THE VIEW FROM 22 MAIN
In Village. There’s Room
By CINDY FALK • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
I am passionate about housing. In fact, I write this as I prepare to travel to Honduras to participate in a program called Mi Casa, which provides new or renovated houses for Hondurans who do not have the resources to obtain adequate housing themselves.
Having a place to call home is a fundamental component of personal identity and a critical factor in feeling both comfortable and secure.
In Cooperstown, as community members shared ideas for the new Comprehensive Plan, which was approved in 2016, the topic of housing came up repeatedly.
Year-’round rentals are hard to find in Cooperstown, a fact my family learned all too well when we bounced between three different rentals in the course of a year when we first moved to the village.
Apartments are at a premium, especially for those with limited incomes. And there are very few places that are accessible to those who find stairs difficult or impossible to navigate.
If we look back at historical data, we find that in 1930 there were 2,909 people living in the Village of Cooperstown. In 2010, the last year a census was conducted, there were just 1,852. What caused a more than 36 percent decrease in population?
We know that the village has not changed in size, but we can also see that there are not a lot of new houses (with a few notable exceptions after World War II, i.e. Walnut Street, Lakeland Shores). Couple that with the fact that the birth rate has gone down and life expectancy has gone up, and on average we find fewer people living in each house.
We also know that people rarely take in boarders, a once common practice, and boarding houses are a thing of the past. At the same time, second homes, which sit empty a good portion of the year, are more common in the village. Overall, the human density in the village has decreased, leading to a decrease in population.
Nationally, the benefits of population density have become hot topics.
As we consider climate change, it is clear that communities where living, working, shopping, and recreation all happen in the same general area foster less dependence on automobiles, and therefore less fossil-fuel consumption.
As we consider economic development, we know businesses depend on residents who are customers as well as employees. If we want businesses that support residents, there must be many residents to support those businesses.
Community groups also depend on people who live locally to volunteer time and talent, something often lacking today.
Yet while it turns out that Cooperstown’s population has been on the decline for decades, people actually do want to live here, something that makes Cooperstown stand out among many Upstate communities.
Bassett Hospital recently queried employees about their housing needs and desires. We all know that many Bassett employees drive great distances to work every day. It turns out that many would prefer to live in the village if they could find housing that suited their needs at a reasonable price point.
The solution to housing issues in Cooperstown is complex. One component is to make sure our zoning does not inhibit new development, whether that means constructing a whole new building or rethinking how space within an existing large single-family house is utilized.
At one time, zoning was used in communities throughout the United States to promote suburban style single-family houses separated from other types of places such as shopping centers or office complexes, which one had to drive to. The pendulum has shifted to recognize the benefits of communities such as Cooperstown that are walkable and foster a variety of uses.
Since June 2018, a working group consisting of the mayor, zoning enforcement officer, and representatives from the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Historic Preservation & Architectural Review Board, the trustees’ Economic Development & Sustainability Committee, and Bassett Hospital has been meeting to develop a proposal for changes to the zoning law.
A draft was recently presented to the Board of Trustees and forwarded to the Planning Board for its review.
The proposal allows additional types of housing (duplexes, multi-family) in residential zoning districts and in the business district by right or by special-use permit, and it limits lot coverage rather than setting a minimum square footage requirement per housing unit.
It also updates zoning terminology, renaming “accessory apartments” “accessory dwelling units” in keeping with national trends. And it recognizes local realities, redefining setback requirements in terms of lot size and the locations of existing buildings.
Changes to zoning are no cure all.
Housing availability is affected by market forces, and our tourist economy is tied to housing shortages and to rental rates, in season and out of season.
Before thinking about changing zoning rules regarding apartments, the village had to tighten up the regulations regarding short-term rentals to ensure that any new apartments actually would be available for year-round tenants.
The reality is that Cooperstown can support and has supported more residents, and that there are people who would love to live in the village. Cooperstown is a great place to raise children and to age in place.
Ensuring zoning laws reflect current thoughts on the benefits of compact communities is a first step in recognizing that we all benefit from a greater diversity of housing options.
Cindy Falk, a professor of Material Culture
at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies,
is Cooperstown’s deputy mayor.