“It’s been a very long process,” said John Zepko, environmental planner for the Town of Ulysses, referring to the years it has taken the Town to develop new zoning laws that—for now—appear to be ready to pass pubic muster and a vote by the Ulysses Town Board.
In advance of a public hearing Nov. 18, in the last week in October Ulysses held three open houses at the Ulysses Town Hall regarding the proposed changes in the draft local zoning laws.
“The Town is trying to come closer to recommendations that align with the comprehensive plan and agriculture protection plan—lands that need to be preserved and enhanced, that sort of thing,” explained Zepko at one of the zoning open houses, on the afternoon of Oct. 30.
No members of the public came to the town hall to learn more about the recommended changes that day, though Zepko said he did get a couple surprising visits the day before.
“Two visitors yesterday said the draft zoning looked good to them and that they were in favor of it,” he said, adding that the two people were not together. “One gentleman said it takes the concerns of farmers in town into account. We very rarely get positive comments like that.”
It was a contentious debate over land use restrictions—largely those related to farmland—that caused many of the recommendations of the Ulysses Town Zoning Committee to be ultimately left out of the new draft zoning laws.
Ulysses Supervisor Elizabeth Thomas said she does not necessarily feel as though the latest draft of the zoning laws reflects what is stated in the Ulysses Town Plan. “We all love the town in our own way and adhere to the process because everybody’s way is different...but those guiding documents are so important to look at, and I feel like we didn’t do the land preservation methods our residents wanted, and I’m sad for that. But we did a lot of things in the comprehensive plan to protect some resources and the rural character we have.”
Ulysses’ zoning committee was considering placing new restrictions on the number of residential subdivisions allowed within the agricultural zone, said Zepko. The draft zoning went through several different iterations—including 70/30 and 80/20 (where 30 or 20 percent of agricultural land could be subdivided for purposes other than agriculture)—but ultimately it caused such a huge public outcry that the entire concept was removed from the draft completely.
“It seemed there was a lot of controversy around that, especially in the agricultural community itself,” Zepko said. “The Town board was responsive to that, and now there is no longer a provision to restrict the number of subdivisions.”
A provision to protect a larger amount of land around the lake by making it a conservation zone was also taken out of the draft due to negative public reaction, though Thomas said she suspects it may be a small, noisy segment of the Ulysses population that objected to the protective measures.
Those suggestions that were shot down by the public were developed over a five-year-long process that included two different committees and many public meetings. The committees included the chair of the Ulysses Board of Zoning Appeals, a resident for Ulysses who happened to be director of planning for the Town of Ithaca, a local who had been on the Ulysses Planning Board and worked on zoning for the lake, an outside consultant, Thomas, and representatives from the Ulysses Town Agriculture Committee, the Ulysses Town Conservation and Sustainability Advisory Committee, and the Jacksonville Community Association.
As for changes that did make it through, the land where agriculture is zoned the primary use has increased from the existing 9,465 acres to 14,660 acres in the proposed laws. The laws also allow for new agricultural uses including wineries, farm breweries, and farm operation accessory commerce.
The sign codes have been updated so that they are easier to understand, and the proposed zoning includes dark sky standards for properties with commercial uses.
Jacksonville has been split into two zones, hamlet center and hamlet neighborhood.
“We are trying to implement some design standards like parking to the side or rear, standards for new development in the hamlet center, that kind of thing, to encourage a more walkable kind of neighborhood plan in Jacksonville,” Zepko said.
Overall, Zepko said, most Ulysses residents probably will not notice the changes.
“I don’t think it will negatively impact the way they can use their land and if they can use it the way they want to, but we’re taking small steps to maintain the rural character of the town, and I think it helps to guide the form of the development, keeping it sort of a small town,” Zepko said.
At the public hearing about the zoning changes Nov. 18 at the Trumansburg Fire Department at 7 p.m., the public can air any concerns to the Ulysses Town Board.
“If new information comes to light or an issue becomes very controversial we may make more changes and start the process all over again, but other than that, after the public hearing the next step is for it to go to a regular Town board meeting,” Zepko said.
The Ulysses Town Board will hold a State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) and likely take a vote on whether to move the changes forward.
As of Oct. 30 the Town was still waiting on a response from Tompkins County regarding its 239 Review, a review mandated by law that requires municipalities to send certain projects to the County Planning Department for review and comment. The County will review the intermunicipal impacts of the new zoning laws and give them a wider, more regional look, Zepko said, adding that the County has the ability to recommend approval, denial or modifications. The County’s recommendations can be either accepted or denied by the Town Board, but the board must have a supermajority to deny them.
“I’m hoping we’ll vote on this by the end of the year,” Thomas said, “but I was hoping for that by the end of last year.”