Knox pauses business district for land-use plan

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

“It was unfair because they were lied to,” Councilman Nicholas Viscio said during Tuesday’s Knox Town Board meeting of the planning board, which, he said, voted on a directive from the town board that was never given. The board voted unanimously to move forward with a recommendation by a majority of the planning board, to create a business district on Route 146, but to wait for the comprehensive plan currently under review before changing the zoning law. Two planning board members objected to the proposed district, saying the comprehensive plan does not support it.

KNOX —The town board voted Tuesday to develop a business district in an area now zoned residential on Route 146.

But the crowd of about 40 that filled Town Hall was not relieved. They had come largely to, once again, support the owner of Hitmans Towing, Kristen Reynders, who opened her business four years ago on Route 146. In the same unanimous motion, the board agreed to wait to create that district until Knox’s 20-year-old comprehensive plan is updated, which could take months.

The next day, Reynders, who had been ticketed in January for operating a business in a residential area, appeared in Knox Town Court where her case was adjourned until May 21.

In October 2009, when Reynders was parking her truck at her family’s house in Altamont, the village’s building inspector at the time, Donald Cropsey, wrote a letter to the property owner, describing complaints about commercial vehicles at the property.

Cropsey wrote that he visited the property and talked to an owner or driver of the truck and said the parking of the vehicle should be stopped. “It was explained to me that property was being acquired in Knox and the operation would be relocated,” Cropsey wrote.

“I want to let you know that your property is Zoned R-20, a single family residential zone,” Cropsey wrote. “The use of your property as described above is not allowed in the zone. As such, you are hereby directed to cease and desist such activity immediately.”

Reynders then set up her business in Knox, where she has developed a loyal following and grown her business. She employs local people, her attorney, Nicole Strippoli, noted during Tuesday’s meeting, and disposes of waste responsibly.

She approached the town’s zoning and planning boards last summer, hoping to perform vehicle inspections in a garage on her Route 146 property. The planning board initially voted to create a business district that would accommodate her business as well as several other pre-existing businesses, but the board then reversed its decision and the ticket was issued, leading to a citizens’ petition.

The town’s zoning law and comprehensive plan — adopted in 1974 and 1995 — both allow for business districts, but none have so far been designated. Planning board members with Pamela Fenoff, the recording secretary, recently finished editing the zoning ordinance to make it easier to read and reflect missing definitions and amendments.

On Feb. 27, the planning board, which is not responsible for enforcing the zoning law, again reversed itself, voting 4 to 2, to recommend the Route 146 business district to the town board. But town board members said Tuesday that the planners’ vote was held under false assumptions about what the town board had charged the planners to do.

Councilman Nicholas Viscio said at the March 11 meeting that the town board did not direct the planning board to vote, as it had, on the “least objectionable” option among three suggested on a petition by Reynders.

Town board members and John Dorfman, the town’s attorney, had listened to an audio recording of the February planning board meeting supplied by Fenoff, an active supporter of Hitmans. Fenoff said the petition had about 200 signatures so far. Knox has a population of about 2,700.

“What would the vote have been?” Viscio asked if the planning board hadn’t thought it needed to choose one of the suggested amendments.

Earl Barcomb, the one planning board member to swing the majority from the board’s vote against the proposed second district in October, said during the Feb. 27 meeting he was uncomfortable with voting among just the three options. Betty Ketcham, who also voted for the second district and then, later, against it, was absent from that Feb. 27 meeting.

Robert Price, chairman of the planning board who voted in the majority, said during the town board meeting Tuesday that the planning board stood on “firm ground” based on case law and the comprehensive plan, and that the situation it addressed involved “bad judgements on the case of both parties.”

Price said the proposed Route 146 business district was not spot zoning. Dorfman said Price wasn’t “in a position to say what is spot zonning and what is not spot zoning.”

Spot zoning is generally disparaged by planners because it is often created to meet pre-existing needs rather than being part of a thoughtful overview for development.

Reynders applied in December 2013 for a special-use permit to operate her towing business and the garage. Until then, she hadn’t appeared before the boards for her business and has no record of being warned by the town’s zoning administrator, Robert Delaney.

Supervisor Michael Hammond was presented in February with Reynders’ petition to amend the zoning law. The board insisted on following the town’s process of taking recommendations from the planning board.

“You’re changing it to hang your hat on just the minority of the planning board,” Vasilios Lefkaditis, a resident and Berne-Knox-Westerlo school board member, told the board on Tuesday. Hammond responded that state law compelled the town board, referring to laws, cited by planning board members Daniel Driscoll and Robert Gwinn in a minority opinion, which require zoning changes be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan.

Gwinn and Driscoll also wrote in their opinion, “Just as important, in our opinion, is the understanding that a zoning ordinance is a compact of trust between Town government and the residents, protecting individual homes or businesses.  By amending the Zoning Ordinance to accommodate an individual business, that compact of trust is broken.”

Knox’s current comprehensive plan was adopted almost 20 years ago. Municipalities have the option to adopt such plans, but are bound to use it as a guiding document if they do.

Rocco Ferraro, the executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said such plans should be reviewed every five to 10 years, to make sure they reflect any changes in the town.

The board also voted to set a public hearing for a business district in the hamlet, which currently has no businesses, surrounding Route 156. The town board had requested enlarged boundaries for the hamlet district after a smaller one was recommended by the planning board in July.

For both districts, the planning board has recommended mixed-use zoning, to allow for commercial as well as residential uses.

“Folks, we’ll do this as quickly as we possibly can,” said Michael Hammond, the town’s supervisor, after the motion for the second district.

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