Sunday, October 7, 2018

Prepping for a Conversation about Zoning

There is a lot of talk now about revising Hudson's zoning code. The issue has been brought to a head by the Stewart's proposal to expand its gas station and convenience store at the corner of Green Street and Fairview Avenue, but the need to revise the code has been a recurring topic of discussion for at least twenty years. Central to the problems with the current zoning, adopted in 1968, are setbacks--both front and side--which make it impossible for a 19th-century building to be reconstructed on its own footprint, for a new building to be constructed in a historic neighborhood in a manner compatible with its context without getting area variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals, or for many vacant lots in the city to be built on at all because they are too small.

In recent years, another problem with the zoning has surfaced, involving buildings originally constructed for commercial purposes but unable now to be put to a commercial use because they are located in areas zoned residential. 

Amending the zoning can seem pretty straightforward, but getting into the weeds of bulk and area regulations and density calculations is enough to make people's eyes glaze over. That shouldn't keep us from educating ourselves about zoning issues in preparation for a community conversation about zoning reform. We can begin with some basic terms: use-based zoning and form-based zoning.

Hudson's current zoning is use-based, also known as traditional zoning or Euclidean zoning. (Euclidean zoning is not named for the Greek mathematician but rather for the village of Euclid, Ohio, where in 1926 the local used-based zoning withstood a legal challenge from a developer.) Hudson is divided into districts which are defined by the uses permitted there. What is currently being suggested is a change from use-based zoning to form-based zoning. A project called re:code LA defines form-based zoning is this way:
One of the newer interpretations of land-use planning, Form-Based zoning regulates development by focusing on the scale, design, and placement of buildings, paying particular attention to the relationship with the street (or other public spaces). Communities that implement form-based zoning codes tend to believe that both the look and arrangement of buildings more strongly define a community's character than do the actual uses that take place within those buildings. Because they focus on form influencing function, these codes tend to be employed to promote walkability, transit-friendly development, and more compact settlement patterns.
In early September, Jonathan Lerner, chair of the Conservation Advisory Council, and Walter Chatham, chair of the Planning Board, coauthored a "My View" in the Register-Star called "A zoning solution within our grasp," In it, they recommended that Hudson adopt a tool called SmartCode, which is a "form-based planning template." You can read up on SmartCode, its principles and goals, on the website SmartCodeCentral

More accessible, however, is an article Lerner recommended recently on Facebook entitled "A new path to code reform," which was published in a Congress for the New Urbanism journal called Public Square. The article introduces a guide that was created in partnership with the State of Michigan as a tool for local governments to take ownership of their own zoning reform. The guide is called Enabling Better Places: Users' Guide to Zoning Reform, and although it was written with specific communities in Michigan in mind, but its advice seems very applicable to Hudson. The following is quoted from the opening section which addresses the guide's purpose:
Most of today’s zoning codes were written to guide the post-war housing boom many cities and villages experienced. While these codes were able to accommodate unprecedented growth, many had unintentional consequences that hampered the ability to develop more of the walkable, vibrant streets and neighborhoods that were the historic hearts of many villages and cities. It is often illegal in a city’s zoning code to build a replica of a beloved street or neighborhood. Furthermore, the process of a coding update can be expensive and time consuming, requiring significant municipal capacity. Those communities short on funds and staff may not be able to effectively overhaul their codes or fully engage with stakeholders. . . . 
Enabling Better Places: Users' Guide to Zoning Code Reform is intended to be used by Michigan communities who are planning to make incremental changes to their codes. Many code reform processes seek to overhaul the entire code. This all-or-nothing approach has the significant potential to become a contentious and arduous process for all involved. It can daylight simmering community tensions, create strong NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) reactions, and can lead to other, unresolved, community issues. 
This Guide does not advocate for or against a type of code framework; it is neither explicitly form-based nor is it use-based. Rather, it advocates for codes that enable vibrant, livable urban conditions. These solutions may be integrated into an existing use-based code, or may be the first step toward an eventual form-based code.
A PDF of the guide can be accessed here. It is recommended reading or browsing for everyone interested zoning code reform in Hudson.


  1. 1.

    Going by the Minutes of Hudson's initial planners, the Proprietors seemed to agree that "both the look and arrangement of buildings more strongly define a community's character than do the actual uses that take place within those buildings" (quoted from "re:code LA," above).

    That's not to say that use-based zoning has no application. Imagine a form-based approach to the Recreational Conservation (R-C) District where the arrangement of a proposed industrial road outweighs any question of its use.

    But wait, this already happened in South Bay two years ago when the City granted permission for alleged "maintenance" to the private causeway-road. Then, after the work encroached more than a quarter-acre into the eastern R-C District, the City never reviewed its permissions protocol which actually grants no role to the Office of Code Enforcement. If the requisite sections of Code had been revisited and understood, last month's resurfacing of the causeway would have gone to the Planning Board first, as obviously intended.

    Sooner than we expect, the landowner will seek permission from a third authority for a USE variance to enter the R-C District west of Rte. 9-G. This will require an understanding of where the boundaries lie, but asked to clarify the District boundaries more then a year ago the Zoning Board of Appeals still has no idea where they are (and thus no idea about the required use variance).

    This is the most pressing zoning matter facing Hudson, which most will fail to realize before the next crisis.

  2. 2.

    Incredibly, we still don't have a "conservation overlay" for the city's two substantial wetlands. This is no-brainer zoning device which the City's Comprehensive Plan recommended in 2002. Because the Code is not always clear, an overlay would now assist our dim grasp of the otherwise stated purpose of the R-C District. (The greatest drawback of any Zoning Code is that we actually have to read it.)

    Will the CAC recommend the already-recommended conservation overlay? Doubtful. The history of the overlay was provided in a public comment at the very first CAC meeting in 2014, as was the need for a letter of request to the DEC Division of Water to correct significant errors in the City's SPDES permit (e.g., the permit gives the GPS coordinates of our wastewater treatment plant as being north of Troy).

    As for the SPDES permit, in 2015 environmentalists from Riverkeeper to Audubon NY to the Alan Devoe Bird Club desperately needed the revised legal status which only the permit corrections could afford. Today, the DEC's policy is unchanged, that the necessary corrections can only follow a "letter of request" which the CAC alone may submit.

    While the CAC's ineptitude doesn't say much about our concern for clearly stated policies and laws, our laws are only as good as the people willing to honor and enforce them, which is to say City officials and city residents.

    Considering our multiple failures to defend the existing Code this year alone (see #1 above), committed conservationists will continue to face serious challenges from City officials with or without the introduction of new laws.