A Lesson on Neighborhood

May 10, 2010

Okay, here’s a quiz.  What’s the difference between this . . .

Flanagan Hotel
Hotel Flanagan, Village of Malone

And this . . .

69 Fort Covington St., Malone
69 Fort Covington, Village of Malone

Whoa, hold your horses partner!  Not so fast with those answers!  We gotta think this one through.  If you had attended last week’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) meeting in the Village of Malone, you would have had to sit through 2 hours of really dumb answers by a lot of people in that room.  (The people were not dumb, just their answers.)

So, what was the question they were answering dumbly?  Should the Zoning Board of Appeals give Mike Marlow permission to renovate that god awful building at 69 Fort Covington St. into 9 apartments?

Since the 2-hour debate often turned on the difference (or similarities) between the Flanagan and Marlow’s building (bought at public auction last year for approx $2500), I have simplified the question to, What’s the difference between the Flanagan and Marlow’s building?

By comparing one (the Flanagan) to the other (Marlow’s building), we both clarify the debate and discover it’s speedily resolved.

Okay, what’s the difference between the two?  Here’s the screamingly obvious answer:

Both buildings are in need of huge amounts of work and money.  Frank Cositore, God bless him, is committed to doing the work and rounding up the money to restore the Flanagan.

You or I might not like the Flanagan (full disclosure:  I haven’t decided if I do), but there’s not a blessed thing we can do about it:  Frank can indeed turn it into the hotel of his dreams.  Why?  Because of location, location, location:  The Flanagan property is zoned for Business use.  That’s the law of the land in the Village of Malone, NY.

The same law of the land says loud and clear that Mike Marlow’s 69 Fort Covington St. is zoned for Single-Family Residential.

So, what’s this building doing in a Single-Family Residential zone?  Good question.  The building is left over from a bygone era.  The “olden days.”  Basically, it’s a dinosaur.  What biologists would call “an evolutionary dead end.”  History passed it by.  It’s been abandoned (derelict) for years, and the Village Code pointedly says that anything that has been unused for 1 year or more reverts to the prevailing zoning district use—which in this case is Single-Family Residential.

 

This means the decision is up to the neighbors—all those Single-Family Residential souls living in the shadow of this dinosaur.  NY State law is emphatic that the ZBA cannot grant a variance to Mr. Marlow if his project threatens to “alter the essential character of the neighborhood.”  NY State law and custom likewise make it clear that those most qualified to determine whether a project like Marlow’s is likely to alter the essential character of the neighborhood are–drum roll, please!—the immediate neighbors.  Not the ringers from around town, sounding off about the need to restore Malone’s old buildings (a sentiment I support, by the way).

That sentiment is irrelevant.  Notice what NYS law says about your sentiments, dear ringer and dear Mayor and dear attorney for Mr. Marlow:

The above rules and standards have been set forth in law and by the courts of the State, and cannot be modified by the Zoning Board of Appeals.  If they are not followed, the municipality would be subject to costly lawsuits.

The public is entitled to speak in favor of, or against, a proposed project, but opinions in and of themselves are not enough.

Okay, what do the immediate neighbors think of Marlow’s proposal?

Fifty signatures say “No!”

End of story.  Well, almost.  You see, there’s an elephant in the room.  It was there at the ZBA meeting.  The ringers and mayor and lawyer didn’t see it, although the neighors of 69 Ft. Covington certainly did.

It’s a big elephant.  It’s called “Neighborhood.”

The Village of Malone is composed of Neighborhoods.  Let us not lose sight of this fact, which lies at the core of all community living, going back to the Garden of Eden.  The mistake made by the mayor and ringers and lawyer was to assume the Village is the Basic Community Entity.

They are wrong.  Neighborhood is more basic.  Although Neighborhood has no real legal standing, what it has is far older than any law and far more venerable than any law.

Neighborhood is the community of people, families and inviduals, who stick together, take care of one another, holler at one another (on occasion), know one another, say Hi to one another, help one another, borrow each other’s tools, bake banana bread for one another, know each other’s kids, get mad at one another—a Neighborhood is all this.  (It’s also one of the chief reasons my wife & I moved to Malone from Santa Fe, NM, 13 years ago.  Malone has Neighborhoods; Santa Fe, alas, didn’t.  It had rootless people who came and went and ignored one another.)

Malone has viable, thriving, healthy Neighborhoods!  Hallelujah!  Malone lost True Stitch, it lost its railroads, Cleyn & Tinker, Gildan T-Shirts, Bombardier—and more.  Sad, yes.  Hugh Hill, the very able (I am not being facetious) President of the Chamber of Commerce is well aware of this, and he’s trying his darndest to turn it around, somehow.

What Malone never lost was . . . its Neighborhoods.  Distinctive, powerful, highly interesting, culturally rich Neighborhoods.  Think about it.  If you’re from here and never left, you may find this spectacularly unsurprising and dull.  But that’s because you haven’t lived outside the North Country.

One of Malone’s greatest charms and assets is its Neighborhoods.  (I’ve long maintained that Malone doesn’t need a movie theater; it has Neighborhood and Main Street theater and drama aplenty.)

Consider the Neighborhood of 69 Fort Covington Street.  I visited with some of these people.  They told me they stick together in good times and bad.  “When someone in the Neighborhood needs help building something, we neighbors show up and lend a hand.”  Yes, that’s a quote.

Those 50 signatures?  That’s more than 50 random signatures; that’s the Voice of Neighborhood.

And that matters.  Matters a whole lot.  Neighborhood has spoken.  It considers Mr. Marlow’s plan inappropriate.  End of story.

But not quite.  Mike Marlow, who is a good man, has moved into the Neighborhood.  He bought the brick house immediately adjacent to #69.  He’s fixing it up.  I dropped by and could see he’s doing a dandy job with his new digs.  (Yes, I saw it before he bought it at county auction.  I considered buying it.)

“Mike, can I give you some friendly advice?  Drop your appeal to the ZBA.  They’re gonna turn you down, ’cause they know the Neighborhood will file an Article 78 against the decision and they will prevail.  Like I said above, it’s the law. 

“But the law’s not the issue here, Mike. 

“What you need to do is become a good neighbor.  You need to live in the Neighborhood for awhile, for as long as it takes to become a valued and integral member of that Neighborhood.  So your neighbors come to value and cherish you, and trust you, and support you and your endeavors. 

“And when you show yourself to be a good neighbor, and valued neighbor, then meet with your neighbors and ask them if they are comfortable with your renovating that god awful behemoth into 9 apartments.  If they trust you and if they feel you’re a man of integrity and goodwill and your project will in fact enhance the Neighborhood, they’ll say ‘Sure, Mike!'”

Best of all, Mike, they might even volunteer to help you renovate the darn thing.

Because that’s what good neighbors do.  And, you know what?  Malone is chock full of good neighbors.
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