The Village of Nyack may be nearing the last step of adopting an important update to its land use planning: a revised zoning ordinance. It is a culmination of a multi-year process that has involved much good work by residents who have volunteered their expertise and time. There is currently a draft ordinance (See Nyack Facts page for the ordinance and supporting docs) that was completed by the Zoning Code Revision Committee in November, 2008. It took a while to start the next stage, but the draft Code is currently being reviewed by a planning consultant, who is looking at three important issues before it goes to the Village Board for possible approval.
A zoning ordinance controls how property is used, and what buildings will look like. It is the guide book for a community’s future. The proposed ordinance is a huge improvement and update to the Village’s current zoning code. It is also a compromise document, representing a basic split in our vision of Nyack’s future. The three issues the consultant is reviewing highlight these differences. The split on the Committee was about 50/50, and may simulate a close-to-equal split in our community of the difference of our vision of tomorrow’s Nyack. It is important that the community understands these issues and weighs in on what the Village Board adopts, because it will likely affect development for several decades.
The three key issues are articulated in a memo by Steve Knowlton, chair of the Zoning Revision Committee, and long standing chair of the Village Zoning Board of Appeals. They are as follows:
- Off-street parking requirement for downtown district (DMU) — The new DMU zone (Downtown Mixed Use) is a huge improvement for no other reason than it is one, consistent zone covering all of Nyack’s commercial core (Main Street from Highland Ave. down and Broadway from First Ave. to the South Nyack border). The issue is that the proposed zone includes off-street parking requirements. Such requirements help reduce the Village’s burden of providing parking, but also works against an urban development pattern in favor of a suburban one where buildings are surround by parking lots and autos are preferred to pedestrians. They also increase the cost of development. The reality is that most downtown commercial properties do not have room for parking (if they did, there would be a fraction of the number of buildings because they would all be surrounded by parking lots). The argument for removing the off-street parking requirement is based on the premise that the Village is responsible for providing parking for downtown, which will provide higher property values (and revenues) and a vibrant, urban core.
- Building Size calculations for housing (FAR) — The draft ordinance has a fairly new mechanism in the industry called “Floor Area Ratio” (FAR) to regulate residential structure size on lots. In a strong real estate market with older housing stock, there is inevitably pressure for “tear downs” where people will want to build new, much bigger, houses on the lot. FAR is a formula that allows flexibility and more interesting designs as residents push the size of their house to the maximum allowed under zoning. With traditional zoning, you will end up with box-like structures because that is the only way to maximize the house size. FAR has the advantage of allowing interesting layouts. The disadvantage is that it is hard to understand, for both the resident and the Building Department and Review Boards. This is the most technical of the three issues, and less philosophical in nature. The issue is basically weighing flexibility against simplicity and cost.
- Land Use Board composition — Currently the Village has a robust set of tools to review and regulate development. It has a Planning Board and an Architectural Review Board (ARB) from which each applicant must seek approval. This allows the Village to have multiple layers of review to ensure a poorly designed or incompatible structure or improvement doesn’t get built. Unfortunately this can be costly in time and money to those investing in their property. Some have proposed merging the ARB with the Planning Board and giving the one board oversight over both the site plan review process of the Planning Board and the design review of the ARB. This is probably the most controversial issue. Nobody wants to give up the Village’s oversight over design. The goal would be to streamline the process so that applicants don’t get bounced between boards with overlapping authority.
As crazy, and incredibly slow, as the political process may seem at times, the proposed zoning ordinance has followed the proper steps. The Village created a comprehensive plan, which was started in 2002, revised a couple of times, and finally adopted in January, 2007. The draft zoning ordinance evolved from the comprehensive plan, using the same planning consultant. The draft ordinance was completed and delivered to the Village Board in November, 2008.
The timing to getting the ordinance adopted will be a bit awkward. The consultant’s review of the three issues will probably be done by September, and at the point will be the time to discuss the various issues for possible changes to the draft. These are important considerations, with long lasting effects. Nyack will be in full swing in its election season, with three of its four Trustees running for Mayor, making a balanced and rational discussion of complicated issues difficult. Whatever happens, we must make sure the changes are deliberated seriously and openly. We must move as quickly as possible, but without compromising the process.
These issues will affect the Riverspace development, if it gets to the design stage. They will affect new downtown businesses, and homeowners making improvements to their homes. Most residents and property owners will feel the changes at one time or another. Hopefully Nyack can make it through this process.