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December 26, 2014
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Delaware’s troubling new law

Liam Murphy

At a special meeting of the town board this past Wednesday, the Town of Delaware passed controversial zoning amendments that have attracted of a lot of news coverage and letters in this and other local newspapers. Despite the controversy and public concern, no public comment was allowed at the meeting. The residents in attendance, who have devoted so much time to the issues raised by these amendments, did not deserve this high-handedness.

The history of these amendments has been one of doublespeak. Perhaps that’s to be expected when the town planner is a paid spokesman for the gas industry. Amendments that drastically weakened noise regulation were sold to us as amendments that strengthened noise regulation. Amendments that essentially do away with zoning for large areas of the River Corridor were sold to us as changes that would make the law clearer. The Sullivan County Division of Planning and Environmental Management got it exactly right in its letter to the board: The amendments “create more confusion than currently exists in the code.” Why yes, because we needed more clarity in our law.

As required by state law, the board on Wednesday adopted a resolution stating its reasons for not accepting the modifications the county recommended. The county said that the new law “creates a complicated process for a landowner, developer, or planning board member and therefore more potential for multiple interpretations and more business for the Zoning Board of Appeals.” This is exactly what architect and Delaware resident Buck Moorhead has been saying for many months. The carefully reasoned response of the town? They think that “there is sufficient clarity and consistency in the amendments so as to ensure compliance with the Upper Delaware River Management Plan.” This doesn’t respond to the county’s concern at all. It is completely beside the point. Maybe the board’s statement of reasons is not doublespeak. Let’s just call it evasive.

Note that the board did not, in its resolution, deny that its amendments make the zoning less clear in the River Corridor. It did not deny that the new law “creates a complicated process for a landowner, developer, or planning board member.” The main issue here is that the board has never given us a good explanation for making changes that have such obviously bad effects. The board used to say, “The county asked us to do this.” But no, the county did no such thing, and in its letter, the Division of Planning and Environmental Management requested a revision to minutes from a town public hearing to correct that false statement. If so much weren’t at stake, it would be funny. All that work redoing the map, and no one can tell us why.

It is clear is that the main inspiration for amending the zoning law was to make the Town of Delaware more hospitable to the gas industry. Not necessarily for drilling as such, which may never be viable in this county, but for infrastructure such as compressor stations. This is especially relevant near the river, where the Millennium pipeline runs and the land is not far from the gas fields of Pennsylvania.

Good government requires transparency. If everyone knew that the purpose was to encourage industrial development that would create no jobs and would benefit only large landowners, then the amendments would have been subject to much greater public scrutiny and debate. Wouldn’t that have been a good idea? Isn’t that what representative government is supposed to be all about?

[Liam Murphy is a resident of Kenoza Lake, NY]

Note: A news article about the Town of Delaware zoning change can be found here.