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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 1, 2010
Limits to toe the line
By Saranac Hale Spencer
NEW SCOTLAND Land-use planning and politics have become entwined since the future of commercial development set the course for last November’s heated election.
Councilman Douglas LaGrange, who was one of a three-man slate that won the election on a platform of controlled retail growth, submitted a bill that would reduce the planning board’s seven-year term to four years and institute a three-term limit.
Many of the planning board’s seven members were involved in the election, most of them backing the losing slate, which favored a laissez-faire approach to development.
LaGrange, Councilman Daniel Mackay, and Supervisor Thomas Dolin campaigned on the idea of using a 50,000-square-foot cap on the allowable size of retail stores to control so-called big-box development. The majority of the planning board, including long-time member and former chairman Robert Stapf, has rejected that figure as too small.
“I make no bones about it I am pro-commercial,” Stapf said during the course of a February discussion over the latest size-cap bill, which was narrowly defeated last month. He explained that he thought the lack of suitable infrastructure near the town’s commercial zone would prohibit a big-box shopping center. He quoted the town’s comprehensive plan as calling for “viable commercial development.”
“I agree with you,” said planning board member Elizabeth Stewart. “I don’t like the size they propose,” she said, asking, who would come to New Scotland if the size of a store were limited to 50,000 square feet.
Planning board members Cynthia Elliott, Lorraine Tuzzolo, and Robert Smith agreed that the 50,000-square-foot cap on stores and 100,000-square-foot cap on shopping centers were too small. Charles Voss, who made a failed bid for the Republican line in last fall’s council race and was made chair of the planning board in January, approved of the bill, as did Kevin Kroencke.
Elliott and Stewart agreed that the town of Bethlehem should not be considered during New Scotland’s planning process, since, they reasoned, the neighboring town hadn’t consulted with New Scotland before completing some of its major projects. “We don’t have to include them,” Stewart said.
Calling their statement a “petty tirade,” resident Dean Sommer told the town board in February that the behavior on the planning board reflected badly on the town of New Scotland. He asked that planning board members be reminded that they speak as public officials of the town.
Following Sommer, Peter Baltis brought an unrelated complaint to the town board regarding Kroencke, who lives in a Voorheesville housing development built by Baltis. When the project was built two decades ago, each of seven houses had a well on one building lot. Later, public water became available in the area and the wells were no longer necessary, although the homeowners retained the wellheads and a surrounding 20-foot by 20-foot plot.
When Baltis decided to build on the two empty lots flanking the well lot, he offered to buy the well head from each homeowner for $1,000, so that he could seal them and then get permission from the health department to locate septic tanks for each of the adjoining properties, he said yesterday. Two owners agreed and the five others, including Kroencke, asked him for $15,000 each.
“We understand that Mr. Baltis would like to develop Lots 14 and 18 on Elizabeth Drive and he would like to purchase our un-abandoned well,” says a letter dated Dec. 31, 2008 from Kroencke and his wife. “We might be agreeable to sell Mr. Baltis the 20’x20’ parcel of land surrounding my well (Lot 11), the un-abandoned well and our 1/7th interest in lot 16 for no less then $15,000.00,” the letter concludes.
Since then, Baltis got approval from the health department to locate septic tanks on the two adjoining properties and, on Nov. 10, he went before the planning board, seeking variances from the town because zoning codes had changed since he first conceived of the project. The planning board voted to send his request to the zoning board of appeals with a favorable recommendation, with Kroencke casting the only opposing vote.
During the course of discussion, Kroencke volunteered that he was an owner of one of the wellheads, but he appeared to get no counsel on recusing himself from either chairman Stapf or the planning board’s attorney at the time, Louis Neri.
Baltis first asked the town board in February to dismiss Kroencke and then a month later asked again that it examine his record. “We might end up in federal courts,” Baltis told the board on March 10.
Supervisor Thomas Dolin said this week that the board has looked into the issue and referred it to both the town attorney, Michael Mackey, and the planning board attorney, Jeffrey Baker. Neither would comment on his findings this week, although Baker was unsure of what legal case Baltis could make, since the decision ultimately favored him.
Kroencke could not be reached for comment.
The bill that LaGrange introduced regarding term limits and shorter terms for planning board members also includes some ethical stipulations. Any member who has financial interest “in any matter pending before the Planning Board, shall immediately upon, learning of the application, disclose such interest and shall abstain from engaging in any action pertaining to such matter.”
“Redundancy isn’t really a concern,” LaGrange said yesterday when asked if parts of his draft law overlap with material included in an ethics bill that is pending.
He looked at half a dozen laws governing the structure of planning boards in New York, LaGrange said he couldn’t name the municipalities from memory, he said when asked where some of them were.
Several, he said, did not abide by the standard set by state Town Law, specifying that planning board members “be appointed for terms which shall be equal in years to the number of members of the board.” New Scotland’s current structure follows that approach, with its seven planning board members serving seven-year terms and its five zoning board of appeals members serving five-year terms.
Municipal Home Rule Law allows municipalities to supercede those stipulations, Mackey said yesterday.
LaGrange proposed that planning-board members serve four-year terms with a limit of three terms. He included that, after taking a hiatus of two years, someone who had served 12 total years could again be appointed.
Four-year terms were appealing, LaGrange said, because it allowed people with expertise to stay on the board for a significant period of time with reviews every four years.
Councilwoman Deborah Baron and Councilman Richard Reilly each prefer to keep the seven-year terms, but impose a two-term limit.
The idea behind shortening the terms, said Dolin yesterday, is that it would encourage more people to get involved in town government. Also, he said, “We need some planned turnover.”
Asked about concerns that shorter term lengths could make planning-board appointments more political, LaGrange said, “You’re never going to take the politics out.”
During the planning board’s discussion of the size-cap bill, Voss said, “I think the last election drew a very clear and distinct line,” and the intent of the bill is to limit the growth of large-scale retail.
Later in the discussion, Stapf said, “What’s put in this election year could be taken out next election year.”