Density and Taxes

The good news is that the Town Board of Pawling have heard the community and extended the period for public engagement in the town’s comprehensive planning process. The bad news is that the mail delivered the school tax bill. This year’s bill is 5.35% above last year’s and last year was 1.66% above the 2009 figure. No doubt many of us will have different levels of increase depending upon what has happened to the estimate of our property’s full market value, STAR savings and so on. However, the direction of market value has been down and that of taxes up.

What has planning to do with taxes?

The comprehensive plan is the blueprint for what the community will look like in the next couple of decades. It is a policy document and organic in nature but it sets out some guidelines and deals with, amongst other things, land use. School and local government taxes are generated by means of a levy upon property values. The more one’s property is worth the more taxation it will stand, at least that’s the underlying principle. Land value is a function of use and use is a function of zoning. All other things being equal (and they rarely are) land zoned for, say, retail purposes is more valuable that that zoned for, say, some types of residential use. Many, many other factors come into play including size of community, density of population, availability of utilities, size of the buildings on the property and, of vital importance, the general economic climate.

So, on the face of it, a community with more land zoned for commercial, more valuable purposes would be better off from a taxation standpoint than one with a predominance of land zoned for less valuable purposes. So far so good; however, it is not that simple. There are historic patterns of land use that have to be considered. Once land has been zoned for a particular purpose and developed in accordance with that zoning, a change to a more valuable use may not help much in the near term. Equally, and of great importance is the existing relationship between all the different land uses. It will readily be appreciated that an intensively developed community, a city for example, will offer one type of lifestyle whilst a less developed community, like Pawling, offers another type of lifestyle.

The challenge that we face in Pawling is that we have a very small percentage of our land allocated to commercial uses. It is not simply a matter of zoning more land for such purposes since that could materially affect the quality of life that we all moved here to enjoy. It also requires that there be additional land that could be allocated to commercial uses and, that again, is problematic because the land has to be physically and economically capable of being developed for those commercial uses. There needs to be suitable pedestrian and vehicular access, water, sewer, visibility and, by no means least of all, demand for the space to be created in accordance with the zoning and other regulations. Unless there is unlimited land available and one has the longest of time frames in mind, there is no point in zoning something for a particular use unless, first, there is a plan to provide access, sewer etc., and, second, there is likely to be a demand in the near to medium term for that particular use.

The comprehensive planning process has to wrestle with all these challenges and wrestle it must.

The mantra of the last three or four decades has been that growth is good and that has meant that planning, in some instances, has been driven by the desire to generate economic growth. This has its implications since it means that other factors, such as the environment, broadly defined, are much lower down on the scale of importance. Clearly human needs have to be met but the environment, in all its aspects, must be protected and there is a growing global awareness of this.

How are we going to deal with this locally?

Clearly taxes cannot continue to rise at a rate greater than residents’ ability to afford them. We also have a limited stock of additional land that can be usefully developed for commercial purposes. One obvious answer is to increase the density of the development on the existing stock of commercially zoned land. That will serve, over time, to increase the square footage of buildings that can be created and thereby increase our tax base. Another obvious answer is to look closely at the mix of commercial uses to ensure that they are complimentary and will feed off one another rather than the reverse. This is no mean challenge since we have a village core and a Route 22 commercial corridor within a relatively short distance of one another. There are also a range of macro-economic forces at work over which we have no control.

These are some of the vital matters with which the comprehensive planning process concerns itself. There are no easy answers but with the time now available to us as a result of the extended period of review of the Comprehensive Plan Update we have the chance to fully address them. There are also more than enough intellectual resources available in the community to grapple with these challenging issues. Now all we need to do is to mobilize them.

Chris Wood