PUTNAM POSTING: Zoning Out: It’s Time to Get Creative

Jennifer Maher | October 2020

Jennifer Maher

I recently paid a visit to some friends in the Poconos. During our little sightseeing jaunt, we visited The Shops at Hawley Silk Mill, a jaw-dropping venue where our friends held their wedding reception. A former silk mill, the building was converted, no, transformed, into a beautiful high-end restaurant and catering facility. Adding to that, the spacious property featured a brewery and beer garden, as well as residential and commercial office space on the upper levels.

But wait, it gets better!

The most fascinating part of this place was the main floor. The owners converted the space into a combination of retail, food and office suites. It was spectacular. The place was oozing good vibes. We had coffee and I shopped at the kids’ boutique for my granddaughter—I was in heaven. The creativity used to transform an old factory into a self-contained mini city was remarkable. Of course, that led me to my next thought: THIS is what Putnam needs!

With unbridled enthusiasm and inspiration, I presented the idea to a client who recently purchased a large commercial building, formerly a bank, on Route 6. Today, I will be meeting with a contractor and the owner of the building to explore the conversion of the first floor into a micro version of the Pennsylvania factory retail set-up. The vision includes exposed ceilings, hardwood floors, tons of open space and glass walls. The potential for housing multiple small and talented local businesses under one roof is tremendous for both shoppers and retailers!

Sounds great, right?

Hold on. The proverbial shoe is about to drop on our dream. We haven’t talked about zoning yet. What is this property zoned for? Will the town allow this mixed-use concept? These questions and, more importantly, their answers are most often the cause of great projects going off the rails. So, what does one do when they have a big exciting project to bring to Putnam County? Well, it starts with the Building Department in the town or village that the property is located. If the use is located in a zone that works, you start applying for permits and a certificate of occupancy will be issued upon final inspection. This is an over simplified version of the best-case scenario.

The real trouble begins when the desired use or even a “special use” is not allowable in that zone. At that point, you have to go to the Zoning Board. If you are lucky enough for the Zoning Board to give you the variance for your use (which can take months to a year), you move on to the Planning Board for a site plan change. You would have to hire an engineer to do a new site plan and submit it to Planning. This can also take months and add costs to the venture. Meanwhile, you must defend against the vocal minority who do not want to see any development or changes to their town. All the while, you have expended time, energy and effort with no guarantee of approvals.

As a number of our towns and villages are in the process of updating their Master Plans, there is no time like the present to streamline our zoning and permitting processes to make it easier to do business and innovate in Putnam County. We understand the potential environmental and community impacts, such as traffic and parking, which should be taken into consideration, but so should the impact of high vacancy rates and a dearth of projects bringing in sales and property tax revenues. If we do not get innovative with the properties that exist, we may have a bigger problem post-COVID. The time is now to get creative and make big bold moves.

Jennifer Maher
Jennifer Maher is chairwoman, the Putnam County Business Council and currently serves as the president of the Putnam/Westchester Chapter of the New York State Commercial Association of Realtors. She is also the Chief Operating Officer, Managing Broker and Partner of J. Philip Real Estate.