CAROLINE, N.Y.—Calvin Snow owns 175 acres of land in the town of Caroline, a rural community situated about 12 miles east of Ithaca. He has owned and operated Snofarms, a dairy wholesale business, since 1974. But the Snow family has lived and worked on their land since 1816 when his ancestors first settled in the hills around Caroline.
With a population of about 3,300 residents, Caroline has long been recognized by locals and visitors for its crystal clear natural waterways, vast pastoral scenes and fragrant fields of wildflowers. Concern for protecting the views and natural resources Caroline has to offer came to a head in the last couple of years, with talk of adopting zoning ordinances to ensure commercial developers steer clear.
Over the last decade, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County have both experienced a major development boom, with new businesses, retail and housing developments taking form. Local officials and some residents in the Town of Caroline have taken note of the upward trend in development interest nearby, thus sparking the call for the adoption of a zoning ordinance.
Zoning is commonly described by planning experts as a tool for local governments in cities, towns and villages to determine what their neighborhood looks like, who can develop and what they can develop.
One of the fundamental reasons to adopt zoning in any city, town or village in the county is to ensure local governments and residents have recourse of action if a business, corporation or an individual develops or uses land inappropriately. Conservation is also a main reason cited by pro-zoning proponents as well.
In short, if a corporation submits a bid to purchase and develop a property storage unit, for example, the Town Board would have no legal standing to deny them, even if the majority of the community agreed against construction.
Snow currently serves as a member of the Caroline Town Board and has struggled debating the issue of adopting zoning in the town. He told The Ithaca Voice that as he feels responsibility to the town, and the board, he also has a responsibility to his land and to his family. A lot has changed in Caroline since Snow started work in 1974.
“You’ve got different cultures within this town,” Snow said. “You’ve got the Cornell professional who wants a little more space and then you have us, who have been farmers for generations.”
Snow said sometimes, he feels like he is 200 years old. He said after a while, he has started to feel a connection to the land that is hard for him to explain, especially to someone unfamiliar with working and keeping land. He said his sons feel it too.
“We’ve got a lot of equity in our land,” Snow said. “It’s our savings account, if you will, to landowners.” To encounter additional restrictions of any kind that come with adopting a zoning ordinance has longtime community members and significant landowners like himself feeling “jilted.”
A concern among the Snow family, and in other generational landowners, is their ease and ability to pass their land to the next generation. If “something happens,” and Snow’s land needs to be subdivided amongst his children, he said he wants to do so on his own terms, as he and his family see fit.
Snow said he and other significant property owners in Caroline are not as concerned about commercial developers making bids to construct big-box stores on empty lots as members of the current Town Board are.
These concerns, among many others, have been in dispute since 2020, when residents and elected officials in the town of Caroline began discussing whether or not Caroline should adopt zoning ordinances.
In the summer months of 2021, when word spread the Town Board was discussing the issue of zoning during meetings, residents began showing up to voice their opinions and mostly, their concerns about unnecessary government overreach.
Mostly, residents who spoke early on in the process said they wanted more time to digest losing ultimate control of their property, like Snow, or, they wanted the subject to be dropped altogether, according to Town Board meeting minutes.
Since the start of the zoning adoption process nearly two years ago, residents who oppose zoning have organized in order to take tangible actions to make their voices heard.
Multiple Facebook groups named “Caroline Residents Against Zoning,” and “Caroline Hates Zoning,” have been created by residents to share news and discuss updates regarding the adoption of zoning ordinances. Hand-painted signs and posters have been placed all over town with sayings like “Grandma Hates Zoning” and “Keep Caroline’s Spirit Alive: Stop Zoning.”
For the most part, actions from residents who opposed zoning have been civil, except for an instance reported by The Ithaca Voice in November of 2022, when Zoning Commission chair Jean McPheeters received a death threat via email in January 2022, with a subject line that read: “Your life is in danger.”
The email contained a series of threatening insults and when asked by The Ithaca Voice about the message, McPheeters said she chose not to press charges after being informed the sender did not know their actions were illegal.
In May of 2023, a total of 74 residents against adopting zoning changed their political party affiliations before the February deadline from Republican or Independent, to Democrat, to enable them to vote in the Democratic primary on June 27. The Caroline Town Board is made up of four members, all currently registered Democrats. Three members are facing new challengers in the primary.
Using election data from the previous two Town Board primary elections in Caroline in 2021, The Ithaca Voice concluded that 74 votes could represent about 6-12% of the total number of votes cast this year—though the contentious nature of the primary could draw more people to the polls.
During a filmed anti-zoning organizing meeting held on Feb. 11, 2023, Peter Hoyt, a former town board member and town supervisor candidate, urged the audience to follow behind him and “a few others” in officially changing political party affiliation before the deadline on February 14.
“I ask those who haven’t done it to consider doing it very seriously,” Hoyt told the crowd in a video posted online and sent to The Ithaca Voice. “That’s the first place to draw the battle. It’s not the last place, but it’s the first.”
He gestured to a table situated off-camera and encouraged the audience to pick up cards to fill out to switch parties. He said he would be hand-delivering “whatever they got” to the Board of Elections the following Tuesday afternoon.
“It was to give ourselves a voice in the only political forum that matters, which is decisions made within the Democratic party,” Hoyt told The Ithaca Voice. “The ‘R’ next to your name alone is sufficient to deny you enough votes to ever win.”
Shortly after the meeting concluded, video recording of Hoyt’s call to action was made public on the Facebook group “Caroline Hates Zoning,” one of multiple private Facebook groups created by residents for the purpose of communicating and organizing against zoning.
It was viewed by leaders and members of the Tompkins County Democratic Committee (TCDC). In response, TCDC Chair Linda Hoffman requested the Tompkins County District Attorney, Matthew Van Houten, conduct an investigation into the legality of Hoyt’s actions via a letter, which she sent April 14. In her letter, she alleged Hoyt’s motives violated a New York State election law that makes “encouraging people to change parties in order to swing a primary” illegal.
Van Houten responded to Hoffman’s request in a letter dated May 9, and assured her Hoyt’s actions, while “morally questionable,” were not in violation of New York State election law.
The decision to switch their political party affiliation is a direct result of long-harbored frustration from years of near-total political exclusion, which came to a head when talk of adopting zoning began.
Historically, Caroline has voted solidly Republican, and the members of the Town Board reflected this. In the past, members of the Town Board were large landowners and farmers.
Over the last few decades, the composition of Caroline has changed, and rather than large landowners and farmers making up the majority of residents, newer residents are younger, and often commute to Ithaca for work, particularly at Cornell University.
Many residents who decided to switch their party affiliations did so in order to cast their vote for three candidates challenging the incumbents who have been pushing for the adoption of zoning.
The Democratic incumbents, Mark Witmer, who serves as Town Supervisor, and current council persons Tim Murray and Kate Kelley-Mackenzie, have been endorsed by the Caroline Democratic Committee and the Working Families Party. Murray has spent the last four years as Town Board Liaison to the Zoning Commission and is a vocal proponent of adopting a zoning ordinance as soon as possible.
Tonya Vancamp, a long-time registered Democrat and single mother, filed a designating petition in April to appear on the Democratic ballot to challenge incumbent town supervisor Witmer.
She told The Ithaca Voice that for a long time, the Democratic Committee of Caroline has “cherry picked” candidates to run for local office and “there has never been an opportunity for anybody outside their chosen candidates to even try to run.”
“They have never included us in their process,” VanCamp said. She said her and the two other candidates running in opposition to the incumbents, Kathy Mix and Megan Burke, have been trying to run a campaign that focuses on a wide range of issues, rather than simply zoning, but given the current landscape, that has been difficult. Burke has also been a visible leader of the anti-zoning movement, submitting a large petition against the effort earlier this year.
The Democratic primary on June 27 gives residents in Caroline an opportunity to decide for themselves who gets to represent their interests, and moreover, if this act of political rebellion against the established local government will be fruitful.
The Caroline Town Board began the process of researching and developing a zoning ordinance about two years ago in 2020, but the subject has been discussed in meetings and around town for many years.
New York State Law requires a municipality to create a Comprehensive Plan in order to begin the process of researching and developing a zoning ordinance. The state defines a Comprehensive Plan as a written and/or graphic that “establishes the official land use policy of a community,” as well as presents goals and a vision for the future, meant to guide decision making.
Caroline’s original Comprehensive Plan was first passed in 2006 and was revised by the Planning Board in 2013, with help from professional planners, according to the Town of Caroline website.
In 2021, the Town Board was tasked with creating a Zoning Commission, a group of volunteers and paid consultants, who were responsible for drafting zoning ordinances. The creation of the commission is a legal requirement in New York State. The newly selected Zoning Commission of the Town of Caroline met for the first time on April 13, 2021.
Since then, the commission, with help from a hired consultant Nan Stolzenburg, Principal Consulting Planner at Community Planning and Environmental Associates, has released two separate drafts of a zoning ordinance. When released, the drafts were met with strong opposition from those who own significant amounts of land and residents opposing zoning.
A commonly felt sentiment that the Zoning Commission did not properly engage the community early enough in the lengthy researching and drafting efforts exists widely in residents who oppose zoning.
But, according to Andrew Stone, current Planner 1 in Fairfax County’s Zoning Evaluation Division, that is partially the fault of New York State’s “relatively rigid” laws revolving around towns and villages seeking to adopt zoning ordinances.
Stone, who just recently earned his Masters in Regional Planning from Cornell University, wrote in his published research paper “To Zone or Not to Zone; Caroline and the Great Zoning Debate,” that the state requires the Town Board vote on the zoning law, rather than the public. So the option to allow residents to vote specifically whether or not they want to adopt zoning via townwide referendum is illegal, according to state law.
In addition, the feeling that the process, as a whole, has been unnecessarily rushed also contributes to the distaste that exists amongst anti-zoning residents.
Snow said he personally thinks it’s “just been too much, too fast.” He said his fellow members of the Town Board have expressed a great deal of anxiety about the possibility of commercial developers making bids to build on Caroline’s empty lots.
Snow said the developers and corporations that board members are concerned about choose to build in towns where municipal facilities are accessible, land is flat and the community is welcoming.
“I think they’re being excessively paranoid,” Snow said. “There’s no public water here. No public sewers and limited flat land.”
“The local community has made enough news and stink that I think they’ll leave the place alone for quite a few years,” Snow said.
Current Caroline Town Supervisor Mark Witmer told The Ithaca Voice he does not think the process has been pushed or rushed at all, and if anything, the Town Board has done a “remarkable” job attempting to gather insight and opinion from residents throughout the process.
The Town Board and Zoning Commission did hold several public hearings to answer questions and hear residents out over the last two years, and according to Stolzenburg, in her 30 years consulting towns about zoning, Caroline was the most inclusive.
A final draft from the Zoning Commission has not been released, and according to VanCamp, until it is, it makes having a conversation about specifics very difficult. VanCamp, like Snow, believes a pared down, “very basic” zoning ordinance would not be particularly harmful to residents, but as the current draft is written, is too complex with too many hoops to jump through, especially for small, local businesses.
“I don’t know what the final draft is going to look like,” VanCamp said. “But if you look at earlier drafts, some local businesses would be in compliance, but others would not.”
VanCamp said she knows current local businesses will be “grandfathered,” meaning the new zoning ordinance won’t apply to them, but she worries about new local businesses being able to open and grow the way existing businesses in Caroline have in the past.
“Organic and natural growth that’s happened with places like the Brookton’s Market, the library with the coffee roaster, the store ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and all these little businesses that have popped up, have been allowed to kind of evolve and grow naturally,” VanCamp said.
She said she is worried about a small business needing to expand their parking lot or the number of employees they hire, and how, as drafted, the proposed zoning ordinance would make expansion difficult due to how local businesses are defined.
In Stone’s research, he outlined results of a survey he created and distributed from July to October 2022, made up of a seven-questions and intended to gather information about the resident’s feelings toward zoning.
Flyers with QR codes for residents to scan were posted all over town and as a result, Stone concluded “zoning is not entirely to blame” for the current debate.
“The forces that have shaped the current debate about zoning in the Town of Caroline encompasses far more than issues of land regulation,” Stone wrote. “The situation in Caroline is the product of a combination of factors, the most prevalent of which being national politics, town politics and property rights.”
From this survey Stone was able to conclude that a “majority of respondents, 58.3%, expressed opposition to the adoption of zoning.”
Stolzenburg told The Ithaca Voice that most of the concrete concerns coming from residents during Town Board meetings and public hearings had little to do with particular parts of the zoning ordinance, which supports Stone’s thesis in his research.
She also said in her opinion, the draft she helped create is “very reasonable” and does not call for excessive overreach into the lives and property rights of residents in the town. She explained that zoning laws are meant to change with the community and she thinks it’s better for a community to decide what changes it wants to see—zoning is a tool to make that happen.
Caroline Town Board member and liaison of the Caroline Agriculture Advisory Committee Katherine Goldberg resigned from her role late May in a letter that was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by residents in Caroline. The full, unredacted contents of the letter were shared with the local publication Tompkins Weekly and subsequently published June 14, according to Tompkins Weekly.
Goldberg told The Ithaca Voice she did not give her permission for her resignation letter to be sent to the press or published in a newspaper. The residents who submitted a FOIA request to obtain the letter remain unknown to her.
“Unsurprisingly, this [FOIA request] is a perfect illustration of the tenor of the zoning debacle in Caroline and is illuminating itself,” Goldberg told The Ithaca Voice. “No nuance, no intellectual rigor. I had hoped for more from our community.”
In the letter, Goldberg wrote “it is hard to even articulate the complexity of what is going on in our town. But I know that my direct involvement with it has run its course.”
In the letter, she cited an “us versus them” narrative as reason for her resignation. Also, “the search for ‘gotcha!’ moments,” which according to Goldberg, have penetrated not only the zoning issue, but other facets of local government as well.
The letter also stated Goldberg would have voted “no” to the current zoning draft.
“It is simply too far away from something that I can comfortably put my name to,” she said. “I think that zooming out to consider what the threats are against which Caroline is aiming to protect itself, and determining whether or not the zoning law accomplishes this, is important.”
Goldberg wrote in the letter she can “no longer tolerate a narrative” where asking simple questions about the drafted document like if it supports the town’s goals, makes her a “supporter of the No-Zoning movement.”
Mark Witmer said if the incumbents lose their elections later this month, the three incumbents intend to run again in the Fall, and have no plans to discontinue their work to get the drafted zoning ordinance passed in the town.
“I firmly believe I am doing what I need to do as a town board member and as supervisor to promote the interests and welfare of the town going forward,” Witmer told The Ithaca Voice.
Caroline residents will decide which candidates earn a spot in the November elections when they vote in the Democratic primary on June 27. Early voting began June 17.
Clarification (June 22): Katherine Goldberg’s written comment in her resignation letter regarding her frustration toward the Zoning Commission was misinterpreted in the original version of this story. Rather, the sentiment was meant to be directed towards the general public.