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Are North Country zoning rules promoting sprawl?

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What if we're accidentally ruining our small towns in the North Country?

What if, with the best intentions, we've adopted planning and zoning rules that are actually making neighborhoods and downtowns less appealing, less liveable?

Randall Arendt is a conservation design planner and author of a series of books about rural development who will speak this week at a conference in the Adirondacks.

Arendt says from the Adirondack Park Agency right down to local zoning boards, people in the North Country have adopted ideas that don't fit our small towns.

Arendt spoke recently with Brian Mann.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

When Randall Arendt talks about small towns, his idea seems to be that they’re sort of designed objects.  But they also reflect our ideas, our rules, the way we think about rural America.

The problem, he says, is that we’re sort of stuck thinking that bigger is better.  Bigger houses, bigger property lots.

"The problem with the current pattern of fragmentation," he says, "is a rural property is divided into a relatively small number of lots that take up all of the land, so that you can't harvest it any more, you can't use it much for trails."

Arendt is an expert on conservation planning.  That’s the idea that you can develop land, and build prosperous communities, while thinking about open space and beauty and the environment.

If you’re not careful, he says, the landscape begins to look different.  You can’t farm it or log it anymore. 

The forested hillsides that used to give a mountain village character, suddenly they’re dotted with homes.  Even the small towns themselves begin to change.

"The resource that makes a place special is eroded and you'll see that over time," he warns.

Arendt says the answer is pretty simple.  Communities should go out and literally measure the dimensions of things that look good and then write zoning regulations that encourage that kind of new development. 

If downtowns look cool because businesses are clustered together, then encourage businesses to be clustered together, with parking in the back rather than in big chunks out front. 

If you like funky old neighborhoods where people talk to each other, stop forcing homeowners to build houses far apart.

Arendt will be in the Adirondacks this week at a conference at the Paul Smiths VIC talking about how some of these same ideas might be adopted on a wider basis by the Adirondack Park Agency.

He says the APA’s zoning rules are also forcing people apart, onto big suburban-style lots.

"Their regulations were forty or forty-five years old and have never been substantially updated.  They're essentially ossified in the suburban-style thinking of the 1970s."

As an example, Arendt points to APA rules that set a 42-acre minimum lot size for new subdivisions in parts of the Park zoned for resource management. 

Author and conservation planner Randall Arendt (Source:  Author website)
Author and conservation planner Randall Arendt (Source: Author website)
If you build a new house every 42 acres, he says, you gobble up a lot of land fast.  He thinks the APA should develop rules that require more clustering and more protected green space.

Arendt says new development designs mean that homeowners can still get the privacy and sense of seclusion that people want in a rural area.

"You can have a lot of privacy in fact with dense vegegation, even when people live more closely together.  you can have a lot of privacy on a village lot in the Adirondacks if people plant hedges and have screening between their properties."

These ideas about how to develop land and communities without fundamentally changing their character may sound sort of abstract.

But they surface every month in town planning meetings across the North Country, and they lie at the heart of the debate over big controversies like the Adirondack Club and Resort Project in Tupper Lake.

Arendt will speak on Thursday afternoon at the Paul Smiths Vic, as part of a conference organized by the Adirondack Explorer Magazine.

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