Gardiner Town Board, Planning Board & ZBA meet to streamline communication issues

A special joint meeting of the Gardiner Town Board, the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Code Enforcement Officer took place last week at the Gardiner Town Hall. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The statement “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” has become a touchstone of American culture since it was first uttered by Strother Martin to Paul Newman in the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. Modes of communication have changed radically since then, but the complaint itself never seems to lose its pertinence. On the local level, the frustrations of working on a Town Board, Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) can often be summed up in just those words. And the Town of Gardiner is a case in point, according to Planning Board chair Mike Boylan.

Boylan was one of the principals in a multi-board meeting recently convened to address some of the procedural headaches with which Gardiner’s town government has had to contend as a result of poor communication among its various boards and committees. Sometimes, as in the controversy over Wireless Edge’s proposal to build a cell tower on the grounds of the Gardiner Town Hall, governing bodies that aren’t all on the same page can end up making technical mistakes that provide fodder for costly Article 78 lawsuits against the town. Thus, Boylan, ZBA chair Mike Beck and town supervisor Carl Zatz all saw a growing need to get the three boards talking together.

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“We wanted to work on communicating better,” Boylan reported following the June 25 meeting. “It was a very healthy meeting.” No resolutions were passed, he said: “For any decisions to be made, they would have to be made by the Town Board in a formal meeting.” But the members of the three boards made considerable progress in identifying where problems typically crop up and in recommending ways to address them, according to both Boylan and Supervisor Zatz.

One source of frustration frequently cited in separate meetings of the three boards — and especially by town planner Jim Freiband — is the fact that the existing Gardiner zoning code contains verbiage that is sometimes self-contradictory. Revamping that code to make it clearer and more internally consistent was cited as a priority in the election campaigns of Supervisor Zatz and several current Town Board members. That effort now seems to be gaining traction, with the supervisor recommending at the joint meeting that the town reestablish a Zoning Advisory Committee (ZAC) that would “take the concerns from the various boards and work on them in a positive manner,” said Boylan. “We talked about the mechanics and the working of the code in a more efficient manner. Over the past few years there have been some glitches that we’re still working our way through.”

Besides discussing changing the letter of the law to clear up sources of confusion, the participants in the joint meeting examined the paperwork that applicants to the town have to fill out. Boylan pointed out that, as the law now stands, applicants who want to build or subdivide in the Town of Gardiner sometimes go straight to the ZBA seeking variances even before they’ve been denied by the building inspector or Planning Board. As a result, “We [the Planning Board] don’t necessarily know that they’ve been there, unless the ZBA remembers to notify us that they have an application.”

So one of the goals identified in the joint meeting was to standardize procedures and protocols, with formal notification letters issued from one board to another and all applicants required to conform to a consistent process. “We want to try to streamline the application and get them to go to the right board at the right time,” Boylan explained. “Once the ZAC is formed, someone will be working on the applications, making the cover forms and checklists more user-friendly and more complete.”

The concept of a joint board meeting is not entirely new in Gardiner town government, but the last one had taken place during the administration of former supervisor Joe Katz. “I hope we have a minimum of two multi-board meetings in the course of a year from now on,” said Boylan. “I think they’re helpful.”