CAROLINE, N.Y.—The tense tug-of-war between Caroline residents and its government has continued unabated for months, with a well-attended public hearing last week providing plenty more examples of the mounting antagonism over the town’s first proposed zoning laws.
By now, most everyone has seen the stark red signs, penned by hardline anti-zoners, that line Route 79 inside Caroline insisting that the introduction of zoning will only serve to stoke anger among residents, kill dreams, and everything in between. The anger began over a year ago and has remained the most hot-button issue in a town that is usually without headline-grabbing government action.
The crowd on Feb. 28, gathered at the Brooktondale Fire Station, began at about 50 and probably grew another 20 or so as the night went on. About half of the attendees spoke, some of them multiple times, with the vast majority opposing the zoning proposal. Many reiterated their prior objections, arguing that the draft report released at the end of January 2023 is still harmful, though it was revised from previous versions.
There wasn’t much discussion, per se, as Zoning Commission members did not respond to speakers during the public hearing (as is legally customary in such proceedings), though members have previously expressed exasperation at the growing rhetoric and influence of Caroline Residents Against Zoning (CRAZ). Zoning Commission members, who were tasked with developing zoning guidelines at the direction of the Town Board, have argued that CRAZ members have dismissed even the possibility of zoning right off the bat—rallying anger and fearmongering about its impacts without actually reading the proposed rules that would be implemented.
But the critiques came from a variety of angles last week, from those arguing over freedom-based principles, others reiterating previous arguments that zoning is used as a cudgel for classism to separate or keep out lower-income people entirely, and several insisting that their properties would lose substantial value as a result of overreaching overlay districts, nominally aimed at flood-prone areas.
“I’m kind of thinking that maybe you overshot, a little bit,” said Pam Austin, an opponent of the zoning. She additionally said that if the zoning results in higher taxes, she forewarned that she believes it will negatively impact her ability, or willingness, to offer housing to Section 8 recipients—one of a fairly small number of landlords in the county who do. “We’re not understanding that. I have multiple properties, and I worry about what this is going to do to affect my capability to offer lower income housing.”
“You want rural character?” added Holly McGee, another of the anti-zoning speakers, gesturing to the crowd. “You’re looking at it.”
McGee said she believes the zoning effort is designed to “push the rednecks out of town,” a popular sentiment throughout the night which drew vocal agreement from the crowd.
Both McGee and Austin touched upon an undercurrent of the meeting, and the debate overall: that the Zoning Commission members are “elitists” who want to exclude working class people from creeping closer to them. She did that by demanding to know why West Slaterville Road would no longer be a primary commercial hub in the town for future development, hinting that the commission wanted to keep that area free of such development for personal reasons.
Developer Bruno Schickel, another zoning opponent, made several statements but echoed this point, wondering aloud why the Besemer hamlet within the town, as outlined by the zoning, is significantly larger than the other four hamlets, all of which are havens from the agriculture zoning designations that dominate the vast majority of the town in the zoning proposal. Schickel was coming from a similar vantage point as Austin—that ulterior, personal motives were behind the zoning. He did not, however, offer any concrete evidence that any commission member actually lives within the Besemer hamlet and would subsequently benefit from the zoning proposed there.
“Take the time to read about [zoning’s] historical background and how it has discriminated against impoverished people since its inception,” added John Morse during his impassioned comments. Morse has long been a leader of sorts among the cadre of anti-zoning voices, and the angle that zoning, if used inappropriately, could become a tool to repel low-income housing was a common one throughout the night. He stated, as others did, “Despite being intellectuals, [Caroline Town Board and Zoning Commission officials] seem to lack the sensitivity or caring to appreciate or understand disadvantaged residents.”
Farmer John Snow also voiced his opposition, stating that the most beneficial thing the commission could do for farmers and agricultural in general, in his opinion, is to “stop talking about zoning.”
Despite the seriousness of most of the discussion, there was room for some levity. A messily written name led commission member Barbara Knuth to call for “David Bowie” to come to the podium several times for his comments on Caroline’s zoning proposal, despite acknowledging the unlikelihood the late Bowie was in attendance. Neither Bowie nor anyone else took the opportunity to speak.
Pam Austin’s husband, Dwayne, raised the possibility of a referendum, which does seem like the most logical resolution, but state law does not allow zoning referendums. Austin held his own impromptu referendum among the crowd at the fire station—perhaps predictably, “no zoning” was the overwhelming winner of his call for a raised-hands vote. This illustrated that while it’s impossible to extrapolate an actual opinion poll from 50 people in a room from a town of 3,200, one side, which has long been more vocal, was certainly more heavily represented at the Brooktondale Fire Station last week.
Among those who trekked to the microphone, only four were in favor of the zoning proposal. That included Susan Hollands, the executive director of Historic Ithaca, who based her support on the merits of preservation of the town’s current character and that “fair, responsible zoning” (which has been the go-to slogan for supporters) would help repel outside entities that may look to take advantage of Caroline’s relatively untouched territory compared to other nearby municipalities. Zoning can work for everyone, she said, if designed and administered fairly.
“Fear is a terrible master […] All the brouhaha over the zoning is casting a smokescreen that obscures all the great things that are volunteers and town board are accomplishing through hard work and cooperation,” said Mary Alice Kobler, another supporter of zoning, during her comments. “I really want to keep buying my eggs and produce from roadside farm stands, and I am sure that this is not threatened by zoning. I can still paint my house fuchsia with lime green stripes if I want, and you can too. Our proposed zoning law is not like home owners association laws. Those who tell you that this change in governance is the death knell for these businesses and the future of growing small businesses or our current way of life are simply wrong.”
“There isn’t enough sand to sink our heads into to pretend things are not changing,” Kobler continued, advocating for “limited, fair, responsible zoning.” “The next 100 years are not going to look like the last 100 years. Zoning will give us a chance to fight off extractive industry and those who want to capitalize on our town.”
That last point was only lightly referenced, since there were so few voices from that side in attendance, but it seems to be the linchpin for the pro-zoning advocates. Obviously, it’s another point of disagreement for anti-zoners, who did touch upon it throughout the night, arguing that the town can deal with those issues on a case-by-case basis, and that the overall population and infrastructure make a large store or development—like WalMart, as one example, which both sides seem to agree they don’t want in Caroline—so financially infeasible that it wouldn’t happen anyway. Zoning is a cure for a barely existent threat, in the eyes of the anti-zoners.
Retired dairy farmer Matt Mix, for one, said he understands the impetus behind a zoning effort, but that seeing it through would be a negative for the community. From a personal standpoint, he said, after working on his farm for decades and now owning the land, he wants to be able to do with it what he pleases—like others, he said the laws would prevent him from making much profit off of a sale of his property.
“It’s silly to try to stop the devil,” Mix said, referring to whatever impending development may enter the town. Mix said it’s smart for the town to try to control that development, but not with such far-reaching means as introducing zoning for the first time. “We’ve got a lot bigger issues than zoning.”
Mix also noted his support for civil disobedience, saying he would “civil disobedient anyone who doesn’t like my attitude” from his front porch, should the law pass.
Though scheduled to last until 9 p.m. at the latest, the commission members concluded the meeting slightly early with about 30 minutes remaining, over a few objections from the crowd though everyone was given at least two opportunities to speak. Some brief but cordial conversation occurred between attendees and commission members after the meeting but any further contention was muted.
The commission will meet again in March to discuss the feedback and decide whether any of it merits further changes to the zoning proposal or the report the commission has formulated for the Town Board. At some point in the coming weeks, the Town Board will undertake the matter, and the zoning commission will dissolve. An overview of the saga is also available here, at the town’s Zoning Commission webpage.