PZC splits on open space proposal
By Kym Soper
VERNON - Planning and Zoning Commission members remain on the fence this week over a volatile proposal that would force large landowners to donate a portion of their property to the town for open space should they decide to subdivide their land.
Five public hearings have been held since the proposal was first made in November by the Vernon Open Space Task Force, a subcommittee of the town Conservation Commission, with residents coming out in droves on both sides to weigh in.
Thursday was the first deliberation among commission members who, much like residents, seem split on the issue.
Commission Chairman Lester G. Finkle III and Vice Chairwoman Mary Kelly drafted a motion in favor of the provision, which members likely will vote on at the April 5 meeting.
Member Ralph E. Zahner was vehemently opposed to the provision however - even going so far as to put forth a proposal to quash the application - but found no vocal support.
Meanwhile, members Richard Guttman and Sarah Iacobello remained silent, saying they were still trying to decide the issue, while alternate member Lance Chernack recused himself, as he is personally involved in another subdivision decision.
The proposal was modified from its first inception, which called for increasing a developer's set-aside requirement of a voluntary 5 percent of the land for open space to a mandatory 20 percent.
The proposed changes made Thursday call for a graduated scale of 10, 15, and 20 percent on the amount of land to be donated, with the maximum coming from areas identified in the town's conservation plan as high priority for preservation, such as along the Tankerhoosen and Hockanum rivers.
Low priority neighborhoods would be urban areas north of Interstate-84.
Developers will still be allowed to pay a fee - 10 percent of the fair market value of the property before it is subdivided - in lieu of donating the land.
And under the modified provision, developers can suggest areas to be set-aside for open space, allowing for the commission to have the final say. The initial proposal had severe restrictions on what could be donated, leaving wetlands and steep slopes, alarming landowners who complained the town was going after the best sections of their parcels.
Also added to the provision Thursday was a clause that allows the commission to decide by a three-quarter vote to reduce or waive the regulation altogether for individual cases, provided there is already sufficient open space, would place a hardship on neighbors, or just doesn't make sense.
Under the town's plan of development, Vernon has a goal of setting aside 2,446 acres of open space by 2023, Town Planner Neil Pade said. So far, 1,011 acres are protected, leaving the town to acquire 1,488 more in the next 16 years.
There are only 2,200 acres of land left in town that are not developable, Pade said, adding it's really not appropriate to take all that land for open space from large landowners.
Zahner said the provision is extremely unfair to landowners today as since 1960 subdivisions have cropped up throughout town without any fees or land donations expected.
The town should pay for it, and taxpayers should put up the money, otherwise "I don't think they're serious about preserving open space," Zahner said.
The provision, which is in line with zoning regulations in surrounding towns, should have been made 20 years ago, Pade said. And with the "fee in lieu of" clause, money could be raised and set aside to purchase property for open space.
With the regulation "we're not impacting how landowners are currently using their property and we're not preventing them from developing it," Kelly said while crafting Thursday's motion. "I don't think landowners should be able to make the highest possible profit if it's against the best interest of the town, and subdivisions are a burden" on town resources.
©Journal Inquirer 2007