Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Where Planning & Zoning Don't Mix

In Hempstead Town, Even The Worst Laid Plans Get Variances

At first blush, it seems like a good idea -- the local Zoning Board also acting as Planning Board. After all, if the plan for development, revitalization, or renewal is sound, why bog down the process with too much bureaucracratic red tape?

The Planning Board draws up the plans, considers the proposals, examines the options, then, in virtually the same breath -- save a pro forma public hearing, or two -- approves the variances, the issuance of permits, and the exceptions to both standards and rule of law (if not reason) necessary to move the project forward.

Government streamlining at its best, yes?

Well, not quite.

First off, in the generally accepted scheme of things, a planning board may not consider or issue variances, hear appeals from the official responsible for zoning administration, or issue interpretations of zoning provisions. In fact, that happens to be the law in most jurisdictions.

There is, after all, an inherent conflict of interest.

It should logically follow, then (as if logic dictates any practice engaged in by local government), that a planning board and a zoning board cannot be the same entity; the same folks being obliged to pass on the legal muster of the plans offered up by that very body politic.

Next, consider that few zoning boards either know or take the time to understand even the basic precepts of planning, and you have bad plans -- or no plans at all -- being ratified by the bad planners who promulgated them.

Add to the mix the inherent politics of cronyism, favoritism, and the "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" that is the hallmark of local zoning boards, and you have the recipe for disaster from drawing board to implementation.

The Town of Hempstead is not unique in this regard, where zoning board serves as planning board. [We wonder, do they get two salaries, or double benefits, for sitting as both?]

We simply use Hempstead Town as our illustration because (a) we know it all too well, and (b) it is a prime instance of where the mix of zoning and planning -- or the inherent lack thereof -- clearly does not work. At least it doesn't work in favor of residents who, by default, must endure a paucity in planning, overshadowed only by the laxity in zoning.

For anyone who wonders whether planning and zoning on the same plate -- a broken plate, at that, the set having gone out of production more than a century ago -- is such a bad thing (or half as bad as we make it out to be), we point you in the direction of the nearest unincorporated business district, be that along Hempstead Turnpike, Sunrise Highway, Merrick Road, Dutch Broadway, or a so-called "Main Street" near you.

Indeed, if you reside in an unincorporated area of the Town of Hempstead -- over which the Town's Zoning Board of Appeals has primary jurisdiction for both planning and zoning -- a walk through your local business district will likely demonstrate two truths: (1) That little or no planning -- at least not in the last half of a century -- went into the development of the area; and (2) that zoning, from application through the wholesale carving out of exceptions to the long-established rules, and in enforcement of the code that, in theory, sets the standard, is haphazard, at best, and nonexistentent, at worst. [Maybe not "at worst," on second thought. No zoning at all -- as in "hands off" by the Town -- would, in many instances, have yielded better results.]

And then there's the ever-present issue of who's zoning/planning board is it, anyway, with political appointees (okay, let's call them what they are -- hacks) making the decisions on what gets built (or not) and where.

Face it. There isn't one person in Hempstead Town outside of Town Hall who can say, at least with a straight face, that Katuria D'Amato got her "full-time benefits for part-time work" job on the zoning board because of her all-consuming knowledge of the code or her abiding interest in preserving anything other than the stagnant political atmosphere that pervades America's largest township.

Indeed, it wouldn't be a stretch to venture a decent guess that a D'Amato on the zoning board -- or is it planning board -- favors not the average Joe who owns a cape on a 60' x 100' lot in Elmont, but rather, that well-connected developer, or that former Senator from Island Park who got every varience he -- and his new wife -- needed to build that McMansion on the beach.

Most residents of the Town of Hempstead probably don't know, even now, that the Town's zoning board also serves as its planning board. There's been so little planning of note, after all. Then again, given the "anything goes" zoning in Hempstead Town since Levitt built his homes more than 60 years ago, we think most residents would be surprised to learn that Hempstead Town has a zoning board.

Suffice it to say that one would be hard pressed to find code provisions that haven't been excepted, or stipulations regularly honored in the breach, with the violations overlooked, this by a zoning board of appeals that regulates development in Hempstead Town with the same zeal and aptitude that lumberjacks regulate the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest. Hmmm. Hempstead Town used to have trees, too, didn't it?

To say that the Zoning Board of Appeals of Hempstead Town has done a lousy job of it over the last 50 years would almost be too kind. To place in the hands of this very board the authority to plan for the township's next 50 years is nothing short of absurd.

To mesh planning with zoning may have, as the old adage goes, "seemed like a good idea at the time." Its not. And for places like the Town of Hempstead, it has proven to be disasterous.

Just don't take our word for it. Walk the streets in the business districts of the unincorporated areas of the township, and witness, first hand, the devastating impact of bad planning (or no planning), and zoning that serves the special interests of real estate developers and the politically well-connected, not yours.

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