Westerlo supervisor proposes elimination of planning board, citing costs and inefficiency

Enterprise file photo — Noah Zweifel

Westerlo Supervisor Matthew Kryzak, right, and town attorney George McHugh at a town board meeting. Kryzak has recently proposed the elimination of the town’s planning board soon after McHugh left one of those meetings in frustration. Kryzak said the idea long predates that episode.

WESTERLO — Once again, Westerlo will consider eliminating its planning board.

Over three decades ago, the town board voted to serve in the planning board’s stead and did so for 15 years until the planning board was reinstated.

Now there’s a proposal to hand over the responsibilities of the five-member board to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, which also has five members. A public hearing is scheduled for June 18 at 6 p.m. at the Westerlo Town Hall. 

Supervisor Matthew Kryzak, a Republican, said he expects the maneuver would save the town at least $10,000 in salaries and benefits, while also streamlining the planning process and making it more bearable for applicants. 

However, town board members Josh Beers, a Republican, and Peter Mahan voted against the introduction of the law, and planning board member Angela Carkner, who ran against Kryzak for supervisor in the last election on her own party line, said she felt that she and the other planning board members were “being silenced” by the move. 

Carkner said that, at a training held by the New York State Planning Board Association, one of the speakers “said that it is a bad idea to combine ZBA and planning boards, and there’s lots of literature on it.” 

Beers told The Enterprise this week that although he’s a “conservative guy” in favor of less government, “On that level, especially in a rural town, if you don’t have that, you could get some businesses that maybe shouldn’t be in town, and combining the two [boards] together takes a little of that protection out.” 

Kryzak was also accused of essentially punishing political enemies, as several planning board members have voiced opposition to Kryzak’s initiatives over the years, including Chairman Beau Loendorf, who ran unsuccessfully for town board on the Democratic line last year.

But Kryzak said that this proposal was essentially a revival of an idea that originated in 2021, when Supervisor Bill Bichteman, a Democrat, was still on the board. 

“We had gone as far doing a ton of research, and pulling information on how the town of Coeymans had done it, the village of Ravenna, and trying to figure out … what the process was and what the cost savings was, and how easy it would be to have just one board serve both purposes,” he told The Enterprise this week. 

Notably, Westerlo’s attorney is George McHugh, who was supervisor of Coeymans when it had abolished its planning board. McHugh has since been ousted from that post.

McHugh has been a controversial presence in Westerlo since he was hired in 2021 — after Kryzak took over for Bichteman as supervisor — as controversies in Coeymans around planning had colored residents’ perception of him in Westerlo.

His role and allegedly undue influence in Westerlo were a major aspect of last year’s board election, with Carkner, Loendorf, and Mahan taking issue with him while Kryzak and Councilwoman Amie Burnside backed McHugh.

 

“Debacle"

Carkner told The Enterprise last week that she feels the proposal is most directly tied to the fact that McHugh, in an apparent moment of frustration, had left a planning board meeting early last month as the board was dealing with an application from a powder-coating business. 

McHugh had recommended that the board fill out a long-form State Environmental Quality Review and consult with the town’s engineer on the project to cover its bases. Loendorf said at the meeting that he was in favor of the long-form review but “on the fence” about the engineer. 

Later in the meeting, when the board was offering the applicant 30 minutes to complete an application that they needed to move forward, McHugh was asked if he was able to stick around, and he expressed some frustration about the board not taking his advice and said, “You guys don’t need me,” before leaving. 

Beers, who was at the meeting and has been a critic of McHugh, told The Enterprise that he and McHugh had “exchanged some words” outside of the meeting after McHugh’s exit — “probably unprofessional on both ends.” 

Kryzak said the episode cast a poor light on the proposal to eliminate the board, which he had been “hemming and hawing about for months.” 

“The unfortunate side of that is the debacle had nothing to do with why I’m rolling this out now,” said Kryzak. “It just happens to be terrible timing that that hits the streets at the same time, [when] here I am trying to save money and make things more efficient.” 

 

Background

New York State Law requires towns to have a zoning board of appeals, but planning boards are optional. 

The basic function of a ZBA is to interpret zoning laws when a person believes that a code enforcement officer has erred in his judgment, and to decide whether to allow variances in some cases. Planning boards, meanwhile, review applications and site plans, and issue special-use permits, in addition to advising the primary government board on land-use matters. 

Unlike a ZBA, a planning board cannot interpret the law or consider variances for nonconforming uses. 

According to the Westchester Municipal Planning Federation, a group made up of local officials from Westchester County, developing communities like Westerlo typically have a more active planning board, while fully developed communities rely more on their ZBA. 

Westerlo previously debated the merits of eliminating the planning board in 1992, though at that time the idea was to have the town board take over its duties. The issue began when residents filed a petition asking the town board to freeze the planning board and conduct a review into its procedures, if not abolish it altogether, as The Enterprise reported at the time.

Landowners felt that doing business before the planning board was difficult because the approval process was too protracted, with one describing it as akin to being “held hostage.” However, one person acknowledged that the issue was specific to the circumstances of Westerlo’s planning board at the time, saying that it took longer in that town than in others to get planning approval. 

Former planning board member Charlie Boone had argued that the procedures that were annoying to applicants were preserving the qualities of the town that attracted people there in the first place. 

The chairman at the time, Roland Tozer, said that the issue was select applicants who refused to provide certain information to the board, preventing it from moving forward, while residents who complied were able to get approval more quickly. 

The town board ultimately voted unanimously to disband the planning board, but had it reinstated 15 years later in 2007, appointing, among others, Gerry Boone, who is still on the planning board today.

Beers referenced Boone’s time on the board when he said that, by disbanding the planning board, the town would be losing experienced volunteers. 

“I think it’s definitely a loss for the town …,” he said. “Obviously, one of our important jobs is to find ways to streamline and save money, but if that was the case, I could tell you that [the town board majority] spent a lot of money in places you shouldn’t spend money, so that excuse, it sounds good, but … that’s not the reason for this.”

Kryzak told The Enterprise that the idea to eliminate the planning board a couple of years ago was abandoned because the zoning board at the time wasn’t as strong; now, with a zoning board that has both experienced members and newer members who are “highly motivated to learn,” the time is right.

“Right now, with the two separate boards, if you’re coming before the planning board for your special-use permit, you do your application for the first meeting, and then if you do need a variance, then you have to wait a month for the zoning board meeting, and that may take two months to get, and then you have to go back to the planning board which takes another month,” Kryzak said.

The result, he said, is that people doing relatively minor projects like building a garage are waiting four months to do so. On top of that, both boards have canceled meetings this year so far — the planning board canceled its April and February meetings, while the ZBA canceled January and February — which for Kryzak indicates a lack of need. 

Regular planning board members in Westerlo are budgeted to make $2,400 a year, while the chairman gets $4,200 and the clerk makes $2,000, for a total budget line of $15,800.

Kryzak said that the ZBA, which has the same budget value, would get raises to make up for the extra work. He said that the town would also likely create two alternate positions. 

This would be the “most sweeping” thing he’s done since it would eliminate five people from town positions, but it’s with the goal of making the town more financially stable, Kryzak said. 

“People just aren’t seeing the big picture,” he said. “They just think I’m some type of tyrant and I’m like, ‘I’m trying to help you all.’”

More Hilltowns News

  • Former Westerlo Planning Board Chairman Beau Loendorf submitted a letter to the Enterprise editor this week bemoaning the town board’s decision to abolish the planning board, among other things. The town supervisor and town attorney both issued responses that defended themselves and turned the blame back on Loendorf and the planning board.

  • In a 3-to-2 vote, the Westerlo Town Board got rid of the town’s planning board — which Supervisor Matt Kryzak has described as “rogue” — despite opposition from residents and the Albany County Planning Board.

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo kicked off the 2024-25 administrative school year at its reorganizational meeting on July 1, where the board of education elected Matthew Tedeschi as its president, and heard from the new superintendent, Bonnie Kane, on the district’s new block-scheduling format.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.