Planning talk: How can town regulations get better?

A grab bag of tweeks, revisits, and more substantial changes — rethinking private clubs and other “special permit uses” in residential zones, protecting wetlands with “riparian buffers,” having setbacks apply to small sheds, a better definition of “clear-cutting,” and perhaps a new look of Route 7 business zoning — are on a to-be-considered list put together by the Planning and Zoning Commission and Inland Wetlands Board.

The commission and board — the same nine people, acting under different state laws — met Jan. 23 to talk about possible regulation changes to consider in upcoming planning sessions.

The discussion meandered, with talk about “non-retail showrooms” leading to the idea of possibly rethinking the area around routes 7 and 35, where a “gateway zone” was approved a few years back only to be thrown out by the courts on an appeal.

Suggestions from staff — Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli and Inland Wetlands agent Beth Peyser — sparked ideas among commissioners.

Clubs, special permit uses

Recent controversies justify looking at “special permit uses in residential zones,” commissioners felt.

The special permits procedure, which requires a public hearing and vote by the commission, can be used to allow a variety of specifically listed public or quasi-public facilities — schools, churches, ball fields, pools, clubs — in residential zones, where development is mostly limited to housing subdivisions.

In the last year or so several concepts — a drug rehabilitation facility, an ice skating club, a Little League field, a bed-and-breakfast — have sparked public opposition when discussed as potential special permit uses in residential zones.

“We keep getting challenged on our understanding of residential neighborhoods, and the public’s understanding of residential neighborhoods,” said commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti.

“Do we want to look at the definition of private clubs? Do we really need to define commercial uses in residential neighborhoods?” she said.

The public seems to want tighter residential zoning.

“We don’t think of B&Bs, rehab facilities, or Little League ball fields as commercial uses,” she said. “Some towns have ‘not-for-profit’ as a component of ‘private clubs’ — that specific one has been called out a couple of times.”

Commissioners liked the idea, and Baldelli suggested the way to start might be to go through the list of uses allowed by special permit in residential zones, and talk about each one.

Buffers for water

Peyser suggested that a planted “riparian buffer” around lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams — say 15 feet — might strengthen the protection currently offered by the “uplands review area” where development is limited but planting isn’t required.

“A riparian buffer zone helps to protect the watercourse/water body from the impacts of adjacent land use,” Peyser told The Press.

The Conservation Commission often suggests riparian buffers on properties being developed, and it would be on firmer ground if the regulations spelled out a requirement.

“Has anyone considered wetlands banking?” asked board member Tim Dunphy.

He described a practice in which some New York state communities designated significant wetlands areas in need of protection, and allow developers to build in less sensitive wet areas in return for help — financial contributions, maybe — protecting the more ecologically valuable wetland areas.

“We’d need to check state statutes to see if it’s even doable,” said Baldelli, the department director.

Board member Joe Fossi suggested improving the way “clear cutting” is described in the regulations.

“If it’s eight acres, and they left one tree up, by definition they haven’t ‘clear cut,’” he said.

Shed setbacks

Currently setback distances don’t apply to sheds and small auxiliary structures of less than 200 square feet, and discussion revealed differing thoughts on whether that should be changed.

Commissioner Mark Zeck didn’t want rules telling people where to put sheds in their own yards.

“I don’t support any regulations that take rights away from individuals,” he said.

“I don’t like to see things right up to the property lines,” countered Dunphy. “That’s not taking rights away from people.”

Ugly plastic lawn-mower sheds tend to get placed where homeowners don’t have look at them — sometimes over by the neighbor’s property, Dunphy said. He’d heard complaints, he added.

“A lot of people put behind sheds what they don’t want to see themselves,” Commissioner John Katz added.

“Somebody could buy a school bus and leave it parked anywhere they want on their property, too,” said Fossi. “You can’t police everything.”

Retail showrooms

Showrooms can be borderline retail. People go there to look at carpets, flooring, furniture — but they aren’t walking out with purchases. The commission discussed reviewing how “non-retail showrooms” are treated in various business zones.

And that led Commissioner Bob Cascella to wonder about the non-retail B-2 business zone along Route 7 near the intersection of Route 35.

“The vast majority of Route 7 is zoned B-2, and the vast majority of Route 7 is vacant,” Cascella said.

Should more uses be permitted?

“Route 7 has a great opportunity to be something more than it is for our community,” he said.

“I think we should take a good, hard look at Route 7.”

Mucchetti recalled the commission’s effort to liberalize zoning at routes 7 and 35 a few years back.

“‘The gateway’ is what we called it,” she said.

That “gateway zone” was appealed by neighbors and Main Street shop owners, and thrown out by the courts.

“I have no interest in expanding what happens on Route 7, in terms of retail,” said Katz. “Or the traffic on Route 7. Or the congestion on Route 7.”

Cascella decided he should think more.

“I’d like to come back a month from now and revisit the business zones and have a little more succinct anwer than ‘We should just expand,’” he said.