CAROLINE, N.Y.—The large signs reading “No Zoning Needed” along NYS Route 79 may have clued passersby into the fact that the Town of Caroline is in the midst of drafting its first-ever zoning laws.

The Town of Caroline already has an extensive site plan review which it can regulate land use through, but its move to draft zoning laws has incited a swell of opposition from an ad-hoc group called “Caroline Residents Against Zoning.”

The group’s purpose is spelled out clearly in its name: a complete opposition to zoning being introduced to the town. The message has gained undeniable traction. The Caroline Residents Against Zoning’s Facebook group has over 400 members in it, although the opposition has become muddled with rumors, like the suspicion that Caroline’s Town government is attempting to rapidly pass the zoning regulations without input from its residents.

The group has held two protests outside of the Caroline Town Hall, both of which were scheduled to coincide with meetings of the town’s zoning commission, although the commission has moved to hold its meetings remotely due to the ongoing pandemic. 

The virtual meetings are one of the issues which Caroline Residents Against Zoning have taken up with the Town’s government. Much of the Town of Caroline struggles with a lack of internet access, making virtual meetings a major challenge for them to attend. Members of the Town Board and Zoning Commission use the internet connection at Caroline’s Town Hall in order to conduct their meetings. This complaint against no in person meetings was front and center at the protests, which were peaceful, with groups mostly standing in circles and talking, and standing by the road waving signs. 

The first protest was on Jan. 25th and saw over 80 attendees. The second was on Feb. 8 and saw a crowd of over 110, with residents parking tractors and a retro army in the Town Hall’s parking lot. 

Caroline Residents Against Zoning pose for a photo outside of Caroline’s Town Hall. (Feb. 8, 2022) Credit: Provided / Caroline Residents Against Zoning

Among the criticisms and concerns which Caroline Residents Against Zoning have expressed are fears that introducing zoning to the town could hinder future business development by adding additional upfront costs for businesses getting started, and restricting what property owners are able to do on their land.

However, the draft zoning law that many residents in Caroline have reviewed is likely to change a great deal, said Jean McPheeters, chair of Caroline’s zoning commission, which is composed of the Town of Caroline’s planning board, and four community members that were appointed through an application process by the Town Board.

The Zoning commission is early in the process of drafting the zoning laws, the intention of which is based on the Town of Caroline’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan, adopted in Jan. 2021. The general ideas underpinning the zoning laws drafts are supposed to be to “preserve the rural character” of Caroline, “conserve the Town’s natural resources and protect the Town’s environment from the effects of excessive…development,” and promote Caroline as a desirable place to live. 

Caroline passed a moratorium on new land use development in June 2020 to make sure that “any new developments going forward would be consistent” with the Town’s then-forthcoming comprehensive plan, Caroline Town Supervisor Mark Witmer told Tompkins Weekly.

“The cart has kind of gotten before the horse,” said Witmer.

The moratorium effectively halted the development of a Dollar General in Caroline, which has remained as another sticking point for members of Caroline Residents Against Zoning. 

The draft zoning law that is currently available on the Town of Caroline’s website was developed by consultants from the planning firm Community Planning & Environmental Associates. This was done at the request of the zoning commission in order to ease the burden of starting from square one. The draft spawned from conversations that the consultants had with the zoning commission, which started meeting on March 30, 2021.

This consultant-written draft was finished in Jan. 2022, and is now being reviewed and altered by the commission.

Once the zoning commission finishes this process, McPheeters said that the commission would make the document available to the public for at least two weeks before an informational meeting would be held, where the commission and its planning consultants would present the aspects of the draft zoning laws, and would answer questions from attendees.

McPheeters said that the soonest this first informational meeting could happen would be at the end of March.

“And that would be that we were that that would mean that we were moving forward like a herd of gazelles,” said McPheeters.

“The cart has kind of gotten before the horse,” said Witmer. “Everybody has seen this draft law and is reacting to it before it’s really had the attention it deserves from the Zoning Commission.”

John Morse, a resident of Caroline and owner of Celebrations, a banquet hall and wedding venue located in Caroline, has found himself as one of the main organizers in the Caroline Residents Against Zoning group.

Morse thinks that the town of Caroline, which was founded in 1811, has been “fine without zoning for over 200 years,” and strongly believes that it will hinder the development of new businesses within the town.

However, Morse added that if the Town of Caroline wants to go through with developing zoning laws, during the pandemic is not the right time.

Morse said, “I really think that we’ve done more communication with the community in two weeks than the town has in two years.”

“This is not the appropriate time to be taking on a project that will affect every landowner and voter and resident of the town of Caroline from here till forever,” said Morse. 

He added, “The meetings are done remotely, which is exclusionary, to many of the folks in the town of Caroline. There’s a large percentage of people here that don’t have high speed internet.” Morse said that he himself is unable to participate in the meetings from home.

Morse said he thinks that Caroline’s zoning commission should make their meetings in-person, or at least hybrid. Morse and Caroline Residents Against Zoning also think that the Town has not done enough to get the word out about zoning.

The zoning commission’s work, and recordings of their meetings are all currently advertised on the opening page of the Town of Caroline website.To reach people who don’t have internet access, the Town of Caroline has shared the commission’s formation and work in each of its quarterly newsletter starting in April 2021, which is supposed to be sent to every household in town. 

Still, members of Caroline Residents Against Zoning only see these efforts as coming up short.

Morse said, “I really think that we’ve done more communication with the community in two weeks than the town has in two years.”

He added, “It may be very likely that the town has done everything that they’re required to do to communicate to the community…However, from talking to residents in the community, if the town thinks that what they’ve done has actually served the purpose of getting the word out, that’s not true. Residents don’t know what’s going on. It’s a surprise to a lot of folks.”

Looking Forward

Once the zoning commission has its first informational meeting, there may be others if the commission feels that the zoning laws need to be continually drafted.

The rest of the legislative process for the zoning laws are as follows: there will be a public hearing before the zoning commission before the body votes to send the zoning draft to the Town Board. This hearing will be an opportunity for members of the public to make statements about the draft zoning law though, unlike the informational meetings, without response from the commission. 

Following this hearing will be the last opportunity the zoning commission will have to revise the draft zoning law, before submitting it as recommendation to Caroline’s Town Board. The Town Board has final editorial oversight over the zoning law. There may be other public informational meetings held by the Caroline Town Board, but the five-member board is required by law to have a public hearing before voting to adopt it or not.

Witmer said that the soonest he could foresee this vote happening is in August, when the Town’s moratorium on new businesses is scheduled to end, but he does not think that deadline will be reached, and does not intend to rush the commission in their work. 

“It’s really important for the Zoning Commission to feel like they can do what they need to do as far as the work and engaging with the public to come up with something that they can buy into,” said Witmer.

Witmer said that the moratorium would be extended if it is necessary to accommodate the work of the zoning commission and the town board. 

McPheeters emphasized that she is not interested in arguing in favor or against zoning. 

“I’m doing what I’ve been asked to do by the town board, which is very clear,” said McPheeters. “And that is to bring them a document that they can discuss, and argue about.”

She added, “My job is to bring back a zoning law, and so when people have said to me ‘Just say no (to zoning)’, I say it would be much more effective if you said what you don’t like and asked us not, you know, asked us to think about specific thing.”

Update: The term “largely” was removed from the sentence which previously read, “…at the protests, which were largely peaceful, with groups mostly standing in circles and talking…”

Jimmy Jordan

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