This year, New Paltz Town Board members gave Mike Calimano a long-deserved break. After serving on the board during the Walmart days, then-supervisor Toni Hokanson called him out of retirement to head up that body after Paul Brown’s administration drew to a close. With his full support and agreement, this year Calimano’s long tenure as chairman ended as he was replaced by co-chairs Lagusta Yearwood and Adele Ruger.
According to Town Supervisor Neil Bettez, Calimano liked the idea of rotating the occupancy of the big chair more often, because it makes for a stronger, more informed board over time. While Calimano did agree to comment for this story, the interview was not scheduled by press time.
What’s most important to his replacements is that he will continue to serve on both town and county planning boards. He has more years of service than any of the other volunteers, although with the break in the middle member Lyle Nolan was appointed longer ago. The two co-chairs each lauded his institutional knowledge and experience.
Bettez said that selecting co-chairs was decided upon because neither Ruger nor Yearwood had an interest in taking on the full responsibilities. Board chairs can be obligated to considerably more meetings, official and unofficial, than other members of the board. They don’t always agree on issues, notably falling on opposite sides for the CVS project, but they do agree that there are ways to make the planning process more efficient. As they are both business owners who have needed planning board approval from time to time, they share an interest in making the process as transparent and inexpensive as possible while ensuring board members get all the information they need to make decisions.
“Individuals can spend a fortune on consultants,” said Ruger, who by mutual agreement runs the meetings. Those bills include not only the professionals they hire, but the town-retained attorney, engineer, and other specialists who evaluate their work. It’s not just big corporations like CVS and Wilmorite that rack up charges, either; Ruger is particularly concerned about the impact on people, not corporations. “It’s really eye-opening what they spend,” she said, adding the she believes the cost is a deterrent for some property owners seeking to make improvements.
Yearwood agrees. “Save the applicant money, save the board time,” she said. “There’s a tendency to let the time balloon by not talking about the elephant in the room,” focusing on details rather than the big picture. “A big goal is to be up-front about costs.” If bigger issues cannot be mitigated, she explained, there may be no reason to keep the meter running. “New Paltz has a reputation for being anti-business,” which she believes is a result of this inefficient process.
Another point of agreement is to “hold the meetings at the meetings,” and minimize off-line meetings of two and three board members with professionals to work out technical details or for preconceptual consultations. Ruger quoted fellow board member Lyle Nolan, who told one consultant, “Don’t do planning without the planning board.”
Planning board members have a lot to learn to even be effective, much less in charge. Ruger has about two years under her belt, Yearwood five. Yearwood said that it took her a long time to understand the entire planning process, and hopes to find ways to better educate members of the board and public as to the steps that must be taken, in an effort to keep the process from becoming an “endless loop.”
Board members may get to go home earlier, as well. “It’s hard to start a new topic at 10:30 at night,” Ruger said; she’d rather keep the agenda focused and board members sharp throughout.
Despite their occasional differences on individual projects, the co-chairs don’t entirely disagree when it comes to the zoning itself. Yearwood has a running list of issues she’d like to see addressed if and when the law is updated, but doesn’t think the code cripples planning board work. Ruger believes that problems usually arise from attempts to “max out” what’s allowable, rather than working thoughtfully within the limits of a given property. Neither wants New Paltz to become Rhinebeck, which Ruger called “contrived” with its very restrictive design standards.
What hobbles them more than the code, they feel, is the decades-old master plan from which that zoning should spring. That’s a different nut to crack, however.