A Primer on Zoning Regulation
by Carol Still

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With no town center and a little over 4000 residents, the Town of Clinton has an attractive stony and steep topography that could be expected to limit the population density of much of the land. There is little disagreement that the land's beauty--the rock outcroppings, the vistas over the fields, the lack of strip malls--are tremendous assets. But most Clintonites are also aware that how our land is used can have an impact on all of us. For example, in a town with no sewer or public water system, it is imperative to maintain the quality and quantity of groundwater. Noise from commercial operation or even off-road vehicles can be another kind of disagreeable pollution.

Living in a small town without a newspaper, many of us are only dimly aware of how our town works. During local elections, campaign signs with generic three word slogans appear on the roadsides and just as quickly disappear when the election is over. For those who would like to know a little more about what happens after the signs come down, especially with regard to local land use questions, read on.

A Little Background

After the town of Clinton was established in 1786 and for most of its history, inhabitants' concerns were mainly directed to loss of jobs and population. It has only been in the last 50 years that attention has been directed to the dangers of unregulated development. In the 1950s, Dutchess County played a leading role in encouraging towns to create zoning laws to direct development. Not all towns took advantage of the opportunity; however, in Clinton, a Zoning Commission met for about 10 years before the first zoning law was enacted in 1969. Starting with the template provided by the County, the zoning law stirred controversy and resistance. Several lawsuits resulted in inconsistent enforcement of the original law. It wasn't until 1981 that the law was adopted in its final form.

In 1987 Clinton began to develop the current Master Plan, beginning with a community values survey. Water resources and topography were discussed and mapped. Finally, goals and recommendations were drafted. In 1989 the Master Plan was completed. Next, a review of the zoning law was undertaken to determine what changes were necessary to implement the goals in the Master Plan. This process also took about two years.

Writing the regulations is where the rubber meets the road. There is always a delicate balance to be struck between too much or too little restriction.   Some people argued for much more, some for much less. After five spirited public hearings and hundreds of changes, the Town Board adopted the current zoning law in 1991.

Dutchess County and New York State get involved

The community survey, the goals in the Master Plan, and the zoning regulations are not the only things that have an impact on development. The State of New York also weighed in with the advent of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). This law enables citizens to challenge development that has an adverse impact on the environment. This can include water quality, strains on resource usage, and even impacts on community character. In addition, the state and county also mandate the availability of affordable housing and certain types of commercial activity.


Implementation and Enforcement

How does Clinton protect its citizens from water pollution or other undesirable developments? Who makes the decisions and on what basis?

The Town Board appoints members to the groups that are charged with implementing and enforcing the zoning regulations.

The Zoning Administrator (often referred to as the "Zoning Enforcement Officer") is charged with:

  • Review of subdivision or variance applications for compliance with zoning regulations,
  • Review of building permits for zoning compliance,
  • Response to zoning regulation questions,
  • Processing of zoning complaints.

He has the power to issue tickets, which may result in fines for violations, refer violations to the Town attorney, and the like.

The Planning Board , with seven members, holds public meetings two times a month. Their job is to review applications for subdivisions and potential developments, special permits, and other land use applications, to ensure that they meet the requirements of the zoning law and other County and State regulations. In so doing they need to understand the goals of the landowner, as well as all applicable regulations, in order to work out solutions that sustain the goals of the Master Plan. At public hearings citizens can make their opinions or objections known.

The Zoning Board of Appeals , with seven members, holds monthly meetings to hear applications for variances from the zoning law as well as appeals of the Zoning Enforcement Officer's determinations regarding the zoning law (the latter are often called "requests for an interpretation"). If a property owner wants, for example, to place a structure within the required setback area, he will request an "area variance".   If a landowner wants to use land in a way prohibited by the zoning law, he will request a "use variance." New York State has set stringent conditions for the granting of such use variances. The Zoning Board of Appeals must follow all applicable State and County regulations as well as the town's zoning law when reviewing applications.

In addition, there is the Conservation Advisory Council whose job it is to act as watchdog for the irreplaceable natural resources in the town. Protecting aquifers, streams, and wetlands is of particular concern because of their connection to our groundwater wells. The CAC recommends environmental regulations and educational projects to the Town Board and helps to implement them. They also serve as environmental consultants to the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Planning Board, the ZBA, and the CAC are all staffed by unpaid volunteers/appointees. These are people who contribute to the community by working to interpret the land use regulations.


It is difficult to overestimate the difficulty of improving on current regulations. Not because they are perfect, but because once you open up the regulations for alteration, they can get worse just as easily as better. As you can tell from the brief history of the current regulations, it took many years to hammer out rules that were broadly acceptable. Those whose interests are directly affected, have good reasons to make their opinions known. The rest of us, going on with our lives, will live with the consequences. That is not to say there should never be change in our zoning laws, just that it be carefully considered.

What to do when you have a land use issue

When a land use issue arises, a number of questions need to be explored before drawing conclusions about a course of action:

•  What do current zoning or subdivision regulations or the Master Plan have to say about the issue?

•  What is the authority of the relevant Board (Town Board, Planning Board, or Zoning Board of Appeals) on this issue and is the relevant Board acting within the scope of its authority?

•  If regulations are already in place, are they being enforced? If not, why not? (Lack of complaint, lack of resources, lack of attention?)

•  If the problem appears to be one of insufficient regulation, what should the regulation specifically say? Keep in mind that regulations must be balanced and broadly applicable and require the approval of the majority of the Town Board and review by the County Planning Board.

5.   Finally, is there an easier way to accomplish your objective?


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