CAROLINE, N.Y.—Vocally anti-zoning Caroline residents have sent another salvo towards the town’s leadership, submitting a petition with 1,228 signatures rejecting the draft zoning proposal that the town is currently mulling.

Those submitting the petition, which can be read at the bottom of this article and was led by John Morse and Megan Burke, have claimed that the petition is the largest in terms of physical signatures of residents and taxpayers in Caroline’s history. The 1,228 people who signed the petition since the group started collecting signatures 14 months ago would represent about 38 percent of the total population in the town, though not all of them are residents (some are Caroline property owners who don’t live in the town but pay taxes on their properties there).

To zone or not to zone is the question in Caroline. A seemingly mundane debate has turned into a contentious battle between a duly elected Town Board and a significant contingent of its constituents that has raged for over a year. The town’s leadership has proposed implementing rather modest zoning policies for the first time in the municipality’s history, arguing that such a move is necessary to keep Caroline as it currently is, especially with nearby cities like Ithaca growing in population and cost of living, theoretically making Caroline an attractive place for large development.

But a multitude of residents have come out strongly opposed to the measure, flooding public comments at meetings of the Town Board and Zoning Commission (the five-person body tasked with creating the town’s zoning policies), using zoning’s discriminatory history and arguments about preserving land freedom as their primary weapons—along with a dose of dramatic war-time rhetoric on roadside signs like “There’s a battle in the valley, it’s time to pick sides.”

The submitted petition itself calls for a 24-month delay in the zoning process, tabling the law until “residents have had a fair opportunity to be educated on and to openly debate the need for zoning and if needed, debate the details within any proposed law.”

“This will encompass an education period for town residents, a debate period on the need for zoning in Caroline and a debate period to address all details within a proposed zoning law and request and make adjustments per suggestions from the community residents and businesses,” it states.

The petition calls for a referendum on the proposed zoning before it is enacted. At first glance, that seems like a fairly logical solution, but New York State law prohibits a referendum on zoning changes because there isn’t explicit language in the state’s statute about zoning referendums. If there isn’t language explicitly allowing a zoning introduction to go to a referendum, it cannot, according to New York’s Department of State.

The petition makes further points about the ability of certain residents to participate in the debate, citing the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on in-person meetings and Caroline’s well-documented struggles with broadband internet, making it more cumbersome to watch proceedings conducted via Zoom. It also argues that any in-person meetings should not have a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to attend.

Last week’s Caroline Town Board meeting. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

“Many of the residents of the Town of Caroline have lived here for generations, and chose to live here to have freedom of choice with their property and land,” the petition reads. “Zoning potentially deprives land owners of the full value of their interest in their land. No commission or board has the right to enact such changes without ample and meaningful input from the residents and taxpayers in the entire town.”

In fairness, Caroline residents have had plenty of opportunity to publicly comment on the proposal, though their frustration seems to lie more in that they don’t feel their comments are being given due attention. Feedback is being considered on an ongoing basis, and a revised version of the proposal was put forth by the Zoning Commission in January, though that did not assuage the anti-zoning crowd.

The crowd applauds comments against zoning at last week’s Caroline Town Board meeting. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The petition comes at a crucial point in the process. Town Supervisor Mark Witmer said that the Zoning Commission is likely nearing its final zoning proposal submission to the board, at which point the commission will dissolve and the town board will begin to discuss the proposal in earnest.

In an interview, Witmer said he was not prepared to give a response to the petition and that he was still organizing his thoughts. He said he would speak about it during the next Town Board meeting, scheduled for April 19.

“I’m not prepared to respond at this point, it’s premature,” Witmer said. “There are certainly some people that are steadfastly against zoning, I don’t deny that. I’ve heard it. But one step at a time, we’re trying to make the best path forward for the town in our view.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Editor in Chief at The Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.org.