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Luskin: Zoning Debate

01/18/11 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST) When it comes to bipartisanship and political cooperation at any level, commentator Deborah Luskin thinks it's fairly easy to be for or against something, but much harder - and more necessary - to find middle ground.
(LUSKIN) This past summer, five percent of the voters in the Town of Newfane signed a petition calling for the repeal of all zoning.  In response to the petition and as set out by law, the town held a series of hearings and a vote.
More than a hundred people attended the first public hearing, which lasted two hours, and during which people spoke passionately both in favor of zoning and against it. Some of the discussion was theoretical: Did we need zoning at all? Some people said yes and others said no. Some of the discussion was practical: landowners who felt aggrieved by the town's zoning policies spoke about projects that had been denied; other landowners spoke in favor of controlled development. Many people spoke; more listened.
One longtime resident was on hand to read the Town Report in which the issue of zoning first came up. Newfane passed its first zoning bylaws by Australian ballot in 1975. The bylaws have been amended several times since then, most recently in 2008, always by Australian ballot. And the vote required in response to this petition would be no different.

The second required hearing was not quite as well attended as the first, and it didn't last quite as long. Nevertheless, there were still people willing to speak both in favor of zoning and against it. But there was also a lot of discussion of what could be done to amend the current by-laws, and how the article would be worded on the ballot, and what a yes vote would mean - that the voters wanted to abolish all zoning - and what a no vote would mean - the voters wanted to keep it. If the measure passed, zoning would end the next day; if it failed, the by-laws would remain.
Last month, 429 of the town's 1360 registered voters cast ballots, and the initiative failed, 326 to 103. Newfane's zoning by-laws still stand, but there's a general understanding that they need to be amended again. The Select Board will ask the planning commission to hold public hearings to revise the bylaws, revisions that will make them simpler to understand and less ambiguous.   

My sense is that many of those who signed the petition were angry and frustrated by the town's zoning, and many who opposed the petition were angry and afraid at the thought of having no zoning at all. But in the course of the hearings, it became evident that there's a middle road between all or nothing. Residents of Newfane are now aware that the by-laws can be amended. But this will take work.

There's a vacant seat on the Planning Commission, and the Commission will either hold new hearings or appoint a subcommittee to propose revisions. Hopefully, those who spoke so eloquently both for and against zoning will now help forge a compromise between too little oversight, and too much.
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