Woodstock found itself without a functional Zoning Board of Appeals at the outset of the New Year, as the volunteer agency’s members resigned en masse in the days following a Town Board vote that effectively ended the tenure of longstanding ZBA member and current chairman Howard Harris, whose most recent term expired on December 31.
Instead of granting Harris a new term, the Town Board on January 2 voted 4 to 1, with councilman Ken Panza opposed, to appoint a newcomer, Dustin Wilber, to fill the vacancy created by the tacit removal of Harris, who had been a member of the ZBA for more than 15 years and the panel’s chairman for the last eight years, by his reckoning. The ZBA’s five members serve staggered term of five years each. The Town Board designates a chairman annually.
The council’s action drew a quick response from the ZBA, as three of the agency’s four full members — Joanne Anthony, Lynn McCormick, and John Wasylyc — and an alternate member, Marie Lourenso, promptly submitted letters of resignation. The remaining full member, Tony Padalino, followed suit a few days later, leaving the freshly seated Dustin Wilber as the sole member of the zoning panel, which requires a quorum of three members in order to do business.
In recent interviews Woodstock supervisor Jeremy Wilber (no relation to Dustin Wilber), who sponsored the January 2 resolution, and councilman Bill McKenna, a onetime member of the ZBA, downplayed the significance of the Town Board’s action, stating that was simply time for a change. The resignation letters struck a decidedly different tone, with one accusing the council of “political intrusion” into ZBA cases and decisions and others deploring the Town Board’s apparent lack of confidence in the zoning agency’s performance.
In a January 4 press release and a subsequent interview, Jeremy Wilber noted that in recent years some of the ZBA’s decisions have been challenged in court, requiring the town to hire attorneys, at taxpayer expense, to defend the decisions. By the supervisor’s calculations, the results have been mixed. Older cases involved the town’s construction of a cell tower at California Quarry and the highway garage in Bearsville. More recent cases involved lawsuits related to the use of buildings in an area of Bearsville that is zoned Neighborhood Commercial.
Harris observed in an interview that unambiguous terms like win and lose often do not apply to such verdicts. In some cases during his tenure, he said, the courts have merely modified decisions by the ZBA, resulting in changes to the zoning law, while in other instances the courts have either upheld or reversed, fully or partially, decisions by the zoning panel. Meanwhile, Harris noted that the town has spent thousands of dollars defending other municipal actions, notably the Comeau easement.
At its January 8 meeting the Town Board unanimously accepted the resignations, thanked all of the ZBA’s members for their service to the town, and resolved to seek volunteers to fill the vacancies as soon as possible. Councilman Jay Wenk apologized for his previous vote to appoint Wilber, explaining that he was unaware of the vote’s implications for Harris, whom he intended to reappoint.