By Hillary Harvey
“A comprehensive plan is known as a general plan, master plan or land-use plan, and is a document designed to engage the public and to guide the future actions of a community. It presents a vision for the future, with long-range goals and objectives for all activities that affect the local government.”
Local politics can be a bit daunting. Various officials play different roles, and multiple boards are responsible for various capacities and processes. All of these interrelated elements differ for each locality. When it comes to learning about local politics, all you have to do is start somewhere.
I started in November 2015, as I sought to catch up on the Irish Cultural Center’s development proposal for my neighborhood, the Rondout.
In trying to understand a specific development proposal, I learned about all the various boards and their roles in the process. In studying the zoning codes of my block in downtown Kingston, and then my neighborhood and the city, I learned that zoning codes are meant to serve as an important protection for residents and home-owners in any community.
So when I first heard about “Kingston 2025,” the city’s Comprehensive Plan efforts to update the city’s original Comprehensive Plan from 1961, I was curious about how it would impact the development proposal I was already studying as it involves a re-evaluation of the city’s zoning codes along with other planning processes.
A little back history. The Comprehensive Plan process began in 2011 as the City of Kingston faced a problem. According to the Comprehensive Plan, known locally as “Kingston 2025,” which was adopted on March 15th, 2016, “Since 1961, the City has made a number of changes to its land use regulations, some proactive based on study and planning, others reactive based on certain evolving trends or in response to specific development proposals.”
There were multiple plans and a ton of documents to cull through, and the city’s planning and zoning policies were no longer holistic.
Shuster-Turner Planning Consultants is the firm hired by the city to do the work involved. Daniel Shuster worked with the City of Kingston on the 1961 Comprehensive Plan, which helped secure money for Urban Renewal in the 1960s, and more recently was a consultant on the plan to build Hudson Landing on the Hudson River waterfront, a project which has not yet been realized.
The city convened two committees, which met to discuss existing planning studies and issues confronting the city, and they reached out for public input. The process culminated with a vision for the City of Kingston.
The Brownfield Opportunity Area study was initiated after the adoption of this vision, to further identify opportunity areas and considerations for future plan updates. In “Kingston 2025” they write, “At its core, a comprehensive plan is a document that sets a destination for a community and maps a course to get there.”
A necessary part of process to realize “Kingston 2025” was to establish a Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee, which would revise the city’s zoning and align it with “Kingston 2025.” Those meetings, which are scheduled approximately monthly at the convenience of the committee members, are open, public meetings. In the summer of 2016, some of us began attending them in order to learn more about the process and what changes would be made. We learned the logistics of where and when the next meeting will be held by regularly checking the city’s meeting calendar.
A major goal of “Kingston 2025” is to focus on three core areas of the city: Uptown, Rondout/Hudson River Waterfront, and Midtown. In the first two, the work is mostly to consolidate and make sense of previously enacted plans. With the last, the goal is to create a Midtown Overlay district that would articulate new policies to revitalize the neighborhood.
VIEW: Watch the Kingston Comprehensive Plan Zoning Committee
Our understanding is that the consultants are revising the zoning codes to make them more “user-friendly.” We’re not clear yet on how that will be achieved. It’s been said that they will completely rewrite the existing zoning codes, but there also doesn’t appear to be enough money to do that. At the meetings, there has been talk of creating a revised zoning code framework from where further adjustments can be made.
Specific changes discussed to date include the following:
- The eight residential districts in the City of Kingston will be consolidated into three, with resulting changes in allowable uses within those districts.
- Looking at the Draft Zoning plan developed by the consultant with the Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee released in February, there’s an increase in the power of the Planning Department. Section III, A-3, authorizes Planning Staff to approve certain projects that meet specific requirements without participation from the Planning Board. The role of the Zoning Board of Appeals is also defined in Section III, A-4, though it isn’t clear if there are changes to what is currently in practice. Further study of that is needed.
- The Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee is currently in the process of streamlining the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Heritage Area Commission, to consolidate those historic preservation boards into one, and they have assured those Chairmen, the public, and the State Historic Preservation Office (who is affiliated with the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission) that there will be no loss of power to either commission. VIEW "Combined Historic Preservation/Landmarks Commission Memo" The Kingston News filmed many of the February and March 2017 discussions on this topic. WATCH Comprehensive Plan Zoning Committee and Subgroup Meetings
- While parking is a major discussion point throughout the city, there isn’t much conversation around it at the Comprehensive Plan Zoning Committee. Recently, the Mayor appointed a Parking Work Group to study the city’s needs and goals, which does not seem to be affiliated with the Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee.
- An important element of the “Kingston 2025” vision is about equalizing access to Kingston’s attributes. One focus is to protect Kingston’s sensitive public areas, like the waterfront which is prone to flooding and threatened by sea level rise. Another is to improve housing choices for residents of all incomes. So far, discussion of the city’s sensitive areas has focused more on encouraging development, including streamlining a developer’s process for ease and swiftness and reducing restrictions on development. Affordable housing has not yet been much of a part of the discussion. Workgroups established at a recent equitable development workshop exposed some of these of missing key values in the current Comprehensive Plan Draft Zoning.
- At the most recent Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee meeting in April, at the suggestion of Assistant Corporation Counsel, they voted 5-3 to create a local appeals process within the new zoning codes where the city would have the authority to over-ride the city's regulatory boards in favor of developers in order to avoid the city’s involvement in Article 78 legal actions. The local appeals process will either be decided by the Mayor or by a separate board created for this purpose and comprised of members of all the city’s boards. (It wasn’t clear at the end of the meeting, which method had been decided upon.) Considering the Zoning Board of Appeals already has its own appeals process, we assume this will primarily impact the Planning Board’s decisions and the city’s historic preservation commissions’ decisions.
Minutes and agendas from a few (but not all) of the Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee meetings are available on the city's website. Regular notes on meetings of the Comprehensive Plan Zoning Subcommittee have not been kept. We have been told that the City Planner is working to piece together notes from Subcommittee meetings held in the past, however it has not yet been added to the city’s website.
This is an important issue that will affect the city’s planning process and development for years to come. Citizens can have a huge impact right now by following the process and participating in these public discussions. There will be a public hearing in the beginning of this summer where the public can weigh in.
Hillary Harvey is a photographer and writer, and a zoning code activist, working for transparency and responsible development that considers the welfare of residents and small businesses. Together with her neighbors, she runs Grow the R-T Responsibly, a neighborhood collective dedicated to that cause. A yogi and devoted traveler, she lives in an old house in Kingston’s historic Rondout district with her college sweetheart and their three muses.