Berne's Planning Board is back in business

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
The Berne Planning Board meets on Feb. 6, 2020. From left are members Lawrence Zimmerman, Todd Schwendeman, former Chairman Thomas Spargo, and Secretary Cathy Shultes.

BERNE — The five members of the Berne Planning Board, which hadn’t met since February, will soon be meeting again.

The board had been on hiatus because the half-century-old paperwork that created the board couldn’t be found, but a law that brings the de facto planning board to legitimacy was adopted at the town board’s July 22 regular meeting.

Councilman Joel Willsey, the board’s lone Democrat, abstained; Councilwoman Bonnie Conklin, a GOP-backed Conservative, was absent; and the other three members — Supervisor Sean Lyons and Deputy Supervisor Dennis Palow, both Republicans, along with Councilman Mathew Harris, a GOP-backed member of the Independence Party — voted in favor.

This gave the bill the needed majority of three to become law.

In May, Councilman Mathew Harris announced that the planning board never had legal status because paperwork for a motion that constituted the planning board in 1972 failed to make its way to New York’s Department of State. The Enterprise made inquiries of the department, which was unable to confirm or deny if such a record exists.

The announcement came while the town board was considering an expansion of the planning board from five to seven members, which has been widely criticized by residents and planning board members alike, most of whom were suspicious that the now Republican-backed town board was seeking a way to stack the planning board in its favor. 

Planning boards are designed to be apolitical, but ideologies about town planning exist nevertheless, and often roughly adhere to the major party lines. This year, the town board attempted to remove planning board member and Democrat Emily Vincent, a nurse and farmer, and replace her with Thomas Spargo, a former state Supreme Court justice and once prominent Republican — now a member of the Conservative Party — who was disbarred following a felony conviction for bribery and extortion, which he committed from the bench. The town board also named Spargo chairman.

In March, after Vincent filed a legal challenge, the state Supreme Court deemed the change to be in violation of New York State Town Law, which says that planning board members cannot be removed from their position without a hearing, which Vincent had never received. 

So, when the town board appeared to have carte blanche to install not just two new members to the planning board, but seven, residents and the de facto planning board worried that the chance would be seized with vigor. Harris assured residents, however, that the town board would not make any changes to the de facto planning board as the town board moved to obtain legalization.

Willsey, the lone Democrat of the board and both a frequent critic and target of the other members, demanded that Harris’s assurances be made in writing, as he did not trust the board to carry out its word. 

Former Councilwoman Dawn Jordan, a Democrat who did not seek re-election to her seat last November, wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor this week that she, too, remains suspicious of the board. 

“In the recent New York State Supreme Court case that ruled you illegally demoted Emily Vincent from the planning board, and illegally replaced her with convicted felon Tom Spargo, there was no mention of that court questioning the validity of our planning board,” Jordan wrote.

“Is this the reason you are doing this?” she continued. “To somehow invalidate the Supreme Court’s decision given that it was based on a planning board that you claim to have proven did not really exist at that time?

“One has to wonder what your motives really are,” Jordan concluded, “because they do not seem to be in service to the good people of our town.”

Also in question, Jordan acknowledged, is whether or not decisions issued by the de facto planning board for the past half-century expose the town to litigation from people unhappy with rulings, which often deal with property lines and can result in neighbor disputes. 

“As to the statement that all findings, determinations, and decisions of this existing-yet-not-existing planning board will stand — well, you can wish for that and make your case,” Jordan wrote, “but that won’t stop or even discourage people from taking you to court and wasting more taxpayer money on defense of planning board and zoning board decisions rendered that displeased an applicant or a neighbor. 

“Fifty years of case decisions means there are an awful lot of chances for that to happen,” she wrote. 

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