Zoning? Who cares?

IT MUST SOUND LIKE HEAVEN to some folks: a town where public officials had neither the will nor the wherewithal to enforce one of the most basic functions of local self-government, the local laws that regulate land use.

You folks who believe the Constitution or natural law or the Tooth Fairy permits you to do anything you want with your property once you hold title to it missed the boat if haven’t been living in Ancram. It has a person appointed as code enforcement officer and building inspector, but he’s frustrated because he’s toothless

 

It’s not a dental hygiene problem. By longstanding policy, the town does not to compel citizens to correct violations like illegal dumping, hazardous conditions or unpermitted changes. So while the code officer can inform a property owner that he or she has not complied with town law, the property owner can shrug and ignore him.

What happens to the property owner? Nothing. No fine. No threat of jail for contempt of court. The matter never even gets to court because the town hasn’t wanted to spend the money it would take to try a case and levy a fine so small it wouldn’t pay for the prosecutor’s lunch.

Maybe this approach sounds like common sense, and maybe it worked on the frontier, where a person could just pick up and move someplace where nobody cared what kind of mess he or she made. But the policy invites abuse and chaos. We don’t live on a boundless frontier, and I have at least as much right to be free of your illegal mess as you have to make it.

It’s easy to admonish Ancram to enforce the law, but how does Ancram or any other municipality avoid saddling taxpayers with new costs? Can we really afford to enforce zoning and building codes when our property taxes have already reached historic highs?

Ancram has company in facing this dilemma. People have raised similar questions in the Village of Chatham. The village has an unusual approach to the enforcement of its building codes. Some time ago village officials delegated the Police Department to enforce the regulations. The theory was that the cops constantly travel the village streets and would be most likely to observe building and zoning code violations.

Oh, great. Soon enough village taxpayers will have to pay for each officer’s high-power, government-approved, bulletproof measuring tape, laser level and carpenter’s square. You add that to what they already carry on their service belts and they won’t be able to stand up let alone apprehend fast-moving zoning perps.

Residents of Chatham, Copake and Philmont, probably other communities around Columbia County too, have begun to question whether they can afford to support local police in addition to the State Police and the county Sheriff’s Office Road Patrol. So it makes no sense to talk about expanding the role of local police departments or diverting officers from their core duties of protecting the public.

The solution to the lack of enforcement in Ancram and Chatham and the other places where code violators ignore the law requires pooling resources and, in the process, giving up some local authority over zoning. In order to take advantage of centralized services like zoning enforcement, the zoning codes will have to look a lot more alike from one municipality to the next.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Residents have come to see their town and village zoning regulations as defining the identity of their communities. Citizens of New York State, especially upstate, have long cherished the principle of “home rule” — the authority to govern ourselves at the municipal level — and zoning is one way we currently express that privilege.

But who will pay for the luxury of non-standard zoning codes? Certainly not middle class and fixed-income residents, who already shoulder the biggest burden of the property taxes. We can barely afford the services we have now. Something has to give.

People all around the county could resign themselves to letting enforcement slip, adopting the old Ancram model that has allowed some folks to get away with trashing the community. Or officials could find ways to share the cost of enforcing zoning throughout the county. But cutting expenses that way implies more than just sharing services. It requires zoning standards that apply across municipal lines. It means we’ll have to redefine ourselves as part of a larger community. That’s painful, but it will cost whole a lot less. 

 

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