There has been a lot of interest in the way government works as of late, and of course, there have been many questions about who is supposed to do what. So maybe a short column on local civics is called for. This might not apply to all towns, so check with your local government to see who does what.
In Mentz, there is both a town and a village government. The town government oversees some things that take place inside the village of Port Byron (i.e: the ballpark on Green Street is town property), but the village has no interests outside the village boundaries. This is why we have two courts, two highway departments, two boards, etc.
The town and village have many smaller boards or offices, including a planning board, a zoning board of appeals, code enforcement officers, clerks and justices with their courts and judges. For our purposes here, we will look at the town of Mentz planning and ZBA boards, and the code enforcement office. All these boards and offices are governed by various plans, regulations and laws. The overarching document is the 2015 Joint Town and Village Comprehensive Plan, a document that looks at the past to see where we have been, and then looks forward to see where we wish to go. The first comprehensive plan was done in 1966, and the 2015 plan replaced that with a fresher perspective. This plan told us that the population of the town wished to retain a rural feel and encourage agriculture, recreation and open spaces. From that plan, the town worked with the Cayuga County Planning Board to develop the 2017 Agriculture and Farmland Protection Plan. This plan, which was funded in part by the state Department of Agriculture & Markets, promotes “local initiatives for agriculture and farmland protection.” Both of these plans make a series of recommendations for short-and long-range steps to be taken, and encourage the town to revisit the plans more often than every 50 years to ensure that the plans remain viable and useful; and they can be found on the town’s website. One of those recommended steps was to update the zoning and subdivision regulations, since the regulations we were using to guide our decisions were from 1966. The zoning ordinance rewrite project, now ongoing, should be done in 2019. Once this is complete, the planning board, ZBA and code enforcement officer will have up-to-date regulations to guide their decisions.
For the landowner who wishes to divide a parcel of land, they will appear before the planning board. Their development plans will be checked to ensure that the subdivision meets the regulations for that parcel and if there are issues, the board will make suggestions on ways to make things work. The goal is to ensure that any development meets the goals laid out in the comprehensive plan. Once you have land and wish to develop it, you appear before the code enforcement officer, who will guide you through the steps to ensure that your development meets the local and state regulations. If the code enforcement officer determines that the proposed use for your land is not permitted by the zoning code, you can appeal that decision to the ZBA. The ZBA will look at the proposal and the zoning code and determine if the code enforcement officer was correct in their interpretation, and either confirm the decision or overturn it. Also, in accordance with state law, any person who does not agree with the code enforcement officer’s decision to allow or deny a proposed use on a property in the town may also request an appeal of the decision by the ZBA.
The town is broken up into several zoning districts. Currently, in Mentz, there are A-1, R-1, R-2 and C-1 districts (these will be changing as the new regulations are crafted). It is helpful to know which zoning district you live in or wish to live in, as each has different restrictions. There is an old saying that states, “You cannot purchase a hardship.” This means if you purchase a parcel of land with the idea that you will build a large factory, but it is in the A-1 zone, you are out of luck because that use is not permitted there. Or if you purchase land in the R-1 with the idea of subdividing into small half-acre lots, again, you are out of luck because the minimum lot size is much larger than that. It is best to meet with the planning board to discuss your ideas before making any final purchase decisions. The board is there to be helpful.
There is also a floodplain overlay zone that includes extra restrictions. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps will determine if your property is in a floodway and if your home needs to be built above the established flood water level. If your property is located in a floodway then your bank, mortgage company or insurance company may require you to purchase flood insurance.
Lastly, while not a town zoning district, the Cayuga County Agricultural District overlaps many of the parcels in the town. This district ensures that the land is covered by the state’s right-to-farm law; and as such, farmers are protected from nuisance complaints and lawsuits from neighboring property owners. When you purchase a property within 500 feet of a parcel that is in the county’s agricultural district, you will have to sign a document at the closing that states that you acknowledge that you are buying a property in or adjacent to an agricultural district and you are aware that there will be certain sights, sounds, smells, etc. associated with farming.
Both the restrictions in the floodplain overlay district and the protections that come with the county agricultural district for farmers are regulations set by the federal and state government. The town’s boards and code enforcement officer cannot override these regulations.
Since all the boards are a function of the government, the meetings are open to the public. And when plans or regulations are going to be adopted or changed, a public meeting will be advertised and held, so you have the opportunity to let your voices be heard.