New Paltz Town Board members devoted much of their September 15 session as a joint meeting with Planning Board members. The Planning Board has a profound impact on the community by applying zoning code to development projects, and members of that board want to feel like they’re in the loop and understanding the bigger picture. They brought with them questions about how to know what Town Council members are working on, how to provide feedback on how well laws are working, and how to be kept apprised on enforcement actions against developers to ignore the rules entirely.
One of the biggest blocks to communication is that no one on the Planning Board was aware that Alex Baer is their Town Council liaison. Longer-serving members have seen some liaisons who attend those lengthy planning meetings regularly, but it’s not a requirement and it’s not always possible to work that way. Baer is listed on the town website as liaison to the Planning Board, and reports reading the meeting minutes with care. When liaisons have been able to attend meetings, it sometimes results in free-flowing conversations and questions that are conveyed back and forth in an informal manner. Supervisor Neil Bettez said that absent that open availability, it’s still always appropriate to reach out to Baer with questions, or with an invitation to attend a particular meeting. Contacting a liaison rather than all council members is more effective, in the supervisor’s estimation, because anyone included on such a group email might assume that someone else will address any concerns raised.
Planning Board chair Adele Ruger also gently implied that liaisons being present at Planning Board meetings result in those volunteers being more regularly apprised as to what council members are cooking up that could impact the planning process. Similarly, when unintended consequences of laws crop up during an application review, it’s more likely to be pointed out to a liaison sitting in the room than it might be if it required a communication after the fact. There are formal requests for input that are sent from time to time, but conversational sharing appears to be what Planning Board members would prefer, if possible. It’s an ironic fact that the volunteer boards for which that dynamic is most prized are the ones with the most intense meeting schedule, making it challenging to find a council member available for that level of participation.
Enforcement is another big area of concern. Site visits have revealed applicants who have “obliterated wetlands” and cut down “hundreds of trees” without permits, Ruger said. While these violations are reported, no one on the Planning Board is ever informed of the outcome. What’s more, there is a sense that some developers simply abandon applications — or never file one in the first place — because the consequences of not following the rules and being caught are much less expensive than it would be to comply in the first place. Bettez explained that the bulk of enforcement comes through the courts and can take years. The process has been hampered of late by short-staffing in the building department, but it’s hoped that a new enforcement officer will be hired soon.
No solutions for regular updates being sent to the Planning Board were offered, but Bettez did share some information and offer to find out answers to some other specific questions. Planning Board members now know that there’s a law in the works that would shift approval of accessory apartments to the building inspectors; this was met with some positive reactions. The supervisor will try to find out about some of the ongoing enforcement actions, and there was also talk about researching laws in other towns to see if enforcement can become more straightforward and less likely to involve a courtroom.
It’s also possible that more public engagement could minimize violations, but ensuring that members of the public understand when a permit is required for an activity, and also when a professional consultant is worth the investment for a Planning Board application. The dense zoning code, largely written by attorneys and for attorneys, isn’t seen as easy to understand; a plain-language explanation online would be welcomed by Planning Board members.
Bettez was also asked if there was an update on installing solar panels over the former town landfill and declined to provide one. As it happens, a hint of an update was mentioned in passing at the Village Board meeting which took place the night before. Janelle Peotter, the community’s climate-smart coordinator, claimed at that meeting that “massive interconnection fees” to the electric grid are a barrier to this project, as well as similar ones around the state.