New Guilderland planner was senior planner in Bethlehem

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair 
New town planner Kenneth Kovalchik has 15 years’ experience in the planning profession. 

GUILDERLAND — Kenneth Kovalchik, who started as town planner Monday, discussed the similarities and differences between Guilderland and Bethlehem, where he spent the last five years as a senior planner.

He noted that the towns have the same population, about 35,000, and Guilderland, like Bethlehem, has a high number of multifamily projects underway, he said.

In terms of differences, Guilderland has a stronger commercial tax base, he said, but lacks a walkable downtown area connected to adjoining neighborhoods, like Bethlehem’s Four Corners.

This might be, he said, an area that Guilderland can improve upon, particularly in Westmere with the recently adopted transit-oriented development district that seeks to encourage the reinvestment of vacant and underutilized buildings along Route 20, concentrate higher-density development in Westmere, and encourage pedestrian linkages to nearby shopping and recreation.

Kovalchik will meet with planning board Chairman Stephen Feeney next week to discuss the status of ongoing proposals and projects and to start prioritizing. For now, he said, he’s getting everything organized and doing background research on all of the projects in the queue.

“There’s a lot of projects I’m trying to get up to speed on,” he said.

Kovalchik is filling a vacancy left when longtime planner Jan Weston retired from her post at the end of 2016. He will work 35 hours per week for a starting salary of $78,000;

The town has also hired Zeynep Tas as a senior planning, to do GIS, or geographic information system, mapping and to help Kovalchik or to work with the zoning department as needed. She will start next week. She will work 35 hours per week with a starting salary of $43,000.

Kovalchik, 47, before working for Bethlehem, worked for Clark County in Nevada — which includes Las Vegas — and the town of Avon in Colorado. He also worked for a solar-energy company as director of operations for New York.

The solar experience came in handy at Bethlehem, where he was one of three people who rewrote a solar ordinance, primarily for large-scale projects, he said. The town had been approached by several companies interested in doing large-scale projects, but had had no ordinance about these projects.

After that ordinance was adopted, Kovalchik said, he worked on three large-scale projects ranging from two-and-a-half to eight megawatts. The ordinance also addressed smaller systems, both residential and smaller commercial.

A planner’s responsibility, Kovalchik said, is to weigh the development rights that come with a property and allow development within a reasonable framework, while trying to retain as much open space as possible.

In the parts of town where open space remains and infrastructure is available, planned unit developments and conservation subdivisions sometimes become an attractive option, as a way of trying to arrange for higher-density development in that area, while promoting open space and arranging for amenities like trail systems, Kovalchik said.

He is aware of the intense public interest in some of the high-profile proposals made recently for some of the last remaining open spaces in the heart of Guilderland, such as the proposal for development on the Hiawatha Trails Executive Golf Course on Route 155 across from Farnsworth Middle School, and a project that Kovalchik called Winding Brook Commons, which would combine residential and commercial buildings in the area of Winding Brook Road, near the YMCA.

One aspect of these two projects that the town will be looking at, he said, is the potential for “connecting the trails between them … trying to make a walking connection to destinations like the YMCA.”

Kovalchik said that planners always try to remain neutral; they don’t support or oppose any particular projects. They try to mitigate the impacts of development that is coming in.

Planners’ tools include the town’s zoning and subdivision regulations and its comprehensive plan, he said, noting that there are many outside agencies that also have a say in how projects develop, including the state’s department of transportation, the federal Army Corps of Engineers, and the agencies that conduct cultural and archeological review.

The town board voted to appoint both Kovalchik and Tas at its July 17 meeting. The votes on each appointment were 4 to 0, with Paul Pastore absent.

The town has been without a planner for a year and a half. Supervisor Peter Barber said that town officials interviewed about 10 candidates for the job.

GIS mapping

A significant part of Tas’s duties, said Barber, will involve working with the water and sewer departments on GIS mapping.

She will be responsible for mapping information about water and sewer lines throughout the town as well as information on properties, such as their zoning, zoning permits, and assessments, Barber told The Enterprise.

The town’s water and sewer departments are mapping main, lateral, and other lines, Barber said. “Accuracy to within a foot is crucial, which is why the town is investing in new GIS equipment and software.”

Tas is an expert in GIS mapping, Barber said, and Tim McIntyre, superintendent of the town’s water/wastewater management department, is excited about her appointment.

Making this information more readily accessible will benefit the town’s planning and zoning departments, Barber said. It will also benefit all the departments of town government, he said, as well as residents who have questions or concerns.

Tas will also help the new town planner, Barber said, and work with the zoning department as needed.

Kovalchik said that, in Bethlehem, GIS mapping of the sort that Tas will be doing is well underway and can save “a lot of man hours.”

In Bethlehem, he said, “we were also mapping where water and sewer lines were located, the size and age of those lines, and then the new stormwater regulations are requiring mapping all the stormwater outfalls — not just where the catch basin is but, once it goes in there, where it is discharging.”

New regulations also require an annual review of the quality of that discharged water, he said, which is another piece of information that can be mapped.

Once the mapping is complete, Kovalchik said, “Somebody in the water department could go out with an iPad and find anything, easily locate a water or sewer line, and know where the catch basins are and the stormwater discharge points are.”

Other information that was being mapped in Bethlehem included not only the location but also the age and condition of any sidewalks, he said, as well as the location of any curb cuts, and whether or not the curb cuts conform to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There’s so much information that can be collected and utilized,” he said.

Referring to the new senior planner, he said, “That person is going to be very busy, because we’re starting from scratch here.”

From zero to two planners

Initially, Barber said, the town’s budget had been set aside for a single part-time planner. The thinking had been, he said, that Weston had been working part-time during her last few years, and the town would simply continue that arrangement with a new planner.

Since it is now halfway through the year, Barber said, the town has the ability to pay for a full-time planner and will then budget, next year, the amount needed.

There were funds in this year’s water/sewer line in the budget for hiring a GIS coordinator, Barber said. But because Tas also has a planning degree, the town will have her help with land-development applications.

“There’s room in the budget for both,” Barber said, referring to the two planners. “There’s a lot of people who retire and move on, and so there’s always a lot of flexibility.”

More Guilderland News

  • Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber is expecting a 20-percent reduction in sales-tax revenues for the second quarter, which amounts to a loss of about half-of-a-million dollars. But, he said, the town, is “in fairly good shape” financially since it has “healthy reserves,” which he described as being “in the millions of dollars.” He has no immediate plans to lay off or furlough town workers.

  • “We have been challenged to not only reinvent what we do for an online platform, but innovate at the same time,” said Timothy Wiles, director of the Guilderland Public Library. The library is proposing a $4 million budget, drafted before the coronavirus shutdown. Residents of the Guilderland Central School district will vote through mail-in ballots that must be returned by June 9.

  • Three incumbents — Herb Hennings, Mark Keeling, and Phil Metzger — are running to keep their seats on the Guilderland Public Library Board of Trustees. They are being challenged by Marcia Alazraki and Richard Rubin.

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