The Flexibility to Pave Geneseo

Way back in early 2005, when the Town began talking about enacting a Planned Development District (PDD) Law and when I did not yet understand the depth of the Town’s commitment to using that law to allow Newman Development Group’s Big Box dreams to come true, I wondered why the Town was so eager to pass such a law.

After all, the Gateway District already has good, actually very good, zoning. That zoning includes language to limit sprawl and strip development, to protect views of the Genesee Valley, and to direct development to occur off of Volunteer Road, not 20A. Most importantly, that zoning includes what communities everywhere wish they had: limits on the size of retail buildings. The Town of Geneseo was ahead of the curve on that issue, acting to zone out Wal-Mart and its big box brethren back in the mid 1990s.

The folks of East Aurora fought long and hard and at great expense for their zoning limits on big boxes, recognizing them as perhaps the critical tool in maintaining small town character. Though the people of Lima have dodged a bullet for now, only square footage limits protect them from a future Wal-Mart. Many people in the Village of Geneseo wish we had them a few years ago.

Yet the Town had them and gave them away. Why would they do that? When I asked this question two years ago, I was assured by Supervisor Kennison and others that the PDD was essential because it provided “flexibility” and “negotiating power” to the Town in reviewing development proposals. That sounds nice. Flexibility and negotiations are good, right?

As the PDD law moved toward enactment and Newman’s proposal moved onto the table, flexibility and negotiating power remained the buzz words. Looking back through the documents PDDG has obtained through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), these talking points started early and were repeated often.

In a lengthy email to the Town Planning Board written on March 11, 2005, two weeks before Newman’s proposal was made public, Town Attorney James Coniglio wrote that “a submittal for a large scale project” was “imminent.” As a result, he went on, “it is in the best interest of the community to provide the Planning Board some flexibility in reviewing proposals on a case by case basis. It is clear that most potential proposals will not match various provisions of the current Code perfectly.” Continuing, he wrote that “this vehicle [the PDD] will give both the Planning Board and the Town Board more negotiating power with developers.”

In an email exchange with the Planning Board that followed, Supervisor Kennison emphasized the same themes, writing that “[w]e are all concerned deeply about traffic. This approach gives us more freedom to negotiate traffic infrastructure with large developers.”
BME Associates, retained by the Town to review the existing Gateway zoning and the proposed PDD, came to the same conclusion. They called the Gateway zoning “somewhat outdated” and favored “more flexibility.”

But flexibility to do what and negotiate what? And why? Isn’t it the job of variances to provide flexibility and free developers from meeting every letter of the law? Isn’t it the job of communities to plan their growth so that their roads and other infrastructure aren’t overwhelmed? And how does it help our traffic problem if we use traffic intensive forms of development to fund traffic improvements? Doesn’t that just place us in a downward spiral toward gridlock?

Here’s what I think. The Town realized that a proposal for a project 500% larger than allowed under the existing zoning would not be (and should not be) granted a variance. It also realized that directly rezoning the land (rather than indirectly, as through the PDD) would strengthen the opposition, invite claims of spot zoning, and make it clear that the changes were being undertaken to allow Newman’s proposal to be considered.

Using the PDD, and emphasizing what it gave (flexibility and negotiating power), rather than what it gave away (square footage limitations), made it appear as though the PDD law was an important and empowering planning tool. I don’t see it that way. I’m afraid all we’ve gained is the flexibility to pave Geneseo.

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