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Reining in rural sprawl 

The Dollar General in Lima.

PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN

The Dollar General in Lima.

Lima is at a crossroads, literally and figuratively.

The village of approximately 2,100 people got its start as a stop on a well-traveled cross-state road, a section of which is the modern Routes 5 and 20. A village landmark from the era, the American Hotel, still sits at the corner of that corridor and what's now Route 15A. Built in 1840, the well-kept, creamy yellow building still provides lodging and meals — drawing patrons from well beyond Lima's boundaries.

The hotel and the brick storefronts that surround it represent the Lima that residents and officials say they want to protect.

But just north of the village on Route 15A sits a Dollar General. The store's block walls, nondescript roof trim, and parking lot frontage stand in stark contrast to the architecture and feel of downtown. It doesn't fit with the town's 10,000 plus acres of active farmland, either.

Sprawl is largely seen as an urban-suburban phenomenon. But rural communities like Lima are fighting their own battles against the sort of development, enabled by automobiles, which can sap the life out of downtowns and eat up farmland and open space.

"We see that in other communities where you end up having all of these new buildings, some of them with the designs that fit a national chain, and you have very solid older buildings within your community that are just sitting empty," says George Gotcsik, chair of Lima's combined town-village Planning Board.

Residents and officials in the town and village of Lima recognize the potential threat and are taking action. Over the past five years, the town and village have changed the way that they approach planning and have made fundamental efforts to protect the village downtown and the large amounts of high-quality farmland in the town.

And they have received important recognition for those efforts. This summer, the National Endowment for the Arts' Citizens Institute on Rural Design announced a $42,000 grant for a community design workshop in the Village of Lima. The workshop, facilitated by the Rochester Regional Community Design Center, was held during the last weekend of October.

The grant, which was awarded to only four communities this year, has a big-picture purpose: to help rural communities learn from each other's successes. But the workshop had practical benefits for Lima in that it included a two-day charrette, which is basically an in-depth public input, brainstorming, and planning session, for the community.

The RRCDC will use the information from the charrette to help the town-village community develop a long-range vision plan, which will articulate the community's identity and pinpoint consistent projects and development approaches. The idea is to have an intentional approach to development without unintentional consequences.

Some of the issues facing Lima are unique, while others are examples of national trends.

The town and village populations have been relatively steady at approximately 4,300 people. But over time, more of the community's residents have begun commuting to jobs in Rochester or Rochester's suburbs, says Gotcsik, the Planning Board chair. And since most of the commuters spend their disposable income on the way to and from work, Gotcsik says, that means less money for Lima. As a result, the village has lost its hardware store, bank, pharmacy, and dry cleaner, he says.

Retail growth in Honeoye Falls — Honeoye Falls is a short drive from the Village of Lima's downtown — also competes with Lima's businesses. Among the businesses that have opened in Honeoye Falls over the past few years: a Rite Aid Pharmacy and a Tractor Supply Co. (National chains and big-box retailers pose a particular threat to the viability of independent, locally-owned hardware stores and pharmacies.)

Gotcsik says that Honeoye Falls' demographics may make it more attractive to developers right now. But commercial and residential developers could start looking for land and opportunities in Lima, he says.

The Town of Lima is primarily an agricultural community, which is why farmland preservation is important. Heading east out of the village center, just past a feed business and a stone company, the view gives way to uninterrupted fields, some still full of the year's corn crop. Houses, barns, and silos pop up occasionally, but that's the extent of development.

But farming, as an industry and a way of life, is subject to the influence of many complex factors. Some of those issues are broad, such as commodity prices or the reluctance of the next generation to take over the family farm. But some are local. And Lima's farmland protection plan identifies steps that the town can take to preserve the land and to encourage agriculture. Recommendations include purchasing farmland development rights and limiting the extension of water lines into the town.

And the town has a minimum residential lot size of 2.5 acres, Gotcsik says, which discourages subdivision development.

Lima residents and officials say that they're not interested in stopping growth, only in making sure that it happens in healthy, appropriate, and smart ways.

Most of the current efforts grew out of the 2008 town-village Comprehensive Plan. The document prioritizes farmland protection and downtown development, and also says that community businesses are more desirable than suburban-style big-box stores. But one sentence from the introduction forcefully summarizes the plan's goals: "Lima should not become another suburban bedroom community," it says.

The plan calls for balanced development and does leave room for commercial and industrial growth in the town and village. But the town won't zone additional land for commercial or light industrial development until land currently zoned for these uses is built up, Gotcsik says.

The town has also taken a critical eye to the Route 15A corridor approaching the village. Earlier this year, the town and the Rochester Regional Community Design Center convened a charrette on the corridor. The resulting vision plan lays out ways to make the corridor safer and more attractive.

On the simple end, it recommends new welcome signs. But the vision plan also recommends the use of cluster development along the corridor — an approach that would require less land. And the resulting development would be more walkable.

The plan also recommends developing a parallel multi-use path from the village line to an intersection about a mile-and-a-half north.

The town has developed building design standards for Route 15A, too. So if the Dollar General were being built today, Gotcski says, its design would be a better fit with the architecture of the rest of the town than the current store is.

Similarly, the village has developed design standards for new construction in its downtown, Gotcsik says. And the village pursued and received a $315,000 grant from the state's community renewal agency to rehab downtown buildings.

Other rural communities are experimenting with ways to breathe life back into their downtowns, too. So while Lima may be a test case, it could also learn from efforts in those communities.

The Village of Perry is one example. Perry Mayor Rick Hauser spoke during Lima's recent community design workshop.

In 2007, Hauser's Perry-based architecture firm, Insite Architecture, tried a novel approach to buying and rehabbing a commercial building in the village downtown. It formed what Hauser calls a Main Street LLC — a concept that combines building ownership with the old adage "Many hands make light work."

Hauser says that about 20 members of the Perry community bought a share of the for-profit company. In some cases, people with specialized skills, such as lawyers and plumbers, contributed work in exchange for a stake in the project.

The initial investments helped raise the resources necessary for the project. The rehabbed building attracted businesses, and once it started generating income, the investors began receiving their shares. Federal tax credits may also be available for people who invest in older or historic buildings.

The approach is a way for people with long-term interests in the downtown — residents and business owners and employees — to ensure downtown's vitality, Hauser says. It's also a way for communities to fix up or redevelop older buildings in need of significant investment. Opera houses, theaters, and department stores are all good candidates, Hauser says.

Perry has since used the approach on another building. And community members in the nearby Village of Attica have replicated the strategy.

"It's kind of a bottom-up model," Hauser says.

Lima's in a better position than some other villages, since its downtown core still has good bones, distinctive architecture, and people dedicated to preserving both.

Nationally, cities of varying sizes are seeing people move back downtown, says Roger Brown, an architectural and urban design consultant and president of the Rochester Regional Community Design Center's board. They're looking for vibrant, walkable places to live, Brown says, and villages may benefit from the same shift.

"They have to build on a sort of momentum that is going on out there where people are starting to live in these small communities," Brown says.

Gotcsik says that the Village of Lima has begun to see some residential growth, including the construction of new houses. He says that young families, in particular, are moving in. They are attracted to village living and to the quality of the Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School district, he says.

But Brown says that the communities need to develop strong identities. Local leaders need to market their towns and villages, he says, and to come up with ways to attract visitors to their downtowns. He says that those efforts have been important to the success of areas such as Skaneateles and Cazenovia.

"Granted, these are gorgeous places," Brown says. "But they market their places."

Gotcsik says that's exactly what the Lima community wants to do, and that the successes of places such as Skaneateles and Cazenovia are encouraging. And Lima has its own natural beauty, he says.

Continued community discussion and planning are critical, Gotcsik says, and the follow-through must be there. Lima is fortunate, he says, because the town and village work well together.

"If you have a plan then you can make very good, strategic decisions in a very, very complex environment," he says. "Without a plan, you just approach your decisions as they arise.

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