The zoning board of appeals for Beacon typically presides over fairly mundane, quotidian matters; two of the four applications being considered last night had to do with swimming pool setbacks, a third was for a porch rebuild. These decisions were efficiently dispatched by the board.
But the fourth item on the agenda, “use variance to allow a food vending trailer to be located and operated from the privately owned vacant lot at the corner of Main Street and Schenck Avenue” put a halt to the rubber stamp processing, with frequent interjections by a city lawyer and the buildings inspector. A large contingent of supporters of the applicants, including a number of Main Street business owners, was on hand to witness the proceedings and speak in favor of the variance being granted.
First, a ruling had to be made on whether the building inspector had correctly interpreted the existing zoning code with his finding that the food truck did not fit under any currently permitted uses. Any use not explicitly permitted in the Central Business zoning district code is de facto prohibited. The definition of the permitted use “restaurant,” which included tables, wait staff, seating, and eating on premises, “did not even come close,” according to building inspector Tim Dexter. The applicants themselves were in agreement with this assessment, and the zoning board affirmed the ruling in a unanimous vote, then moved on to tackle the matter of granting a variance.
Why the board was required to weigh in on the matter of the building inspector’s interpretation of the zoning law, particularly in light of the fact that the applicants were in agreement with his call, is not clear. But it quickly became apparent to most in attendance that the second vote, granting a zoning variance, was doomed from the start. As the chair of the board explained, the main requirement laid down by New York State to grant a use variance is proof of financial hardship, and the applicants had already conceded that, by the State’s definition, they did not meet the requirements.
No doubt intentions were good, but someone in the city administration should have foreseen the futility of the course being pursued and advised accordingly.
Financial hardship in these matters is not related to an owner’s personal finances; they must show in hard dollars and sense that any and all currently allowed uses of the property would not be financially sustainable. Obviously, with over a dozen possible business uses, and existing businesses operating on the same block, the board’s hands were tied, and they voted unanimously to deny the use variance—as did the planning board, in a letter of advisement read into the record of proceedings before the zoning board adjourned to executive session to make its foregone conclusion.
After going through this somewhat surreal process, the main question the applicants and their supporters had was, why, given the obvious futility of taking this route to achieve their desired goal, weren’t they given better guidance and advice by the city? The applicants spent resources and time going over permitting processes and zoning laws with both the building inspector and the city administrator.
But ultimately, the process of seeking relief in this case, despite the venture being the first of its kind in Beacon, is fairly straightforward. In the same courtroom the night before, at the city council meeting, a public hearing was held on a request to change the Central Main Street zoning code to allow micro breweries and micro distilleries. This proposed amendment is being expedited by the council in order to encourage local business on Main Street, specifically in this instance Dennings Point Distillery at 10 North Chestnut Street. All the vendor permitting research and the zoning variance issues were red herrings, and it is now apparent that a zoning amendment is the route that should have been suggested in this case from the beginning. No doubt intentions were good, but someone in the city administration should have foreseen the futility of the course that was pursued and advised accordingly.
The owners of the lot purchased it with plans to build a movie theater and restaurant on the site, but have run into difficulty raising capital for the project. They are seeking a way to earn money and build their restaurant brand while waiting for investment conditions to improve; they believe getting this experience while Beacon itself continues to grow could be the ingredients needed for outside investors to get behind the full project.
Many communities are finding creative ways to deal with empty lots. As the project’s many supporters pointed out, a business at this location, even if temporary, can help keep the city’s economy moving in a positive direction. In this case it would allow young business owners to earn money and gain experience while working toward a more permanent plan for the site. In the interim, the empty lot would gain some life and enhance the streetscape experience for residents and visitors alike. Let’s hope the city council can get an amendment through in this zone as quickly as possible.