DANBY, N.Y. — The Town of Danby is considering watershed zoning changes that aims to curb development in the town that resembles suburban sprawl, and redirect future development towards the town’s hamlets. The zoning update is marked as an effort to preserve the “rural character” of the community, and would constitute the largest change in Danby’s zoning laws in around 30 years.

The drafting process is far along, with a final version of the ordinances set to be voted on at Danby’s Jan. 4 meeting. The Town Board held a public hearing on the draft of the zoning law update on Dec. 22.

David West, the town of Danby’s Planner, described Danby’s housing market as fairly slow. He said that only about 10 houses are added a year, but the growth has remained consistent, particularly in the northern portion of Danby where it abuts the Town of Ithaca. Over the years, the slow-but-steady growth has led to something that resembles “suburban sprawl.”

“It’s not like we’re getting significant big developments,” said West. “It’s just the death by 1000 cuts.”

But Danby is betting that the desire to develop the Town’s remaining open farmland will grow, as it has in other municipalities in Tompkins County.  

West said, “What we really wanted to do is make sure that we get this zoning update to have a kind of conservation-minded zoning in place before we have the level of development pressure that you have in the Town of Ithaca, or in the Town of Dryden or Lansing.”

All the lots that currently exist within the zones Danby may soon establish, but don’t adhere to the new requirements, will be grandfathered in. Under the proposed zoning updates, the Town of Danby is going to be upping its minimum lot size, which is about 2 acres, except for the hamlet zones. 

“Having every two acres be a new residential lot, that’s just suburban sprawl,” said West. “That’s totally out of character with the kind of rural place that Danby has been and the character that people want to see maintained.”

Two “Rural” zones would be added to the foundation of Danby’s zoning through the code update. The Rural 1 zone limits lots to a minimum of 10 acres, and the Rural 2 zone would limit a lot to a minimum of 10 acres. Lots in these zones would only be allowed a single dwelling. Written into the purposes of the Rural 1 is the intent to protect natural resources, such as forests and viewsheds, specifically asserting that “any new development in this zone is intended to be limited. Such development requires additional review with careful consideration to preserving these characteristics and features and the long-term rural character and natural habitat of the town.”

Rural 2’s written purpose is to, “protect parts of the town where agriculture, open space, forests, and natural habitat are the preferred uses…”

Areas that include existing “suburban sprawl” would be included in a low-density residential zone, which allow for lots with a minimum of five acres “or per 200 feet of road frontage whichever results in the greater number of lots.” Lots in this zone would allow for up to two dwelling units in a single building.

West explained that the intent of limiting development in these zones ties the value of the land to agricultural activity or other uses of the property, rather than to the potential number of lots that can be subdivided from it and developed. Essentially, the approach leaves the door open for agricultural activity, although it doesn’t necessitate it.

As for the hopes of the Hamlets, West affirmed that the zoning updates aspire to allow centers of community similar to the hamlet of Brooktondale in the Town of Caroline. 

The Hamlet Center Zone would allow one to four dwelling units on a lot, and require no minimum lot size. However, plans would need approval from the Tompkins County Health Department regarding water and waste-water infrastructure. 

The Town of Danby only has a water district in the hamlet of West Danby. Water systems, and particularly septic systems, can determine the minimum size of a lot. West mentioned that the Town of Danby is exploring “micro sewer/water districts,” to aid in cost-saving and to allow for smaller lots, although nothing concrete has emerged yet.

Permitted uses for lots in the Hamlet Center Zone with site plan approval include child-care centers, offices, bars and restaurants (excluding those with drive-through windows), repair shops, and cottage industries. Buildings would need to fill a minimum of 60% of the lot width within the Hamlet Center.

The Hamlet Neighborhood Zone has the written purpose of encouraging, “a mix of housing types and lot sizes with the goal of building out a neighborhood where people of all ages can safely walk and where there are housing options for all incomes and household types.”

There is no minimum lot size, and the principal use of lots in this zone are for dwellings with 1 – 4 units allowed, and agriculture. Other uses are allowed with site plan approval — some of which are only allowed on corner lots, such as repair shops and restaurants. Buildings would need to fill a minimum of 40% of the lot width when built in the Hamlet Neighborhood, and also consistency in certain aesthetic choices.

West said that he thinks the zoning in the Hamlets will likely spur the development of small-scale infill housing at first.

“I think it’s a little less likely that we’ll have much lot-splitting then being developed as individual lots,” said West. “I think it’s more likely that community members will more easily be able to invest in their existing properties.”

West said one of the aspirations is to get “half of the new housing” into the hamlets, avoiding sprawl.

On Dec. 22, the public comment period for the proposed zoning updates generally yielded favorable views on the work the Town Board and Planner had produced. 

One piece of public input from Danby resident Pat Woodworth requested that there be an annualized review on the effects of the zoning updates if they were to come into effect.

Woodworth said, “There should be a review every year that looks from the planners perspective of what things have not worked so that they can be corrected immediately instead of going 20 or 100 years, and then trying to do a massive operation in a shorter amount of time.”

While Woodworth commended the work done on the draft zoning update, she said that zoning ordinances should not be treated as a “fixed document” only to be updated every 20 years. 

Correction (01/17/2022): This article originally reported the minimum lot size of the proposed Rural 2 Zone as 25 acres, while it is actually 10 acres.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn