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Fifteen Questions About Site Plan Review
Carol W. LaGrasse
May 1, 2000

Proponents claim that in the hands of a reasonable planning board, site plan review does not harm ordinary farmers, homeowners, and small businesses, but many instances of just the opposite cause these basic sectors of the rural community to experience grave difficulties and expense dealing with government regulation, and cause government itself to endure unexpected expenses and liability.

1. Small Businesses. Will the requirement that site planning be approved by the town government add uncertainty to small business start-ups and growth, which are so needed in small rural New York towns?

2. Expensive experts for the small business. Will drawings and related information require professionals (because of state engineering licensing law which kicks in independently of the local law) and be expensive to prepare?

3. Additional costs for quality extras. Will property owners have to install numerous amenities, such as landscaping and buffers that are too expensive at the stage of initial business investment? How will young couples starting a modest first home meet these costs, when they may barely be able to afford to set a used mobile home on concrete blocks and tie it down?

4. Hard to open a business at home. Will new businesses find it impossible to start up in the garage or barn owned by the family, the place where many small businesses in rural New York begin successfully without having to find an outside investor and pay interest charges on an unproven venture?

5. Planning Board Liability. Will the design of businesses be moved to the hands of professionals and beyond of the technical expertise of the ordinary planning board members, bringing increased risk of liability to the individual planning board members, who are untrained in engineering, landscape architecture, surveying, sanitary engineering, hydrology, mining, biology, acoustics, traffic, aesthetics, and environmental and zoning law?

6. Additional experts on Town retainer. Will the Town have to add the expense of technical experts to the planning process and have an engineering firm on retainer, as do other towns?

7. Animosity. After site plan review is instituted, will neighbor be pitted against neighbor, as when one homeowner plans to start a small business and the neighbor wishes to preserve the forest and field surrounding his property?

8. Overlapping regulation. Will site plan review add an additional layer of government regulation, such as Town regulation of wetlands in addition to the Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

9. Favoritism. Will site plan review change the relationships in a small town, where certain people who are favored by the officials in government are treated with lenience and others are treated with the full impact of the law? Will there be selective enforcement?

10. Discretionary power. Irate residents may feel that it is good for the planning board to have a role of "input" into the site planning of new businesses, farm expansion, and home building. Planning board members may feel comfortable with this discretionary power, because it is power over someone else. But how will it feel when the planning board has this "input"—meaning the government power to say yes or no to your new business, business expansion, or new home?

11. Political conflict. Will full implementation of site-plan review, which is bound to obstruct the business plans of well-meaning people and stop some new jobs, cause new political conflict and add an unneeded hostile element to the local political process?

12. Unequal treatment and spot zoning. Local farmers and small operators are assured that they will be exempted from site plan review, but perhaps agribusiness will have to go through the process. Bringing in site plan review to "protect" certain individuals from a perceived threat may require the wisdom of Solomon to cover just the areas of concern and exempt the local farms, businesses, and other operators for whom it would be unpopular to require such review, who think that everything will be reviewed except them. Will new building uses and changes in occupancy, such as the conversion of a house to a church, be reviewed? How will size cutoffs be legitimized?

13. Economic impact. Will site plan review obstruct and stop worthwhile businesses from moving into town and providing well-paying job opportunities for local youth, which are otherwise hard to find locally?

14. Expensive environmental litigation. Once site plan review is in place, the State Environmental Quality Review Act requires compliance with the entire environmental review process, which, if cut short, subjects the Town to expensive potential litigation from individuals who are determined to obstruct new development and who, unlike the Town, may have deep pockets to litigate indefinitely. Will the Town find that its good-willed desire to have an "input" into the site planning of new businesses place it in the position of being forced to endure years of environmental review and/or environmental litigation?

15. Full-fledged zoning—the next step. In New York State there are two steps from zero zoning to full-fledged zoning: (1) the requirement for subdivision approval and (2) the requirement for site-plan review. How big is the next step to the third level, of full-fledged town zoning with a full zoning bureaucracy for everyone to contend with?

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