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Wheatfield considers law for greener subdivisions

WHEATFIELD – For a quarter of a century, the Town of Wheatfield has been one of the area’s fastest-growing towns, with residential subdivisions going up left and right.

Between 1990 and 2010, the town’s population grew by 63 percent, to more than 18,000, and the number of housing units increased by 79 percent, to more than 7,600. And the growth has continued since the 2010 census.

But there’s still plenty of undeveloped land in the town, and the town is now trying to protect some of it while still allowing for development.

The Town Board last week called a public hearing for 7 p.m. April 18 on a new law governing cluster developments, also to be called “conservation subdivisions.”

In a nutshell, the law embodies a design principle that calls for smaller home lots without increasing the number of homes allowed, and greater protection of noteworthy natural features on a parcel of land.

“In theory, it can lead to a better subdivision for all people, not just those in the subdivision,” Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said.

The proposed law replaces the town’s existing cluster law. The new plans resulted from a three-year study by the town’s Greenspace Focus Group.

Its chairman, Justin Higner, said the effort grew out of the revision of the town’s comprehensive plan in 2013. The “conservation subdivision” law “requires the developer to account for more detail on the grounds.”

In a typical subdivision, the developer generally is able to bulldoze anything and everything. But if he chooses a cluster plan – or if the town uses the power it would now have to order one – things would be different.

“Before you start looking at a piece of land, the Planning Board will look at the land to see if there’s anything worth saving: old trees, stone ledges, creeks,” Cliffe said. “You’re conserving aspects of the property that look good to them.”

The Planning Board could ask the Greenspace Focus Group for its opinion, too.

“Most of the northern portion of the town is very much undeveloped,” said Andrew C. Reilly of the Wendel engineering firm, who worked on the new law with the Greenspace Focus Group.

What’s in it for the developer?

“The developer gets smaller lots, he does less infrastructure, and the town gets to preserve green space,” Reilly said.

“The roads are much shorter. The cost of the infrastructure is much less,” Cliffe said.

For example, in a rural residential zone, Wheatfield’s zoning code requires a home lot to cover about one-half acre. In other words, a developer could build 200 houses on 100 acres.

With a “conservation subdivision,” smaller lots would be allowed in order to preserve what’s worth preserving, and perhaps give the lie to the old joke that says subdivisions tend to be named after what’s not there anymore.

“They could preserve beautiful things and still build the number of houses they would have in the original subdivision,” said Walter D. Garrow, Planning Board chairman.

Reilly said the state enabling law on cluster developments allows a town to reduce lot sizes, but bars an increase in density. In the 100-acre example, the developer would not be allowed to build 400 homes instead of 200 if the town were to cut the minimum lot size to a quarter-acre.

Reilly said the law does not establish a developer’s right to use the cluster format. The Town Board would have to approve all of them.

Cliffe said the town’s experience with cluster developments has been limited. A couple of years ago in the Wheatfield Lakes patio home subdivision off Sy Road, the town had to require the developer to give up some of the existing green space so the residents could have backyards, thus reducing the number of homes that could be built later.

“They didn’t have enough space behind their houses to put a deck or a swimming pool,” Cliffe said.