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As CNY prepares for Micron, one nonprofit says local zoning laws are thwarting housing development

Ellen Abbott
WRVO (file photo)

Housing has become a focal point in Onondaga County as the Micron project expects to bring 124,000 new residents to the area. But local zoning laws are getting in the way of some housing projects.

A deep dive into zoning regulations by CNY Fair Housing, shows that outside of the city of Syracuse, there’s only 1% of developable land open to projects without going through the zoning process.

Sally Santangelo, executive director of CNY Fair Housing, said that the zoning process often scuttles development dead in its tracks.

“Those projects become a focal point for neighborhood opposition," Santangelo said. "And oftentimes those projects get stopped in the face of that opposition. Or if the projects do go forward, those projects end up being scaled down ."

She says it’s already happened. The Town of Cicero earlier this year, derailed a project that would have created 278 housing units.

"15 homeowners from a nearby neighborhood spoke out in opposition and that project stopped moving forward," Santangelo said. "So we lost housing for 400, 500 people because 15 people were opposed to it."

Zoning is historically one reason for suburban sprawl in central New York. The CNY Fair Housing map shows 75% of developable land favoring construction of single-family homes in Onondaga County, a quarter of them requiring lot sizes of an acre.

More affordable housing including apartments and townhouses are clustered in the city of Syracuse and villages. Opposition generally centers on concerns about dropping property values, a rise in crime, and the big one, an increase in traffic. Santangelo said ironically, the traffic issue doesn’t go away when development is pushed into nearby counties.

"We’re seeing it in Phoenix and Schroeppel and areas outside of Clay, but that traffic is still coming back through the towns of Cicero and Clay," she said. "You see it in Fayetteville, with properties in Manlius. People moving to Cazenovia, but these people are still coming through. So these communities are still experiencing the traffic, but now they’ve lost the tax revenue."

And while Santangelo admits there are some projects moving forward, at the former Shoppingtown and Great Northern malls, and at Three Rivers in the town of Clay, these big projects move slowly.

"I don’t think that we can meet demand for housing with a project-by-project approach," she said. "I think we need to reduce regulatory barriers to development at a smaller scale."

Going forward, Santangelo says her organization will present its analysis to any community that wants to hear it, with the potential of modernizing zoning codes.

“To allow for a greater variety of housing development that will help reduce, make it easier to build a more affordable type of housing we need," she said. "Because we are going to see prices continue to increase with Micron and the demand brought by Micron."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.