Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Of Zoning Amendments and Planning

Tomorrow, the mayor is holding a public hearing on Local Law No. 6 and Local Law No. 7, which inspires one to wonder what's happening with the law that came ahead of it in order of introduction: Local Law No. 5, sometimes known as the "Stewart's proposal." The proposed zoning amendment has been on the aldermen's desks since July. 

When the law had been placed on the aldermen's desks, it was referred to the Columbia County Planning Board and the Hudson Planning Board for review and comment. Columbia County Planning Board submitted its response to the Council on August 22. Predictably, the CCPB found the proposed action had "no significant county-wide or intercommunity impacts associated with it" and advised, "the City of Hudson Common Council may take final action with a simple majority vote." That said, the CCPB made several comments about the proposed zoning amendment, questioning how a twenty-year period would be determined and documented, how the size of the original structure would be determined, how many times a structure could be enlarged, and raising concerns about the impact of new commercial uses in residential neighborhoods, the effect on the Central Business District, and changes in traffic and circulation.

Comments from the Hudson Planning Board were longer in coming. At its August meeting, having just received a letter from former city attorney Ken Dow critiquing the proposed law, the Planning Board decided it needed more time to understand the proposed law, the thinking behind it, and Dow's comments about it. It was decided they would take another month and invite Alderman John Rosenthal (Fourth Ward), who chairs the Legal Committee where the law originated, to come to the September meeting and talk about the law. That happened on September 13, the day of the New York State primary, so Gossips was not there to witness the meeting. Sometime after the meeting, I spoke with Walter Chatham, chair of the Planning Board, about the board's position on Local Law No. 5 and what the board's recommendation to the Council would be. Chatham told me that the board would support amending the zoning if Stewart's would agree to be a "test animal" and allow the new facility to be "designed under SmartCode precepts."

What a gas station and convenience store "designed under SmartCode precepts" would mean is that Stewart's could not build its basic suburban style facility, where the only design option is flat roof or gable roof. Rather they would have to design a building that followed the physical form and massing of the adjacent buildings, with a similar setback from the street. Chatham also spoke about locating the gas pumps behind the building, where they could not be seen from the street.

At the Common Council Legal Committee meeting last Wednesday, I expected the Planning Board's position on Local Law No. 5 might be discussed, but it wasn't. Instead a related issue was taken up: the Planning Task Force that Council president Tom DePietro announced on August 13 was to be formed. This was, to my knowledge, the first public discussion of the task force since DePietro made the announcement, saying it would "encompass the discussion of Local Law No. 9 of 2017 and Local Law No. 5 of 2018." At the Legal Committee meeting, the topic was introduced by city attorney Andy Howard, who advised Rosenthal that the task force should be considered an ad hoc committee, and its formation could be accomplished by resolution. He went on to explain, "Something that came from that body would come to the Legal Committee and then on to the Council." 

When talking about the makeup of the task force, Rosenthal initially suggested that it be seven: the chairs of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Historic Preservation Commission, and Conservation Advisory Council, and three aldermen. Later, it was realized that the code enforcement officer should be on the task force, and, to keep the number of members to seven, the number of aldermen on the task force was reduced to two. Still later, including representatives from HDC (Hudson Development Corporation), HCDPA (Hudson Community Development and Planning Agency), and the Hudson Business Coalition was also mentioned. The discussion concluded with Howard saying he would "start sketching out the resolution."


  1. The whole point of a Task Force is to get beyond the organization's comfort zone. As proposed above, it's going to be the same old echo chamber: more comfortable bureaucrats talking to one another; or: multiplying the hydra.

  2. 1.

    I understand the caution PM, but this time your concern about echo chambers is misplaced.

    For echoes, look instead to Gossips' second-hand report on 9/17 about the September meeting of the Planning Board (9/13) at which the members allegedly agreed to "[stick] with their original position" regarding piecemeal tweaks to the Zoning Code.

    What the Gossips post achieved inadvertently was a piecemeal impression not only of the Planning Board meeting (which I did attend), but of the profound planning effort now getting underway. In all due respect to both of you, by obsessing on details and business-as-usual prolepsis, you're missing the bigger picture (and this from someone who attempted to sue the Planning Board earlier this year for its business-as-usual failings).

    For the big picture, there's a growing awareness that the city's approach to planning, as preserved in the Code, is really a petrified remnant of former demographic and economic realties. The great progress at hand is that enough people in government grasp that the city is harnessed to an antiquated framework more appropriate to circumstances which may no longer apply.

    It's better than that, though, because these same individuals serving on the Council, the Planning Board, and the CAC - just about all of whom I've challenged for other serious shortcomings - are leading the effort. It's City officials who are educating the public for a change, and when do you remember that happening before?

  3. 2.

    To reply to your specific comment above - and hopefully to advance others' thinking on the subject - I'm optimistic that the involvement of the listed agencies will result in a comprehensive overview of the challenges we face.

    To leave aside planning approaches for a moment, and the advantages from consolidating our planning, just consider the confusion between City Departments and agencies regarding the existing Zoning Code. To cite the most recent causeway action vis-a-vis the Code (please see §325-17.1(F)(2)(j) on "resurfacing," which requires a conditional use permit), it's pretty obvious that compartmentalization among different City agencies is a very serious problem in Hudson. I have much to learn about Smart Code, but one thing it promises is getting people together to break down these ancient fifes.

    Parallel examples are legion in Hudson (frankly, too many to stomach), but all are in stark contrast with the more sensible notions now looking to update the way we plan.

    Indeed, when I finished reading the above Gossips post the following summary occurred to me: reasonable and prudent efforts are moving apace with the level of care warranted by the subject.

    It's my understanding that the Common Council is waiting for a letter from the Planning Board and that the Planning Board is still mulling things over. Well, that's a good thing. The Planning Board should not be hurried, nor should anyone's impatience lead to the kind of second-guessing more appropriate to the old framework. Same goes for the Common Council, because all these parties already know that the old framework is precisely what's in need of revision.

    Pretty shocking optimism, but there it is.

  4. Point is, that's what we should be talking about.

    Why are residents so far behind the curve?