Caught with pants down: Motocross proposal shows Westerlo needs a master plan

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Berne is surveying its residents to update its master plan. For a comprehensive land-use plan to be meaningful, it must embody the will of the majority of a town’s citizens. And it must be current.

We commend Berne’s comprehensive plan committee and urge residents to fill out the survey. Now is the time to make your voices heard.

As the chairman of the committee, James Cooke, put it, “It’s important because it’s an open process, and it’s supposed to be all about what residents and landowners think their town ought to be like. Without that input, the plan just doesn’t have any credence at all.”

Nan Stolzenburg, a planning consultant hired by the town who lives in Berne, spoke with the wisdom that comes from advising many municipalities over the years when she said that the strength of a comprehensive plan comes from its being built from the ground up. “It’s not something that’s imposed on a community,” she said. “It’s developed by the community and the survey gives every household in town an opportunity to have their say.”

The need for a comprehensive land-use plan is glaringly evident in the neighboring Hilltown of Westerlo. The town is divided as two brothers, Doyle and Trent Shaver, plan to build a motocross track on 93 acres of field and forest that they own off of Route 85. The town does not currently regulate motocross, a popular spectator sport that involves dirt bikes racing around curves and over jumps.

“It’s not a regulated use,” the town’s attorney, Aline Galgay, told our reporter Zach Simeone, of building a motocross track in Westerlo.

The Shavers were, quite properly, ordered to cease and desist the excavation work they had started to build a course because they hadn’t applied for, let alone received, a permit. Certainly, any project that involves moving earth on a scale that will affect stormwater runoff needs to be reviewed and approved. The motocross site has tributaries that flow into the Basic Creek watershed; the reservoir supplies drinking water to Albany.

While both the Westerlo code-enforcement officer and the Shavers assured us this week that current construction is allowed because it is unrelated to the motocross project, on separate property, and needed to solve a flooding problem that occurred before the Shavers brought the land, we’ll keep a watchful eye. It’s essential that the Shavers do what Rick Georgeson at the Department of Environmental Conservation advised — “Come to us with a plan of what exactly they plan on doing with the property.” Georgeson went on, “Once we see that plan, we’ll have a better idea of what kind of stormwater plan they need.”

“We’re doing things as right as we can,” said Doyle Shaver yesterday. We’ll hold him to his word.

But a larger problem looms. Westerlo has no comprehensive land-use plan.

Sixteen years ago, the town board disbanded the planning board because developers complained about delays and having to meet requirements. This was a mistake. So we were heartened two years ago when the current town board named a new planning board and charged its members with developing a comprehensive plan — Westerlo’s first.

The chairman, Leonard Laub, began the process in the right way, setting up meetings with residents in different parts of town, and stating that both businesses and citizens would be surveyed. “We have to do this in as way that the community is part of the process,” Laub said at the time.

Last year, the board fired him from his post because he wouldn’t fill out a Civil Service application, stating that he did not want to be paid for his work. Planning board member Jack Milner resigned in protest and was since elected to the town board.

A new chairman was chosen the day after Laub’s firing by three members of the town board in an illegal meeting, violating the state’s Open Meetings Law since no notice was given to the public.

Andrew Brick, a lawyer and a member of the planning board, was then appointed to fill the chairman’s post. He resigned not long after to accept an appointment as town judge. Tony Sherman, another planning board member, was appointed to the leadership post. There is nothing now to offer guidance to a town divided over the building of a motocross track.

Some of the Shavers’ neighbors point to the noise and dirt that motocross riders, frequently followed by spectators, generate. Other residents called the motocross track “a phenomenal idea,” stating it would provide a safe place for having fun and would keep kids off the street.

In response to residents who voiced opposition at last week’s town board meeting, Sherman, the planning board chairman, said that, while he did not necessarily agree or disagree with the placement of a track on the Shavers’ land, banning motocross in all of Westerlo could mean eliminating the possibility of creating businesses that may generate a significant revenue stream for the town.

“Any other motocross that has ever been built or operated has had neighbors who oppose it,” Doyle Shaver told our reporter. “We didn’t want to sneak this in and not have our neighbors know what we’re doing, so I put out a couple petitions just to get an idea of whether or not we would have people that approve of it. If I didn’t get good feedback on petitions, and if the majority of people opposed it, we probably wouldn’t be looking into pursuing it, but the feedback has been excellent, so, at this point, we’re just trying to do what we need to do and get approval from the town.”

While we can’t fault the Shavers for petitioning their neighbors, the town planners should have conducted the survey. If citizens had been surveyed as proposed two years ago, a plan that addressed the issue might well be in place now. Once a comprehensive plan is developed, a hearing process is required, allowing public comment. This is ideally done in a setting that is not fueled by a single — already proposed — project.

Westerlo should proceed apace with its master plan so that there is a framework in place for dealing with other projects. The town needs to decide what it wants for its future and where it will allow what sorts of development.

After a master plan is adopted by the town board, the next step is critical. It must be codified into zoning. That is the work that an advisory committee in Guilderland has just begun after the town board adopted a comprehensive plan eight years ago. We urge Westerlo and Berne, once its plan is updated, not to wait so long.

The town of New Scotland, at the base of the Helderbergs, offers a clear example of how a delay in codifying a master plan into law can cause mayhem. It takes focus and often courage for a town board to move forward and adopt zoning laws that carry out the vision outlined in a master plan. New Scotland’s zoning is contrary to its comprehensive plan. The town’s zoning designates a large area of farmland, at the intersection of routes 85 and 85A, as a commercial zone. This served as a beacon to Sphere Development, Inc., which planned a large retail center for the land, anchored by a Target store.

Massive citizen outcry last year called for a moratorium on commercial building so that the town’s zoning could be made to align with its comprehensive plan, adopted in 1994. The master plan calls for commercial development on a scale that serves the town rather than acting as a regional draw.

New Scotland has become bitterly divided as the town board has twice extended its moratorium. The majority of the committee members appointed by the town board to advise it on updating the zoning resigned. The debacle is currently playing out in the town elections.

The lesson here for other towns, like Westerlo, to learn is: Keep zoning current with a comprehensive land-use plan that reflects the values of a town’s residents.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

More Editorials

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.