There seems to be a development controversy being covered in the newspaper every other day now. The coverage of these hearings essentially goes as follows:
Residents Raise Concern over Proposal in Anytown
Residents from Anytown voiced their concerns at a Town Hall hearing yesterday evening regarding a recent proposal to build multi-family housing by Developer X. The town is currently considering a change of zone to allow for more units for the 2.45-acre site, which sits on the corner of Georgie Ave. and Burgers Rd. The developer seeks to convert the former blighted site into a “walkable senior living community,” complete with “downtown amenities that are only three miles from the train station,” according to Developer X’s attorneys. The majority of residents who spoke out at the hearing are concerned about the project’s density, noise and traffic impacts to adjacent homes.
Sound familiar? It should; this scene of pull and push by both residents and developers plays out at every public hearing, regardless if it takes place in Riverhead or Manhattan.
Time and time again, municipalities across Long Island actively seek to increase density here and grant a variance there. After a while, these tweaks add up, with the end result being development that is detrimental to Long Island’s infrastructure and aquifer systems.
This is where the notion of as-of-right development comes into play. As-of-right is defined by the New York City Department of Planning as follows:
An as-of-right development complies with all applicable zoning regulations and does not require any discretionary action by the City Planning Commission or Board of Standards and Appeals.
In the wilds of suburbia, the concept is the same. Each parcel has a current zoning, which allows for certain uses. For example, in the Town of Smithtown an R-43 parcel is zoned one residence per acre.
If a municipality has an updated legitimate comprehensive plan in place that roadmaps development in the community, ideally, large scale variances and change of zone applications shouldn’t be needed. In Smithtown, if a developer buys a vacant lot of land zoned R-43, they are allowed as of right to build one residence on the acre purchased. Residents can protest the project’s impact, but if the current R-43 zoning is backed by the plan, it would likely be upheld and the project would be allowed to break ground.
Often on Long Island, all sorts of trouble starts when one of two things happen. First, municipalities grant change of zones randomly that conflict with the accepted comprehensive plan. This practice is called spot-zoning. Second, a developer looks for a variance or change of zone that strays greatly from the current as-of-right use. Regardless of how these change of zone proposals come about, they often lead to conflicts of land use and incompatible or inappropriate growth. Both paths lead to increased development costs, tension with residents and long-winded legal battles.
The mock-article at the beginning of this piece showcases the tension when developers come into a community and try to up their yield of units per acre. From a developer’s standpoint, a main benefit of increased density is that the economics are more accommodating to the financial risk the builders are taking. Further, the density is moving to toward the perceived needs of Long Island’s market. These factors help drive Long Island’s recent push toward multi-family and mixed-use development, and helps to contribute to the formation of higher density suburban sprawl.
How can tensions be eased between NIMBY residents and developers? To start, current zoning can be followed by developers and upheld by local government. Further, the development process can bring residents and the general public in from the beginning – from initial brainstorming to shovels in the ground.
More proposals need to respect as-of-right usage, and local municipalities need to ensure their jurisdictions are properly planned for the coming decades. If more development on Long Island was as-of-right, time, money and effort will be spared, and everyone wins