Dora Dogood on Dryden, zoning, and freedom

Although, "Dryden, zoning, and freedom" may be a contradiction in terms.

By the way, the public hearing on the proposed changes to the Dryden zoning ordinance is Wednesday, June 27th, at 7:30pm in the town hall. The draft zoning amendments may be viewed here. The draft subdivision law is here. The zoning map is here.


A few days ago, I read that the Town of Dryden is having a public hearing on its expanded zoning ordinance proposal in a few weeks.  Yesterday, I was having coffee at the Dryden Hotel with my friend Molly who was visiting from the Village of Massapequa Park, Long Island.  On June 11, her village board unanimously enacted a plan to fine homeowners up to $10,000 --- for letting their property get shabby.  Molly said home and business owners now face up to five-figure fines and fifteen days in jail for such maintenance issues as overgrown lawns, broken windows and graffiti.  Other local governments, including the nearby Town of Brookhaven, are considering similar measures.  Mount Pleasant, S.C. and the Birmingham, Alabama suburb of Pelham also enforce local ordinances pertaining to unfavorable appearances at buildings or establishments.
Molly quoted from the Massapequa law, “The Village finds that the presence of blight upon properties … is detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the Village.   It is the intent, therefore, of the Village that blight be identified, abated and eliminated …. ”  Owners have ten days to comply with a village order to rectify conditions at their premises before fines are imposed.  First-time offenders for violations like broken outdoor lighting fixtures or fallen trees can lead to fines of up to $1,000, and subsequent offenses can lead to fines as high as $10,000 and up to fifteen days in jail.   What I do know is that one person’s blight can be another person’s beauty.  Who decides what is blight?
I was wondering if this could really happen, so when I got home I did some research.  I found that at least two people this year have spent time behind bars for failure to maintain their properties.  In January, a woman in Mount Pleasant, S.C., was sentenced to ten days in jail after failing to pay a $480 fine for a having a messy yard.  A Florida man was reportedly sentenced to a year and one day in jail after he failed to remove junk from his front yard.
So, how does all this relate to Dryden and its expanded zoning code?  Ordinances like the one in Massapequa are the end product of where zoning may lead.  Can it happen here?  Maybe in won’t, but sure, it can.  I don’t much like properties without curb appeal, with grass that’s somewhat too long, or which don’t get painted.  But, I don’t put my neighbors in jail for these things.  What about the person on a limited fixed income who can’t afford to paint or is physically unable to mow?
But mostly, I asked myself what right do the neighbors or the town have to tell other people how to live?  And, just what is “shabby”?  Years ago, I was a renter for a time.  The landlord demanded certain things.  When I became a homeowner it was to get away from having others tell me what I must do.
Certainly, the good people on the Dryden Town Board will tell me not to worry, they won’t abuse their zoning powers to the same extent as Massapequa.  Perhaps they won’t, but the citizens of Dryden should not be dependent on their good will.  When you give up rights, you eventually learn that you have lost your freedoms.  The new Dryden zoning plan and the vast areas slated to be in “Critical” Environmental Areas are cause for concern.
What Massapequa teaches us is that we must go to the public hearings and let our office holders know we don’t want government taking over control of more and more of our lives.  I’m 88 years old and I worry for our children and grandchildren.  Will they live in a world where the prior generations have eroded their freedoms because they thought things like zoning were “little things?”  Inch by inch, foot by foot, our freedoms erode if we don’t fight for them.

Dryden: It's spelled H-U-B-R-I-S

We can argue endlessly about what effect low voter turnout rates have on the concept of "majority rule"—is the majority even really a majority the way most people understand the term?—but there's no doubt that one of the driving forces behind the construction of the US Constitution was protecting the rights of the minority from the "tyranny of the 51%".

And the founders viewed the protection of property rights as integral to protecting against tyranny—John Adams wrote, "Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist."

But as time has passed and people have forgotten or just never learned about why we fought a war of independence and composed the Constitution, and as the politics of envy has come to dominate politics in the US, property rights have been under attack.

Dryden is just the rest of the country writ small.  There's a story to tell here, a cautionary tale.

First, some background...

About a dozen years ago, 58 sites within the Town of Dryden, encompassing over 10,000 acres or a little less than 17% of the town, were designated Unique Natural Areas (UNAs).  These were "sites with outstanding environmental qualities, as defined by the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, that are deserving of special attention for preservation and protection." The original county-wide inventory of UNA sites started out as a master's thesis at Cornell in 1976 and was added to over the years until it became an official county and town designation around 2000. Affected landowners were contacted by the town and the sites visited to make sure that landowners were on board with the process of UNA designation.

Over 30 years ago (about the same time Earth Day was invented and those UNAs were being inventoried for a Cornell master's thesis), NYS DEC created a designation called a Critical Environmental Area or CEA:

To be designated as a CEA, an area must have an exceptional or unique character with respect to one or more of the following:

a benefit or threat to human health;
a natural setting (e.g., fish and wildlife habitat, forest and vegetation, open space and areas of important aesthetic or scenic quality);
agricultural, social, cultural, historic, archaeological, recreational, or educational values; or
an inherent ecological, geological or hydrological sensitivity to change that may be adversely affected by any change.

Pretty vague…almost anything could be designated a CEA.


Following designation, the potential impact of any Type I or Unlisted Action on the environmental characteristics of the CEA is a relevant area of environmental concern and must be evaluated in the determination of significance prepared pursuant to Section 617.7 of SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review).


Type I actions meet or exceed thresholds listed in the statewide or agency SEQR regulations. These are likely to require preparation of an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). Some examples:

nonresidential projects physically altering 10 or more acres of land
zoning changes affecting 25 or more acres

Type I actions do not always require an EIS.


Unlisted actions do not meet the Type I thresholds but some may still require an EIS. Some examples:

nonresidential projects physically altering less than 10 acres of land
adoption of regulations, ordinances, local laws and resolutions that may affect the environment

Despite the crunchy granola origins of all this back in the 70s and early 80s, when you might have thought that everyone in the state would have been jumping on the CEA bandwagon, CEA designations are actually fairly rare…until Dryden.  

There are 62 counties in NYS; only 28 of those counties have CEAs within their boundaries. Half of those 28 counties, including Tompkins County, have only one CEA currently designated. The big winner (if you can call it that) in the CEA contest is Suffolk County on Long Island with 46, next are Dutchess and Westchester with 34 apiece. The remaining counties have between one and eight CEAs.

The Town of Dryden wants to designate 35 CEAs within town limits (there is only one CEA currently designated in the rest of the county, in the Town of Ithaca), which would encompass about 62% of the surface area of the town. CEA boundaries were presented as being carefully thought out and having some demonstrable reason for being drawn where they were. 

Dryden Town Council, an elected board consisting of the town supervisor and 4 councilpersons, has a few unelected, unpaid advisory boards to assist them, including a Conservation Board and a Planning Board—that's in addition to a paid town Planning Department consisting of a planning director and five additional staff members…this in a 95-square-mile town with a population of 14,400, about 1/4 of whom are children.

Because of the agricultural nature of the town, when the town comprehensive plan was being adopted in 2005, it was recommended that one of the advisory boards be an agriculture board.  It has yet to exist, although at a March 2012 town council meeting, names and résumés of members of the ag community willing to serve on such a board were presented to the council.  It was suggested that the new ag board be charged with reviewing CEAs and that nothing final happen on CEAs until the ag board had reviewed them.

So where are we right now?

As understanding spread of what owning property (and I now use that phrase advisedly) within a CEA might entail—SEQRs, EISs, special use permit applications—so did pushback.  After public resistance took various forms including attendance and speaking at town council meetings, the whole CEA document was sent back from the town council to the conservation board (CB) for more work. Unlike UNA designations years ago, CEA boundaries had been drawn up without consultation with the affected landowners; it now sounded as though the CB would be reviewing the CEAs a few at a time, but this time in consultation with the landowners involved, on a CEA-by-CEA basis.

Ummm…not so much.

What has become apparent in correspondence between the planning department and the CB is this:
  • There is no intention of changing the number of CEAs or the amount of acreage in the town that will be designated as CEA property. The idea is simply to strengthen the existing CEA document against well-founded attacks from those with the audacity to question "authority."
  • Changes might be made to some CEAs but the changes would be superficial rather than substantive…just enough to hopefully hoodwink the hoi polloi.
  • Weekly meetings of the CB will occur with CEAs being "reviewed" in clumps of 5, so as to turn over each batch to the town council for rubber-stamping and sending on to DEC before the seating of any agricultural advisory board could take place.
  • In fact, there never was any intention of letting landowners have a say in the completion of this process, a process now intended to be finished within two months.
  • Why the increased sense of urgency on the part of the CB and the town council? A member of the CB said at their March meeting that they could not allow the DEC to issue its final findings on permitting drilling in NYS—thereby possibly thwarting the town's plans—before the Dryden CEA designation process was done.
  • CEA boundary designations are in fact arbitrary and based on what "feels good" to the board rather than based on a process that is well-defined and reproducible from proposed CEA to proposed CEA.
  • In the planner's opinion, all lands bordering a CEA will be considered an automatic buffer zone. Some townspeople had said that they thought the entire town should be designated a CEA. Sounds as though this is a step in that direction.
  • Rather than sitting down with affected landowners to discuss the designation of their property as a CEA, the town will "attempt" to send landowners a notice of a relevant CB meeting or a public hearing.
Even DEC in a sort of bizarre way recognized that the very designation they created was in fact a problem:
14. Can reviews of actions involving CEAs be managed to avoid creating undue hardships?
…A community or agency can help reduce hardships that may be associated with the existence of a CEA if they critically evaluate the size and boundaries of the CEA when it is being drafted.

This isn't about protecting the environment.  It's not about pine trees and salamanders—it's about control.

Renters may find that their landlords are unable to make changes to their property that would in fact benefit them, the tenants. Farmers end up being sharecroppers who have to ask permission of "massa" in order to do perfectly reasonable things that would not have required town involvement before.

Not only have subsurface rights been stolen by a drilling ban, now surface rights are being taken as well.

But—you still have the right to pay taxes.

If you don't think all this is a problem, go read up on "unlisted actions" and "SEQRs" and the like.  The town will say that this is a tempest in a teapot—that if your property is in a CEA and you want to make changes to it, all the CEA designation will do is trigger a SEQR…an invitation, if you will, to DEC to take a closer look.  No big deal…nothing to see here, move along…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.  


Think of the paperwork, the money, the crazymaking interminable reviews that will be necessary that hadn't been necessary before.  And all so that you can do perfectly reasonable things—maybe, if you're given permission—on what you thought was property that you owned.  

Silly you.  

John Adams also wrote, "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If `Thou shalt not covet' and `Thou shalt not steal' were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free."

The arrogance of these people is just stunning.


Protect Me Not

More wisdom from the old dear....


“If allies are strong with power to protect me,
might they not protect me out of all I own.”  
The King of Siam, in The King and I
Having lived 88 years in the Town of Dryden and in Tompkins County, I’ve never before seen such an activist county and town board as we have now, nor do I ever want to.  My father, of sainted memory, taught me to stand on my own two feet and to make decisions for myself.  He was a very early male supporter of women’s rights and he taught me to cherish and love freedom.  I see it eroding around me.  Will our children live in freedom?  Will they have any personal or property rights against the state?  I doubt it.
A group of enviro-activists have decided that the residents of the Town of Dryden are in need of “protection” against big “evil” corporations and the development of our natural energy resources.  For most of my lifetime, without zoning beyond ensuring septic systems and wells are adequate, the character of our town has been preserved.  No need for lots of paid government workers.  Our town has historically changed only slowly.
I do not wish to be “protected,” I wish to be free.  I want to be left alone to make my own decisions as I have for the last six decades, including making my own choices about whether to lease my land.  The enviro-activists want to protect themselves against their fears and insecurities.  They see poisoners everywhere. What I see is a group of selfish people, hating change, who want to use fuel but don’t want to have anything to do with its production in their own backyards, yet who are perfectly willing to limit my freedom while protecting themselves and taking counsel of their own fears.  They have lied and bullied many people into believing they are right.  Fear is easily created and a strong motivator.
Several times in my lifetime I’ve seen Americans go off to war to defend our homeland and protect our rights to make our own choices and to live in freedom.  But, we are not free when power flows from the individual to government.  In a way, we are being reduced from being adults capable of making our own decisions to being children again, this time with local government playing the role of parent and making decisions for us.  Well, know this, Dryden town board, I’m a grown up and so are most of the residents of Dryden.  What we need is government off our backs, not taking our rights and choices away from us.
Dryden has come for our property rights.  The town board is proposing that two-thirds of our town be declared “critical” environmental areas.  What will be next?  Will they then tell us what color to paint our houses or how short our lawns must be kept?
I once felt that the acreage I inherited and have paid taxes on for decades belonged to me.  I no longer feel like a landowner in Dryden, but rather like a tenant.  I pay my taxes and in return, the town graciously allows me certain uses of my land for a year at a time.  But, bit by bit, ownership has become only “permitted use” as government moves toward controlling our community.  Worse, our local governments, town and county, have been essentially taken over by an activist majority meddling in national and even international issues well beyond their ken.  To counter hubris, like ancient Romans granted a triumph, they need someone to walk with them and whisper in their ear, “Remember, you are only one person, a local official with limited power.”
What disturbs me the most is that I’m seeing little outrage as the town chips away at our freedoms and choices.  If those who are happy with the content of today’s encroachments do not speak up against this erosion, who will speak for them when government comes to take what is dear to them?  It will be too late. If those who are unhappy remain silent, will they not deserve their fate?
Jefferson said that the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots.  If we forget that and fail to defend our personal, individual, and property rights, what will be left of our great American experiment?

February, 2012
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