Most people have heard about “urban myths” like alligators in the sewer but few realize we have our fair share of rural myths as well. In Schoharie County the number one myth is that the reason the economy is depressed, the reason we don’t attract big box stores and the reason few businesses move here is because we have overly restrictive zoning laws. It is an easy gripe to repeat, fun to say but it is also untrue. The oft repeated refrain that we “chased away Lowes” is a perfect example. Lowes did not reject Cobleskill as a site for one of its stores because of zoning, lack or water or the other familiar claims. It chose not to build because of very carefully conducted demographic studies that demonstrated to Lowes’ executives that Cobleskill could not support a large home center, given many factors including the proximity to similar stores to the east and west. The population wasn’t here, the median income level wasn’t here and a Lowes in Cobleskill would not be profitable. The latest claim that the proposed zoning law in the Town of Schoharie would prevent economic growth is equally unfounded and not born out by the facts.
Consider for a moment the Towns of Colonie and Latham. There is no shortage of development in either. In fact they are up to their ears in commercial development. If you compare the zoning law in Schoharie to zoning regulations in Colonie or Latham, it quickly becomes apparent that the laws in Latham and Colonie are far more extensive, granular and restrictive. So why do they not look like ghost towns? The answer is simple. Viable businesses adjust their plans to zoning regulations if they believe there is a profit to be made. Zoning didn’t keep business out of Latham, Colonie, Saratoga or dozens of other communities, any more than it would keep business out of Schoharie County. In fact, half of the Towns in Schoharie County don’t even have comprehensive zoning laws!
What keeps business out of Schoharie County is laundry list of problems – relatively low population (small market for goods and services), low median income levels (consumers with little discretionary spending), uneven access to broadband technology (makingInternet transactions difficult), relatively low rates of college and post-graduate education (shortage of senior-level managers and administrators), unprofessional leadership (unfortunate history of political wrangling and scandal) and an absolute lack of progressive planning strategies (reliance on passive, outdated economic development strategies that ignore quality of life issues, non-traditional markets and alternative marketing strategies).
A related rural myth is that things would be better if we could only get another Stewarts or Dollar General. The fact of the matter is that the only way that rural communities stand a chance at thriving is to aim higher than embracing an suburban strip mall mentality. We need to distinguish ourselves from other run of the mill places by making our communities more livable, more walkable, more sustainable, more interesting and more vibrant. We need to start by revitalizing our downtowns into unique destinations that attract families who will stay and invest in the community. We need to encourage unique/one-off small businesses, non-traditional agriculture markets, scenic/eco-tourism, and develop our towns to be more than a drive thru on the way to Albany or Cooperstown. The use of carefully constructed comprehensive plans and progressive performance zoning is not the impediment to that kind of future it is the roadmap to that future; We should let go of the myths and work to our strengths and not make excuses for our weaknesses. Zoning is not the problem, a lack of vision and a lack of leadership is.
Center for Sustainable Rural Communities