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December 02, 2016
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Zoning creep

This is what has been happening in the Town of Liberty, where Camp Agudah, a non-conforming use grandfathered into a residential district, has been granted 19 permits since 2000 (see “Camp laundromat considered” in the March 17 issue). To add insult to injury, in the most recent case—an application for a laundromat—the camp has requested a permit to replace a structure it didn’t bother to get permission for in the first place.

In fact, in the case of non-conforming uses, it could be argued that most of the 19 permits should not have been granted, given that the NY State Court of Appeals has written, “the highest priority of zoning is their reasonable restriction and eventual elimination.” It looks like the Liberty planning board and code enforcement officer have been going full steam in the opposite direction. Some of the approvals were given without the required site plan review, which would have at least notified the neighbors and given them an opportunity to speak at public hearings.

To be fair, the planning board did observe proper procedure with regard to the most recent three or four applications. But the question still must be raised: is there any point at which it would consider the camp so built up that it’s time to pull in the reins? At what point do the rights of the neighbors living in conformance with the zoning start to outweigh the special privilege claimed by a non-conforming use to expand indefinitely?

One of the most important single functions of local government is to protect townspeople in their homes, and one of the most important tools allowing them to do so is zoning. That means not only sensible ordinances that truly embody the values and intentions of the community that creates them, but officials who implement them in accordance with both their letter and spirit.