Daily Archives: August 3, 2007

How to Zone Out a Big Box

PDDG has now completed its initial review of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement submitted by Newman Development Group in support of its Big Box plans for the Gateway District. (It is available here as a pdf).What we found is that the DEIS is seriously incomplete, particularly with respect to the effects of another big box on traffic and on future commercial development in Geneseo. As a result, we have requested that the Town Planning Board return the DEIS to Newman for the completion of additional studies.

Most notably, Newman failed to study how the increased traffic congestion on 20A will affect the travel routes of Geneseo residents and others headed to the local sprawl marts or to 390. This is the issue that has mobilized Lima Roaders, who have watched their once quiet residential neighborhood become a bypass for more than 5,000 commuters and shoppers each day.

Newman also failed to study how another big box will shape the market for future development in the Gateway and surrounding areas. There is a well-known “retail clustering effect,” in which retail development begets traffic begets retail development until retail nirvana (gridlock) is reached.

We are witness to this phenomenon everyday. Indeed, this entire battle is evidence of the determined efforts of mega-retailers to locate next to Wal-Mart. So, we really ought to know what happens if we permit another big box. Are there others waiting in the wings? Does retail development make light industrial and office development more or less likely?

However, what really got my attention and got me thinking as I read the DEIS were Newman’s repeated assertions that its Big Box was compatible with the planning and zoning for the Gateway. This simply isn’t true, as a careful reading of the zoning for the Gateway District makes clear.

Without going into the arcane details, I would like to note several important features of the Gateway zoning. Light industry and offices are clearly the preferred forms of development, with retail development only permitted under the strictest circumstances.

Here are those circumstances:

· Retail development requires a Special Permit;

· Retail uses are limited to 35,000 square feet and plazas are limited to 80,000 square feet;

· Retail uses must be conducted in a “completely enclosed building;”

· No development is allowed to take access directly from 20A; all access must be provided by Volunteer Road and roads built off of it;

· No development may face 20A.

Remembering that these regulations were written after the opening of the Wegman’s/Wal-Mart development right across the street and remembering also that Volunteer Road was constructed pursuant to legislation and with money directed toward supporting industrial development, I have no doubt that these regulations were intended to discourage retail development and to prohibit (yes, prohibit) big box development.

Look at the above list again. It is a legal recipe for zoning out big boxes. Look in particular at the language requiring a “completely enclosed building” (a requirement Newman is particularly creative in bending to its purposes). Why say that? Might it be that big boxes, with their ubiquitous “garden centers,” make regular use of unenclosed buildings? And the language requiring access from and orientation toward Volunteer Road? No doubt it is intended to stop the type of big box sprawl found right across the street.

We can agree or disagree as to whether big box development is good for Geneseo. However, I don’t find much room for disagreement with the view that Big Boxes are directly contrary to the planning and zoning of the Gateway.

It would have been a lot cleaner, though also a lot clearer and therefore more controversial, if Town officials had repealed the Gateway zoning and zoned in big boxes. Instead, they chose the vague language of the Planned Development District (PDD) law, which is intended to coexist with and provide flexibility to the Gateway zoning.

The question now is whether the PDD law can be stretched to allow what is clearly not allowed in the Gateway.