“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, …
“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, “Foundations” takes a look at the role of consultants and regional governing bodies in local planning processes.
With local government comes the benefits of a local approach. Towns and townships on both sides of the Upper Delaware River have broad latitude to decide their futures and to shape the zoning and planning regulations required to bring about those futures.
That dosen’t mean municipalities have to do it all on their own. They have access to a wide array of resources, including private consultants, county and state planning departments and regional managing bodies.
Sullivan County’s Division of Planning and Community Development can provide towns with a number of resources on request, said commissioner Freda Eisenberg.
The county offers technical support and assistance when requested; smaller municipalities like the villages of Liberty and Monticello are more likely to request that assistance. The county gathers technical information on issues of general relevance, sourced from New York State or from around the professional planning world, and packages that information for the benefit of towns and villages facing those issues themselves.
When municipalities in Sullivan County grappled with regulating community solar projects, the county’s planning division took model regulations from New York State and disseminated them, organizing workshops for state officials to come and talk about the issue. The county responded to a rise in short-term rentals by aggregating regulations from first-mover towns like Callicoon and Fallsburg, from organizations throughout the Mid-Hudson region, and from pre-existing models.
The county can also offer money, helping municipalities get the grants they need. The planning division offers assistance in identifying funding sources through the consolidated funding application, and can help municipalities and businesses shape their projects and applications for the highest chance of success.
Towns and townships along the Upper Delaware can look to the river for additional grant support.
The Upper Delaware Council (UDC) oversees a partnership of 13 municipalities, two states, the federal government and the National Park Service, bringing them all around one table for the purpose of managing the Upper Delaware River. As part of that management, the UDC offers member municipalities the chance to apply for technical assistance grants (TAG).
The TAG program and other funding opportunities offer municipalities the chance to up their planning game, according to Kerry Engelhardt, UDC resources and land use specialist. “It’s allowing the townships to do things that they might otherwise not be able to do, and to get professional consultants in at the ground floor.”
Professional consultants aren’t necessary for a town’s planning process. When asked, consultants working with the towns and townships of the Upper Delaware said that the energy and direction behind that planning comes from the municipalities themselves, not from their planning partners.
But it helps to have professional planners involved in the process, playing a whole variety of roles. It’s easier to ensure a town’s zoning stays consistent with the help of outside planners, avoiding contradictory laws that could open towns up to lawsuits. Consultants can help towns avoid common pitfalls in writing zoning laws, drawing from their past experience. They can make the process of developing regulations more efficient. They can provide capacity, a limited resource for some municipalities, and skills that smaller municipalities might not have in-house.
One role they don’t play—they aren’t there to push towns in any one direction.
“[A plan] is not a true expression of a community unless there is thorough involvement,” said Peter Manning, a consultant who helped Tusten write its comprehensive plan. “[Tusten’s comprehensive plan committee] really made the plan happen. Obviously, I played a role, but I don’t know that community like they do, and they very much authored—even though I wrote most of it, or all of it—they authored the plan by their contributions.”
“I view myself as a facilitator. I do have opinions… When I’m writing something, I like it to be more streamlined than not, I like things to be more conservative than not… But strictly speaking, it’s up to the town,” said Tom Shepstone, a consultant who has worked with towns and townships throughout the Delaware and Hudson river valleys. Shepstone works privately as an advocate for natural gas in northeast Pennsylvania, but his personal opinions don’t affect his role as a planner, he said. “If I have an opinion, it’s not even relevant; it’s your town, you have to decide what you want to do.”
Governing bodies such as the UDC and Sullivan County have a little more say in governing what towns and townships want to do. The UDC oversees implementation of the river management plan, a document that guides allowed development in the Upper Delaware River corridor. The one mandated function of Sullivan County’s planning division is to perform general municipal law (GML) 239 reviews; that section of law mandates that certain local zoning and planning actions be reviewed by county planning departments.
The people who oversee those programs try and work with a light hand.
In the UDC’s review, “we’re not creating any more rules, we’re just enforcing them,” said Engelhardt. Even then, final review is left to the National Park Service. “All we can really do is make recommendations. Luckily, so far the municipalities have [been] pretty good at wanting to meet those recommendations and wanting to stay within conformance of the plan.”
For Eisenberg’s part, she worked with towns to respond to GML reviews earlier in her career, giving her perspective on the impact that review can have. “Having been on the municipal side of getting those letters and going, “Oh my goodness, what are they talking about?” I want to be very careful in crafting letters that provide more information than an actual, “this is what you got to do” kind of thing.
“At the end of the day, it’s really the authority of the local municipality,” Eisenberg said.
See below for earlier articles in the series:
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