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Tompkins County town’s zoning debate spurs Democratic primary

The debate over zoning in the town of Caroline in Tompkins County has developed into a contentious Democratic primary.
Vaughn Golden
The debate over zoning in the town of Caroline in Tompkins County has developed into a contentious Democratic primary.

A contentious proposal whether to implement zoning for land use in the town of Caroline has spurred a slate of candidates to challenge the incumbent town officials on the Democratic ballot line.

Officials within the Tompkins County Democratic Committee have cried foul, alleging that the three insurgent candidates for Caroline supervisor and town board made it onto the ballot as a result of a campaign to encourage party switching by Republicans.

Zoning debate spurs primary challenge

Last month, Tonya Van Camp filed designating petitions to appear on the Democratic primary ballot challenging incumbent town supervisor, Mark Witmer. Kathy Mix and Megan Slatoff-Burke submitted petitions to challenge incumbent board members Kate Kelley-Mackenzie and Tim Murray as well.

Van Camp and Mix pushed back on the moniker of being “anti-zoning”. Van Camp said she is generally supportive of some things the incumbent board has been working on, such as restoration of the historic town hall building. But the issue of zoning made her pay more attention to the actions of the town board, encouraging her to run.

"There are some other things that I question, and that is so, I could say that it was instrumental in that it really drew my awareness to what was going on with our board and in our community a lot more,” Van Camp said in an interview with WSKG.

The drafting of Caroline’s proposal for zoning has been the work of a commission, which has solicited public inputfor several months. Earlier this year, the commission released a revised draft proposal for the zoning plan. Residents opposed to the plan have called for a two-year delay in adopting any recommendations.

Van Camp wouldn’t commit to scrapping the plan in its entirety should she be elected supervisor. She proposes a town-wide survey to assess whether to implement the proposal, as well as an analysis into how much the process of drafting the plan has cost to date.

"What I would like to do is sit down and hear those concerns from both sides and try to come up with something that will protect our natural resources, but doesn't seem so onerous as the current proposal does,” Van Camp said.

Witmer, Kelley-Mackenzie and Murray said they aren’t surprised the zoning debate, which has led to protests, a death threat against the zoning commission chair, and allegations of misusing public funds, has led to a political challenge.

“We've been doing a lot and we're going to keep doing a lot and we're going to continue all of our work,” Kelley-Mackenzie said at a press conference with the other incumbents earlier this month. “The zoning is a big part of that, but it's certain the only thing. It's not a one-issue campaign. We're really proud of all we've done."

Kelley-Mackenzie and the others pointed to things like the historic town hall renovation, a feasibility study for geothermal energy and efforts to expand municipal broadband access in the town, as particular points of pride, among other things.

The incumbents expressed disappointment, however, in how Van Camp and the other insurgent candidates’ decisions to run in the Democratic primary, going as far to call their pathway to get onto the ballot “disingenuous.”

Democrats allege primary raid

Earlier this month, Tompkins County Democratic Committee Chair Linda Hoffmann criticized the insurgent candidates, alleging that a significant number of the signatures on their designating petitions were from people who switched parties to specifically trigger the primary.

According to election data compiled by Democratic Committee officials, over 70 people changed parties in the town of Caroline in a one-month span earlier this year, with just over 50 of them signing Van Camp, Mix and Slatoff-Burke’s petitions.

Hoffmann pointed to a video posted in the anti-zoning Facebook group, “Caroline Hates Zoning”, showing 2019 Republican supervisor candidate Peter Hoyt encouraging voters to change parties to vote in the primary.

Hoffmann is asking the Tompkins County district attorney to investigate what she alleges is a party-raiding effort, but said the county committee hasn’t decided to take its own legal action over the matter.

"We need to confer and need to come together for that. There is not a date to sue as a county committee,” Hoffmann said at the press conference.

Hoffmann said that the most direct action that could be taken to challenge the insurgent candidates’ slate would be to pursue a legal process to disenroll the alleged party-switching members of the party, though she admitted this is off the table.

Van Camp and Mix say they never encouraged residents to switch parties, but they understand why people would want to, citing a frustration with Republicans’ abilities to succeed in the town on Election Day.

"We have no control over what other people are doing," Van Camp said. "There's so many different factions of things happening in our community and our objective is just to run as ourselves; be ourselves and other people are going to do what they're going to do. And I have talked to some people that have and one person told me very passionately that she realized that she's never really had a voice in our community because Democratic candidates always win."

While Witmer, Kelley-Mackenzie and Murray carry the endorsement of the town Democratic committee, Hoffmann said the county Democratic committee is sticking by its policy of not intervening in primaries, at least for now.

"This is a very extenuating circumstance that is happening here,” Hoffmann said.

Van Camp said she and the insurgent slate are in the process of passing petitions to appear on an independent ballot line, “Connecting Caroline”, in the general election. If they are successful, that would guarantee a contested general election contest regardless of who succeeds in the Democratic primary on June 27, given that the incumbents have secured the Working Families Party endorsement and therefore its ballot line.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.