Guilderland councilwoman alone calls for new leadership of planning board

GUILDERLAND — Stephen Feeney, who was first appointed chairman of the Guilderland Planning Board in 2000, the same year he became a member, was awarded another seven-year term by the town board earlier this month and maintains his chairmanship.

Councilwoman Laurel Bohl voted against the appointment, citing “an extremely harsh rebuke” from Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch on the planning board’s approval of Pyramid Management Group’s plans to build a Costco and a 222-unit apartment complex near its Crossgates Mall.

Pyramid and the town of Guilderland are appealing Lynch’s decision.

Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber abstained from voting, explaining to The Enterprise afterward that he has never voted on Feeney’s appointments because Feeney is his cousin.

The other three town board members — Rosemary Centi, Paul Pastore, and Patricia Slavick — voted in favor of a long list of appointments that included Feeney’s during the Jan. 5 reorganizational meeting.

Feeney could not be reached for comment.

All of the town board members are Democrats and frequently vote in unison. But Bohl, who was instrumental in forming a citizens’ group now known as the Guilderland Coalition for Responsible Growth — a role she relinquished when she ran for town board in 2019 — has at times voted alone.

After winning the election, Bohl wrote to Guilderland residents in a letter to the Enterprise editor, “This was truly a grassroots movement and, over the last several months, I tried to personally reach as many of the voters as I possibly could with my message of protecting the environment, giving the residents a real valued voice in their town, and curbing some of the recent overreach of development so as to hold onto the character of Guilderland as a small town, with diversity and opportunity for everyone.”

While Bohl sees Feeney as problematic, Barber sees Feeney as not just experienced but as heroic in helping the town.

“Steve is the go-to guy locally when it comes to planning,” Barber told The Enterprise this week. “He’s been a professional planner for…. over 30 years. Towns and villages throughout the state call him. He has a wealth of experience.”

Feeney currently works for the Schenectady County Economic Development and Planning Department.

Barber went on, “Steve is singly responsible for the millions of dollars of grants the town has received for sidewalks. The other board members — Paul, Pat, and Rosemary — know that. They know all the grants he obtained.”

At the Jan. 5 meeting, Bohl said she had “no personal animosity” against Feeney and gave three reasons why she opposed his appointment.

The first was she opposed “lifetime appointments.” The planning board chair is appointed each year but its members serve seven-year terms so the January appointment, if Feeney fills out his term, would mean he will have served 28 years on the board. 

Bohl termed this “a de facto lifetime appointment” and said, “No one  should have a lifetime appointment to any board. Moreover, given the rapid changes going on in Guilderland, many of which will affect the character of the town for generations to come, I feel it’s time for new leadership.”

Barber responded through The Enterprise that, in addition to Feeney’s expertise, “When you have turnover, you want experience.”

He noted, as he had at the Jan. 5 meeting, that the seven-member planning board has three relatively new members:

Gustavo Santos, who moved from the town’s zoning board to its planning board in 2019, a long-time employee of the state’s Department of Transportation;

Amanda Beedle, appointed in 2020 to fill out the term of Mickey Cleary who became a county legislator. Beedle worked for the town for many years, as deputy receiver of taxes, deputy town clerk, registrar, and marriage officer; and

— Christopher Longo who was appointed in December 2020 after long-time planning board member James Cohen announced his retirement in August. Longo is a professional engineer and founder of Empire Engineering.

Bohl’s second reason was Justice Lynch’s decision, halting the Pyramid expansion projects. Bohl said she read Lynch’s 77-page decision and the environmental impact statement and agreed there were “many factual mistakes” and that assertions by the developer “were summarily accepted by the planning board without serious challenge.”

Barber responded through The Enterprise that he thought it was unfair of Bohl to attack someone for an opinion she knew couldn’t be defended since the matter is under appeal.

Barber had told The Enterprise in April, after Pyramid had clear-cut trees to make way for Costco before the environmental-review process was complete, that residents had wanted higher-density development, apartments and shops, closer to existing retail, which would keep traffic off of Western Avenue, aligning with Smart Growth principles.

This week, Barber cited a neighborhood study done in 2015 and 2016 that supported that goal. The Ring Road at Crossgates Mall is underutilized, except perhaps on Black Friday, said barber.

“The goal of the study was to transfer traffic off Route 20 to the Ring Road and onto the Northway.,” Barber said, adding that the Capital District Transportation Authority is planning a rapid bus line from Crossgates into Albany that would take people living in apartments there into the city in 20 minutes.

“It’s sound planning,” he said.

Bohl’s third reason for not wanting to reappoint Feeney is that the board almost always votes unanimously, indicating its “not functioning quite properly,” she said.

Over the last three years, Bohl said, she had personally observed the planning board meetings, typically twice a month. “Out of those approximately 72 meetings, I’m hard-pressed to recall a decision where the seven-member board did not unanimously back the decision made by Chairman Feeney on any given project with little if any discussion.”

This troubles her, Bohl said.”It’s not normal.” Normally, she said, seven different people would have unique perspectives.

“Seldom, if ever,” said Bohl, “have I heard any substantive disagreement with the planning board chairman much less seen any member vote against the chair’s position.”

She went on, “Our goal should be to always make sure our boards create an atmosphere that enables and encourages a robust, fair exchange of opinions and vigorous discussion,” which would result in fewer unanimous votes.

Barber responded through The Enterprise that both the planning board and the zoning board, which he had chaired before being elected supervisor, have unanimous decisions. “A lot of times, there’s compromise,” he said, indicating differences have been worked out before the vote.

“My concern is there is robust conversation and engagement,” said Barber, noting that he sees that on the planning board.

He went on, “I always have to remind people we’re still in the midst of a pandemic.” Barber said that while, for safety’s sake, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the public is not allowed at meetings, the meetings are broadcast on multiple platforms.

“The planning board and zoning board members are doing a terrific job,” he said.

Bohl concluded her remarks on Jan. 5, “For these reasons, I feel it’s time for change in leadership of the planning board and time to allow new people to play an active role on the town’s planning board.” She thanked Feeney for his many years of service and wished him the best.

At the Jan. 5 meeting, Barber responded, “There are three new members on the planning board over the past two-and-a-half years. I think to suggest that there needs to be new blood or new members —

“Leadership,” interjected Bohl.

“Is not — you had at the very end, needing new members — and I think that’s not accurate,” Barber finished his thought. “I want the record to reflect there have been three new members of the seven-member board added over the past several years.”

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