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Letter to the Editor: Zoning is not the Problem

Written By Timothy Knight on 4/18/15 | 4/18/15

Dear Editor:
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.
Bob Nied
Center for Sustainable Rural Communities
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2 comments:

Norie61 said...

What an excellent assessment Mr.Nied, and I agree with just about everything said.One thing about zoning or regulations in my town I find troubling is they have regulations that apply to bigger cities and should not apply to small towns.I think a lot of people feel they are being over regulated with local laws, exam: building permits that are skyrocketing in costs, even one is needed for a dog house, or you can not have more than 1 unregistered vehicle on your property.Many feel we are not land owners with freedom to do what we want with our property, but government only allows us to lease the land as we pay our taxes and continue to abide by the local laws and not really do what we want. So how do you attract businesses to this county if you don't have a population to sustain it, or the income to support it, or even leaders to welcome it? You have to change the whole demographics, leadership, and that is an almost impossible task.

Richard A. Sherman said...

Well thought out article Bob.
I totally agree that the leaders (business and political) lack vision.
I do not claim to be smarter than any of our business folks. They take all the risk and many have been burned by signing on to projects and programs that end up doing nothing for them and costing them time and money from their already struggling business.
I believe it is up to the community to establish an arena where businesses are attracted and have some chance of survival. This, as Bob states, is a far bigger issue than any zoning restrictions. Easy access is not the answer as it it is almost always demographics for the big store folks who have NO interest in our communities if their survey numbers are not correct. It is rarely anything personal accept to us because it is our community. For the businesses it is just that bottom line. So zoning is a small impediment for them as most zoning issues can be worked through. It is about the $.
The one point I disagree with Bob, to some degree, is that Zoning is a good thing. I believe that any time you restrict a persons ability to use their property as they see fit is a bad thing to do. If people involved in Zoning and Comprehensive Plans don't start from that spot I believe that they lose perspective on what is best for their community other than agendas.
Zoning philosophy should be the least restrictive possible and serve as a protector and not a weapon to be drawn to force someone to do or not do something like holding a gun to their heads as it is so often written.
Every time a zoning regulation is written it infringes on someone's rights to use their property as they see fit. This flies in the face of liberty and should always be used sparingly. Unfortunately it is used by far to many people to force others to comply to their ideas at their personal loss of money and freedom.
Zoning coming from a "how can we do this WITHOUT impacting folks unnecessarily should always be the goal.
I am not sure how the Town of Schoharie's efforts are a part of this discussion as the Board is in the process where ideas from all possibilities are being entertained to make sure they cover the opinions of everyone and not just the most organized or wealthy or powerful.
Nothing has been decided as of this date that I know of.
Bob is right! Zoning doesn't kill a box store deal, and it can and often will impact greatly on what can be done to bring people (not box stores) and small business folks to our communities.
In those instances draconian land use laws can have a devastating effects on those people as the can't ride it out for a few years while business improves and hoping something gets done so folks are being attracted to our community. I don't believe that there is a business in our County that could survive through local customers only and we are and have been doing NOTHING over the past decade and more to change that trend. We need outside visitors not more Grant money from someone else's pockets.
IMHO
Rick Sherman

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