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I have to admit I didn't really understand the zoning when I bought my house.  I knew I was in a 'Rural Agricultural' (RA) zone, so I figured the worst that could happen was that I'd smell manure a few times a year when farmers were fertilizing their fields, or I'd get stuck behind a tractor on Route 34 from time to time.  Those both turned out to be true, but I was never irritated about it because I thought I knew what I was getting into.  The zone was called 'Rural Agricultural'.

So farms, smells, tractors... nothing that could impact my quality of life given I already knew these things were here before my house was or before I was born, actually.  Heck, my road is named for a farmer.  I thought I understood.  But, as was clear at Monday evening's Planning Board meeting, I certainly didn't understand what was allowed in the RA zone.  And clearly my neighbors to the northwest didn't either.  They are quite upset about a proposed Bed & Breakfast/Event venue that is, as it turns out, an 'allowed use' in RA zones.

One of the speakers at Monday's public hearing said she felt badly for the couple who wants to develop the property and for the existing neighbors who see the transformation as a threat to the enjoyment of their rural way of life, not to mention flooding, traffic, and property values.  I'm with her on this -- I can see both sides.

On the one hand we have a nice couple who purchased the property, they have said, with the idea that monetizing it could help them preserve the historic buildings for their own and their neighbors' enjoyment.  They saw the zoning allowed the project they had in mind, and probably were abashed by the fierce push-back in an area of Lansing they must have felt this sort of activity would be least disturbing in.  Events out in the country would surely be less disruptive than in a residential zone.

On the other hand we have folks who have lived out in the country, in some cases, for generations, who say  that light and noise from evening events will disrupt their evenings, that a parking lot (cue Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow taxi'!) will be a blot on the rural canvas, and that disruptions to the land will make their properties that have already seen their share of flooding, receive even more floodwater.

The good news is that the town Planning Board is currently immersed in a comprehensive review of the zoning ordinance, with an eye toward tightening it up and making it make more sense for present-day Lansing.  These neighbors were not happy when they realized that even when the law is changed it can't be retroactive.  At present all the Planning Board can do is strictly follow the law as it currently stands.  That is a 2003 ordinance that was last amended in 2015.

So what is allowed in RA?  One and two family dwellings, apartments and condominiums, seasonal cabins and cottages, government buildings and schools, playgrounds and parks, public and private clubs, public orr private sportsman's clubs with shooting, cemeteries, commercial plant nurseries and roadside stands, bed & breakfasts, nursing homes, funeral homes, residential businesses, kennels, veterinary hospitals, commercial recreation facilities, banks, specialty retail sales such as crafts or antiques, retail sales such as groceries, hardware, or garden supply, lumber sales, agricultural and marine equipment sales, restaurants and taverns, banquet halls and reception venues, barber and beauty shops, mini-marts, self-storage facilities, auto shops, laundries, sexually oriented businesses (you need a special use permit for that one), warehouses, printing and publishing businesses, truck terminals, research labs, and, of course, uses related to agriculture and farming. That's just some of the allowed uses in RA.

In other words, pretty much anything you can imagine. A lot of those require special permits and/or that conditions be attached, but they are allowed.  Which is why, even though the couple who wants to open the Bed & Breakfast and events facility will, no doubt, continue to suffer the gauntlet of contentious and unfriendly meetings, they will almost certainly be able to do some version of what they have proposed.

RA is currently the least regulated zone classification.  That seems poised to change with the serious consideration of replacing much of what is currently RA with a new AG designation that appears as if it will be designed to be more agriculture-specific than the current RA zoning is.  The AG district may end up covering almost all of the northern half of Lansing.  But it doesn't do the neighbors any good right now. Because it doesn't exist yet.

So they are challenging definitions in town law that are subject to interpretation, admonishing the Planning Board to listen to them, and doing whatever they deem necessary to protect their homes.  Perhaps projects like these are unintended consequences of well-meaning zoning.  And perhaps the zoning is a loose as it is because of Lansing's history.  Remember, the Village of Lansing -- threatened by sprawl, and the mall, and the pall of urban crawl -- split off from the Town in 1974, a time when the Town Board was dead set against zoning.

You want to think this is just a sloppy law with a lot of cracks for citizens to fall through, but that is probably an unfair characterization.  No doubt is is a fair reflection of what 2003 Lansing wanted the Town to look like.  The fact is, no law is water-tight.  They are all open to interpretation.  That's why lawyers were invented.

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