Danby Passes New Zoning Regulations

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Tompkins Weekly    1-12-22

By Eric and Cathleen Banford

If our children are to have the possibility of wellness in the future, it is vital that we change how we hold ourselves in relationship to the natural world of which we are a part. How do we honor people’s needs while still being accountable for ecological wellness?

On Jan. 4, 2022, the Danby Town Board unanimously passed new zoning regulations into law. This was the culmination of months of work by town officials and local residents participating in group discussions, neighborhood walks, Zoom meetings, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, monthly updates in the Danby Area News and collaborative visioning.

Goals include focusing development in the Central Danby and West Danby Hamlets, to reduce and cluster development outside of the hamlets, to preserve farmland and to encourage agricultural activity.

Dotson Park. Photo by Cathleen Banford.

The new policy designates various zones, each with different goals, minimum lot sizes, and setbacks, and the ability to transfer development rights between zones.

The Hamlet Core and Hamlet Neighborhood zones are flexible for allowing new housing and business investment, allowing increased housing (one to four units) and small business by-right. The goal is to encourage development in these zones.

The Hamlet Neighborhood Zone is intended to allow the development of a predominantly residential neighborhood adjacent to the Hamlet Core. It encourages a mix of housing types and lot sizes with the goal of building out a neighborhood where people of all ages, incomes and household types can live and safely walk.

The Hamlet Center Zone is intended to allow the incremental infill and extension of the Hamlet Core as a walkable, mixed-use, neighborhood center where local business is supported and new development creates a sense of community.

Low Density Residential Zone allows up to two residential units per 5 acres, with a minimum lot size of 2 acres. The purpose of this zone is to provide an area of limited development where it is deemed most desirable in the town to maintain larger lots for development and permit the possibility of continued agricultural use of the areas without limiting the areas to solely agricultural uses.

Rural 1 and Rural 2 zones both allow one residential unit per 10 acres, with Rural 2 having potential for greater development via development rights transfer. Transfer of development rights is supported from areas the town wants to protect to areas where development is encouraged. Each zone has “credit multipliers” and costs for these transfers.

The purpose of the Rural 1 Zone is to protect parts of the town where agriculture, open space, forests and natural habitat are the preferred uses and for the orderly development of large lot residential and some commercial uses considered to be reasonable and in keeping with the rural character of the area.

The Rural 2 Zone’s purpose is to protect parts of the town that include more sensitive open-space resources including but not limited to steep slopes, unique natural areas, wetlands and significant contiguous habitat areas. This zone merits additional review and careful consideration for any new development.

The High Priority Preservation Zone has a 25-acre-per-residential-unit requirement and only includes the state forest and existing protected or publicly accessible open space, such as Dotson Community Park and the Lindsay-Parsons Biodiversity Preserve. It is not being applied to anyone’s private property unless they voluntarily request so. This provision will protect forest land in case New York state ever decides to sell Danby State Forest.

To support agriculture in Danby, the Agricultural Support Small Scale Commercial and Light Industry Floating Zone was established to enable the development of small-scale commercial businesses and small-scale light industrial uses that directly support local agricultural production. These businesses are not required to locate on a farm and may serve multiple farms in the area.

“The proposal, and several years’ worth of work and community conversations, balances things such as property rights, housing demand, open and working land preservation, and the environment,” Danby Town Planner David West shared. “Some examples include: much of the town (Rural 1 and 2) is moving from a 5-acre-per-unit max density to a 10-acre-per-unit max density that will keep those parts of the town fairly rural in perpetuity rather than turning the whole town into suburban sprawl. To balance that, the town is taking a very progressive direction for the two existing hamlets — one to four units per lot by right, no minimum lot size and no minimum parking requirements — making our hamlets the most small-scale infill developer-friendly places in Tompkins County.”

Addressing max density, West continued.

“In rural areas, the decrease in max density is being offset by making it easier to achieve that density in a variety of ways,” West said. “Cluster provisions will now allow a lot’s development potential to be used without subdividing. If someone wants to develop 40 acres, rather than developing four 10-acre lots, they can build a fourplex or two duplexes, or they could create three small lots clustered together and keep the rest of the lot as one big contiguous piece. The town has also removed the minimum frontage requirement that previously made it complicated and cumbersome to access the density that was allowed — with the zoning finally set at a density that matches the town’s goals. In all zones, the town is making it easier to build the most naturally affordable housing types.”

Town Supervisor Joel Gagnon shared that he’s feeling “hopeful” about the new regulations.

“By going from 5 acres to 10 acres, we have reduced the ultimate development density in the outlying parts of town,” he said. “It encourages agriculture and makes it less likely that the inefficiencies of delivering social service to a dispersed population will be exacerbated in the future. And it makes it more likely we can support businesses in our core.”

Gagnon explained further.

“The overarching question through this whole process has been how much are you willing to do to put our money and our lives behind a plan that says we’re going to commit to this and not develop the whole place,” he said. “There are certain things that are important to protect, … [like] agriculture in tune with the environment rather than in spite of the environment.”

Realizing that we have a responsibility to future generations and to each other, it becomes more apparent that it is the way we hold ourselves in relationships not just with each other but also with our connection with place that will make or break our success going forward.

These zoning changes are a starting point. They will change and evolve over time as they are challenged by real-life situations. The Danby Town Board realizes this and wants to keep revisiting them and how they impact the town.

The process to date strengthened relationships by giving residents a voice, though there is always room for improvement. As we navigate a path forward together, we will need to acknowledge the concerns of everyone while being accountable for learning how best to live as nature, as part of the delicate balance of life that keeps us alive.

Eric Banford is on the Board of the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute, and Cathleen Banford is on the Board of Sustainable Tompkins. Together, they are designing an edible food forest on their farm in Danby.

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