Westerlo would be lost without its planning board

- Elisabeth Vines

Planning for the future is as important for town governments as it is for individuals.

We have lauded Westerlo’s supervisor, Matthew Kryzak, on this page for establishing a $1.2 million capital reserve fund to be used on various improvements in the town over the next four years. The outline provides a clear and responsible guideline for meeting town needs.

Kryzak’s plan allocates the money to 18 separate projects, most related to building improvements but also including a new snowplow and a renovation of the transfer station.

Looking toward the far future, Kryzak surmises that, once the Rapp Road landfill is closed, scheduled for 2028, the town won’t “get those bargain-basement tipping fees that we’ve all been spoiled by” with the landfill “right down the road.”

With the proposed renovations to the Westerlo transfer station, Kryzak said, “We’re kind of training people now to help save on that in the future.”

After a bruising election in November, Kryzak said he plans to leave his post once his plan is in place and his term is up. Being supervisor, the businessman said, is “not an enjoyable job.” He has taken on the task, he said, “because I want to see things done right.”

We have held up Kryzak as a Hilltown model of responsible planning for the future. But there is more to planning wisely for the future of a town than saving money.

We do not question Kryzak’s business acumen nor do we question his good intentions for the town but we strongly object to his proposal to combine the town’s zoning and planning boards.

The $10,000 the town would save annually in salaries and benefits for the appointed five-member board is nothing compared to what it would lose from not having their expertise.

Members of that board skillfully led the process that created the town’s first-ever comprehensive plan, a sensible blueprint for the growth of the community that still preserves its rural character.

A zoning board, which is required by state law, essentially serves as a safety valve. The zoning board has a quasi-judicial function as it decides on variances or on whether a code-enforcement officer has erred.

Planning boards, which are not required by state law, look at the big picture. As in Westerlo, the planning board can advise the town board on land use as well as reviewing site plans and applications for building and granting special-use permits.

We covered the dissolution of Westerlo’s planning board more than 30 years ago. The town board in 1992 voted unanimously to dissolve the planning board and took over the board’s duties.

The meeting hall was packed then as it was last week with ousted members of the planning board wearing matching T-shirts. Those who criticized the planning board — largely about the time it took to get an application approved — didn’t understand that the expertise that was lost.

“I’ve seen people come before the planning board,” said one speaker, complaining about delays, “and if all the ‘i’s weren’t dotted and ‘t’s weren’t crossed, they were sent back … I don’t believe any public body that is supposed to serve the community has the right to do that.”

His subdivision went through but he said $25,000 was lost because the market fell while the subdivision gained approval.

Roland Tozer, who chaired the planning board at the time, spoke at that hearing 32 years ago and what he said then is still true today. 

“Sometimes you stand to lose more of your freedom by not having regulations than you do by following them,” Tozer said. Big developers could come in and leave problems behind that the whole town would have to deal with, he said.

Tozer’s assertion was backed up by John Hasbrouck, whose land was next to the proposed Tannery Estates subdivision.

Hasbrouck said the planning board had done a good job of protecting neighboring landowners whose water supply would have been jeopardized by the 14-lot subdivision.

A planning board has to attend to details — to be sure the ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s crossed — to insure the greater public good.

The job can be an unpopular one but it is essential to good governance.

It took the town board 15 years to reappoint a planning board, a wise decision that led to the adoption of a visionary plan for the town’s future. Westerlo would be much poorer without its planners.

Hilltown reporter Noah Zweifel has a front-page story this week on the packed June 18 public hearing that makes crystal clear this time that the residents who attended see the worth of the planning board and made cogent arguments for its survival.

The only two speakers who were in favor of the zoning board taking over planning functions came from out of town. As Zweifel shows, both of those men were targeted in a suit in which a state Supreme Court judge decided they had unlawfully influenced the planning board on rejecting an application from a business that competed with one of theirs.

The discussion this time is caught up in political infighting in the Republican Party.

In the last town elections, in November 2023, Republican Kryzak supported the town attorney, George McHugh who himself was ousted as Coeymans supervisor in that election cycle.

Republican Angela Carkner, a planning board member who ran unsuccessfully against Kryzak, was critical of McHugh; Carkner ran on her own line, garnering 27 percent of the vote.

McHugh was not at the June 18 public hearing in Westerlo but Carkner and others believe the idea of eliminating the planning board stems from an incident last month where McHugh clashed with the planning board over a recommendation that an engineer look over an application for a powder-coating business. 

McHugh, as Zweifel reported, had walked out of that meeting and got into a verbal spat with town board member Josh Beers, who has long been critical of McHugh.

Meanwhile, Kryzak says the idea for eliminating the planning board dates back several years.

But let’s step back from political infighting to look at the issue of the town keeping its planning board solely on the merits or worthlessness of having the board.

After the hearing, Kryzak told Zweifel that he was “disappointed that many people in attendance were not open to new ways of potentially improving efficiency and decreasing operational costs.”

He said that savings is not just in salaries but retirement contributions, and that it is easier to staff a single board with a limited applicant pool rather than two boards. 

“People in general are resistant to change even when it’s for the better,” Kryzak said.

But is it for the better?

On the one hand, we have an immediate savings of $10,000 in annual salaries with savings proportional to those in retirement benefits down the line and perhaps an ease of staffing.

On the other hand, we have current planning board members eager to do their work — there appears to be no shortage of near-volunteers — and the expertise those members bring to the table.

Let us reflect on some of the comments made at the hearing about the planning board’s worth.

Gerry Boone, who was appointed to the planning board when it was reconstituted 17 years ago and is still on the board, wisely said that having more voices is key to preserving the interests of the town. 

He also challenged the idea that eliminating the planning board was the best way to speed up the application process for builders. 

“Perhaps,” said Boone, “instead of doing away with the planning board, we could meet more often, say, twice a month, if necessary” — a suggestion that was echoed by Claire Marshall who serves as clerk to both the zoning and planning boards.

“If you do not do two meetings per month, you are not going to streamline things for anyone,” said Marshall, explaining that the particulars of sending applications to the county makes timing an issue when people need a relatively quick answer. 

Who would know this better than a clerk? Perhaps the town’s building inspector, Jeffry Pine, who made the same recommendation.

Marshall also noted that the planning board handles the majority of applications in the town and has the most experience. 

Three decades ago, the zoning board chairman favored the planning board’s dissolution. However, the current zoning board chairman, George Spahmer, said that a combined-function zoning board would likely be strained by the additional workload, and lack the “expertise and specialization” held by current members of the planning board. 

Spahmer also said that, while there can be slow months, the workload on the planning board can be “substantial at times.” Solar projects, for example, “can be very complex and time-consuming,” he said. 

Returning to the importance of precision — dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s — the acting planning board chairman, Bill Hall, said that the delays Kryzak was keen on removing were a “feature, not a bug” of the system, and that “a different set of skills and a different set of eyes” are better able to scrutinize potentially problematic projects. 

Finally Joe Boone, a former councilman, told the current council members that the proposal to abolish the planning board disregards “the trust and confidence of the people that allowed you to sit in the chair and serve this community.”

He went on, “I would beg you to reconsider this proposal to abolish a well-seasoned, experienced, dedicated planning board.”

So, on balance, we can see that, if efficiency is a concern, perhaps the planning board should move to twice-monthly meetings when the workload demands it.

But the planning board should continue to function for the good of the town and its future.

The small savings in funds does not merit the loss of expertise — Gerry Boone’s having more voices to protect the interests of the town and Bill Hall’s having a different set of eyes to scrutinize potentially problematic projects. 

The town’s comprehensive land-use plan, which drew on a survey of residents, is a contract. It lays out a vision for Westerlo’s future that has been codified into zoning law. This protects all of the citizens of Westerlo.

As Roland Tozer said more than three decades ago, “Sometimes you stand to lose more of your freedom by not having regulations than you do by following them.”

We believe that Matthew Kryzak is working hard to do the best for the town and wants to see things “done right” as he put it. He has made great strides in this with his financial planning.

 We hope he, along with the other board members, heard loud and clear that the best thing for Westerlo’s future is to keep its planning board. And we hope Matthew Kryzak is a wise enough leader to change his mind to continue setting a course that is doing right for the town.

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