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Ogdensburg considers a different approach on zoning

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OGDENSBURG — As any one of the millions of people searching for jobs, dates or elected offices could tell you, appearances are important. That standard applies to cities, too.

As the city Planning Board continues amending the city’s outdated zoning ordinance, it is also looking into new rules that could improve the visibility of Ogdensburg businesses and the appearance of the city as a whole.

The discussion started with a complaint about restrictions on the size of signage, said board member Michael P. Frary.

“The signage was passed 10 to 15 years ago; it is a little small,” he said. “The amount of signage you can have is way too small.”

Currently, the city code restricts signage to 128 square feet in commercial and industrial districts, with more restrictive rules in mixed-use and residential areas.

Board members noted Saranac Lake had made improvements to its signage and overall appearance in recent years, and they asked interim city planner Andrea L. Smith to look at that village’s zoning laws.

“They don’t have a signage section in their code,” Ms. Smith said. “They do have design guidelines and architectural standards.”

In an effort to improve the village’s overall appearance, Ms. Smith said, Saranac Lake adopted standards for the appearance of its buildings.

“They have a very different approach. They have design districts,” she said. “They address everything through design and form.”

The Planning Board seized on the idea.

“I think design districts are not a bad idea,” Mr. Frary said, “especially as we look at development along the waterfront.”

Some City Council members say they are open to the idea.

“In theory, I could support that, but I would have to see what they come up with on paper,” said Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley. “I would agree that more uniform standards lend a certain attractiveness to an area and doesn’t make one place stand out more than another, but then again, a uniquely designed building can act as an eye-catcher.”

Canton and Potsdam also enforce design standards on new development, said Councilwoman Jennifer Stevenson.

“I think I would support it, depending on how restrictive it is,” she said. “The Planning Board should be planning for long-range effects on the city of any new development. We don’t want to allow eyesores.”

Planning Board member Patrick Woods said the standards in Canton have had a positive effect.

“The Nice N Easy, their building in Canton is looking good,” he said. “The village basically crammed the guidelines down their throat, but you can’t argue with the results.”

Ms. Smith said looking at zoning laws by district would alleviate the need for variances in the city, naming setback requirements as an example. The city requires 20 feet between the front edge of a lot and the structure of a single-family home, meaning owners of many older properties in Ogdensburg cannot add a front porch to their house without applying for a variance. By moving to design districts, a variance might not be needed if the plans conform to the standards and appearance of the rest of the neighborhood.

“There are characters to certain areas of the city,” Ms. Smith said. “In areas like Pickering Street, where homes are built on smaller lots, you aren’t going to meet our current requirements with frontage. You have to have a balance.”

The discussion is only preliminary. When the Planning Board has made its changes, the amended zoning ordinance is given to the City Council for consideration. After two hearings for public comment and amendments, the council can decide to accept or reject the modifications.

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