On Thursday, February 6, at 3 PM the city held the first of four question and answer sessions on the UDO. In a process that seems to be unnecessarily rushed, this event occurred less than two days after its announcement at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. The only official notice of the meeting was posted on the city’s website the day before. Someone asked the attendees how many present had attended the Tuesday Council meeting where the event was announced. Pretty much everyone in the audience raised their hands. There are three more Q&A’s scheduled that will hopefully be better publicized.
Unfortunately the city so far has not provided educational materials that would help the citizens of the city to compare the existing regulations and statutes with those being proposed. The availability of such materials and sessions that focused on certain topics such as changes to particular neighborhoods or changes to certain design features such as building heights, permeable surfaces, setbacks, etc. could make these sessions more useful and productive.
One attendee contrasted the UDO process thus far with the Comp Plan. She pointed out that the process of developing the Comp Plan had been open and inclusive of the public as opposed to the development of this UDO draft. The UDO process she felt has shut the public out and left them behind.
Indeed this UDO draft was developed in a closed circle of planners with the consultants working with the city Planning Staff alone with no public input or scrutiny.
The result of that process of planners talking to planners in a bubble is a document with 288 pages of changes in language that is often difficult for the average layperson to penetrate, a far cry from what the city website describes as the goal of producing an “easy to read reference document”.
So this meeting was attended by about 15 members of the public, most of whom had also attended the Tuesday City Council meeting. Deputy Mayor Lisa Shields, City Attorney Vince DeLeonardis, Administrator of Planning and Economic Development Brad Birge, Building Inspector Patrick Cogan, and other members of the Planning staff were present to answer questions. All these people devote many hours to their jobs and serve the city well. At this meeting they responded in-depth to questions asked and appeared to be truly interested in what attendees had to say and to take seriously many of the suggestions that came from the audience over the two hours of the meeting.
The meeting was not taped nor live-streamed, though, nor were minutes taken which is too bad as the broader public could have benefitted from hearing the issues raised and the discussions and comments made.
Much of the discussion focused on UR3 issues of lot size reduction and additional uses for commercial property that had not been listed in the Comp Plan. Others, though, raised issues of proposed changes in sign dimensions, lighting, and the powers of land use boards as well as changes to definitions of words used in ordinances and regulations.
The diversity of issues raised was indicative of how broad and complicated this UDO document is. One acquaintance who is well versed in land use issues and legal jargon has commented that every time they return to the document they discover new issues they had missed before. I suspect there are many more areas of change to discover in this document.
In the past when questions have been raised as to why lot sizes needed to be reduced in UR3 a variety of rationales have been given. We were told that areas need to be “right-sized” . The complaint made by planners is that a large number of plots in UR3 do not meet the current lot sizes designated for UR3, they are “non-conforming.” The consultants, Camiros, claimed this was a problem because owners of non-conforming properties would have trouble getting bank loans, a problem no one in Saratoga Springs has ever encountered. The rationale that was raised at this meeting had to do with zoning variances. The argument was put forward that there are an excessive number of zoning variances requested and granted in UR3 and that changing the lot size and other requirements for building in that area would reduce that number.
Those of us who have been involved in land issues for many years can only marvel at this assertion. Having watched the ZBA grant variance after variance, one can only say that the only thing that will change the number of variances granted are board members who are well trained and committed to not eroding the character of neighborhoods variance by variance. A change in the zoning code to address issues that have been the subject of variances in the past will only lead to requests for new variances as landowners and developers push against this next set of regulations.
It should be obvious that the scope of this UDO goes beyond anything this city has dealt with in the past. There are major questions as to why all these proposals are being put forward. Who decided there was a need for all these changes? There is no evidence that they were called for in the Comp Plan.
Dissecting this multitude of proposals cannot be rushed. The public needs materials –an annotated document showing existing policy next to proposed changes, charts and maps and other visuals to explain changes to existing policy, white papers and sessions focused on specific pieces of this document not free wheeling sessions that roam from topic to topic depending on who shows up leaving many participants in the dark.
City Council members would do well to reflect on the recent controversy over the Comp Plan’s change in zoning for land the Hospital will expand on. Much of the anger and frustration over this land use change came from the assertions of at least two Council members and many members of the affected neighborhood that they had missed this change in the Comp Plan. The Comp Plan process did a much better job of involving the public at every stage. The Comp Plan is a document that is incredibly more accessible and user friendly than this UDO document. If some felt they missed changes in the Comp Plan , imagine what will be missed in this 288 page opaque document that affects every neighborhood in the city and every topic from lot sizes to landscaping for parking lots to the definition of a B&B. Imagine the anger and frustration aimed at those who adopt a document that later proves to have a slew of unanticipated ( or maybe should have been anticipated) consequences throughout the city.
This is a document that will affect the city for many years to come. It is a long way from being the “user-friendly document” promised on the city website. The city needs to put this process on pause until they have thought through the best way to present this material to allow for serious public review and input. So far the city has stumbled badly in moving towards this goal.