville, in the Town of DeWitt, and the Town of Wilton (725KB PDF), over in Saratoga County.

Building on the Varna 20-20 discussions and through conversations with lots of Varna residents, Skaley created a much more detailed map and plan for the hamlet.

Varna zoning map.
An alternate approach to zoning Varna. (Click for 471KB PDF with more detail)

This seems like a vast improvement on both the original draft of the zoning and the revised draft to me. I do have one minor doubt, most notably the discussion of the road, and I'd exclude fewer Cornell properties from development. Overall, though this feels like it actually describes a functioning hamlet and not just a "we hope something happens here" scenario. There's power in those details that could help Varna tremendously.

He's sent this to the Planning Board, and I hope they'll take it seriously.

Here's the full text of the plan:

VARNA Community and Commercial Revitalization Action Plan and Recommended Zoning

Residents of Varna, the Varna Revitalization Committee, and the Varna Community Association, have crafted the following recommendations to assure that the proposed zoning guides gradual development that preserves the current rural character of the community. Development should be based on "smart growth principles" with an emphasis on gathering places for adults and children, pedestrian and bike safety, affordable and attractive, owner-occupied single family homes with a focus on walkable neighborhoods and an ability to congregate at coffee/ice cream shops and eating places so that neighbors can reconnect with other neighbors in the hamlet.

1. Route 366 redesign

A major redesign of Route 366 as it passes through the hamlet should be initiated. There is ample space to implement the "main street" concept stated in the Comprehensive Plan for Varna. The NY State Route 366 has 50' right of way, including two 11' traffic lanes. That leaves enough space for two 4' sidewalks, a 5' bike lane and 7' parallel parking on one side. An attractive addition would be to build a 4' center median gateway at the east and west ends of Varna as a further device to calm traffic. Funds should be applied for to permit reengineering of the road along the lines of this design. This plan would leave enough space for a small berm above the curb and border for adjacent property. Varna is included in the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which coordinates and sets priorities for transportation projects within the urbanized area in Tompkins County.

2. Central commercial zone

A Revitalized Neighborhood Commercial Center zone should be located around the intersection of Freese and Mt Pleasant roads, an appropriate location given that there are already current commercial uses in this area. This could be accomplished by designating this section of the hamlet as one of the town's commercial districts. Although it is desirable to have a mixture of commercial and residential uses in the hamlet, permitting commercial uses to be sited anywhere within the hamlet and along main street (RT 366) will encourage strip development and will discourage cohesive neighborhood residential development that would be attractive to families seeking an attractive livable community. There is interest in extending the proposed zone along Rt 366 by current owners as indicated on the map to allow for development of a coffee shop and dine-in/takeout eating establishment. Such a neighborhood commercial zone (approximating 5 acres) would focus activity for both car and foot traffic to a centralized location. Therefore, zoning should designate a commercial node at the intersection of Route 366 and Freese Rd/Mt Pleasant Rd (see attached map) with commercial (e.g. retail shops) restricted elsewhere in the designated residential areas.

This would increase the potential for increased foot traffic to all the related commercial establishments facilitating the likelihood of commercial successes. Currently, there already exist within this proposed zone nearby apartments that would offer immediate foot traffic. Likewise, this location is easily within walking distance of local neighborhoods extending to the west along Rt 366 and to the north and south along Freese and Mt Pleasant roads including residents along Turkey Hill Rd.

This would also disallow commercial development within existing residential neighborhoods except as provided for such as professional offices that are in conformance with the existing residential guidelines as appended to the ordinance. Current non-conforming uses would revert to the proposed zone should there be a change in ownership, proposed use or abandonment.

The Town of Dryden should encourage development of the revitalized commercial zone by soliciting assistance of TCAD, County Planning and /or the IDA in attracting commercial developer who would work with the Town and the Hamlet in proposing commercial activities that would be commercially viable for the community.

3. Plan for small-scale development

Zoning in the hamlet must restrict residential development to small-scale projects scattered throughout the hamlet of Varna, as broadly defined, interspersed with single-family homes. These developments should be designed to help meet the goal of increasing the proportion of owner-occupied homes compared to rental units. Such guidelines are necessary to support the desire of residents to allow construction of developments that do not unfairly diminish their quality of life and impact property values.

Residents presently enjoy the rural feeling and accompanying density of the current hamlet of 2.5 units per acre, but support a gradual change toward a density of 4 to 5 units per acre (the current density of the Hillside manufactured home park) on average throughout the hamlet over the next twenty years, with no parcel exceeding twice this density.

4. Diverse and distributed development pattern

The long-term plan for the hamlet should include two or three mixed commercial/residential developments, containing 10 residential units each, two or three townhouse developments, scattered throughout the main part of the hamlet, containing 10 to 20 residential units each, and 20 to 30 single family homes interspersed between the more dense developments and on the bluff that parallels Rt 366 in the hamlet and to its south. Residents feel that in order to maintain the quality of life and character of the community, an upper limit of growth would be the addition of 100 units over the next 20 years.

5. Single family use

To promote single family use, the baseline use in the hamlet district. Change of use of current non-conforming housing or new construction within residential zones should be to single-family occupancy. As properties currently used for commercial purposes outside of the designated commercial district discussed above change ownership, uses should revert to single-family occupancy. A valid occupancy permit would not be affected; nor would property transfers or sale be affected so long as the use remains the same. Commercial activity in existing residential neighborhoods would be disallowed except as provided for elsewhere in the ordinance (such as Home occupancy level1 and level 2 and professional offices) that is in conformance with the existing residential guidelines as appended to the ordinance.

6. Sewer limitations

Residents are already experiencing periodic backups in the sewer system. Those with long -term knowledge of the system understand that there is inadequate sewer capacity for large expansion of use of this system, in either the volume of waste the current pipes can handle, the deteriorated condition of those pipes, and the age of the pumping station. Insufficient capacity is available to handle more than 100 new units of expansion over the next twenty years without incurring major new repair costs and increased sewer use assessments. A single large-scale development that would use up the available capacity in the sewer/water district should be restricted. Therefore, in order to promote diverse residential developments throughout Varna (defined as the area from Game Farm to RT 13 intersection and adjacent areas on Freese, Mt Pleasant and Turkey Hill roads), a variety of small-scale complexes including multi-family and townhouse developments should be scattered throughout the hamlet.

7. Planned Development Residential (PDR) zone

A Planned Development Residential (PDR) zone should be added for proposed developments. Such a zone specifically relates to residential development whereas, the PUD may incorporate any number of unrelated options. A PDR allows for design flexibility intended to encourage efficient use of the land and public services and to promote high quality design that will provide a variety of dwelling types as well as adequate support services and open space for residents of the development. The PDR zone would be used to complement higher density residential areas within the hamlet zone.

8. Maintaining open space

Cornell Lands within the hamlet should be designated as University/agriculture/natural area (UAg) to insure that these parcels continue to contribute open space to the community.

9. Building guidelines

Commercial buildings should conform in scale, fa├žade, setbacks and parking to the surrounding neighborhood character and in conformance with the commercial guidelines appended to the ordinance.

10. Traffic congestion

A traffic light should be installed at the intersection of Route 366 and Freese Rd/Mt Pleasant. Left turns at the intersection are becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous to make, particularly for those entering the intersection from Mt Pleasant Rd and, especially from Freese Rd.

Posted by simon at July 21, 2010 8:14 AM in , ,
Note on photos


Dan Kwasnowski said:

I really enjoy the impetus coming from Varna. But as I explained to one person in response to the current locally led initiative; "we can't get there from here."

Everyone agrees that Varna should have a concerted planning effort that may or may not result in much more detailed zoning, or other effective tools. I'm thinking about how to do that now.

But the current effort is for townwide zoning. And failing to mention that this is the first time hamlet zoning has been considered, other than the comp. plan, is somewhat of a disservice to that effort.

In the future, I would very much like to initiate neighborhood planning initiatives, starting with a much more detailed approach in Varna, but I'm still implementing the work that preceded me.

As always thanks for getting information out there, these types of discussions are critical to good policy, regardless of what the plan is.


David Weinstein said:

Dan is incorrect in saying that the detailed zoning proposed in the VARNA Community and Commercial Revitalization Action Plan and Recommended Zoning does not fit within the new town-wide zoning. That zoning calls for specific regulations and use limitations that refer only to Varna. Since the community does not feel that these regulations and use limitations will move the hamlet in the correct direction, the one envisioned in the comprehensive plan, it is entirely appropriate to make changes in the hamlet zoning at this time that have been clearly defined, written, and supported by the hamlet's community and its citizen organization.

Dan's comment that "we can't get there from here" referred, I believe, to the fact that he doesn't believe we can regulate the size of developments. In other words, the owner of a large parcel should be able to add proportionately more units than a small parcel, even if the scale of the development causes problems. A community can and should be able to restrict the scale of developments.

What has been emphasized all along in the creation of a new zoning law was that the most important thing was to send a clear message to developers about what they would be allowed to build that would fit into the needs and desires of the community. That is what we are trying to accomplish in the Varna action plan, and therefore the town zoning will be vastly improved by making the corrections proposed in this plan.

Dan Kwasnowski said:

David, what I meant was that the area deserves far more detailed analysis than what the Comprehensive Plan provides, and what the scope of the current effort at revising the zoning could possibly accommodate.

The Comprehensive Plan provides recommendations yes, but based upon what? It's not clear. Certainly there are significant adjustments to many things based upon the Comprehensive Plan, but it is not clear to me at all what the potential impacts could be for anything beyond that either way.

The Varna area deserves a concerted plan, with real data and information and resulting code or other approach. The conjecture and opinion that have been offered to date is very valuable, but government must not be arbitrary nor capricious.

You can certainly regulate the scale of development, and this law certainly does in many ways including in Varna. It may not be the numbers some people want, but they are real and based at least somewhat on experience.

I cannot speak to the current citizen's effort in Varna as I have not been, at all, included in whatever that is.

Dan suggests that "Varna should have a concerted planning effort". Varna has been through planning process after planning process, as I noted here.

About the only opportunity we've missed that I can think of is the charettes that George Frantz suggested he might do for Varna and Etna with Cornell students after the Comprehensive Plan process settled. That might have been nice, but I'm not sure it was necessary.

A quiet year in Varna is one that passes without multiple simultaneous planning conversations. I'm not sure residents are going to be eager for yet another "hey, let's start over with a whole new planning process".

For a place without its own government, the level of planning conversation here is breathtaking. It'd be great for the Town to acknowledge the huge effort that's already been put forth.

Dan Kwasnowski said:

The only planning process for Varna that I'm aware of involved the Comp. Plan. That's the only town sponsored planning I'm aware of. The county did a corridor study, but there wasn't a lot of detail for Varna. This is likely due to my ignorance and only being involved for the last five years.

Certainly a concerted effort would involve taking into account local efforts, quite seriously in fact.

Unless a very detailed plan with detailed facts and numbers and drawings backing it up is developed in concert with the community, I fear you will be right, planning for planning sake. Colors on a map if you will.

I think the vision of Varna is pretty well set in people's mind's, but the numbers that result don't match up with the drawings or what is on the ground.

I would like to take the local work that has been done, pair it with study areas, and develop specific development plans for those parts of Varna, in concert with the landowners and residents of course, and then put real numbers on that type of buildout and redevelopment, meaning traffic, sewer, water, tax revenue, etc. Then develop a form based code that is very specific.

This is the only way I see taking the fear and doubt out of the development process. It is one thing to say "this will happen if that is allowed" it's another thing to say "no, this is the only way it can happen because this is what we've agreed to."

This is quite a stretch for local government in NY where the normal and accepted approach is to respond to proposals. I'm not quite sure it is feasible politically, but I think in this case it is worth a shot.

The other problem with this approach is that you are almost sure to get what you asked for. Developers from out of town as well as locally would eat up a preconceived development plan, just the lack of review alone would draw them in. At least that is usually the case.

That's how I see it. But like I said, the current effort really can't take on that level of detail at this time. Ultimately it will be up to the Town Board to make the decision of what changes to make, as well as what future efforts to undertake.

If Varna is overwhelmed with attention from a planning perspective, then it is the only place in NY that is. Most communities would love to have this much attention from any perspective.

Okay, back to work...