EDITORIAL: What’s with these moratoriums?

I KNOW I’M RIGHT. I’ve never been so sure. I’ll tell you who’s at fault and what should be done about it. So Watch Out, because things are going to change around here when people hear what I have to say.

Has anyone else ever felt like that? This time it’s about land use moratoriums. Seems like every week another town or village in this county adopts a law to temporarily block somebody from building or expanding or modifying something until there are new laws that permanently prevent what the moratorium temporarily halted in its tracks.

This sounds like government overreach of the most basic kind. Somebody ought to take the guilty parties to court and get the whole idea of moratoriums tossed out. It’s undemocratic and… and…

And then there’s the downside of righteous indignation. It happens the moment you find out you really don’t know what you’re talking about. It happens to me a lot. Moratoriums are a perfect example.

Several local municipalities have recently adopted or are facing calls for moratoriums (Latin scholars and lawyers prefer to call them “moratoria” but don’t get me started). The Town of Chatham just imposed one on development along its unpaved roads and some

Germantown citizens are circulating a petition that requests one to change zoning along Route 9G, to cite just two examples. In both these cases what triggered consideration of a moratorium was a specific project. It feels like the town boards are being asked by some residents to single out an individual or business lawfully proposing to do something those residents didn’t like.

That’s exactly what is happening. It’s precisely what the law allows. Skeptical? There’s a booklet available from the state Department of State called “Land Use Moratoria” (www.dos.ny.gov/lg/publications/Land_Use_Moratoria.pdf) that lays out the legal background and the standards for adopting a moratorium, and clearly supports the authority of municipalities to impose development freezes based on broad guidelines and a definite end date.

Why give government this tool? The booklet lists five reasons: “Prevent rush to development; Prevent inefficient and ill-conceived growth; Address a new kind of use… in comprehensive plans and land use laws; Prevent hasty decisions that would disadvantage landowners and the public; Prevent immediate construction that might be inconsistent with the provisions of a future plan.”

Maybe they overlooked “Prevent wearing the wrong color socks,” but these acceptable justifications are meant to give municipal governments some breathing room so they can adjust local laws to circumstances nobody anticipated.

There are limits on moratoriums, among them the requirements that a moratorium have “a valid public purpose” and that it should “address a situation where the burden imposed by a moratorium is being shared substantially by the public at large.” These distinctions come from years of court decisions, and you can be sure that lawyers will continue to dispute what they mean as long as taxpayers and developers are willing to pay the legal bills.

A moratorium on local land use activities isn’t a mandate imposed by the state. In most cases it has to be put in place under a new law adopted by a town or village board. Oddly, the term “moratorium” doesn’t even appear in the state law that allows municipalities to establish local zoning codes. But as the Department of State booklet makes clear, zoning laws and the moratoriums that are a tool for enforcing or amending zoning and they stem from what’s referred to as the “police power” of our local governments.

That police power is necessary to respond to emergencies, but the state’s highest court took a dim view of a town that tried to use zoning as a way to exercise that power when the target of the zoning was an individual. A moratorium that freezes a type of development has to apply to anybody with a similar plan. It’s a blunt instrument and needs to be used with great care.

The state says that the purpose of a land use moratorium is to “preserve… the status quo while the municipality updates its comprehensive plan.” And that may be the bright side of local land use moratoriums. A moratorium that deprives landowners of the chance to develop their property the way they want starts the clock on completion of a comprehensive plan or the zoning laws that give a plan its teeth.

A moratorium is supposed to result in fairer, more thoughtful land use regulation. Any freeze that falls short of these goals is an attack on personal freedom.

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