Zoning is likely to be a campaign issue this year in the Town of Liberty, at least in part, because town officials are split about whether zoning should be changed to prohibit the expansion of summer camps in residential neighborhoods. What is clear, however, is that in some cases, officials don’t enforce the zoning that already exists.
My house is located on a residential road and across the street from a former drug rehabilitation facility called Inward House. It was a non-conforming use, because it existed before zoning was established, and thus was allowed to continue to exist. But in 2007 the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) revoked the facility’s license and it was shut down.
An organization bought the property and opened a summer camp in 2009. The problem with that is that a summer camp is a prohibited use in a residential neighborhood, and thus can’t legally be operated without a variance.
But the owner of the summer camp told Mark VanEtten, the Liberty code enforcement officer, essentially that the camp was the same as a drug rehab because this particular camp taught young men how to find a wife, and Inward House taught people how not to be drug addicts. Yes, when you write it down it sounds laughable, but VanEtten bought it, never mind that the camp does not have a license from OASAS.
VanEtten has said that he thinks the camp is actually an educational facility, which would still require a variance because an educational facility is also a prohibited use in a residential neighborhood in the town. In any case, this facility has been in operation for four of the past five years with no variance and no permits from the town, in clear violation of the town zoning code.
Further, even if one assumes for a moment that a summer camp is the same thing as a drug rehab facility, it would still be a nonconforming use, and town code has a provision that says, “All changes and additions to non-conforming uses” require “special use permits.”
The facility has changed in many ways: the old facility was open 12 months, the new facility is open two months in the summer; the old facility had a tax exemption because it was a healthcare facility, the new facility has a religious tax exemption; the old facility served members of all faiths, the new facility serves only members of the Hasidic community. The new facility has built a swimming pool. All of these changes require special use permits, and none have been sought or applied for.
It’s not really all that surprising that Liberty town officials ignore their zoning code, as they have done so often in the past. In the early part of the last decade, a summer camp next door to the new facility in question built a synagogue, a dormitory and expanded a staff building, all without public hearings and special use permits, which are required under town code.
The members of the town board could compel VanEtten to enforce the town code, but in the case of the new, controversial “summer camp” facility on Upper Ferndale Road, they have thus far chosen not to do so.
There are four candidates running for a seat on the town board in November. Each was sent a letter asking if they thought town zoning should be enforced in this case. Three of them, Brian McPhillips, Russell Reeves and Christopher Austin, did not respond.
The only candidate to respond was Constantine Chanov, who wrote, “I have lived in Liberty most of my life, raised a family and watched the town deteriorate both physically and financially. After high school I entered the workforce and decided to be a carpenter, which allowed me to work in many different towns in the tri-state area, and by doing this I have worked with many code officers. Once you get out of Sullivan County you tend to see more strict and well thought out zoning. If I am elected I will make it a priority to look at the zoning laws, work with the town supervisor and help the code enforcement officer enforce the zoning laws. I am a taxpayer and I want to be the eyes and ears of all Liberty taxpayers.”
In the arena of zoning, Town of Liberty officials can use all the help they can get.