Saranac Lake Village Board hashes out steep-slope zoning

SARANAC LAKE — The village board hashed out the details of new zoning for the steep slopes of Mount Pisgah at its Monday night meeting, with lively discussion over preservation of the viewshed and how much tree cutting rises to the level of needing a permit.

Code enforcement officer Paul Blaine presented the draft of the new zoning law for the board’s approval. It will become law after approval by the Essex County development board and two public hearings.

The village placed a six-month moratorium on development of the steep slopes of Mount Pisgah in January, to allow time for updating the zoning law affecting the slopes. Citizens who came to speak at the meeting expressed support for the main change in the law, which designates the development area as H2, appropriate for single-family homes of one or two units.

Baker street resident Phil Gallos, who pointed out that the development area is not adjacent to his property, said, “I favor the tightest restriction possible on the land there. This is not a NIMBY [not in my backyard] issue; the land behind my house is already H2.”

Sunita Halasz, who lives on Cliff Road on the mountain, described the boulders that roll down into her yard. “We have more boulders coming down the slope as the ground gets softer in spring.”

Halasz said she is putting up deer fence in hopes that trees will grow and form a barrier to the boulders. Halasz and other neighbors have supported the zoning change, saying disrupting the slope causes erosion.

Trustee Paul Van Cott favored incorporating some of the public’s suggested changes to the law into the draft.

“They are harmless and thoughtful suggestions that add to the appropriateness of this law,” he said.

Trustee Richard Shapiro didn’t see it that way. “I disagree with most of them and I think they’ll have unintended consequences.”

Shapiro said several suggested changes were redundant. “When you start putting in redundant things it adds complexity and confusion, which makes it harder to enforce and understand.”

He referred to language that is already in the law about preserving the historic character of the area, saying there’s no need to repeat it in the new steep slopes section.

Shapiro also objected to including language “conserving visual benefits.”

“I can object to a house ruining my viewshed,” he said. “Should I have been allowed to object to the Osmuns building on their lot? The view from my kitchen window is a lot different. It was prettier looking at woods than looking at their house.”

Van Cott said, “Having this built into the code would allow the planning board to protect the community from visual impacts. It doesn’t cause any harm and it’s something we kind of missed. You have people who bought property thinking [the slope] would never be developed.”

Mayor Clyde Rabideau said, “I’m going to fight you tooth and nail on this visual thing. We’ve given great latitude to every other homeowner to do it the way they wanted to. Paint their house any color they want to, build in any style they want to.”

Trustee Melinda Little said, “I’m with Paul,” but Trustee Patrick Murphy said he wasn’t for the visual impacts language. With two in favor and three against, the language asserting the importance of preserving the viewshed will not be included in the final draft.

Another point of contention was language about “clearing and grubbing” on the slopes. Shapiro said it could be construed to prevent him from cutting down a couple of trees in his yard. Van Cott said that developers will sometimes clear the trees and dig up all the stumps before getting a permit to build a house, and he wanted to prevent that.

Blaine said the village’s regulations cover that scenario.

“It’s already prohibited,” said Rabideau.

In the end the document was approved to go back to the Essex County development board for a final look-over. One change that everyone agreed on was that “artisanal studios,” such as a home pottery studio, are allowed on the steep slopes.