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December 09, 2016
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Liberty to move zoning back three decades; Board members likely to reverse earlier decision

The former Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake is one property that will have its zoning changed when the Town of Liberty board moves to repeal the zoning adopted in 2011.
TRR photo by Fritz Mayer

The supervisor of the Town of Liberty asked members of the public and the town board, the planning board and the zoning board to speak out on the question of whether they wanted to stick with the zoning that was adopted in 2011, or go back to the zoning that was implemented in 1987. Although three of the current town board members voted to adopt the current code, it now seems likely that the board will vote to erase the several years of work of the committee which was formed to update the zoning maps and the uses allowed in the various districts, and which continues its work to examine the zoning code.

The item that perhaps received the most attention was the former Stevensville Hotel in Swan Lake. The hotel has been empty for several years, but was formerly operated for a few years by a couple who catered to, among other groups, customers who came to Sullivan County to participate in paintball events.

There are no hotel resorts remaining in the Town of Liberty since the closure of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in the 1980s. The town board eliminated the resort hotel zoning district in 2011. In the 1980s the town developed a planned use development floating zone, which could accomodate a resort hotel if it were amended do to do.

But Todd Gallo, the son of the owners of the hotel, said he could not obtain a buyer for the property because it is now a non-conforming use due to the zoning change, and investors are not willing to invest in non-conforming uses. With the exception of this hotel, which operated for a few years in the 2000s, no new resort hotels have opened in Sullivan County in the past 50 years or more.

A member of the audience asked if the zoning for that particular property could be changed without changing the entire zoning scheme back to the one that was adopted in 1987.

Charlie Barbuti, the town supervisor, said that while he is new to the office and not that familiar with laws, he thought that could not be done because it would be “spot zoning,” which is illegal.

Another matter that was of concern to the attendees was the fact that in order to maintain open space in the town, the minimum lot for a subdivision in the agricultural district was increased from two acres to 10. Several members of the audience said that this type of zoning is too restrictive. A similar discussion was held in the Town of Bethel several years ago, and the minimum lot size in the ag district was changed from one to three acres.

There was quite a bit of discussion about whether it would be better to mix the two zoning maps because the new maps had some clear advantages over the old one. For instance, the new zones incorporate the principles of development encouraging more density in and near the hamlets, where there is some infrastructure, with density lessening out toward more rural zones, where there is little infrastructure. Also, the new zones span entire parcels, whereas before, some parcels were divided with part of single parcel located in one zone and part of the same parcel in another.

Several speakers reiterated that one of the town’s most important goals was to increase the tax base, which may have been related to the fact that several summer camps in the town, which pay no taxes, used to be special uses but since the zoning change have become non-conforming uses.

Greg Woods, a member of the zoning review committee, said the town appeared to be unfriendly to non-conforming uses. He specifically mentioned Upper Ferndale Road, though even if the town does revert to 1987 zoning that would not change the status of the camps on that road which has been residential since then.

It was noted that one camp on the road has received 22 permits for expansion projects since 2000, and thus the actions of town officials could not reasonably be considered to be “unfriendly.”

Barbuti, the owner of a furniture store in Liberty who arranged to have the staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up shop in his store in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, invited the owners of several summer camps to previous meetings of the Zoning Review Committee, but has not yet invited property owners of the surrounding homes.