Our Catskill region is a natural paradise—mountains for hiking, biking, and skiing; clear rivers and lakes for fishing, boating, and swimming; clean reservoirs and groundwater supplies for drinking water; and fertile fields for growing food. Plus, our green spaces restore our spirits and help fight climate change.
Yet, these invaluable assets face a perilous threat as developers attempt to sidestep local planning, zoning, and land use laws by forming small separate villages. An outdated New York State Law enables this concerning trend, but two bills awaiting the Governor’s signature could modernize the law and protect our lands and waters. Stand with us: email Governor Hochul and ask her to sign the bills into law.
These bills are commonsense measures to bring state law into the twenty first century. Read on for a primer about the law and the bills.
About the Outdated Law
Currently, New York’s village incorporation law allows for as few as 500 people to secede from a town and set up their own village. All they need is 20% of the qualified voters in the proposed new village to sign a petition OR the owners of 50% of the property in the new territory. The process has minimal oversight and has become a way for people to circumvent established building and zoning codes and environmental regulations. Town officials have no recourse but to allow these secessions, even if they see potential problems.
About the Bills
In June 2023, The New York State Senate and Assembly, with strong majorities in both houses, passed significant legislation to help curb these dangerous abuses of Village Law Article 2. S.7538/A.7754 and S.7537/A.7761 to improve the village incorporation process by increasing the minimum number of petitioners; requiring analyses of environmental, financial and operational impacts; and establishing a neutral state body to evaluate each petition and its justification.
About Mountainkeeper’s Campaign
Mountainkeeper is calling on the Governor to sign the legislation and is also urging her office, the Senate, and the Assembly to strengthen the bills’ impacts on the current, outdated, and easily exploited village incorporation process by agreeing in the 2024 legislative session to codify additional protections. Specifically, we’re calling on our leaders to include the following:
- Increase the new village population requirement: increase the threshold population requirements for creating a village to something in excess of 2,000 inhabitants. We are concerned that less than 2,000 is insufficient to address the growing instances of abuse of the village incorporation process. Alternatively, consider including a minimum population density per square mile. The average size of a village in New York is 3,600 residents. We strongly believe the bills should use that as a target figure.
- Require SEQRA review: include village incorporation as a Type I action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), ensuring that all incorporation petitions receive a full environmental review.
- Strengthen the residency requirement: require clear evidence of primary year-round residency similar to other state residency requirements to prevent fraud and to prove that people proposing the new village have an ongoing interest in the village itself.
- Higher petition signature requirements: increase current 20% petition requirement to at least 50% or a 2/3 vote, again to reduce possible incidents of fraud and demonstrate broad community support.
- Increase fees: Ensure that the costs of the studies are funded by the petitioners, not the town’s taxpayers, by requiring a $10,000 fee when petitions are filed.
The Experts Are Weighing In
Three recent independent reports from the NYS Comptroller’s Office, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, and the Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University confirm that the creation of new villages today is often motivated by a desire to circumvent local land use, zoning, and building codes in service of the interests of very small groups of people, contrary to the greater public good. The consequences of such unfettered development include poorly conceived and constructed projects that threaten natural resources. This also puts citizens of affected towns at significant financial risk. In addition, new villages created under Article 2 are mandated to provide their own services, such as police, water, sewer, and fire protection; however, when they lack the tax base required to support these services, surrounding towns end up paying such costs.
Enacting S.7538/A.7754 and S.7537/A.7761, along with the additional protections Mountainkeeper is calling for, would address these issues and help bring the Village Incorporation Law into the 21st century.