EDITORIAL: This exemption makes sense

LET’S START WITH THE REASONS why this editorial should not be written. 1. There is no way that anyone will consider it an unbiased opinion. (We once received a note from a subscriber who said our editorials were biased. I was flattered. This is different.)
2. (See Number 1, above.)

The Village of Chatham has placed a moratorium on new commercial construction until the Village Board adopts a new Comprehensive Plan and makes sure that the village zoning ordinance will advance the vision for development expressed in the plan. The moratorium has a six-month life with extensions possible. The plan is almost complete. But the task of reconciling it with the ordinance can drag on for generations unless there’s a shared conviction that this mind-numbing work must end soon.

Segments of the village still suffer from post-traumatic-development disorder following the struggle over the new Price Chopper supermarket that now guards the western approach to the village. The moratorium is a public health measure that inoculates the community against exposure to new commercial projects that might be regulated one way under the existing zoning ordinance but could face more stringent regulations once the new Comprehensive Plan is in place. The moratorium should allow everyone to take a breather… except for one intentional loophole.

The moratorium offers a hardship exemption. Consider it a magic charm to ward off developers’ lawsuits that argue a total ban amounts to government overreach, placing an unacceptable limit on individual rights. Like other communities the village embraced the hardship exemption and now one company and one individual have applied for this option, leaving the Village Board to decide who is and is not worthy of one.

More now on Reason No. 1. Ed Herrington, Inc., the building supply company headquartered in Hillsdale, is an applicant for an exemption. Herrington’s is a regular advertiser in this newspaper. I am a customer at the company’s Chatham store. The last time I purchased supplies there I didn’t request a delivery, I walked to the fence at the rear of Herrington’s lot and tossed the blocks into the adjacent yard. That’s right–my backyard. We’re neighbors, too.

Herrington’s wants to build six new storage structures to shelter its stacks of lumber and other supplies from the elements. The company says its inventory is damaged without the buildings. I don’t know what checklist the village will use to determine whether Herrington’s qualifies for an exemption to the moratorium. But I support the company’s request. Well I would, wouldn’t I?

Maybe I wouldn’t if the decision rested on the name of the company or its connections. Fortunately, no one has raised those concerns in what has been a transparent process. The debate so far has been about the principles involved. Former village Trustee Lael Locke said it best when she warned the board about weakening the moratorium by nibbling away at it with exemptions before the plan and new zoning regulations take effect.

Her reservations are why any decision on approving a moratorium exemption should rest on the narrowest and most rigorous criteria. For instance, would the proposal increase the footprint of development? Is there any documentation in the draft Comprehensive Plan revision that suggests the type of development proposed would conflict with the goals of the plan? Is there tangible evidence of the claim for a hardship?

There’s also history to consider. Once there were other buildings on the Herrington’s site. A century ago coal dust from the railroads had already left the soil there woefully unproductive. When Herrington’s bought the Chatham store the company quickly knocked down a building on our boundary before it could collapse on its own. A record of stewardship should matter, as well. On all counts, Herrington’s meets the standards.

A hardship exemption shouldn’t be an automatic giveaway. We can’t afford to run our communities exclusively for the benefit of businesses any more than we can expect to survive if government fails to encourage commerce. The Village Board and its land use panels make these tough regulatory decisions; that’s their job. The law also gives the courts the power to review their actions and reverse them.

Comprehensive plans give us thoughtful guidance arrived at by democratic means. But they are not sacred texts. As living documents we should treat them with deep respect, knowing that local government will interpret them as the need arises. The Village Board has given itself the authority to make narrow and appropriate exceptions to the moratorium. In Herrington’s case that’s what the board should do.

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