While the whole country lately seems to be in a “Throw da bums out” sort of mood, there’s definitely something to be said for an incoming officeholder having a short learning curve. The Town of Gardiner kicks off 2012 with a new supervisor who also happens to be a familiar face: Carl Zatz, who served two previous terms in the same post from 2003 to 2007. Having already “been there, done that,” Zatz says that there are things that he will do differently this time around, based on his observations both in and out of office of how things work (and sometimes don’t) in Gardiner.
The local zoning law that was codified during the first Zatz administration is a good case in point. “We created zoning that gave the Planning Board a good deal of discretion. I thought then that it would give the Planning Board room to analyze a project, but instead it made it unclear,” recalls the supervisor-elect. “What’s in my crystal ball is to update the zoning law while maintaining important environmental and Ridge protection provisions that are already well in place. Like anything else, it needs to be modernized. Ideas never stop growing; zoning is organic and will grow with the Town.”
What would Zatz like to see changed about the code? “First, I want the town to make absolutely clear what the intent of the zoning law is. It has to be crystal-clear, leaving little room for ad-libbing, discretionary decisions and conditions that might interfere with business growth. I understand the work of the Planning Board, and the New York State laws that directly affect the Planning Board’s work. But that said, it’s up to the Town Board to make sure that local laws are crystal-clear so that applicants aren’t burdened by lack of clarity.
“One thing that I’d like to require is that if a condition is put on an approval by the discretion of the Planning Board, a statement must be made as to why conditions are being placed, to avoid any appearance of arbitrary and capricious decisionmaking. I’d also like to see a committee that looks at zoning by focusing on its various impacts on the community. And the first of those would be how new businesses are affected by zoning.”
Zatz will get his first crack at trying to clarify Town laws that in his view leave too much wiggle room that can bog down the decisionmaking process during the very first Town Board meeting of the year, on Tuesday, January 3. This is traditionally what is called the organizational meeting, during which most of the agenda is devoted to review and approval of all resolutions passed in the prior year. This process is especially important when a new administration is coming in, Zatz notes, because a Town Board binds itself to certain legal responsibilities — sometimes including to report to New York State — when it passes a resolution. And in the past, he says, those commitments have sometimes been forgotten with the loss of institutional memory caused by a personnel change. Zatz envisions a new system of recordkeeping under which all past resolutions will be organized into categories so that no legal responsibility of the town is likely to slip through the cracks.
Other topics that are likely to appear near the top of the Town Board agenda in the very near future include the cell tower siting process that has now dragged on since Zatz’s previous term, and resolving the location of Gardiner’s first cell tower is high on Zatz’s wish list. Although the applicant, Wireless Edge, has successfully negotiated most of the hurdles required by the town for permit approval, the project remains controversial. New concerns were raised at the most recent Town Board meeting about potential impacts on the safety of air traffic and skyjumpers at Skydive the Ranch, next door to the proposed tower site behind Town Hall. So Zatz isn’t taking any bets yet on how soon the tower will actually be built. “There’s no way of telling until the aviation information is in, and we have to see how passionate the players are about their positions.”
Similarly, the incoming supervisor expects Gardiner’s downtown sidewalk-building initiative to be on the Town Board’s agenda very soon: “It will be one of my first tasks to take the sidewalk projects to their next steps — probably starting with Phase II, which goes from the church to the library. Phase I, which has an entirely different source of funding, is still up in the air. That part goes from Town Hall to the Rail Trail.” But again, Zatz won’t venture to predict a date for groundbreaking. “Remember, I haven’t been involved in the process for the past few years. It would be wrong for me to project when it will happen until I sit down with all the players.”
Progress on the sidewalk projects is dependent primarily on state and federal fund allocations that are essentially outside the Town of Gardiner’s control, but Zatz sees the cell tower siting as an example of an unnecessarily lengthy process in which it is incumbent upon the Town Board to stay focused and not allow itself to get sidetracked by public comments. “I want to follow the policies and procedures of open government at Town Board meetings,” he says. “But these meetings are not debates. The Town Board was elected to represent the majority of the community and is compelled to vote to represent the views of the majority. It is compelled to consider public comments and then move onto the next step. Transparency, ethical behavior and open government are paramount, but the business of the town has to be conducted confidently, in an expeditious and definitive manner.”
In an effort to “make clear how government works,” Zatz hopes to expand on his earlier initiatives to communicate with the people of Gardiner, such as starting the town website and signing up residents to receive public announcements of upcoming town business via an e-mail listserv. “We passed a local notification law requiring that whenever there’s an application on a piece of property, there has to be public notice.” This includes not only the familiar legal notices that appear in the back of the local newspaper from time to time, but also signs on the property to be affected. The next step, says Zatz, is to incorporate social networking vectors like Facebook and Twitter “to increase the reach of our communication, so that people will be better informed about their town — for example, what roads the Highway Department will be working on, where there will be construction…”
With all these tweaks in mind, Zatz seems optimistic that 2012 will be a good year for the Town of Gardiner, and is looking forward to the many upbeat annual events with which he has been involved in the past, such as Gardiner Day, the Cupcake Festival, the Easter egg hunt, the spaghetti dinner and so on. “The community things, that’s what I stand for,” he says. “This town thrives on the 99.9 percent of things that we agree upon. Overall, it’s the best little town in America.” ++