New development in Glenville could get off the ground faster under a proposed change to the town’s environmental and zoning codes.
Town officials are looking to streamline the planning and zoning process by eliminating a layer of environmental review for some projects. Under the proposal, the town’s Environmental Conservation Commission would have more time to take on special environmental-related projects and brainstorm ways to make town operations more environmentally friendly, said town Supervisor Chris Koetzle.
“We have been thinking about this over the past year or so,” he said. “We’ve always been trying to figure out ways to make our system more efficient for developers without compromising the integrity of our review process.”
Currently, the Environmental Conservation Commission provides the initial review of most planning and zoning applications submitted to the town and then makes a recommendation to the Planning and Zoning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and Town Board on whether an application would have a significant effect on the environment. This review has always been voluntary and is not mandated by the State Environmental Quality Review Act, an environmental review process triggered whenever a state or local agency is faced with a decision to approve, fund or undertake an action that could have an effect on the environment.
But unlike similar commissions in other municipalities, the Environmental Conservation Commission reviews even those applications that have been classified as having no or little impact on the environment. These are the projects the town is proposing to cut out of the commission’s review process. Koetzle said only about 5 percent to 10 percent of applications the town receives are categorized as SEQR Type I actions, actions more likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment. All other applications reviewed by the commission typically receive a “no significant environmental impact” recommendation, he said.
This review of every application eats time. The town’s approval process currently starts with the Environmental Conservation Commission, which meets on the fourth Monday of each month. Once the GECC reviews an application, it usually goes next to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which meets two weeks later, on the second Monday of the month.
“So if we were to eliminate the need for the GECC to review 90 to 95 percent of all planning/zoning applications, you could shorten the time frame for the majority of applications by two weeks, at a minimum,” wrote Koetzle in a memo to the Town Board. “Yet the PZC, ZBA and Town Board would still benefit from the GECC’s input on those larger applications that could have significant environmental impacts.”
The proposed change is no surprise. Glenville has worked in recent years to promote itself as pro-business. The town scored a huge win in this department last month when CTDI announced it would build a 130,000-square-foot facility in the Glenville Business and Technology Park that would house a testing, repair and logistics operations center for the global company’s Northeast customers. Galesi Group, the Rotterdam developer that owns the park, commended the town for its 28-day approval process — a record low for the town.
The Environmental Conservation Commission was established in 1971, when America’s environmental movement was picking up steam. Other local conservation commissions were created in that decade, as well, but each set up their own bylaws, with no two operating alike, said Mary Werner, past chair of the Schenectady County Environmental Advisory Council and current chair of the council’s energy committee.
“Legislation doesn’t require these bodies,” she said. “We mostly try to keep a pulse on what the environmental issues or problems could be in our municipality.”
Glenville Town Planner Kevin Corcoran said town officials studied the conservation commissions in the nearby towns of Princetown, Rotterdam, Niskayuna, Clifton Park, Guilderland, Colonie and Bethlehem when crafting the proposed change. Many of those towns have environmental advisory bodies that only review SEQR Type I actions, as well. Some nearby towns don’t have any such commission.
If the Environmental Conservation Commission were to stop reviewing 90 percent of project applications, it would have more time to work on big-picture tasks, said Koetzle, like inventorying the town’s open space and natural resources or developing draft regulations on solar energy production or wind energy generation. The town is currently trying to reduce its energy consumption by 15 percent and find new ways to encourage renewable energy usage.
“These are all things the commission could help with,” he said. “They could help rewrite our zoning laws to allow for more solar siting on homes and businesses or help us come up with a green purchase policy where we consider buying greener paper or other things that are cost-effective but have a lesser impact on the environment.”
The town is also considering several changes to its zoning ordinance that could reduce the review time for certain projects from three months or more to practically no time at all.
The town’s zoning ordinance currently requires nearly all commercial and industrial proposals be subject to site plan review or a conditional use permit, which requires oversight by the Environmental Conservation Commission, Planning and Zoning Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals. The town wants to assign an “as-of-right” status to “relatively benign” commercial uses in various zoning districts, including day-care centers, bed and breakfasts, private clubs or retail uses less than a certain building size.
An as-of-right status means a project can happen with the simple issuance of a building permit or certificate of occupancy. This still requires projects to comply with certain standards of the town zoning ordinance, like setback rules and minimum landscaping standards.
The Town Board will discuss these changes at a public work session today at 7:30 p.m. at the Glenville Municipal Center. The soonest the proposals would go to a vote by the Town Board would be in March, Koetzle said.