This report is not meant to be a comprehensive summary of the most recent draft zoning law prepared by the Town of Caroline’s Zoning Commission. The draft law is available on the Town of Caroline’s website.

CAROLINE, N.Y. — Zoning has remained a contentious issue in Caroline as the town government mulls the first zoning regulations in the town’s history. 

While the town has some land use regulations on the books, like a site plan review and a subdivision review process, many Caroline residents feel that zoning is an unnecessary regulatory burden that will unfairly impact some property owners. Proponents of zoning, a form of land use regulation that designates or limits particular uses to certain areas, have maintained that they feel having the law in place is important for planning for growth in the community and protecting Caroline’s natural resources. 

Residents of the Town of Caroline have now had a few weeks to look over what seems to be the closest version of the proposed zoning law that will be sent to Caroline’s Town Board. The draft law zones Caroline into three districts: Agricultural / Rural; a commercial zone; and Hamlets, of which there are eight. There is also a water resource and flooding overlay zone, which borders creeks and streams, and is intended to create restrictions on development in these areas in order to protect these habitats and water quality. Non-conforming uses would be grandfathered in, but would lose that status if that nonconforming us is discontinued for more than three years.

The draft zoning law is the work of Caroline’s Zoning Commission, a group of volunteers with the assistance of paid consultants that began meeting in March 2021. The commission has hosted two public information sessions in the last week, one virtually over Zoom on Nov. 28, and another in person on Dec. 3 to gather feedback on the draft. Zoning Commission, Jean McPheeters, chair of the zoning commission, indicated on Dec. 3 that the commission could send the Town Board its final report as soon as January. It would then be in the Town Board’s power to adjust the draft, and ultimately to vote on it. 

Caroline Residents Against Zoning, the grassroots group that has been organizing demonstrations against the town adopting zoning, has been an overwhelming community voice on the matter, flooding previous public meetings with statements. The group claims to have collected the signatures of 1,200 property owners and residents that are opposed to zoning. Caroline has a population of about 3,300. 

The strong difference of opinion has been on full display along the roadsides of Caroline, with anti-zoning signs dominating margins of State Rt. 79 for the last year. Recently, signs in support of “responsible zoning” have also emerged.

While the comments and input that the Zoning Commission received on Nov. 28 and Dec. 2 was more of a mix of criticism and support than previous public meetings, the majority of commenters opposed zoning. 

Fear of taxes going up

R.C. Quick, addressed the Zoning Commission on Dec. 3, saying that he felt that the town’s current building codes and land use regulations were sufficient, and that zoning was not needed. Quick said that he feared the passage of a zoning law would require the Town of Caroline to add additional Code Enforcement officers to its payroll in order to keep property owners in compliance, adding on cost at a time of economic uncertainty. 

He directed the end of his comment directly at McPheeters.

“Our taxes will go up. I’m a fifth generation landowner. My grandparents and great grandparents, Jean, are rolling over in their graves,” said Quick. 

Bill Podulka, Chair of Caroline’s Planning Board and member of the Zoning Commission, responded to Quicks comments, saying that he did not believe that introducing zoning would require the Town of Caroline to hire another code enforcement officer. The current officer, he said, has “extra bandwidth” and the town’s Review Board, which is staffed by volunteers, would also be handling any extra work that zoning would result in.

Jean McPheeters, Chair of Caroline’s Zoning Commission. (12/03/2022) Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Others that are opposed to zoning have argued that since the form of land use regulation has been used to segregate communities along racial and class lines, it will also bear those results in Caroline. At the Nov. 28 Public Information session, Holly Magee said that she did not believe the Zoning Commission’s “claim” that that the draft law they’ve presented would not result in discrimination, racial, economic, or otherwise. 

“The discrimination is still there, even though you may have managed to hide some of it with your crafty editing skills,” said Magee, though she did not cite any specific racial or economic discrimination that would result in Caroline’s case. “I want to know how any of you can sleep at night knowing you’re a part of this and willingly turning blind to the lower class.”

Podulka responded to her saying that being more specific about the discriminations she mentioned would be necessary for the Zoning Commission if it were to use her input constructively. He also stated that the Zoning Commission has “tried very carefully” to draft a zoning law that would avoid the legacy of zoning being used to discriminate, and that he felt the commission had made intentional steps to facilitate affordable housing in the draft law. 

Podulka cited that the zoning draft allows manufactured homes everywhere in Caroline. A cheaper and more affordable housing option, manufactured homes are often restricted to certain areas under conventional zoning laws. 

The proposed zoning law, Podulka added, also allows accessory dwelling units across all districts in the Town of Caroline, which could be an apartment added onto an existing building, or for a home to be split into multiple units. A manufactured home is also considered an accessory dwelling unit under the draft law, which Podulka said “many zoning laws would not necessarily allow that.”

Podulka said, “You’ll have to point out more clearly what specifically is going to impact lower income households.”

The zoning law allows housing to be developed in any area, farmland or otherwise, with the only requirement being the acquisition of a building permit from the Town of Caroline. That’s currently the standard under Caroline’s no-zoning status. 

A building permit will allow property owners in any zone to build single family homes, or a two-family homes in any zone. Accessory apartments can be added onto single family homes without the need to acquire more than a permit as well. If a property owner is seeking to convert an accessory structure like a garage, then the zoning law would require an abbreviated site plan review.

The abbreviated site plan review would require property owners to submit a map of what is already on their property, including buildings, accessory structures, any driveways, as well as a rough sketch of the structure they’re proposing to build. Slopes over a 15% grade, wetlands and streams among other natural features are supposed to be included. 

If the application is complete, the Review Board would approve it so long as the proposal adheres to the uses and standards set out in the zoning law. Podulka said on Dec. 2 that an abbreviated site plan review would likely require applicants to attend one meeting of the town’s Review Board.

Passing down property

A speaker named Crystal addressed the Zoning Commission on Nov. 28, saying, “Have you ever looked at Ithaca, New York? You guys want to bring that type of world out in our town?” Zoning, she added, would also make it harder for her to pass down her property to her children. 

“Do you care anything about our town?” Crystal asked.

Podulka responded to this speaker, asking her to compare Ithaca’s zoning law and Caroline’s zoning law. 

“They are completely different creatures,” he said. He attempted to explain that the zoning laws are trying to address different sets of problems, and that the draft law prepared by the Zoning Commission is tailored to the needs of the rural community of Caroline. 

He also addressed the statement that the law would make it harder for property owners to pass down property. “I just don’t get where that concern is coming from, but I’m willing to be educated. So if you can tell us why it is that the zoning codes make it harder to hand on land. That’s good information for us to have.”

Upon review, The Ithaca Voice did not find any part of the draft zoning law that explicitly restricts property owner’s ability to hand down land. 

Agricultural uses

When it comes to agricultural uses of land, the draft zoning law allows farm operations to exist in any district, as well as agri-tourism and agricultural structures are allowed with a simple building permit as well as farm breweries, wineries, cideries, and distilleries. 

A concentrated animal feed operation, or as they are commonly known CAFO, would be allowed in the Focused Commercial District and the Agricultural District with an abbreviated site plan review. The draft law would not allow CAFO’s in Caroline’s hamlets. 

There seems to be a looming fear on both sides of the conversation around zoning that the farmland of Caroline might one day be subdivided into large lots and be populated by “McMansions,” large mass-produced homes, or some other form of development that would eat up valuable space. 

Bruno Schickel, a builder who constructed and owns an ornate tiny house community known as Boiceville Cottage in Caroline, said that he felt the zoning law would, “protect McMansion land, and you promote McMansion land” in Caroline. He, overall, criticized the idea of zoning being introduced to Caroline.

Bruno Schickel, a builder who owns the Boiceville Cottages development in Caroline, speaks about his frustrations with zoning. Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Much of the discussion around the fear of runaway development eating up Caroline’s farmland centered on the average lot size that the zoning law would require within the Agricultural District. Each lot containing a single dwelling unit would be required to be an average of three acres under the draft zoning law. In the scenario where the draft zoning law is passed, if a 50 acre parcel of land is subdivided 20 times, the average size of those 20 lots must be three acres.

Podulka said on Nov. 28 that the average lot size clause was an attempt to make it easier for farmers to be able to sell small lots of their land to generate income, instead of having to sell a minimum of five, four, or three acres. 

Irene Weiser, a former member of the Caroline’s Town Board who served for nine years, attended the Dec. 2 information session. She expressed her appreciation for the work of the Zoning Commission, but included in her comments that she didn’t feel the average acreage rule for the Agricultural District would “lend itself to preserving farmland and promoting agriculture.

Business and Commercial uses

Under the draft zoning law, formula businesses are restricted to developing in the Focused Commercial district and just four of Caroline’s eight hamlets. A consistent throughline in the debate around zoning has been a Dollar General that was proposed for development in Caroline, but was blocked by a moratorium on commercial development passed in June 2020. 

The Draft Zoning law would allow convenience stores in all the same districts as formula businesses, in addition to the Hamlets of Brooktondale and Center Brooktondale. A Special Use Permit, or a Site Plan Review would be required, depending on the district.

Restaurants are allowed in all districts. A special use permit, or a site plan review would be required in all districts, except for in an Agricultural District if it’s associated with a farm operation. In that case, an abbreviated site plan would be required. 

Gas stations are restricted from being developed in the Agricultural District, as well as the Hamlets of Besemer and West Salterville. 

The draft zoning law would also allow small battery energy storage systems, and small solar projects with only the granting of a building permit in any district. Small torage systems are defined in the draft law as less than or equal to 600 kWh of storage, and solar energy systems are defined as those that have 25kW of capacity or less. Solar facilities any larger would be required to gain a special use permit from the Town of Caroline’s Review Board, and would only be allowed in the Commercial District, and Agricultural District. Larger energy storage systems are allowed with a special use permit in any zone. 

Commercial developments have some additional standards for development under the draft zoning law. For one, parking would be required to be at the rear or the side of the building. Signage would not be allowed to exceed more than 10% of a commercial building’s face.

Water resource overlay district

The water resource overlay district imposes additional requirements on what is built within that zone, by triggering an abbreviated site plan review under the draft zoning law. The district is meant to “protect critical water resources and ecological systems” according to the draft zoning law. It encompasses riparian areas, and wetlands, floodplains, and other water bodies. 

In some cases, the overlay district encompasses large portions or entire parts of populated parts of Caroline, like Valley Road in the Hamlet of Brooktondale. According to the Zoning Commission, about 10% of the parceled land in the Town of Caroline is included in the overlay district. 

A riparian buffer area would also be required under the draft. This area would restrict development within 50 feet from a stream to include activities that disturb no more than 10% of the acreage within the riparian buffer area on a parcel. Allowed land use would also be restricted to agriculture, any use that was in existence at the time of the zoning law’s adoption, necessary stream crossings, flood control infrastructure, trails, among others. 

Wetlands would be protected separately from development by state and federal regulations.

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