A look at the new city zoning laws which could be approved soon

Rules for cell phone towers, solar panels, commercial signs, home offices, and other residential situations are part of a proposed overhaul of the city’s zoning rules that’s been in the works since 2010 and may finally be close to being approved.

One of the biggest visible changes in the proposed new rules are the re-classification of the various zoning districts. The current zones which are named Single-Family and Two-Family would be replaced by the names Low Density Neighborhood and Medium Density Neighborhood, which would still specify single and two family residential units respectively.

A new zone named Downtown Core would encompass the city’s waterfront and downtown retail areas and specify mixed residential, retail, and professional uses. The zone also encompasses areas currently zoned as Multi-Family near Grove Street and High Street. The current Multi-Family and Waterfront designations are not included in the new proposed rules.

Some of the areas currently zoned as Retail but not included in the Downtown Core, and areas designated Commerical/Light Industrial and Light Industrial would re-configured into new zones named Commercial Corridor, Light Industry District, and Employment District.

The proposed zoning map includes the current Historic Overlay which adds additional requirements to help preserve the historic quality of certain areas of the city. The new proposed map adds two additional overlays: a Greenway Overlay, which covers areas near the river and creeks which could be developed for recreation, but are also prone to flooding, and a Gateway Overlay, which specifies roads such as Route 30, Route 67, and Route 5, which lead into the city, and would be targets for additional visual enhancement.

You can view a detailed .pdf version of the current map here, and a .pdf version of the proposed map here.

The proposed rules would expand the current rules on communication towers, referring to them specifically as “Personal Wireless Service Facilities (Cell towers)”. Additional requirements would include the submission of an environmental assessment form, a visual impact analysis, and an engineering analysis of both the structure and radio emissions of the proposed tower.

Solar panels are specifically addressed in the new rules. In general, residents can add rooftop and flush-mount solar panels under a standard building permit, but would require a special permit for ground mounted racks or freestanding panels.

Rules concerning signage have been significantly expanded. Specific regulations for each type of zoning district have been added, along with specific style suggestions for the Downtown Core which include guidelines on colors, legibility, spacing, wording, and placement.

One change could affect residents with home offices. Under the current rules for “home occupations”, there is no restriction on visits from clients or customers. The proposed rules also include a section on “home occupations” similar to the current rules and adds a new section “home office” which covers professions such as “record keeping, administration of work and computer related work.” The proposed rules would prohibit all clients or customers from visiting a home office. However, the current exception for music or signing teachers to have up to three students in their home at a time is still included in the new proposed rules.

Editor’s notes:

The entire document containing all the entire proposed zoning rules is a 126 page document. I’ve included some of the differences that have stood out to me from my readings so far. There may be other significant changes that I haven’t noticed. If you’d like to delve into the issue more, you can view the current zoning laws here, and view the latest version of the proposed rules provided to me by Montgomery County Senior Planner Amanda Bearcroft here.

A resolution is on today’s Common Council agenda to enact the changes. However, they may encounter a procedural problem as changes to the city’s zoning rules, which are part of the city’s code, must be changed by an ordinance. According to past practice, ordinances are required to be added to the agenda for introduction first, then voted on after a public hearing at the next meeting. The only ordinance on the agenda at the last meeting in August was in regards to a SEQR determination for the new zoning rules, and that was changed to a resolution during the meeting. I’ve mentioned my concern to Alderman Chad Majewski who has forwarded it to the rest of the council and corporation counsel, so we will see what they decide to do tonight.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.