CAROLINE, N.Y. — To zone, or not to zone? That is the question at the center of a sustained debate within the Town of Caroline. It’s a single issue that appears to be becoming the axis on which the town’s local politics spin.

For almost a year Caroline’s roadsides have been populated by white signs with bold red lettering painted onto them, with messages like “Zoning Kills Dreams,” or “No Zoning Needed,” and “There’s a war in the Valley, Time to pick a side.” But now this drive-by literature has competition. Recently, blue and green lawn signs have appeared, reading, “Support Responsible Zoning.”

Currently, almost anywhere among Caroline’s hills and valleys could become the site of developments ranging from a a strip mall to small condominium developments, a single family home, or a mom-and-pop business. The constraints on these developments come down to the limitations of heavy infrastructure, like water and sewer in Caroline, as well as the land use regulations that may exist in the county, or the state, such as a State Environmental Quality Review, for example. Currently, the town of Caroline has a moratorium on commercial development, but outside of that the latitude of what can be developed in the town of Caroline, and where, is wide.

The Zoning Commission is still in the midst of developing its final zoning proposal to pass onto the Town Board, which ultimately will vote on whether to adopt the law or not.

Much of the last year’s tumult around Caroline’s zoning law has centered on proposed zoning regulations that may no longer be relevant to the conversation come the end of the week. Jean McPheeters, the chair of the Zoning Commission, said the forthcoming draft has “changed substantially” from the last version, which was released in May 2022. 

“I’m trusting on the better nature of people that they will actually read this and determine for themselves what they think about it.” said McPheeters.

Since early 2022, the ad hoc group Caroline Residents Against Zoning have been trying to maintain the unzoned status quo in Caroline. Their arguments hinge on zoning’s history as a tool used to discriminate in larger cities; they argue that the cost of housing and construction will rise; and there is strong cultural component to their opposition too: a fear of losing freedom.

John Morse, a Caroline resident and business owner, and organizer with Caroline Residents Against Zoning, said, “It’s just somebody’s opinion on what should be on a piece of property that they don’t pay taxes on. To me that’s selfish.”

But on the other side of the fence is Caroline for Responsible Zoning. Mike Brown, a town resident who grew up in Caroline and is now an organizer for the responsible zoning group, said, “I just wish that folks would actually engage in a conversation instead of saying ‘no zoning.’ I think that Caroline is great, but also I think Caroline has gotten kind of lucky that outside pressures haven’t taken note and tried to alter it.”

A sign on a Caroline resident’s front lawn reads, “Support responsible zoning.” Credit: Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice

Among those opposed to zoning are certain farmers who are concerned their land will decrease in value if they have to follow more restrictive rules around subdivision. Members of the business community have also enjoyed little restrictions when it comes to matters such as putting an addition onto a workshop or their storefront, and have been able to grow their operations organically.

How these examples would be affected by the new zoning proposal is yet to be seen, but, Caroline’s anti-zoning group, by and large, just want to see the entire process thrown out. Caroline Residents Against Zoning have organized rallies outside of Caroline’s Town Hall which have often seen between a hundred and two hundred people in attendance. They’ve appeared at public meetings to voice their opposition to zoning, and the group has even run a parade of people riding horses from the Brooktondale Fire Hall to Caroline Town Hall to demonstrate their opposition. 

While Caroline Residents Against Zoning rallies have been peaceful, the conduct of a few individuals acting of their own accord have given cause for concern in the Caroline community.  Notably, a death threat was made against McPheeters in January due to her work on the Zoning Commission. The threat came in the form of an email, reviewed by The Ithaca Voice, from someone with an emphatic opposition to zoning. The subject line read, “Your life is in danger.” The message contained a series of threatening and inflammatory insults.

McPheeters did not want to specify who made the threat, and said she chose not to press charges against the individual after being informed that they didn’t know the threat they made was illegal.

In the past, some Caroline residents who are opposed to zoning have raised concerns that the Town Board may try to ram through zoning laws regardless of whether it has the town’s support or not. 

McPheeters recounted receiving an email from someone who is opposed to zoning in the Town of Caroline — someone she stressed she’s communicated with extensively about the work of the Zoning Commission — who wrote to her that they had become suspicious McPheeters was taking money under the table from current and past members of Caroline’s Town Board in exchange for her work as chair of the Zoning Commission. 

“Accusing me of taking bribes? I mean, that’s just ridiculous,” said McPheeters. She added, “That’s questioning my integrity, and I find it offensive.”

While some on the side of responsible zoning feel that the conduct of the conversation has not been respectful, those opposed to zoning claim they only want to demand more engagement from their elected officials. Caroline Residents Against Zoning organized a rally outside of the Caroline Town Hall on Wednesday to align with a scheduled board meeting. The meeting was canceled though.

Whether it was canceled or not because the Town Board had caught wind of the rally, it doesn’t seem to matter to how anti-zoners interpreted it. For the planned speakers, which included Morse, the Town Board was not meeting their messages with good faith.

How big is the split?

While the anti-zoning signs in Caroline outstrip the responsible zoning signs by far, it is difficult to come to a definitive conclusion on what the support is for and against zoning.

Caroline Residents Against Zoning has also been requesting signatures from town residents and people who own property in Caroline who are opposed to zoning. They claim to have about 1,200 putting their names behind the opposition. Caroline has a population of about 3,300.

While they point to this as evidence that the majority of the town is opposed to zoning, Brown cites the past elections to Caroline’s Town Board as evidence that the town supports zoning as a planning and land use strategy. 

“There have been multiple elections on this that have been overwhelmingly won by candidates who have supported these topics or these issues. So I would say that is really the only data that we have on this,” said Brown.

The Town Board’s lean towards zoning is apparent for Caroline Residents Against Zoning as well. Several members of the board are up for reelection in Nov. 2023, and it is abundantly clear that opponents of zoning will work to elect candidates to Caroline’s Town Board in order to prevent zoning from coming into place, or overturn it if it’s passed before Nov. 2023. 

Speaking to a Caroline Residents Against Zoning rally outside Town Hall on Wednesday, Morse said, “We haven’t heard good arguments for zoning. So if somebody wants to get reelected, they’re going to have to come up with something good. And they haven’t done so so far.” 

“Zoning Kills Dreams” reads a sign on the side of Rt. 79 in Caroline. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

On the other hand, the Zoning Commission and the Town Board, and proponents of Responsible zoning in Caroline would like Caroline Residents Against Zoning to provide input on the zoning law, and discuss how such a law can benefit them. 

“I question what the heck is responsible zoning? Because in a rural environment, we’re not doing zoning to dictate the structure of a city,” said Morse. He added, “We’re not putting in more infrastructure here.”

Recently Caroline Residents Against Zoning welcomed an outside expert voice to their opposition, Nolan Gray, a Ph.D. candidate at University of California, Los Angeles and a professional city planner turned research director for California YIMBY. Gray has a new book fresh from the printer titled, “Arbitrary Lines: Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It.” 

Gray stopped in Caroline for a three day whirlwind tour which he claims to have paid for “on my own dime,” starting on Nov. 7 with a community conversation and ending with a rally outside of Caroline’s Town Hall on Nov. 9. A documentary crew and a journalist working with, but maintaining editorial independence of Gray, came with him, working to capture the debate within Caroline around zoning.

The flaws of zoning have come under increased scrutiny throughout recent decades for issues related to racial and economic segregation, suppressing the development of housing as populations swell in some areas, and deepening the dependence of American suburbs on the car by distancing commercial and business areas from the sprawling communities — just to name a few of the criticisms of zoning gaining popular appeal across the country. And many of these positions have become those of Caroline Residents Against Zoning. Still, Gray’s full-bore opposition to zoning is an iconoclastic position in the world of city planning. 

It would seem the town of Caroline fit that position like a hand in a glove — except for the fact that Caroline is a rural town in Upstate New York with a population of about 3,300, and the majority of Gray’s work focuses on cities, as the title of his book would suggest.

Gray does acknowledge this difference though, saying, “I think what zoning is trying to do in these two contexts is actually much more similar than we would normally think. It’s essentially trying to impose one vision of what the community should look like in the law, and saying, with incredible detail what’s going to be allowed everywhere and at what scale.”

He suggested that Caroline could accomplish what it wanted to through adopting various ordinances, rather than a zoning law, and that proponents of zoning should stop focusing on “boogeymen,” like strip malls or overdevelopment coming to the valley — a very real fear for proponents of responsible zoning. 

However, Gray’s visit to Caroline seems to have only deepened the divide between Caroline Resident’s Against Zoning and Caroline for Responsible Zoning. His community conversation in Caroline included a presentation that cited examples of how an old, outdated draft zoning law would impact the town, which Brown and members of the Zoning Commission picked up on. 

“It was like, okay, this guy hasn’t really read the law closely but he’s trying to speak authoritatively about it,” said Brown. 

All of the town board members were invited to meet with Gray by Caroline Residents Against Zoning, though only two attended. Town Supervisor Mark Witmer was out of state at the time, and Caroline Residents Against Zoning said the other two members claimed that they were too busy to. Many members of the anti-zoning group have expressed their doubt that this was true. 

The painful part of this for many residents in Caroline, including Sarah Michelle who supports responsible zoning, is that it seems like everyone wants the same thing. “I really believe that nearly everybody in the town of Caroline wants the exact same thing. I think we love it here,” said Michelle. She said that she wouldn’t support an overly burdensome zoning code, but zoning is something she sees as being able to protect the town going forward from irresponsible development, and preserve the rural character that many in Caroline seem to value. 

But if the agricultural community is opposed to zoning, and the potential hurdles it may bring to selling off land, then it’s a closed case for Morse. 

“Who’s created the rural character in Caroline? It’s not the guy sitting behind the computer in his house, chirping about the zoning codes that they need to maintain the rural character,” he said. “It’s the farmer that’s working the fields that’s created the rural character we have here.”

A lot of these answers may appear in the soon to be released zoning draft, or in next year’s elections if the town board doesn’t pass the zoning law before then.

Corrections: This story originally reported that several members of the Caroline Town Board were too busy to attend the community conversation hosted by Nolan Gray in the Town of Gray. All five members were invited, and two attended.

The third paragraph of this story was changed after publication in order to better convey the constraints around certain types of development in Caroline, as well as more realistic examples of the type of development that may come to Caroline.

Clarification: The documentary crew and journalist that followed Nolan Gray to Caroline originally were not specified as being editorially independent from him.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn