By Tyler Murphy
NEW SCOTLAND — After overseeing New Scotland’s building and zoning departments for more than two decades, Paul Cantlin retired from the town at the start of the new year.
When he was first hired in 1988 he was the only employee for both departments’, working on a typewriter from an office in a converted two-story home in New Salem.
When Cantlin retired on Jan. 1, the combined departments had three employees, an electronic filing system, and offices in the town hall.
“As far as the town, there really hasn’t been a ton of change. I don’t think so anyway. New Scotland is primarily rural and that character hasn’t seemed to change,” said Cantlin.
Cantlin worked as building and zoning administrator from January 1988 to July 1999, when he first tried to retire. In August of 2002, town leaders asked him if he would again resume the post and he agreed, serving until the end of 2012.
Before coming to work for the town, Cantlin was part of his family’s contracting business along with his father and brothers. He had just recently begun work with New York State at the Capital District Center in Albany when New Scotland officials urged him to apply for the position in charge of the town’s building and zoning.
When he took the job with the town, Cantlin already had 24 years of experience in the building business.
Though zoning officers and building inspectors have different responsibilities, their tasks are so closely related they’re almost always found beneath one roof and the jobs shared by the same staff.
Initially when Cantlin was hired he was responsible for processing all building and zoning activities in the town and, except for the help of a part-time clerk who was primarily assigned to the assessor’s office, he was the sole employee.
Interpreting the law
During his time with the town, Cantlin reviewed hundreds of building applications and permits. His main duties were to help homeowners interpret and comply with New Scotland’s zoning and code ordinances.
“When you’re a building inspector or zoning administrator, it’s kind of like being a police officer,” said Cantlin. “You’re trying to read the zoning law, or whatever you’re dealing with, to get an understanding of what the law is, and then treating it the same way in the next instance.”
Though the town board creates the zoning laws and building codes, with aid from the planning and zoning boards, it’s up to the building inspector to ensure they’re being properly interpreted and enforced.
Often, Cantlin said, his role at the town was to serve as a liaison between the laws and the public, helping people understand the requirements and procedures. The laws also allow for special exemptions and appeals, and Cantlin would often advise applicants on how they could proceed.
“You have a responsibility to the town, to the laws it’s passed, to be fair as you see them. Everyone isn’t always satisfied with the results. There is always an appeal process people can go through if they don’t like what we’re telling them,” said Cantlin.
During his time at the office, Cantlin had a “couple” of his applicants appeal but, in every case, the planning board upheld his decision.
“If a decision came up we had to think about, that wasn’t in black in white, something you really had to think about, I’d always consult the town attorney. We’d look to see if there was some way to make things work for an applicant or we’d enforce it another way,” said Cantlin. He said the office always tried to accommodate applicants when it could. He acknowledged, “You’re affecting a person’s life and project.”
In dealing with people, Cantlin said he would “explain the law the best I can to them, to let them understand what I have to do with the position we’re in.”
When it came to dealing with more routine applications in the town, such as things with which the office had dealt previously, Cantlin said following an established status quo was important in maintaining the law’s consistency and being fair to everyone.
Speaking about his position, he said, “You can’t just do what you want to do. It’s not a discretionary thing. If [an applicant] wanted to build something too close to the property line, I’m not in the authority to permit that; only the board is. There’s an exemption process, or a special-use permit through the board, and we could point them in that direction.”
Cantlin said being a building inspector was a more concrete job than being a zoning official because building codes were often written in “black and white,” requiring structures meet a certain list of construction requirements.
“The building end of things with inspections and permits — that was the quickest, easiest part,” said Cantlin comparatively. “It can be a lot harder to show someone the black and white in the zoning laws. In zoning there is more gray area open to different interpretation.”
“Zoning laws are like
When the town hired a computer programmer in 1994 to create an electronic filing system, Cantlin recalled, there were few resources offered to municipal offices at the time. Over the course of several months, New Scotland created its own system.
“It made it so you could search things out quicker. The programs we have today, though, do about everything,” said Cantlin. “Putting information into the system still takes the same amount of time, but, once you put it in, you can easily get it back out again,” he said.
Also in 1994, the building department relocated to a remodeled town hall. Being near all the other municipal services helped in sharing information.
Cantlin has served on a number of committees in the town, some that have updated the town’s zoning laws and building codes. In 2006, he helped develop the town’s comprehensive plan.
Though Cantlin has retired from the town, he has already taken a new job with New Scotland’s privately contracted engineering firm, Stantec, where he oversees the environmental impact of developments.
“I’m sure anybody who leaves a job feels there are a number of things undone. As far as zoning laws, in a respect they are like living things – documents that change as things come into play. As a town, you really have to look at it and keep updating it, comparing it to the master plan, so everyone has a sense of where the town is going and that it can get there,” he said.
After Canltin stepped down from his post, the board appointed former building inspector Jeremy Cramer to head the department.
“I have no fear Jeremy will do well. He has a good head on his shoulders; he converses well with people and has a good attitude,” said Cantlin.
Cantlin said he loved working for the town and will miss the people and the job. He said he never planned to retire on any specific date.
“Everyone waits until that day they can retire and they don’t have to get up in the morning. Then that day comes and you’re like: ‘Wow, there’s no reason to get out of bed,’” said Cantlin, adding he welcomed his new job with Stantec. “I just like the work.”