Move forward with a plan based on a proud past


Illustration by Forest Byrd.

Fifteen years ago, we wrote what a mistake it was to disband the Westerlo Planning Board. The planners had expertise and were doing the job they were appointed to do.

The problem was developers complained about delays and having to meet requirements. So the town board did away with the planning board.

We were heartened two years ago when two councilmen — Gregory Zeh and Ed Rash — spoke of the need for controlling development. They differed on how to do it. In the end, just over a year ago, the town board appointed a new planning board.

With Leonard Laub as its chairman, the planning board began groundwork for developing Westerlo’s first-ever comprehensive land-use plan. It is much needed to serve as a template for revamping the town’s outdated subdivision regulations.

Laub went about it in the right way. “We have to do this in a way that the community is part of the process,” he told our reporter, Tyler Schuling. To gather information and address the needs of individual communities in Westerlo, he said, the board would meet with residents from different parts of town, including Lake Onderdonk, Dormansville, and the hamlets of Westerlo and South Westerlo. He also said residents and businesses would be surveyed.

The planning board began by meeting with farmers, a wise move since Westerlo has over 30 working farms, which define the rural character of the town.

“If we can’t keep agriculture sustainable in Westerlo, we’ve got a fundamental problem,” said Laub.

At that first meeting, a planning expert was invited to talk about the transfer of development rights, a farmland-protection tool.

“The idea is not to impose something on people,” said Laub. “It’s to have the town do something that actually gives people a better alternative.”

In short, Laub was a worthwhile leader, launching a much-needed mission in an exemplary way.

But the town board voted unanimously last Tuesday to fire Laub.

The board says it’s because Laub won’t fill out a Civil Service application. Laub says that, when he was interviewed for the post, he told the town board he did not want to be paid for his work; he told our reporter he’d like the allotted $4,500 a year to be used instead for engineering, consulting, and legal fees for zoning revisions.

Further, Laub didn’t want to be part of the state’s retirement system. At a time when New York’s attorney general is making a crusade out of uncovering professionals who have received pension benefits when they shouldn’t have, we find it refreshing to learn Laub, who was entitled to benefits, didn’t want them.

We’ve spent a good part of the past two weeks talking to various state and county agencies, trying to find out if Laub was, indeed, required to fill out a Civil Service form.

 We were told by an official in the state comptroller’s office that all Laub has to do to hold his job is to take the oath of office, which he did.

A press officer at the Department of State checked with the staffer Laub himself had consulted and told us that Laub doesn’t have to be part of the Civil Service system and should not have been fired, but then called back to say it was out of the department’s jurisdiction and we should consult, instead, with the State Civil Service.

The spokesman there said the post of planning board chairman is “typically unclassified” and outside of the Civil Service system, meaning Laub would not have to file an application. But, he said, individual counties in New York are empowered to classify positions and decide “where they fit.”

  A spokesman for Albany County Civil Service said, although there is no test for the planning board chairman, it is a Civil Service title and Laub would have to fill out a form.

Jack Milner, a long-time Westerlo farmer and a planning-board member, spoke at last Tuesday’s public hearing before Laub was fired. “I think it would be a very bad mistake getting him off the planning board,” said Milner. “He’s got the time and he’s got the knowledge.”

We agree. Laub was willing to devote untold hours and much expertise to help preserve what is valuable in Westerlo and shape the town’s future.

Laub accepted the post, he said, not for money and not for political reasons, but to do what the town board wanted him to do — “to protect the town” and “keep it as it is in a world that is changing rapidly.”

A new chairman was chosen the day after Laub’s firing by three members of the town board — councilmen Rash and Zeh and Supervisor Richard Rapp. The meeting was illegal, in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law, since no notice was given to the public or press.

The new chairman is Andrew Brick, a lawyer and a member of the planning board. We wish him the best and we hope he carries on with the same sense of mission and inclusive methods used by Laub.

Laub was shaping the vision for Westerlo’s future by turning to residents to hear their needs and opinions. He was also tapping into the resources of area experts to literally gauge the lay of the land. We urge Laub to continue with the planning board in the role of consultant. His services are valuable and just what the town needs now.

Westerlo can’t afford to wait another 15 years.

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