August 18, 2011 —
Members of Highland, Lumberland and Tusten Concerned Citizens would like to clarify their towns’ current efforts to update their comprehensive plans and zoning codes.
In recent months, citizens’ committees in the Towns of Highland, Lumberland, and Tusten have been working on scheduled updates of their comprehensive plans, which are local planning documents spelling out the quality of life envisioned by town residents and recommending specific measures to achieve and preserve quality of life. Traditionally, such plans are updated every 10 years, in response to changing patterns of development and the expressed desires of town residents. The overarching principles that inform this process are the town’s legal responsibility to protect the health, welfare and safety of town residents, appropriate use of land and the need to conserve property values.
Once a town’s comprehensive plan is completed, the next step is to review the town’s zoning code to see if revisions are needed. In Lumberland and Tusten, zoning rewrite committees have for months been weighing a host of definitions and provisions which spell out the uses that are permitted or prohibited, so that the zoning does, by law, conform to the comprehensive plans. Highland will soon begin this second phase.
As in the past, the current comprehensive plans for Highland, Lumberland and Tusten encourage the development of light industry, housing, retail, professional and recreational businesses in harmony with the rural, scenic and natural character of the countryside. High-impact industries, like oil refineries, animal factory farms or natural gas drilling, are generally viewed as activities not in keeping with the vision of each municipality.
While our town officials understand that they do not have the power to regulate the processes and practices of a given industry, New York State statute and case law indicate that they do have the authority to prohibit certain industrial practices in some or all zones of the town, if those uses clearly run counter to the comprehensive plans. Therefore, officials in the various towns have embraced the option of protective zoning as sensible, legally correct, and each town’s prerogative under the state home rule authority, and, in the case of heavy industry, supported by court decisions stemming from past challenges to New York State Environmental Conservation Law 23-0303(2).
You should be assured that our towns are not going to bring fiscal disaster upon themselves. Period. However, they reject doing nothing just because there are threats of lawsuits hanging in the air. Even if the restrictive zoning is challenged, each of the proposed zoning codes requires an aggrieved party (perhaps a gas company or a lessor) to exhaust a strenuous administrative remedy—a zoning use variance process—before the case can be considered ripe for litigation.
In the coming weeks, starting first with Lumberland on September 1, public information sessions will be held to explain the proposed zoning codes section by section, answer questions, and to solicit input for revisions. We urge you to become informed and then decide for yourself whether each town is acting in the best interest of its residents.
[Carol Roig represents Highland Concerned Citizens, Peter Comstock represents Lumberland Concerned Citizens and Kevin Vertrees represents Tusten Concerned Citizens.]