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News & Comment About The Issues Facing Oriental.

Automatic Rezonings In Oriental?
March 1, 2011

O
riental’s rezoning ordinance could change in a big way under a proposal recommended by the town’s Planning Board. Under the proposal now before the Town Board, a person who sought a rezoning of their land would automatically be granted that rezoning if the Town Board failed to act in 95 days. Currently, there is no automatic trigger for rezoning in Oriental.

At its meeting Tuesday night, March 1, Oriental’s Town Board could set a public hearing date — likely for April — for the proposed changes. (Changes to the GMO require a public hearing before the Town Board can vote on proposed amendments.)

Genesis of The Changes

Oriental has not had many rezoning requests over the years. It was a rezoning request last year by Sylvan Friedman for his lot behind Croakertown and the Post Office and facing Midyette Street that prompted the Town Board at its early February meeting to ask the Planning Board to look at making some changes.

Sylvan Friedman wanted to change the zoning for that property from R3 — which allows only residential construction and use — to MU which is Oriental’s most expansive zoning category, allowing residential and commercial use. His rezoning request met stiff opposition on Midyette Street. Many residents of the street, where most of Oriental’s African-American population lives, came to a public hearing in late summer to voice their objections. They were concerned about increased traffic if a business set up shop where currently only homes can be built.

Another concern for those living closest and across the street, was that they could face dumpsters associated with any business on that lot. Residents who lived closest filed a petition, as the ordinance allows, which would have required that a supermajority of the board — 4 out of 5 commissioners — had to agree to change the zoning for it to pass.

In other rezoning public hearings, the town board has taken a vote, often the same night of the public hearing. In the face of all the opposition at that August meeting, Mr. Friedman asked the board to delay action. And then requested delays at least once more. Few of the opponents of the rezoning continued to attend the Town Board meetings as the case dragged on. In December, the Board talked for an hour about the rezoning request and was set to vote — it appeared the board was ready to approve the rezoning despite the strong opposition. However, at that December meeting, the Mayor said that a citizen had brought to his attention a clause in the Town’s ordinance that said the Board had to act within 65 days. Since more than 65 days had passed, the citizen, and then the Mayor noted, the case was moot and not vote could be taken.

At the time, it was viewed as a denial. Several Town Board members objected and at the January meeting they raised the issue again and there was discussion among some board members and the mayor about the interpretation of the 65 day clause.

At both the January and February meetings, the Board discussed the Friedman case and ordinance language it might want clarified about rezonings, such as when the Town Board should act. At the February 1st meeting, the Town’s Attorney advised the board to either get Mr. Friedman to formally withdraw his rezoning or, absent that, deny it in a vote and then work on the language of the ordinance.

There was talk about making it easier for an applicant to re-apply for a rezoning without waiting a year as the ordinance now stands. Some suggested the town should waive the $400 application fee (which pays for administrative costs and the price of advertising the required public hearings in the newspapers) if the applicant made his request in 60 days.

The issue was sent to the Planning Board.

Three weeks later, on February 22, the Planning Board met and went over changes to the Article XV of the GMO. This is where it recommended changes that seemed to go beyond what the Town Board asked for.

Though it was the first time the Planning Board was addressing the issue in a public setting, the members worked off of papers with existing sections of the GMO crossed out and proposed changes underlined, changes that were apparently prepared in advance of the meeting.

Members of the public listened for about a half hour as the board tinkered with provisions. A resident asked if the public could speak in advance of the Planning Board’s vote. Chairman Bill Marlowe said no.

When the Planning Board came to the part mentioning the automatic granting of the rezoning — at the end of Article XV, Section 234, Subsection 3 — Dee Sage read it aloud once. No discussion ensued in front of the public about that provision. The board — Marlowe, Sage, Dick Creighton and Harvey Hardison — voted unanimously on the entire package.

In the public comment period of the Planning Board meeting immediately after, several residents honed in on the automatic provision and asked why it was necessary. Bill Marlowe said by way of explanation that other towns did that. Resident David White countered that Oriental didn’t have to follow that lead. Other Planning Board members said that it was “legal” and had been “researched.” No examples were provided.

The residents told the Planning Board that the changes seemed to be written from a viewpoint that wanted to favor the applicant more than the residents who live around the applicant’s lot, and who could be more adversely affected if the Town Board sat on its hands and let the rezoning happen by default. The residents asked what recourse would the neighbors have if that happened. Some Planning Board members said the public could make their displeasure known at the next election.

Dee Sage said that other language in the GMO would “almost make it impossible for the default (automatic approval) to happen….” and that it was necessary to have because the town til now did “not have a clear procedure.” Some residents took issue with the “almost .. impossible” and noted that the other language the Planning Board changed in the ordinance would address the issues initially raised by the Friedman rezoning.

Noting that February 22 was the first time the Planning Board publicly discussed making changes regarding rezoning, one resident asked who wrote the changes in advance of the meeting. The resident was told that all of the Planning Board members worked on it.

The recommendation is now with the Town Board. On the March 1st agenda, the Town Board’s third item is to schedule a Public Hearing on the changes to Title XV.

At least two town commissioners are saying they don’t like the automatic provision. TownDock.net asked at the Town Board’s agenda session last week if the Town Board could give the proposal a once-over first and remove that provision about the “automatic rezonings” before the rewrite of the rest of the rezoning ordinance goes to a public hearing. Mayor Bill Sage, husband of Planning Board member Dee Sage, answered that that wouldn’t happen. However, at least one commissioner is looking into the possibility of discussing objections to that provision before setting the public hearing.

The Board’s Tuesday night meeting starts at 7p and is open to the public. Commissioners may be contacted before then.

To download a copy of the Planning Board’s proposed changes click here.

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Update: At the March 1 Town Board meeting, the commissioners voted to send the proposal back to the Planning Board, which will likely address it at the next Planning Board meeting on Tuesday March 29. All meetings are open to the public.

Posted Tuesday March 1, 2011 by Melinda Penkava