Zoning can create community

Across the Helderbergs and in the lands below the escarpment, historic hamlets cluster around a Dutch Reformed Church. Unlike cities, where skyscrapers define the horizon, the inhabited rural landscape is punctuated by steeples, reaching heavenward.

It is no coincidence that local hamlets are clustered this way. The area was settled by the Dutch; the patroons, who held sway in a near-feudal system until after the Anti-Rent Wars, granted land parcels to the church to be developed for society’s necessities.  A blacksmith and undertaker were sure to have homes and shops in the hamlet. Mills would spring up to grind the grains that were raised and general stores were built to sell goods that couldn’t be raised or made by hand.

The surrounding lands were farmed. Vast tracts of open grounds, some wooded, some cultivated — surrounded the hamlets.

In the 21st Century, the lay of the land — with residences clustered near businesses and open space beyond — is now touted by planners as Smart Growth or New Urbanism.  Walkable communities are being built to stem the ills of suburban sprawl.

The hamlet of Knox, like many others, had a history of local businesses. The town is holding a hearing next month, to be followed by a board vote, on setting up Knox’s first business district. The hamlet had functioned as a business district without the zoning in place because the old businesses were grandfathered in, that is, they pre-dated the 1974 ordinance.

But, one by one, the business, for various reasons, closed. Si Stevens, who was ready to pump gas at all hours of the day, and served kids ice cream besides, moved to a nursing home, and the business was closed.  The general store shut down. And the old frame building that housed the post office was found to be unfit.

A business district in the hamlet makes sense and we support it wholeheartedly. Councilwoman Amy Pokorny said she’d like to explore ways to protect historic homes in the district. That’s a wise precaution, and requirements, such as roof pitch and siding materials, could be written into the law.

Pokorny is currently in charge of surveying residents for their views on updating the town’s master plan and said that none of the respondents were opposed to business in town.

Indeed, we ran a letter last week from a recent high school graduate, Josh VonHaugg, lamenting the closed businesses in Knox.  While we don’t believe the cause or solution is political, we can feel his anger and grief as he writes, “People used to love to say where they came from, but, as the town slowly falls apart, no one wants to admit it anymore. There is no community passion or love. Kids are leaving here and never coming back.”

Establishing a business district in the hamlet would be a start to promoting not just jobs or lower taxes but a sense of community. In recent times, the Knox Country Store was a hub of happy activity. Musical performances were given there; good food was served; neighbors met each other and shared stories.

Robert Price, the chairman of the planning board, told the town board this month that “the real-world issue” is businesses wouldn’t come to Knox. He pointed out the Stewart’s shop a few miles away in Altamont, part of a chain, could sell items for less than an independently owned store.

This is true. But, aside from the advantage of proximity, local stores offer something distinct to each community. That’s why the general stores in Medusa and Berne are prospering; they are convenient, accessible, offer needed goods and services, and engender a sense of community.

While we back the business district in the hamlet of Knox, we oppose a not-yet-drafted proposal for a second business district near the intersection of Route 146 and Lewis Road. The planning board was unanimous in its vote to recommend the hamlet business district, but members were split, 5 to 2, on recommending the Route 146 district. And for good reason.

Daniel Driscoll and Robert Gwinn, both long-time planning board members who helped draft Knox’s original comprehensive plan, cited a description in the zoning ordinance of future business districts as “centrally located.” The proposed district for the hamlet is among those suggested by the plan, but the one on Route 146 is not.

Gwinn correctly termed it a “one-shot deal” rather than a comprehensive look at what is best for the town. The recommendation is largely to accommodate a towing business that sprang up there in violation of the zoning law.

Kristen Reynders, the owner of Hitman’s Towing Service, wants to expand her business. She started it with her husband with one truck — the business now has four — in her father’s driveway in Altamont, she said; they bought property in Knox after neighbors complained and village zoning enforcement gave them a warning.

Knox zoning enforcement should have done the same.  At the July planning board meeting, Chairman Price first made a motion not to recommend any change to the ordinance, saying it would set a bad precedent.

He should have stuck with that. What is the point in having a law if you allow people to break it and then change the law just to accommodate the law-breakers? Thomas Wolfe, the planning board member most outspoken in favor of creating the Route 146 business district, called it “the cleanest way out.” There is nothing clean about it.

“We ignore a lot of zoning violations all over the place, ‘what’s another one?’…But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do,” Wolfe said.

He’s right: Ignoring zoning violations is not the right thing to do, but neither is creating a new district to legalize the violations. The right thing to do is to enforce the zoning ordinance in the first place.

Zoning laws, as we’ve written before, are needed for the common good. Individual property owners give up some of their rights in order to meet the needs of the community at large. Town boards, as representatives of the people, enact those laws.

When laws are broken, they should be enforced, not changed to cater to the law-breaker.

Spot zoning is not wise planning. Knox would be best to adhere to the vision mapped out in its comprehensive plan. A business district in the hamlet makes sense. We hope that businesses will be attracted to it and believe the community will be richer for it.

What’s old is new again. As people lost in the corporate landscape seek meaning and individuality in the close-to-home, society as a whole is coming to realize that sprawl is not just bad for the environment but bad for the soul. Part of making our rural towns places that recent graduates will want to return home to is having a vision for the future that will embrace and sustain them.

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