ELIZABETHTOWN — The town that serves as the county seat is growing closer to nailing down outstanding questions regarding the implementation of a comprehensive plan, a crowd-sourced roadmap that will guide the town as it enters the next phase of its growth and development.
Supervisor Noel Merrihew and the town board have set a tentative date of Wednesday, July 9 for a public hearing.
There, at the town hall, the public is encouraged to examine the plan — a 100-page living document stuffed with charts and neatly-arranged paragraphs that lays out everything from an analysis of the town’s strengths (location of government offices paired with a friendly character, for instance) and weaknesses, which include inconsistent zoning enforcement, a lack of sewage infrastructure and an overall lack of identity.
The plan also includes wishlists for the future alongside insights derived from workshops where business owners chimed in with their thoughts for revitalizing what they say is a promising, yet rudderless, economy.
After July’s hearing, the town board will vote to approve the plan and move forward with implementing its suggestions.
The most recent version of the plan is the sixth. It was drafted by Nan Stolzenburg, a consultant from Albany County the town hired in 2012, in conjunction with two different incarnations of the planning and town boards alongside the insights derived from business leaders and private citizens who participated in a workshop in August 2012.
Residents were also encouraged to send in surveys with their thoughts: 792 were mailed, and 128 were completed, a 16 percent return rate.
Strategies for moving forward, it was decided, include developing cohesive branding and marketing initiatives, stepping up efforts to attract small-scale light industry and commercial enterprises, developing parking and beautification strategies along Court Street, providing townwide high speed broadband access, developing funding and access to state grants and economic development initiatives and promoting local community-supported agriculture programs.
And, of course, the plan details constructing new water and sewer lines that have crippled the town’s economic development — the Valley News obtained a list of businesses that were forced to drop anchor elsewhere — and updating the local land use laws to channel growth and development.
“This touches the tip of the iceberg,” said Bruce Pushee, the associate broker at Friedman Reality who provided the list. “This why we need a comprehensive plan that is friendly to business and growth while protecting property rights and value.”
July’s hearing will act as the one of the last mileposts in a journey that has systematically deconstructed, analyzed and reassembled the inner workings of the community and mapped out the challenges that lie ahead.
But for one local skeptic, questions remain.
The element of the comprehensive plan that has perhaps derived the most ire from the community is something called Hamlets-3, a model for hamlet expansion that uses the principles of smart growth, or the planning theory commonly used in densely-packed urban centers that seeks to concentrate growth in compact, walkable centers.
Proponents of Hamlets-3, the drafting of which was sponsored by Essex County and the Adirondack Community Housing Trust, have suggested concentrating growth and development in these designated hamlets, which complement the Adirondack Park Agency’s designated land use schemes, to avoid the ugly sprawl that has plagued communities that do not use these principles.
The first document in the series, Hamlets-1, was drafted in 1983 and identified Adirondack settlements and their problems before categorizing them into clusters that would help pinpoint their needs. This initial document set the stage for future development, including marketing initiatives, before Hamlets-2, which focused on developmental strategies, was penned two years later.
At a public meeting in March, depictions of possible Hamlets-3 planning in Elizabethtown — namely a cluster of 16 concentric “growth rings” radiating outward from New Russia — elicited strong concern from Ken Fenimore, a retired local contractor who is among the plan’s most vocal watchdogs.
“Planning is not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “Better planning could have prevented the current situation. But it would have been up to the community. Most of the people who live here feel as if they don’t need someone to tell us how we will be using our property.”
Among the most jarring element of the plan, he said, are the aforementioned growth rings.
“These still leave the door open for smart growth to be used outside of the hamlet,” he said. “My worst fear is ongoing and escalating regulation that could potentially lead to us losing our property rights and control of our futures. Regional planning is a big component of this.”
Like the other suggestions in the document, Hamlets-3 can be dropped from the final plan, Stolzenburg said, the consultant the town hired to facilitate the planning process.
“The plan is a complete affirmation of home rule,” she said at the meeting. “It’s a community document, and it has to be comfortable within your community. If something doesn’t fit, then it shouldn’t be there.”
Stolzenburg said that as an urban planner, she naturally gravitates toward thinking big. But the final decisions ultimately rest with the community.
Any recommendations within the plan that the public and town board opt to implement on would then have to work its way through the standard legislative process before it became law.
Despite his outspoken presence, including withering letters printed in the Valley News, Fenimore is easygoing and doesn’t come across as a wild-eyed activist.
He said he is not anti-planning and does want to see his community thrive.
“Things can always be done to improve the community and create an atmosphere for economic growth,” he said. “But I’m not convinced that land regulation is for the best.”
Even if Hamlets-3 is stricken from the final draft, something that planning board officials have indicated they are open to exploring, Fenimore said he has other concerns that have yet to be assuaged:
He wishes the copies of the plan will have appendixes attached to them — there are five altogether detailing Hamlets-3 alongside something called an “active living strategy” designed to promote healthy lifestyle choices for local residents — and remains skeptical over both perceived inconsistency between the plan’s six drafts and the legal aspects of what happens once the town passes a resolution to adopt the plan:
“We can’t assume there will be a public hearing every time the plan will change,” he said. “You have to hope for that, it’s not a given. Whether the plan will be a ‘non-binding roadmap’ remains to be seen, for it depends on how it’s written and what’s in it, ergo, the need to pay attention to the ‘legal minutiae.’ None of us are lawyers, including [Stolzenburg], and a legal review is needed.”
Fred Monroe is a lawyer. He’s also head of the Foundation for Land and Liberty, an organization that acts as a watchdog to protect private property rights to ensure the APA doesn’t infringe upon home rule.
In an interview, Monroe said from his perspective, both as the Chester Town Supervisor in Warren County (which does have a plan) and the Executive Director to the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, comprehensive plans only act as community assets — not detriments.
“It’s important to engage the public through a series of public hearings,” he agreed. “The law does not require multiple public hearings to introduce local law — only one is required. But we’re continually getting feedback from the APA on ours to satisfy APA concerns or if the public wanted a change their minds.”
Monroe, responding to Fenimore’s concerns that comprehensive plans open up a backdoor to APA regulations that were watered down through the negotiation process in the early 1970s, Monroe said the exact opposite was the case.
“By adopting a plan, towns are taking back jurisdiction they had before the APA,” he said.
This includes a greater degree of home rule in taking on Class B and smaller projects.
“If [zoning regulations] are approved by the APA, that’s when town takes jurisdiction back,” he said. “It was significant for us in Chester. It was a really smart move for us, and it was absolutely useful for us to adopt. It gives you the benefit to choose adopt zoning and planning and puts you in a much better position to apply for state grants.”
State agencies are increasingly asking towns to provide their proposed projects have the consent of the public, Monroe said — like the pedestrian-level sidewalk lighting that his town installed.
“They want to make sure this is a goal carefully considered by the community and is something they want to accomplish,” he said. “Quite frankly, it’s very difficult to get grants without one.”
Fenimore is the only critic who is willing to go on the record. He estimates that 30 others have privately approached him in support of his role as a civic watchdog. Only one other skeptic, an individual who expressed similar reservations about zoning, has reached out to the Valley News, but requested anonymity because they didn’t want to draw attention to what they said was a pleasant small town existence.
The Valley News does not use anonymous sources, which means their insights cannot be included here. However, numerous Elizabethtown-based proponents of the plan have come forward and their insights will be included on the record in an article in next week’s edition.
“I don’t think apathy is the reason others don’t speak out about this issue, since a fair number of people thank me for my involvement,” Fenimore said. “My sense is that others don’t know quite what to say and are content that someone else is taking care of it. I just hope for a lawful process going forward.”
This article marks the second in a series exploring the comprehensive plan and what it means not only for Elizabethtown, but how it relates to the trends shaping the region. As the town moves closer to adopting the plan, we will talk with a variety of people from across the spectrum in order to cast the plan into focus and how it will affect the community.