I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be writing to you on these pages once again. It’s been a while. As I’m sure you figured out some time ago, the quarterly (or thereabouts) Town Newsletter was but another “casualty” of the global pandemic that has been monopolizing a great deal of everyone’s time and attention over the past year or so. While, by all accounts, it’s far from over, as I write this in mid-February, 2021, there are some signs of hope. Infection rates, hospitalizations, and mortalities, which rose dramatically over the Holidays, are now on the decline. Moreover, effective Covid-19 vaccines have been developed, with more on the way, and people are actually getting them at this point. So, it seemed to me, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it was time for us to take another small step toward “normalcy” and put together a Newsletter.
That being said, I really don’t want to write about the pandemic. We all get our daily dose (or maybe I should say “overdose”) of Covid-related statistics, from our morning and evening news programs, together with breaking news of seemingly always increasing limitations on our daily lives, and the ever-changing guidance from scientists and the state and federal governments. So, I’d like to focus on an unrelated topic, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
Specifically, the focus of this article will be on “multi-family” housing in the Town. Although that specific term is used and defined in our Zoning Law, for the purposes of this article, I mean it to be anything other than single family homes, which would include apartment complexes, apartment buildings, two-family homes, condominiums, town houses, and the like. I think it’s fair to say that the predominant mode of housing in our Town has always been single family homes, in keeping with the largely rural character of our community. Even in our original Zoning Ordinance, which was enacted in the 1950s, and now to date in our current Zoning Law, any “housing” other than single family homes always required that some sort of “special permit” be issued by the Town in order for it to move forward. I think it’s also fair to say that “multi-family” dwellings have always received more scrutiny here, especially in the case of apartment complexes. Many people have long felt that multi-family dwellings encourage and result in a more transient population of people less invested in locating here in the long term and maintaining the rural character of the Town. Some people are against anything other than single family homes in the Town. Others feel more tolerant toward “owner occupied” multi-family dwellings, such as duplexes, condominiums, and town homes, but believe they need to be carefully located. Still others feel that condominium projects, town house projects and apartment complexes contribute to our tax base and that people should have as many options as possible in selecting their housing needs.
Several years ago, my own attitude toward multi-family housing in Town shifted to a degree. Having grown up on and lived on a farm all my life, condos, town houses and apartments, were not the first thing that came to mind when I thought about housing. As I got older, and as I got more involved in local government, I began to hear about housing concerns from a lot of people who lived here in Brunswick all their lives. Because we have such a nice, scenic and peaceful community, many people want to continue to live here during their “golden” years. But some people can’t financially afford to pay the taxes and other costs associated with home ownership once they retire. Some are unable or no longer wish to maintain a home. Others, as they get older, might want to sell their homes so they can realize their equity and use it to travel or buy other things that they want. Still others may want to have another residence elsewhere in this wonderful country of ours, where the Winter weather is not as big an issue as it is here, but still maintain a residence in Brunswick, where they have lived their lives and have friends and family. For many of these folks, multi-family options may make a lot of sense.
So, over the past 15 - 20 years or so, we did see a steady increase in multi-family housing options here in Town. People just wanted them, so the demand was there, and developers were eager to build. I don’t have to tell you that Brunswick is a wonderful place to live. All of the projects were well-conceived, carefully considered and very well done. One thing that surprised me a little is that apartments became as popular as they did. Apartment vacancy rates are extremely low here despite the fact that the rental rates are not a bargain by any means. We have even had developers whose projects were approved as condominiums ask for permission to use them as rental units temporarily, since the “market” seemed to be indicating that people preferred to rent rather than buy.
That said, more recently, certainly within the past 5 to 10 years, we heard from the Town Planning Board on a number of occasions that, perhaps, the “tipping point” had been reached in Town insofar as multi-family housing opportunities were concerned. I and my colleagues on the Town Board take such concerns very seriously, and I do think there is evidence to support that conclusion. As I said, multi-family dwellings remain a “hot button” issue in the Town. They can be controversial - and it’s not just about large apartment complexes. Some time ago, there was a proposal to construct two duplexes, side by side, for use as rental units on Route 2 in the Eagle Mills area. There was significant neighborhood opposition to this relatively small project. The proposal for a special use permit was ultimately denied by the Planning Board.
So, the point of all of this is that I think it’s time that we take a long, hard look at multi-family housing all over the Town, i.e., consideration must be given to the number of existing multi-family residential units in the Town, both constructed as well as approved and to be constructed, and also appropriate locations and districts in the Town for the various types of multi-family dwellings to be located; whether there is currently a need for more multi-family housing in the Town, and if so, what types and in what areas should they be encouraged and/or continue to be permitted; and where multi-family dwellings are allowed or to be allowed, what is the appropriate density (units per acre). We’ll need to engage appropriate professionals to assist us in that review and advise us as to what changes need to be made to the Zoning Law. This is an opportune time for us to conduct this study. Since the adoption of our updated Zoning Law some four years ago, after putting it into practical use, we have identified several other areas which merit further consideration and review. We will now add multi-family housing issues to that mix. Let me be clear. Neither I, nor any of my colleagues on the Town Board, know for certain whether any changes to our Zoning Law as regards these “multi-family dwellings” are warranted. We need the study to make those decisions.
Since it will take several months for us to complete the necessary review, and prepare any appropriate amendments to the Zoning Law, the Town Board will consider adopting a six (6) month moratorium on filing, considering, reviewing, acting upon, or approving any application for any multi-family dwellings in the Town. The moratorium would also cover any pending applications. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of a moratorium, a land use moratorium is a local enactment which temporarily suspends a landowner’s right to obtain development approvals while the local government considers and potentially adopts changes to its comprehensive plan and/or its land use regulations to address circumstances not addressed by its current laws. In this case, as previously stated, the changes under consideration would be to the Town’s current Zoning Law. Simply put, land use moratoria are designed to preserve the status quo while planning or zoning changes are considered and made. This will enable the Town to complete its study and review regarding multi-family dwellings in the Town without pressure from pending applications for such projects and to help alleviate the possibility that hasty and ill-conceived decisions will be made by developers or the Town.
In this regard, I introduced a local law providing for such a moratorium at the February 11, 2021, Regular Town Board Meeting. It’s a very detailed and comprehensive law and I won’t attempt to get into all the details, although a copy will be posted on the Town’s website. The Town Board scheduled a public hearing on that local law for March 11, 2021. Due to the time necessary for publication and distribution of the Newsletter, by the time you have this article in hand, I am hopeful that the Town Board will have already adopted the local law, the moratorium will be in place, and the multi-family dwelling study will be underway. Even so, I thought writing this article would be worthwhile as it provides background and context to the actions now being considered and undertaken by the Town Board, which might not be otherwise apparent from what occurs at Board meetings, or in the meeting minutes. I hope you agree.
I belatedly wish you all a safe, happy and healthy 2021. Let’s hope it’s better than 2020.