UDO: Lots of Changes To Chew On And Not Enough Time

Many of us thought that with the Comprehensive Plan and the zoning map resolved that the adoption of the UDO would be pro forma. As it turns out, on its face, Camiros,the consultants hired by the city and the city’s Planning Department have produced a document that appears to make major changes in the neighborhoods around the downtown. Between three and four thousand homes are potentially impacted. The proposed ordinances would reduce the required minimum lot size by 25% and would change the setback standards which determine how near your neighbor’s house will be to yours. For a lay person like me these seem like major changes indeed. One would have thought that if there were a problem that required these kinds of actions that it would have been discussed during the Comprehensive Plan deliberations.

I use the term “appears” because it is unclear how significant these changes would be. The consultants and the Planning staff have assured us that the negative impact will be minimal and the benefits will be significant. The problem is that while the consultants have done a series of presentations that are meant to describe the ordinances, missing in their presentation has been a thoughtful and easy to understand explanation about why and how these changes will benefit the community. Worse, when the consultants were asked to elucidate the benefits their answers were clearly inadequate. This may have been due to the challenge of presenting a very large and complex document. If, as I expect, that is the case, there needs to be an acknowledgement that there is an urgent need to explain why these major changes in our zoning code are needed in a way that is understandable to the general public.

I am not urging opposition to the plan. I do not understand what is being proposed well enough to take a position one way or the other. What I am proposing is that the city invest the resources to produce educational materials that we as ordinary citizens can understand and that will make us partners in supporting the changes. I am concerned that ending the period for public comment February 7 without proper education will create a poisonous environment of distrust.

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I attended the UDO “workshop” on Wednesday afternoon January 22. It was really not a workshop. The consultants who drafted the UDO did a fairly long presentation followed by a period for people to ask questions and to offer comments. Regrettably there was not enough time for all of the attendees questions to be answered.

Sitting through the presentation reminded me of my undergraduate days in foreign language class. I was not a gifted language student. Sitting in the classroom, I would feel that I thought I was getting the drift of what was going on but in general I was in a state of suspended bewilderment.

The presentation by the consultants proceeded at a rather brisk pace and involved a fair number of technical references with which I was unfamiliar.

In the consultants’ defense, the UDO is an extensive document so trying to present it in the hour and a half they allotted for their presentation was going to be challenging and trying to make the document accessible to a lay person like myself was even more problematic.

The issue that got my greatest attention dealt with the proposed reduction in lot sizes for parcels in the city’s UR-3 zone. The UR-3 zone covers most of the neighborhoods that surround the city’s core business district. The presentation did not address just how many parcels are in the UR-3 zone but I have been told that there are somewhere between three and four thousand.

As noted in my previous post, the UDO would reduce the minimum lot size for a single family in the UR-3 zone from 6,600 to 5,000 square feet and for a two family house, from 8,000 to 6,600 square feet.

The consultants were asked to explain why they were recommending this change in light of the fact that the current standard had been in existence for many years. I am unclear just when the minimum lot size of 6,600 feet was adopted but I’ve been told it has been in effect for at least forty-seven years.

While I think I am more knowledgeable than many citizens on land use issues I still found the consultant’s response to this issue very hard to follow. I do not know how much of this was due to my limited knowledge of land-use terminology or how much it was with the quality of their presentation.

The consultants noted that a large percentage of the homes in the UR-3 district are situated on lots of 5,000 square feet so these properties are considered “non-conforming.” That is to say that they do not meet the minimum requirement for a lot. This is not because the owners did anything improper but that when the city increased the required minimum, it made lots smaller than 6,600 square feet non-conforming.

While these lots may be defined as non-conforming they are grandfathered in so they are perfectly legal.

Why then, the consultants were asked, was it necessary to change the minimum requirement?

The first reason offered was that the owner of a non-conforming unit can experience problems selling their property or borrowing money from a bank.

The second reason offered was that if the owner wanted to modify their home to, for example, build a deck, reducing the required minimum lot size would greatly reduce the need to seek a variance and would save the homeowner time and money.

As regards the first reason offered, I could find no one who had ever heard of problems selling property or borrowing money on grandfathered property. In fact, when I approached the consultant after the meeting she conceded that it might not be a problem here. That evening I contacted a number of people knowledgeable about potential problems selling grandfathered property and they were, to be kind, dismissive of this idea. They pointed out that due to the long history of building in our city, there is a huge inventory of non-conforming properties. If people were having problems selling their properties or getting home loans there would have been an uprising.

As regards the second reason, I wondered why reducing the size of the property would affect the need for variances which most often relate to setbacks. I contacted three people who have considerable expertise in zoning issues and none could think of a reason why reducing the lot size would have an impact on applications for variances.

So the next morning I arrived early at the last of the consultants’ public events and asked if they could explain how reducing lot size would reduce the need for variances for existing dwellings. After some discussion the consultants conceded that the only circumstance where reducing a lot size would reduce the need for variances was in the case of new construction on an undeveloped lot. They now told me that the lot size reduction was part of a package that included changes in other restrictions most notably in setback requirements. I was told that the focus on lot size in their presentation rather than going through the other zoning changes was due to the time restraints and the need to simplify the issues.

I was shocked. Reducing setbacks is a major issue. It potentially has an enormous impact on the character of neighborhoods and more specifically on the quality of life for neighbors adjacent to properties being developed.

I have to admit to readers that this triggered a very strong response in me. Fairly or unfairly I immediately took the worst interpretation of this which was that the consultants were hiding a critical issue in their presentation.

It should be noted that I was operating with very limited information. I did not know the magnitude of the proposed change in setbacks nor the number of parcels that this would impact. There was also no time to pursue answers to these questions. There is no question that there are many non-conforming homes in the UR-3 zone due to the evolution of the city. There is no question that reducing the minimum lot size would contribute to bringing many (but not all) of them into compliance. The real questions are what would the benefits of these changes be and what potential problems might these changes generate?

As it happened, as I was exiting the Rec Center I encountered Mayor Kelly. I shared with her my concerns and, to be honest, I was sufficiently agitated that it was surprising that the Mayor didn’t take one look at me and flee. Instead, she emphasized to me that the UDO under discussion was very much a draft and that it was important for people to know that citizens should assume that every element of the UDO was subject to change as a result of input.

Later on that morning I received a text from Lisa Shields, the Mayor’s Deputy, inviting me to a meeting that day with herself, Vince DeLeonardis (the City Attorney), and Patrick Cogan (head of the Building Inspector’s office). Later that day, Jane Weihe and I met with them.

First, full disclosure, I trust and admire these three people. In an age in which people rarely listen, these three people are a true exception. They combine a wealth of knowledge regarding city issues along with the endearing ability to admit when they don’t know something.

In spite of their busy schedule we met for over an hour. I felt our conversation could have continued had I wanted it to but I didn’t think taking more of their time would be fair.

I still do not, however, fully understand the very complex issues related to changing the minimum lot size in UR-3 . I don’t understand what the owners of undeveloped parcels under 6,600 square feet are currently allowed to do with their property. I don’t understand the difference between the current zoning requirements on these parcels as compared to the proposed new requirements. I am still vague on how many parcels are non-conforming in the UR-3 zone. I do not know how many of these are vacant lots. I do not know what the impact will be on the non-conforming lots that are smaller than 5,000 square feet or what the potential build out is for combining lots.

As reducing the minimum size of lots in UR-3 is a very important element of the UDO (one of many), I asked them if they or the consultants would draft a white paper explaining the potential impact of minimum lot size reduction as an educational tool not just for me but for others with similar concerns. It is unclear whether this will happen.

RV Parks In The Greenbelt?

The draft of the UDO also included a list of land uses for the greenbelt. The proposed list was much longer than the current list. The consultants said that they had simply refined the list and that it was essentially the same.

The new list included items, though, that I think most reasonable people would see as quite distinct and new. For example, they would now allow for Recreation Vehicle (RV) parks in the greenbelt.

There was the very odd addition of something called “micro production in alcohol.” Is this a brewery? How small is micro-production?

The list would now include solar energy systems and a wind energy system. These are worthy projects but I think that whether they should replace existing flora in our greenbelt is worth a discussion.

The list includes a variety of human service related facilities in the greenbelt.

I am uneasy about compromising the greenbelt in the guise of public service.

Try To Find The Time To Support The Process

I am quite worried that there is simply not enough time to do the necessary community education and then give the public the opportunity to absorb and respond to the proposed changes in the UDO by February 7, the deadline for comments. I hope the Council will consider extending the comment period to allow for a full vetting of the UDO proposals and allow the community to have confidence that they understand what is being proposed and how the changes may affect them.

I am no Pollyanna when it comes to government. One need only cast an eye to Washington D.C. to be reminded that there are too many elected officials who care little about what I think about something. I am sympathetic with the cynicism of many of my friends about impacting public policy.

Still, I think we are fortunate that the current City Council is among the most open that I have experienced in the close to fifty years I have lived in Saratoga Springs.

I will be posting more information on the UDO. Here is a link to where you can post your suggestions.

One immediate item which I would encourage readers to support would be to extend the deadline for public comment from the current February 7.

4 thoughts on “UDO: Lots of Changes To Chew On And Not Enough Time”

  1. Proposals for building regulations for setbacks, building heights, etc., are being proposed for other zones in the city not just UR-3. Maybe for every zone? These changes may have long term consequences for neighborhoods in the city. I hope Saratogians will take the time to get information on how the UDO proposals may affect them and urge the city to extend the February 7 deadline for comments to allow for more time to digest the proposed changes and understand their possible impacts.

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  2. In the words of an old caving song, it all sounds like bullshit to me.
    Existing non-conforming lots that do not meet the current minimum are grandfathered in. They don’t need to be considered. Going forward, if you reduce the minimum lot size more homes can be shoe-horned into the remaining undeveloped space.
    As you say, they should at least give an explanation for why that is good for anyone besides developers.

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  3. Scattered about the “prime” areas of our city, there exists undersize vacant lots, or portions of existing lots that already have homes built on them. The current trend of sub-dividing those smaller size lots, and squeezing in another behemoth, is no doubt the reason for this proposed change. Of course, a home owner can cash in by selling the small lot that was previously their yard. But as Jill said, this can help the developers……thus the reason for the change.

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  4. It is unusual and fortunate that the audience was not subjected to the usual Mandeville technique employed with large unsuspecting groups of attendees in order to subjugate their normal reactions by creating a process that appears to coordinate their concerns and find consensus most always along the lines of the presenters.

    I am always skeptical when I am told that the negative impacts will be minimum, and the benefits will be significant because I would want to know who are the beneficiaries and who are the intended victims? Our zoning has been around almost 60 years, and, in that time, I do not believe that we have constructed many new UR-3 projects. It is fair to say that most all of those 4000 properties that exist within UR-3 districts, most all are one and two family properties and for them to become allowable UR-3 structures, the owners would have to present their proposal before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and perhaps the Design Review Commission (DRC) if the property were also situated in a historic district. That process has served us well and, is not odious.

    The fact that most all of these pre-existing non-conforming properties would have to seek relief from a strict interpretation of the Zoning Ordinance (ZO) to comply with area and parking requirements is of little surprise, and it is exactly what our ZBA has been addressing since the beginning of their recorded time. That is its purpose.

    Since the ZO is purposed in part, to “maintain property values” amongst its other concerns regarding area requirements, it does not become a benefit to the residents who may not be noticed on projects within their neighborhood, in fact, they would be victimized. Needless to say, the project developer may be the significant beneficiary. Certainly, these presenters would have that answer and why it would be OK to reduce area requirements in order to facilitate larger structures on an already non-conforming site. Why a total of 25 feet or one side 10 feet? Hmmm, do we think that those dimensions established back in 1962 were just arbitrary? Who knows the answer?

    I find it worrisome that a planner from Chicago suggests that resident owners of non-conforming and pre-existing properties can experience problems borrowing money from a bank and that this area reduction will ease their pain. I’m not aware that any of our local bankers have opined on that difficulty and would go as far to say, that our central bank on the square has been satisfying borrowers and lenders since before, we were born. The real problem is not lot size, but unpermitted and non-compliant modifications to these structure that become apparent at time of sale when a mortgage is required. Insurance companies are also interested in code worthy buildings in order to assure payments in the case of disasters that can only be tendered on a compliant structure.

    I am a bit concerned regarding RV parks in the green belt overlay. I’ve never seen one that doesn’t look like an RV park campground. Is that what we really want in our Green Belt? I was against constructing homes across the long view of the Pitney Farm because it would reduce the bucolic open field that everyone wanted to preserve and not turn it into another open landscape with residences much like along route 9N just past our city limits. What are we thinking with this ‘opportunity’? How does it benefit our residents?

    As always, thank you, John, for your passionate and objective reporting. More will follow.

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