editorial

Watching over the town

By LAURIE STUART
Posted 9/23/20

There are many people who watch over the town.

It starts on the town level with the town board: the elected officials who do the business of the town. These folks receive a stipend. They are our …

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editorial

Watching over the town

Posted

There are many people who watch over the town.

It starts on the town level with the town board: the elected officials who do the business of the town. These folks receive a stipend. They are our paid watchers of government. Next comes the town employees with their various jobs and functions.

Then, there is a whole other layer of government: trained volunteers who serve on the town planning boards, zoning board of appeals, comprehensive plan rewrite committees, among others and any number of task forces that are needed to further conduct the business of the town.

Being on a town planning board and zoning board of appeals is a lot of responsibility. Boards make decisions of major importance. These decisions can affect the function and appearance of communities for decades while impacting property interests important to individual landowners.

Therefore, board members need to know the laws that govern the development in the town: municipal laws, comprehensive plans and, most specifically, zoning laws.

While some may feel apprehensive about zoning, nonetheless, the towns in New York State all have adopted zoning laws. These zoning laws are in line with the comprehensive plan: the vision for the town’s development which is revised on a regular basis. Zoning is a living regulation.

Serving on a board is not an easy thing. Knowledge is important, and four hours of continuing education are required annually by New York State. That is where many planning boards and zoning boards of appeals fall down. As volunteers, board members may not have the support that they need; they may not complete their continuing education credits. Over time, boards can become insular.

This is something to pay attention to, especially now. Many people are moving here. Many want to start businesses and do what they want to do. In this atmosphere of growth and change, it is important that our planning boards and our zoning board of appeals improve their skills and their knowledge.

A recent zoning board of appeals violation and order to remedy in the Town of Highland highlights real problems that occur when there are not good notes and when there is not follow through on the rules and the procedures that govern the town. In this instance, missing in the procedure was the approval of a site plan and an application for a special-use permit.

In recommending a motion to dismiss the violation, zoning board of appeals chair Larry Fishman said that it was not only the planning board’s responsibility to mention that a special-use permit was needed, but he also said that the applicants themselves need to know what the law is and what is allowed.

That is true. Both parties need to know and to follow through. Equally important is how both parties participate in the process.

It is important that the applicant come before the planning board in a respectful manner. Often, applicants can have a preconceived notion of the sophistication or lack thereof of a planning board. Arriving with counsel, they see the planning board as an obstacle to realizing their dreams, setting up an adversarial position.

From another perspective, there are stories of planning board members approaching applicants and letting them know, very specifically, what they cannot do. This form of adversarial positioning is not an effective manner to watch over our towns and our town business.

It is important that planning boards welcome applicants and listen to them. For the best outcome, boards need to guide an applicant in their planning to fulfill the vision of the town, while also pursuing their own individual dream.

This is what will lead us to a healthy, sustainable community.

When the process is not complete and is fraught with contention, as in the Town of Highland, it stands as a sore in everyone’s eyes.

But as we practice due diligence, knowledge and foster an approach to the law and the process based on respect and equity, we create a well-developed community that is an exciting and innovative place where we all work together.

This is where we want to be. This is what careful watching over the town can do for us.

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