Businesses are stuck if the wheels of government don’t turn smoothly

Planning boards are a good and necessary part of town government. But they must work efficiently if they are to be effective and fair to the citizens they are meant to serve.

A case in point is a kennel application for a special-use permit made to the New Scotland Planning board in April. The planning board has yet to make a decision, and next meets on Nov. 7.

Lauren Bachner wants to turn existing buildings into a dog day care and kennel at 425 Unionville-Feura Bush Road. The decision should not take eight months.

Bachner had to close her business in Glenmont as she awaited the board’s decision. She had been running Four Paws Inn — a kennel, dog day-care and grooming facility — and had to extend her lease several times as the decision-making process in New Scotland dragged on. She could not get her lease extended past Sept. 30, she said, but did not inform the board that it was in jeopardy. “For them, it’s not relevant,” she told our New Scotland reporter, Lisa Nicole Lindsay, after the Oct. 7 planning board meeting.

Bachner’s clients moved on to board elsewhere. This is a big loss for a small business as, after the move, it will be hard to regain lost customers. But it has also been hard for her personally.

“They’re like family to me,” she said of the dogs. “I really miss them.” She worried that the dogs were not doing well in different settings, as, she said, each dog has its own personality and may not adjust well.

To be fair to the board, it took time for Bachner to submit all the paperwork required. A clear outline from the start with an expected timeline could help. Bachner said she incurred over $5,000 in costs for her attorney, water tests, surveys, and engineering fees.

“To me, it’s a lot of expense for a ‘maybe,’” she said. “It doesn’t seem fair or right.”

It doesn’t seem fair to us, either. The law requires that the public must be heard. This is essential so the board can be informed in its deliberations. But there is no reason the process should take over half of a year to complete.

The final straw came at the Oct. 7 meeting. Two members of the five-member board were absent so no action could be taken unless all three present members voted the same way, making a majority of the board.

To add insult to injury, the two absent members wrote in to indicate how they would have voted had they been present: one was for, the other against. With two of the present members in favor, that would have been enough to grant the permit.

We understand that circumstances can arise where not every board member can be present at every meeting. New Scotland has addressed frequent absences in the past by removing board members.

But, in the Internet era, it is hard to believe absent board members couldn’t make arrangements to attend meetings through computer hook-ups. We hope all elected board representatives — town, zoning, planning, and school board members — will read this and take heed.

The New York State Open Meetings Law allows board members to participate in, and legally vote at, meetings through video conferencing.

“It’s fine,” said Robert Freeman, the director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, when asked if such votes would count.

It takes some planning ahead as notice must be posted, just as with any board meeting, of where the participants will be, and those sites must be open to the public. School board members from Guilderland, for example, have participated in meetings from far-flung vacation venues.

We agree with the two planning board members present at the Oct. 7 meeting who favored granting the permit. Robert Stapf has noted in previous discussion about Bachner’s application that many of the neighbors have dogs. “Adjacent owners all have dogs, pretty much,” he said at the Oct. 7 meeting, adding, “I don’t see where an increase in traffic would have a negative impact.”

Kurt Anderson brought up several of the fears and complaints listed repeatedly by neighbors over the past several meetings, and said many of them “don’t have merit.” Two such fears are odors the dogs produce and the contamination of neighboring wells by the dogs’ feces. “I don’t know how you’re going to tell one dog from the other,” Anderson said when talking about smells. The noise issue, which was addressed frequently throughout the months of meetings, is negligible at the property line, Anderson said, due to intense soundproofing to be put on the buildings.

Thomas Hart, who ran the Oct. 7 meeting in the absence of the chairman, said, “I cannot predict what the vote would be next month.”

Neither can we. And neither can Bachner who says she is “trying to stay positive.”  That’s got to be hard with her existing business having to shut down, thousands of dollars out of her pocket, and no decision yet.

We urge any planning board members who can’t attend the November meeting to make arrangements now to videoconference. Bachner deserves an answer.

We’ll close by noting residents of some neighborhoods consider it an asset to have a groomer and a kennel in their midst. And New Scotland is a town without much of a commercial tax base. What sort of message does it send to other businesses that might want to locate in town to have to face such a lengthy, costly, and inefficient process?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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