Changes proposed: Zoning, 27, grows up

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Watching over her brood: This mother hen, named Parkour — a type of freestyle acrobatic sport — based on her tendency to jump to the top of her fence and the roof of her coop, looks on as her five chicks peck the ground. The hens live in the residential Guilderland backyard of Laura and Dan Spanbauer.

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Living off the farm: Laura and Dan Spanbauer keep laying hens in their backyard after receiving approval from the Guilderland Zoning Board of Appeals three weeks ago. The zoning board set a limit of six hens and imposed standards for the fence and coop.

GUILDERLAND — After four years of meetings and discussions, the Zoning Review Committee has submitted to the town board a document containing proposed changes to the zoning code. It recommends simplifying the permit process, encouraging “smart growth” to center development and preserve open space, promoting environment-friendly measures like rain gardens and landscaped roofs — and, yes, allowing backyard hens.

The Zoning Review Committee was formed in June 2010, and charged with going through the zoning code and making amendments that would put the code in alignment with the town’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2001.

Kenneth Brownell, a broker and developer with Vanguard-Fine, LLC, was selected to chair the eight-person committee.

“A lot has happened in terms of local planning since the original zoning code was established 27 years ago,” said Brownell this week.

A hot-button issue has also cropped up recently, involving the allowance of backyard hens. In the current zoning code, backyard hens are neither allowed nor disallowed, meaning the zoning board approved or denied them on a case-by-case basis.

One of the changes to the code proposed by the committee is to allow up to six backyard hens on residential lots.

Brownell and the review committee submitted a 114-page document, listing and explaining the proposed changes to the code, to the town board this month.

“We updated a number of the definitions in the code to bring them into today’s world,” said Brownell. “For example, telecommunication today is much different than it was in 1987; the Internet didn’t even really exist back then.”

He said one of the biggest endeavors was to streamline the permitting process, particularly for small businesses and home occupations.

“We are recommending that the chief building and zoning officer has more leverage,” said Brownell.

He described the current permitting process for a small business as being “prohibitive,” because the applicant has to appear before the town’s planning board, the Albany County Planning Board, and the town’s zoning board.

“As it stands, it could take up to two months to get a permit,” he said.

The zoning review committee proposes that the zoning and building officer simply recommend approval of a permit after making a site visit, and the planning board sign off on it.

“Housing and the style of housing is even different than it was when the code was enacted,” said Brownell.

When the committee was formed, Supervisor Kenneth Runion said one of the reasons it was necessary was “the variety of new planning techniques that have cropped up over the past years, such as ‘smart growth.’”

Smart growth is a movement that began in the 1970s, concentrating growth in city centers to avoid sprawl, and preserve open space while fostering a sense of community.

Brownell and the review committee put together design guidelines that would encourage smart-growth principles, which, according to the recommendation, “Provide that new or in-fill construction should be designed to be compatible with the general character of buildings on the street frontage.”

The guidelines include standards for height restrictions, roof design, the use of porches, shutters, and other exterior design elements.

They also encourage rain gardens, landscaped roofs, charging stations for electric cars, preserving mature trees, and imposing lighting restrictions.

In terms of guidelines for commercial buildings, Brownell said there were criteria for setbacks, imposing maximum parking restrictions, and changes to dimensional standards.

“You can’t demand green infrastructure, but you can definitely recommend it,” he said.

The recommendations would allow for maintaining a commercial landscape, but lend themselves more toward mixed-use buildings.

“They wouldn’t really allow for huge, open-air shopping centers,” Brownell said.

He said he was surprised that the topic that drew the most feedback and controversy during the zoning review committee meetings was backyard hens.

“It’s an issue that has led to a lot of battles with neighbors,” he said.

In May, Dale Owens, who lives on Mohawk Drive, went before the board of appeals to request permission to keep 10 laying hens in his yard.

His neighbors had attended two prior public hearings and voiced strong opposition, citing concerns over smells, noise, and the potential devaluation of surrounding properties.

The zoning board denied his request.

On July 2, the zoning board granted the requests of two other families — the Spanbauers, who live on Morgan Court, and the Alonzis, who live on New Williamsburg Drive, to keep up to six chickens on their single-family zoned properties.

Laura Spanbauer told The Enterprise she believed that part of what led to her approval, and Owens’s denial, had to do with the neighbors’ input.

“Our neighbors were very supportive,” she said.

Spanbauer said she and her family had been getting fresh eggs from a friend who owned a farm, and, when the farmer decided to give up his hens, she thought it would be fun to take them from him.

“I thought, ‘This is something we can do; we don’t need the farm,’” she said.

Her family has had the chickens in their backyard for three weeks, and she said it has been a great experience for them.

She has two sons who enjoy feeding them and watching their antics, and a daughter who likes to mother the chicks.

“I’m realizing now it’s not just about the eggs,” said Spanbauer. “It’s fun! They are funny animals.”

Brownell said the zoning review committee had looked at “a lot of different codes in a lot of different areas” and had seen that hens were allowed in many residentially zoned neighborhoods.

“I think the solution we came up with is a reasonable one,” he said.

The committee is recommending up to six hens, and no roosters, be permitted, with strict standards for coops and fencing.

The proposed changes to the zoning code were submitted several weeks ago, but Runion said they won’t be up for discussion with the town board until late August or early fall.

The town board needs to review the changes, set a public hearing, and decide if it wants to adopt the recommendations as they are, or use public feedback to ask for further changes.

“There will certainly be discussion,” said Brownell. “Dialogue is something the supervisor is looking for.”

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