Zoning: Putting Land Use on Paper

Zoning is on the horizon in several towns in the region that do not have ordinances. Visitors to the region from more densely populated areas, even visiting professional planners, are surprised to find out that there are towns – many of them – in central New York without appreciable land-use regulations. The state motto of New Hampshire is famously “Live Free, or Die,” and yet nearly all towns in that state have zoning. Those that do not have a zoning board, have planning boards.

Zoning is a good thing. It puts down on paper an agreement that sets out the details of what can be done with land and where. The only difference between having zoning and not having zoning, is that without the agreement written down, the agreement is simply a tacit one that exists among people who have a shared history and are (nearly) of one mind about what one should do with one’s property. This kind of shared history is an increasingly rare thing in a community.

Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” includes the famous line: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The narrator laments that each spring his neighbor insists on rebuilding the wall between their properties; he doesn’t understand his neighbor’s attachment to the wall, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me.” Frost was born in San Francisco, and grew up there and in the city of Lawrence, Mass., He lived in Beaconsfield, England until moving to Franconia, N.H. in 1915 at age 41.

Zoning ordinances are the documents that explain the purpose of walls. They outline the rules for the height of the walls, for their maintenance, and the materials of which they may be built. Why? Otherwise every wall might lead to an argument between neighbors because they have brought different ideas about walls to the reality of the wall between their parcels.
Developers prefer to build in towns that have zoning for this very reason: they want to know what the rules are. It is a headache for them to guess what the neighbors think is appropriate, build what they think is going to be acceptable, and then get it wrong and have everyone mad at them.

Zoning ordinances are ordinarily put together by committees, often, but not always by planning boards. The personnel of a planning board is stipulated by the state; it must include at least one member of the agriculture community. There are other state regulations regarding zoning; local people cannot simply make up whatever they like. There must be public hearings where the citizenry may weigh in on drafts of the ordinance. And the ordinance must be ratified by the elected town (or village) board in order for it to go into effect.

All of this is state law. But it is all useless if the residents do not pay any attention to the process. You may very well get a zoning ordinance that does not conform to your idea of proper land use if you take no part in the process of making that ordinance. There are legal notices posted in the newspapers and at the town or village offices.

If the town or village government goes the extra yard and sends a press release to the newspaper, then it will be posted near the editorial page. If the town or village government is technological savvy, then they will post information about meetings and hearings it at their Web site. Sadly, the last is a big ‘if’ because while an increasingly large percentage of the public gets their information (about everything) online, small-town governments are lagging behind in using their Web sites as electronic bulletin boards. Some local towns and villages entirely lack Web sites, which is, frankly, inexcusable.

Our rural towns do not need to be over-run by tract housing and strip malls to be negatively affected by development. It doesn’t take much unplanned and ill considered building to break up farmland into something less productive. Zoning will prevent a lot of community strife, if only the community members would get involved.

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