Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Yep – another blog. I hope that I don’t run out of things to write about (somehow, I don’t think that that will be the case!). Let’s talk a bit about residential development (this issue has so many impacts that it will undoubtedly be the subject of future blogs).

East Fishkill is still a beautiful town. Sometimes when I drive around our Town I look at the old houses…the real old houses, I try to imagine in my mind how it was many years ago. Boy, there was some distance between them – really, our Town was made up of many, many small farms and the railroad in the hamlet. I remember as a kid growing up in Wiccoppee, the Eagenburger farm was down by what used to be the fork of East Hook and West Hook Roads. There was a big, old barn with, I believe, four or five big spires along the roofline. Sometime in the sixties or seventies the farm was sold, the barn torn down, and the property developed. Unfortunately, that is how it is; farming is a very difficult way to make a living (at least for the small dairy farms and apple orchards that made up East Fishkill). So many of the farms that I remember, including my Grandfather’s and my Uncle’s, Eagenburger’s, Mulford’s, Wright’s, Morgenthaus’ Orchard, Carey Orchard (to name a few) ceased to become economically viable and became developed. So, what is the result? Well over the years this silent transformation created housing opportunities for all of us (in fact, homebuilding has historically been a big part of our local economy). There were still farms and the town was still beautiful and there were places to live (and in the ‘60s IBM built a plant so there was a place to work).

In the last decade, though, things seemed to change. The developers that came to town were not building forty-or-fifty lot subdivisions – they were proposing two-to-three hundred lot projects. In addition, they were targeting the high end of the market and as demand outstripped supply (due to low interest rates and a desire to live outside of the city) the cost of housing went through the roof. Now, in my opinion, we have housing that is very biased to the high-end and does not meet the needs of the people that live here. In addition, these developers do not use local builders or purchase materials locally.

One of the very first things that our Town Board did after taking office was to enact a building moratorium on residential of developments of five lots or larger. To avoid a lot of lawsuits that the courts have ruled valid we based our moratorium on three standards:
1. A determinate length of time, in this case six months
2. A specific purpose, in this case to enact legislation protecting our wetlands, and making calculations for subdivision lot-count more conservative, and setting stricter standards for steep slope development.
3. Setting a point in the planning process that stops residential projects of five lots or more, yet allowing those projects that have had a “determination of significance” or a public hearing to continue

This last standard is important because the courts have ruled that, basically, projects that have gotten to the point of a determination of significance or a public hearing have spent a lot of money to adhere to the rules that were in place and it would be unfair to have them stopped by a moratorium (something like changing the rules in the middle of the game). That being the case, even though the Town Board voted to extend the moratorium for another six months at our September 28th meeting, some large projects have been ambling through the planning process and will be built according to the old laws.

The board and I felt that this moratorium was sorely needed, yet some people have asked that the moratorium be enacted forever. Although this is an attractive proposal – it is definitely unfair to property owners (and impossible to defend in court). In America, people are allowed to own property and, with that, the right to use their property. The challenge is to find a fair framework of laws that will allow people to use (and, if they so choose, to develop) their property in a way that is also in the best interests of the Town. Boy, this is a puzzle! Although I do not think that the type of housing that has been built addresses the overall needs of the Town, I am glad that we have some high-end neighborhoods. Yet, where are our local workers and seniors going to live?

To address this problem we are taking some steps. First, if our three laws are enacted (as I hope they will be this month) they will have an immediate impact (reduction) on the amount of lots a developer can create. We are also examining other zoning ordinances that need to be changed, such as lot coverage ratios and special permits. I have formed a Senior and Workforce Housing Committee who will meet for the second time this week to study that problem and propose recommendations to the Town Board. A couple of months ago Councilwoman Walker had brought up the subject of open-space conservation. The Town Board and I are very much in favor of such an initiative and are looking at ways these things have been done – we will soon be forming an open space taskforce. We may be raising the threshold for our moratorium from five lots to eight or nine lots in the near future. That would allow the small local builders to proceed, but the problem remains the larger developments. That is where I see the senior and workforce housing – developments that could benefit our community and be done in such a way that it maintains the character of our Town. A local architect who sits on our Senior and Workforce Housing Committee pointed out that this is a problem that the industry is facing nationwide.

Yes, this is a huge puzzle – sometimes I would like to say that I would work on the senior and workforce housing or on the open space initiatives next year. I wish that I could, but these are things that should have been attended to years ago. You may say that we are trying to close the barn door but, unfortunately, the cow is far down the pike.

As a longtime resident of the town, I am particularly concerned about the amount of noise that residents are subjected to on a daily basis. This includes motorcycles with modified exhausts and tractor trailer trucks with modified exhausts. I've been told that there is no noise ordinance in the town. Perhaps its time to look at the noise issue. It certainly detracts from the quality of life in the area.
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