Meeting tackles thorny issues

Town officials held Durham’s first annual town meeting Saturday. Pictured, Town Supervisor Shawn Marriott, second from left, responds to a question from the audience. Melanie Lekocevic/Columbia-Greene Media

DURHAM — Officials held the first Durham Town Meeting in Brandow Park on Saturday and two hot-topic issues came to the fore — zoning and the proposed Bosque housing development.

About 70 residents turned out for the meeting with Town Supervisor Shawn Marriott, Town Councilwoman Joan Breslin, Town Highway Superintendent Joe Van Holsteyn and Bernard Rivers, deputy chairman of Durham Connect.

Both Breslin and Rivers are on Durham Connect, a committee established following the town’s adoption of the comprehensive plan.

One resident brought up the possibility of the town adopting a zoning code.

Durham is one of two towns in Greene County without a zoning ordinance, which establishes a set of rules for what is permitted on properties.

The issue can be a thorny one, Marriott said.

“I would say the majority — and who knows, in a year or more maybe it won’t be the majority anymore — but right now the majority, when you say the ‘Z-word,’ people start throwing rocks and you are ducking and running,” Marriott said. “That is changing a little bit.”

He said he can point to one proposed controversial project since he has been on the town board — for a shooting range two years ago — that would have been affected by a zoning code.

“That is the only incident of any hot topic that people were on polar opposite sides of, that would have really been affected [by zoning],” Marriott said.

Zoning can be “soft” or “hard,” with regulations as lenient or strict as the community needs, Marriott said. He predicted very strict regulations would not be in line with what most Durham residents want, and even “soft” zoning poses its own set of challenges.

“There is still a process that you would have to go through,” he said. “You have to set up a zoning board, you have to incorporate a slew of things to make it work. At some point I think we will have to look into it. Am I totally opposed to it? No.”

Denise Kerrigan, owner of Zoom Flume, said there are laws in place overseeing property use.

“I think there is a misunderstanding out there that there are no rules, that people can do whatever they want with their property and the town can’t do anything. That’s not true,” Kerrigan said. “There is a pretty steep curve that they have to go through and submit to the town.”

Kerrigan believes zoning codes could discourage people from moving into Durham.

“I don’t think you want to set up hurdles that would prevent that,” Kerrigan said.

Proposed projects still have to undergo site plan review, obtain building permits and follow state regulations, Marriott said.

The town also has a sign law in place, Breslin said.

Kylie Thompson, the town’s representative on the Greene County Planning Board, said he does not like zoning, but would like to see the rules tightened up a bit.

“It would be nice to have a little more restrictions, but I think that’s where compromise comes in,” Thompson said.

Resident Rosemary O’Brien said “soft” zoning, without the harsh restrictions in place in some communities, could help ensure a residential neighborhood remains residential.

“That, to me, is what soft zoning is about,” O’Brien said. “When I move into a neighborhood and the people next to me want to sell, I will know that a factory won’t move in and change it from the residential neighborhood I want to live in.”

One resident brought up the impact of the controversial Bosque housing development on the fire department and fire response times, and on the environment. The Bosque development, which is currently undergoing site plan review, would build 12 houses on 90 acres in the historic district.

“I don’t think most people realize that when you are in a rural community, response time is the most important thing,” the resident said. “If you add 12 houses, even if there isn’t a fire there, when the alarms go off, they will draw resources from somewhere else in the community.”

The town board is overseeing the review process with the help of Lamont Engineers, hired by the town to review the proposed project, Marriott said.

The developer’s engineering firm, Kaaterskill Associates, recently submitted almost 1,000 pages of information related to the environment and other issues, and those submissions are still being reviewed, Marriott said.

“We need to go through all the documentation and all the paperwork, and when we are comfortable that they have done everything by the letter of the law and we have addressed all the concerns of the residents, then we will move to a public hearing,” Marriott said.

While there has been pushback from some vocal opponents in the community, the developer is entitled to have his proposal reviewed, he added.

“We have to give them the opportunity to go through the process, but we will not cut corners and they have to do everything by the book, and part of that is doing an environmental impact study,” Marriott said.

Addressing the impact on fire services, the developer has agreed to install a pond and a dry hydrant to assist fire companies if they respond to a fire at the development, Marriott said.

Marriott also addressed concerns of some in the community that their taxes would go up if the project were to be approved. That is not true, he said. In fact, taxes could go down if tax rates remain the same because the tax burden would be spread out among more property owners, Marriott said.

“If one house comes onto the tax rolls and taxes stayed exactly the same, everyone else’s taxes would go down just a little bit,” Marriott said. “If we put 12 houses on and taxes stayed exactly the same, everybody else’s piece of the pie would go down that little bit more.”

There are issues beyond taxes, Marriott added.

“I also have to look at it emotionally as well, as far as how it will affect the community, how is it going to affect us long term, how will it affect the neighbors — we have to take all of that into account,” he said.

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