Monday, February 24, 2014

The Nuts and Bolts of Zoning

The Legal Committee of the Common Council, chaired by Alderman John Friedman (Third Ward), held a three-hour workshop meeting on Friday to discuss possible amendments to the Schedule of Bulk and Area Regulations for Residential Districts. Gossips was present only for the last hour of the workshop, but at that point, after two hours, it didn't seem that very many if any decisions had been made. John Mason, who arrived at the workshop after Gossips did, published a report in yesterday's Register-Star, which gives some sense of the inclusive and wide-ranging nature of the conversation, which started out with the goal of amending the minimum area requirements for dwelling units in multifamily houses in R-4 districts: "Density and setbacks preoccupy zoning workshoppers."

Setbacks, which have been a problem in Hudson probably even since the zoning was adopted back in 1968, were the topic of considerable discussion. The current regulations require a new building to be set back 10, 15, or 20 feet, depending on the particular residential district. (There are four.) There wasn't clarity among workshop participants, however, if the setback was measured from the edge of the sidewalk, the curb, or the middle of the street. What does seem to be clear though is that, were a building to be destroyed, it would be impossible to rebuilt it on its own footprint without an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

There are a couple of explanations about why this is true. One is that in 1968 Hudson adopted a zoning model that was typical of suburban communities and better suited to the more recently constructed neighborhoods between Harry Howard Avenue and the Boulevards.

Another explanation, once offered by someone who was on the Planning Commission when the zoning was adopted, is that it was imagined all the houses in the older parts of Hudson would eventually be demolished or destroyed by fire, and if they were replaced by buildings set farther back, the streets could be widened. It was an autocentric era. 

Whatever the reason for the setbacks as they exist, it is generally agreed that they need to be changed, but whenever the topic of setbacks comes up, it always seems to be complicated by the fact that the existing setbacks are different in different parts of the city. Indeed, they seem to be different on almost every block, reflecting the changing ideals of domestic architecture as the city developed from the river east throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. There can be no "one size fits all" setback for the entire city or even for an entire zoning district. That being the case, the only reasonable thing to do is what city attorney Cheryl Roberts suggested: to require that new construction on now vacant lots comply with the prevailing setback of the surrounding properties to preserve a continuous street wall. This seems both simple and logical. If people want to build a house that is not compliant with the overall character of the immediate neighborhood, they need to get a variance.

To elaborate on Roberts' suggestion, exceptions to the prevailing setback found elsewhere on a block should not be used to justify introducing more inconstancy and more breaks in the street wall. Also, in the event that some disaster strikes, and a house must be rebuilt, the new construction should be on the footprint of the original house.

The question arose on Friday of whether or not the Historic Preservation Commission has any jurisdiction over setbacks. Obviously they cannot grant an area variance. That's the purview of the ZBA. But the HPC is charged with protecting the historic character of buildings and neighborhoods, and setback is a critical element when considering the compatibility of new construction in a historic district. The HPC should have the power to deny a certificate of appropriateness if the proposed setback is not in compliance with the prevailing setback of the street or immediate environment.

The Legal Committee's zoning workshop continues this Friday, February 28, at 11 a.m., in the Council chamber at City Hall. It is a public meeting, in that the public is welcome to attend and observe, but there is no opportunity for the public to give input unless invited to do so by the chair.

1 comment:

  1. In the matter of setbacks, history offers some interesting food for thought. At the first meeting of the city's proprietors on May 14, 1784, it was agreed that "fixing the buildings uniformly" was a community value worth regulating, and that "no person should extend his steps more than four feet from his door or seller ways."

    Back to the 21st century, federal policy provides the context where lot coverage is concerned.

    Lot coverage directly impacts runoff, and developing a responsible policy concerning runoff is the job of our EPA-required Long Term Control Plan (LTCP).

    In an LTCP, zoning strategies are among the "nonstructural" approaches which become "control alternatives" in the plan.

    But had any of these aldermen and assembled experts even heard of this document before? Apparently not, even though Hudson has an LTCP which nobody can find.

    That an LTCP is the proper context for any discussion concerning runoff was apparently unknown to the Legal Committee, which instead wasted time grappling with simplistic concepts of "permeable surfaces."

    Though the committee asked for occasional input from the small audience, the Committee Chair, in the exercise of its awesome power, did not recognize raised hands.

    I was prepared to read the following, which I'm happy to share here for free (rather than at the meeting which was brought to you by your own taxes).

    From the Natural Resources Defense Council:

    "Human-made impervious cover comes in three varieties: rooftop imperviousness from buildings and other structures; transport imperviousness from roadways, parking lots, and other transportation-related facilities; and impaired pervious surfaces, also known as urban soils, which are natural surfaces that become compacted or otherwise altered and less pervious through human action. Examples of the hard soils include the base paths on a baseball diamond or a typical suburban lawn."