If one senior living complex is good for the town, six would be fantastic, right?

Guilderland needs a town planner. A large — population 34,000 — suburban town bordering New York’s capital city, it is the site of much growth.

Jan Weston, who had been the town’s planner since 1988, retired over a year ago.

Part of her role has been filled by Stephen Feeney, chairman of Guilderland’s planning board and a certified professional planner. Five months ago, the town’s supervisor, Peter Barber, told us that Feeney is limited in the amount of responsibility he can take on, since he has a full-time job working with the Schenectady County Economic Development and Planning Department.

Feeney said last September he was sure there would be a new town planner hired but meanwhile he could manage on a temporary basis and still keep his two jobs separate. He said he returned phone calls within a couple of days on his own time, sent emails from home, and had enough vacation time that he could meet with applicants when necessary.

Guilderland’s building inspector, Jacqueline Coons, has also pitched in. “When Jan was here, she was pretty self-sufficient and didn’t delegate very much work,” said Coons last September as she described how clerical staffers were now contributing to do work once handled by the town planner.

“I’m sure this is temporary,” Feeney told us in September.

Five months later, there is still no town planner. Not hiring someone for that role is pennywise and pound foolish.

In the long run, it hurts the town not to have a planner who can look at the big picture and advise the quasi-judicial planning and zoning boards on the best course of action.

Beyond the fact that it’s unfair to have a planning board chairman working on his own time to fill the planner’s role, it also presents a potential conflict of interest.

We’ve been hearing from neighbors of what is now the Hiawatha Trails golf course, across from Farnsworth Middle School, who are upset with plans for development there. A developer has proposed building 256 apartments for seniors, in four four-story buildings, along with an office complex, leaving 20 acres of green space behind the buildings.

One neighbor has asserted that discussion of the development has taken place privately with the planning board, or at least Chairman Feeney.

If Feeney is in the role of town planner, he would necessarily be meeting with developers one-on-one to go over their plans. But in his role of planning board chairman, he is required to conduct sessions according to the state’s Open Meetings Law where such matters are to be discussed in public.

He should not be placed in a such an untenable position.

Further, residents objecting to this development have raised larger questions that a town planner could focus on and answer. One important question is: What is the need in Guilderland for independent-living units for seniors?

Such projects have been popping up in town like mushrooms after a spring rain. But are they needed?

Developers can argue either way for what they want. In 2016, Mill Hollow, a project on Route 20 in western Guilderland that had been approved for units for residents aged 55 and older, sought approval from the town to lift its age restriction.

The developer told the town board it was “imperative” that the age restriction be lifted because the real-estate market had evolved and lenders had come to believe that there was sufficient supply in the market for over-55 units and no need for the Mill Hollow project if it remained senior-focused. The Mill Hollow project went ahead as apartments for renters of any age.

Meanwhile, other developers seeking approval to build complexes for over-55 residents are saying such units are needed. When our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, asked Supervisor Barber about this discrepancy, he said the need may vary from one part of the town to another.

This seems unlikely in a town of less than 60 square miles where independent-living seniors are likely to drive.

Further, Barber said that none of the town’s boards, including the planning or zoning boards, “second guess” a developer’s estimation of the marketability of a project.

We believe that those responsible with making decisions on how the town is developed should rigorously question a developer’s estimation of marketability. And a town planner would be able to supply the data that would make such an exchange meaningful.

It is best for both the town and the developer to have a project that fills a real need.

Beyond that, a town planner could look at issues such as traffic congestion in a way that is meaningful for the entire town, rather than, as boards tend to do, focusing on just one project at a time.

The Hiawatha Trails project, which has caused such an outpouring of objections, is being decided on by the town board since the request is for a planned unit development. But any of Guilderland’s boards would make better decisions with the expertise lent by a town planner.

 

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