Planning firm recommends Town of Canton streamline handling of land use permits under its zoning code
Monday, February 17, 2020 - 5:58 am

By ADAM ATKINSON
North Country This Week

CANTON — A planning firm hired by the town is suggesting the town streamline how it handles land use permits under its zoning code, claiming the current code lacks specific definitions and often creates too much red tape for certain types of development or usage.

The town board here heard an overview last week of a recent audit of town zoning code.

Canton’s Comprehensive Plan, completed last year, calls for an analysis of municipal zoning laws for Canton town and village and the village of Rensselaer Falls as the next step towards implementing initiatives for future land use identified in the document.

The municipalities contracted with the firm River Street Planning & Development LLC to produce the plan which will guide development and progress here for the next few years. The firm was also contracted by the town to conduct an audit of the existing zoning code to look for ways to bring the code into line with the plan.

All in all the town’s zoning code, established in 1997, is “structurally” sound in a legal sense, said Monica Ryan, principal planner for River Street, at the town board meeting Thursday, Feb. 13. “I do feel that the code has most of the elements it should have,” Ryan said.

However, Ryan said the existing code lacks a specific set of definitions and instead refers to a generic planning dictionary to define terms within the code.

“Basically, the definition section of a zoning code is extremely important,” Ryan said. “It defines the uses, it defines the tools. So many aspects of the zoning code are affected by the definition section. And if there isn’t one, you are lacking . . . a really important guiding tool. You don’t actually have a definitions section in your code. It has to be a problem.”

The planner said without a section of definitions, the code itself cannot be applied consistently to every situation and request which might arise. A lack of definitions also creates a certain amount of uncertainty for those seeking to establish businesses or new construction development regarding what is intended for land usage in each zoning district.

She suggested adding definitions to the code and even using sets of tables and other graphics to better explain certain points.

The planner also said the town’s often default process of requiring special use permits for many types of land use presented some needless red tape for citizens to cut through. She said that modern zoning codes are shifting away from using the special use permit, as it adds an often unnecessary and time consuming layer of review.

“A lot of communities in the 80s and 90s, and that’s when (Canton’s zoning code) was done, got very interested in using the special use permit. And it’s an extra layer of review for certain uses,” Ryan said. “And I think the comfort level that communities got with using this is that you were a little bit wishy washy on whether you wanted to allow that use, ‘Let’s put a special permit on it and then we can think about it more and really decide if we want to allow that.’”

Ryan said problem with this practice over time is that it became overused and the courts began to say that a special use permit did signify an allowed use and were subsequently difficult to deny. Municipalities were then put in a legal position to find a good reason to say “no” to that use.

“And that has caught up with a lot of communities, because everything was special use permit and they haven’t been able to come up with the criteria to deny anything,” Ryan said.

The planner said the special use permit practice creates a level of uncertainty for developers and property owners and purchasers as well that was unnecessary.

Ryan said eliminating some of the special use permits, defining what are allowed uses in certain zones and making that part of the actual code gets rid of a layer of red tape and the uncertainty. “This would be an area where I would say ‘Scale back the special permits,’” she said.

The planner said there was a place for special use permits, but that the practice of issuing them was overused. She used the example of home occupations in Canton. Every home occupation, including minor ones like small homestead businesses, is considered a special use. They therefore require a trip to the planning board and a special use permit, which requires a public hearing, no matter what kind of home occupation it is.

“That seems a little heavy handed,” Ryan said. The planner said if the town scaled back its use of special use permits certain home-based businesses would then be allowed by the code without the red tape.

Ryan also gave an overview of the audit’s findings on each of the established zoning areas in the town and gave suggestions on changes which could be implemented including doing away with splitting areas into two zoning designations, using natural features and corridors to establish zoning district boundaries, and increasing the size of lots under the rural zoning district.

During the presentation, Ryan talked about how new agriculture businesses like farm-to-table restaurants and ag tourism businesses could be incorporated into the code. She also covered accessory dwellings, known colloquially as “granny pods,” which could be allowed under a zoning code revision.

Conservation design subdivisions under the code were also discussed. These subdivisions allow for more clustered housing construction densities in subdivided lots to protect open spaces around the residential section.

The town board is expected to review the findings of the audit and the suggestions made by River Street.

The village of Canton was to consider updates to its zoning code suggested by River Street at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 18.