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Caroline zoning debate continues at public hearing

Caroline residents gathered at their town hall on Valentine's Day to talk zoning
Aurora Berry
Caroline residents gathered at their town hall on Valentine's Day to talk zoning.

Caroline residents showed up to their town hall on Valentine’s Day to speak their mind about the town’s potential new zoning laws.

For some it was love…

“The voice of the people has been heard through the Democratic process and I’m in favor of putting it into action.”

“Zoning is our way of planning ahead.”

But for many of the speakers, their feelings were less warm and fuzzy.

“I’d much rather that we don’t have it.” 

“I’m just not looking forward to it.” 

The Tompkins County town has been divided on zoning for about four years.

It’s been the central platform for political campaigns, the subject of homemade signs lining the highway, and heated disagreements between neighbors.

The latest discussion of the issue was Wednesday’s public hearing, where residents could share their thoughts on the 136-page draft of the law with their town board.

The gas station next door

Zoning is essentially a way municipalities organize what can and can’t be developed in an area.

Most towns have some form of zoning. The town of Caroline, however, does not.

“I could build a gas station right next door to someone’s house,” explained councilmember and former zoning commission liaison, Tim Murray.

Despite the loud and extensive zoning debate in Caroline, he thinks zoning will be good for the town in the long run.

“Zoning is a protection that protects property. It protects the environment. It protects stability for future growth,” he said.

Connie O’Brien cited environmental concerns during her comment in support of zoning.

“One aspect of this proposal addresses protecting our vital natural resources, especially water,” she said.

The proposed zoning would create a buffer area around the creek where development is limited.

The Rubik’s Cube

Some people think the zoning law is an example of regulation where none is needed.

Councilmember Calvin Snow said he’s not totally opposed to zoning as a concept, but he thinks the town’s plan is too restrictive.

“Do we owe it to people to protect them from their neighbors? Yeah, to a degree,” he said. “But for me, it keeps going back to, this is just too much.”

He said zoning should start small to avoid potentially harmful regulation.

Councilmember Calvin Snow said solving Caroline's zoning problem is like solving a Rubik's cube.
Aurora Berry
Councilmember Calvin Snow said solving Caroline's zoning problem is like solving a Rubik's cube.

“Let's work out on that first, not pass it and say ‘Well, we'll straighten that out.’”

He said solving Caroline’s zoning problem was a lot like solving a Rubik’s Cube.

“There's a lot of ways to put this together,” he said “So you keep trying to get it right.”

Matthew Mix is a long-time Caroline resident and husband of last year’s town council candidate, Kathy Mix.

He’s a retired dairy farmer. He bought his farm from his father and hopes to eventually sell it to his children.

“There is no money. There is my property. That is my retirement,” he said. “And now limitations are going to be put on that I have very little control over.”

‘Rural character’

The draft of the zoning law says one of the purposes of zoning is to protect the “rural character” of Caroline.

Caroline residents have taken to voicing their opinions on zoning through roadside signs.
Aurora Berry
Caroline residents have taken to voicing their opinions on zoning through roadside signs.

The citizens of Caroline have different ideas of what that looks like, Councilmember Snow said.

“There's at least two cultures in this town. One that's more academic, urban, suburban, and then there's the ‘rural’,” he said. “Whatever that means.”

Snow is both a long-time dairy farmer and a Cornell graduate.

Matthew Mix said he wants to see Caroline’s own business community develop.

“I have a vision of seeing a town grow in that direction,” he said. “Not just be a bedroom for Ithaca, Cornell, Ithaca College, BorgWarner, for people to go work at these places.”

Councilmember Murray said the council is more than aware that there’s a large community that feels zoning impinges upon their rights as landowners and is wrong for Caroline.

“That comes from long Libertarian traditions, and also long family traditions,” he said. “And so that's an understandable concern.”

The world is changing and Caroline needs to be prepared for the future, Murray said.

“We know Tompkins County is growing. We've seen the town of Caroline change in terms of demographics quite a lot,” he said “We know that global warming is upon us, so we think that it's imperative that we also build with the environment in sight.”

“Cod liver oil”

The town board can still make changes to the law before they vote, Murray said.

“If, let's say we ended up making dramatically different changes, that would require another public hearing,” he said. “If there were just minor tweaks that would not require another public hearing, we could move forward with a vote.”

Councilmember Snow said he thinks there won’t be any big changes to the current document.

“I think there'll be small, kind of baby steps to appease,” he said.

At the end of the day, Snow said, whether residents are ready or not, it’s likely Caroline will be zoned.

“Town of Caroline, take your cod liver oil,” he said.

Currently, there is no set date for the town board’s vote on zoning.