The Binghamton City Council voted to go back to the drawing board on Wednesday night instead of continuing with a proposed zoning plan that would have heavily impacted off-campus student housing in residential areas of the city.
About 45 people attended the public hearing on Wednesday, including landlords who rent to students and homeowners. Most spoke in opposition to the changes, which included a measure that would ban new construction or conversions that would result in a single-family house having more than four bedrooms. The law would create a new classification, “congregate living,” which would allow some houses in certain residential areas to have up to 10 bedrooms, but to take advantage of the code, landlords would need to get special permits and deal with increased requirements for large, multi-bedroom homes.
One of the landlords who spoke, Mark Liscia, of Binghamton, owns property on the West Side that would be affected by the zoning proposal. Liscia came armed with a large zoning map mounted on oak tag, bringing along his attorney, Russell Maines.
Maines said the city is trying to regulate behavior that is counterintuitive to the purpose of zoning with its new proposal, and argued the city’s approach to using zoning for this purpose is a relic of the past.
“In the 21st century, we know that the better solution is to make the owner responsible,” Maines said. “If there’s a problem, give the owner an incentive to fix it.”
He also noted that the proposed changes would place restrictions on unrelated individuals, such as students, living together in specific areas of the city. Under Binghamton’s current zoning classifications, the zoning plan would allow congregate living units in areas east of Oak Street, but on several other streets popular with student renters, including Murray Street, Chapin Street and Chestnut Street, the construction or conversion of houses with more than four to five bedrooms would be banned. Maines said this is possibly a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, and attempts to do so in New York state have been struck down by the New York State Court of Appeals.
Matt Welch, a resident of the West Side for 40 years and a landlord with student tenants, echoed Maines.
“You can’t legislate behavior,” Welch said. “You can control it with rules, but you can’t legislate it with zoning.”
In drafts of the zoning changes, members of the City Planning Department wrote the updates aimed to prevent “adverse impacts to parking, open space and neighborhood character” in residential areas of the city. But Mike Dean, a Binghamton landlord who rents to students, said the vast majority of students are well-behaved and responsible neighbors who work to enrich their communities, rather than destroy neighborhoods. He said the students who call him want an affordable place to live close to Downtown Binghamton and should not be discriminated against.
“These kids don’t make bad neighbors,” Dean said. “We accommodate kids who can’t afford to live on campus or pay $800 a month for rent.”
Starting on Monday, council members will discuss developing a process to move forward with a new zoning plan that would allow public input. Lack of such input was among the criticisms raised against the previous plan. The City Planning Commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 18, at which time council members said they hope to present an alternative to the zoning plan.
Sasha Hupka contributed reporting to this article.