Friday, January 24, 2014

A Well-Kept Zoning Secret

Ever since Hudson instituted zoning back in the mid-1960s, the city has been saddled with bulk and area regulations that made it impossible, in the oldest parts of Hudson, to rebuild a house in its own footprint or to build a new house that conformed with the rest of the street without seeking an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The disconnect between the city as it exists and the city as the zoning regulations envision it is often explained by saying that the city fathers back in the day adopted what was basically a suburban model for zoning. Someone who had been on the Planning Commission when the zoning was adopted, however, once explained that in the 1960s the planners figured that in time all the old houses in the First and Second wards would be destroyed by fire or demolished by neglect or intent, as most of them soon were in the Second Ward, and with the new houses set back 15 feet, they could widen the streets.

For almost fifty years, Hudson has lived with its inappropriate setbacks. Any new construction (fortunately there has been very little) routinely had to seek an area variance in order to achieve the most basic compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood. The zoning for the Waterfront Revitalization Area, which is part of the LWRP, was meant to correct the setback problem. Most of the neighborhoods for which 15-foot setbacks are inappropriate are in the Waterfront Revitalization Area. The problem is nobody seemed aware of this amendment.

Earlier this month, when the Historic Preservation Commission was agonizing over the inappropriate setback of the foundation at 215 Union Street, HPC counsel Carl Whitbeck delivered the standard recitation about setbacks and how the project would have to get an area variance from the ZBA in order to conform with the rest of the street wall. Although the LWRP--including this zoning amendment-- had been adopted by the Common Council in November 2011, city attorney Whitbeck admitted to having no knowledge of it existence.

When Gossips went looking for the setback amendment in the LWRP, what was found was Appendix G, a Design Guideline Template for the Waterfront Revitalization Area. Last Wednesday, when at its meeting the Legal Committee took up the discussion of making changes in the Schedule of Bulk and Area Regulations for Residential Districts, Gossips, from the audience, suggested that a priority should be amending the setback requirements. City attorney Cheryl Roberts pointed out that this had already been done and directed attention to footnote 4 on the bulk and area chart, which reads: "The Planning Board may approve a front yard setback that conforms with the prevailing building setback for the respective street on which a property is located."

If the goal is to protect the character of Hudson's historic neighborhoods, it seems the verb in this statement should be shall not may, and the statement should appear someplace more prominent than a footnote.

1 comment:

  1. The time to change "may" to "shall" was in 2011.

    In September 2011, the Common Council passed its Environmental Impact Statement on the LWRP without allowing further public comment on these very issues. Despite a promise by Common Council President Don Moore that the public would be given an opportunity to speak that evening, the meeting simply ended, and without being adjourned by Mr. Moore.

    Our city's leading lights were in such a hurry to get this deal behind them that one alderman turned to another and said, "If you didn't want to vote, you should have stayed away."

    Another alderman asked for the definition of an "easement" (the entire LWRP hinged on an an objectionable and sneaky easement deal which has since proved to be the document's ruin), but then this same alderman lectured her colleagues a half hour later that they all knew enough about the zoning not to delay the vote any further.

    Beneath the next day's Gossips' report on the meeting I predicted that "Hudson will regret this for years."

    But that wasn't our last chance to comment on the zoning. The LWRP itself had to be accepted as "complete," and although it's never been submitted to the Department of State, and is sitting in Cheryl Roberts' new office we just bought her at City Hall, the officially "complete" LWRP gave the same imbecilic council the confidence to amend the zoning law itself, which was the public's final opportunity to comment.

    But almost nobody showed up for the hearing (which was the proper time to comment on "mays" and "shalls"), after which the aldermen proceeded in their usual unthinking fashion to pass into law proposals that they didn't understand, including an official Zoning Map (§325-3) that wasn't to be created for another 14 months!

    Finally issued last February, it was only on that map that the public could grasp for the first time that the South Bay is now zoned for a gravel conveyor system. This is something Mr. Moore and Ms. Roberts would have known everything about, but that the public would have had to guess.

    These unrequited gifts were made to Holcim and O&G on our behalf, and without our knowledge. But when you think of it that actually makes all the sense in the world. Denied the right to comment, the public rolls over on cue; granted the right to comment, nobody shows up.

    Now we'd like to change "may" to "shall"? A bit late, I'd say.