2009-10-15 / Front Page

Zoning changes bring debate

Hearing tonight at the Town Hall
By Phil Zahodiakin

Technical language in the changes proposed for the Jamestown zoning ordinance sparked extensive debate during the Oct. 8 workshop on the draft amendments. A hearing on the proposal will be held this evening, Thursday, Oct. 15, but it remains to be seen when the Town Council will actually vote on the package.

The first opportunity for a vote will be the council meeting on Monday, Oct. 19. After that meeting, there will be only one more opportunity to vote before the election of a new council, unless the sitting council schedules a special meeting.

Most of the amendments are intended to guide and facilitate construction of affordable housing in a special development district that would be established for the Village area. Town Planner Lisa Bryer presented slides outlining the amendments to the workshop panel, which was comprised of council and Planning Commission members.

Council President Julio Di- Giando, who supports a council vote before the Nov. 3 election, said the amended ordinance “is not perfect. We could run this through five councils and it still wouldn’t be perfect.”

In fact, no one from the council flagged a “deal breaker” in the proposed amendments. But council member Bob Sutton warned that their complexity could cause some of the next council members to say, “’I’m not invested in this and don’t feel any commitment to make this work.’”

Council member Barbara Szepatowski said she opposes any delay in a vote.

“I hope we have an opportunity to vote on the 19th,” she said, adding that the current council has observed the 18-month effort to draft the revisions. “If we can pass this ordinance, then the next council will have the responsibility to learn it and make it work,” she said.

Language needs clarifying

Bryer agreed to work on clarifi cations to some of the amendment language in response to issues raised by the workshop panel. Sutton was particularly concerned about the jargon in the proposal, warning that it will be difficult for lay people to figure out what some of the language means.

“I don’t know if what’s in here will cause problems, but I don’t know what ‘organically evolved’ or ‘parametric’ mean, and I don’t know what ‘wilderness’ has to do with Jamestown, but that’s just me,” Sutton said. “Professionals like architects and lawyers and real estate people can get into those terms, but I don’t think ‘insider language’ belongs in the narrative of this ordinance.”

Bryer told the Press that she is considering “re-writing some of the language in plain English or lay terms” before the hearing. She is also considering the addition of “an introduction that describes the purpose of the ordinance. I want to make sure that, even if it’s short, there’s something describing its intent.”

Sutton also questioned the absence of an appeals process for Technical Review Committee recommendations. The TRC will be comprised of the town planner, engineer, public works director and building official – who will perform application reviews to ensure that any and all issues raised by proposed structures, demolitions or variances are identified up front.

Council member Michael White said he supports TRC reviews, pointing out that they will streamline the review process. Bryer expressed the view that appeals wouldn’t be appropriate for the recommendations of an advisory panel.

She did agree, however, that it would be appropriate for Building Official Fred Brown to submit his opinion on the enforcement burdens, if any, that the amended ordinance would pose. She also agreed to provide an illustration of the development options for a hypothetical lot in the special development district: The graphic, along with the building official’s statement, will be presented at tonight’s hearing.

One concern about development options was raised by Szepatowski, who asked if garages proposed for construction on undersized lots in the special development district would have to be built behind houses. Bryer replied that there isn’t any outright requirement to site garages behind the houses because they could also be built beside houses.

The garage guidelines are signifi cant because, currently, the ordinance does not regulate parking in residential areas. The amendments would, however, regulate parking in the residential areas in the special development district – where affordable housing units could be built on lots with dimensions smaller than those specified by the R8 zoning for the Village neighborhoods.

DiGiando observed that “it’ll be sad to see the density of downtown change,” to which Bryer said – as she has previously pointed out – “the lots [in the Village] already include lots as small as 5,000 square feet.”

Commission member Michael Swistak noted that the amendments “would allow people to use more of their lots than ever before. We tinkered with parking only a little and, on the flip side, we haven’t allowed building heights to become any taller to keep the character of the area intact.”

One of the provisions intended to maintain the character of the Village is the maximum width of lots – 96 feet – that may be developed. Commission member Michael Smith pushed back against this restriction, asking, “What are we protecting ourselves from? Mc- Donald’s? That wouldn’t happen [in Jamestown] because we don’t have the population to support one, anyway. So, you’re really just giving the Planning Commission the right of refusal.”

Szepatowski replied that the Jamestown Village Charrette “showed that people liked the character of the Village as it was, and didn’t want it to change.”

But Smith maintained that all property owners should have the freedom to buy an adjoining lot and “do what they want with it,” whether or not the expanded lot exceeded 96 feet of width.

“You shouldn’t have to beg [for a variance],” Smith said. “The amendments are hard to understand, and they would give the zoning board more reasons to turn down something you want to build, whether it’s the pitch of the roof or something else. I don’t think this ordinance is ready for adoption.”

The hearing on the zoning amendments will be held tonight, Thursday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

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