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Bethel Wrestles With Development Issues

By Dan Hust
KAUNEONGA LAKE — July 3, 2007 — Change is coming to the way the Bethel Planning Board does business.
Thursday’s town board meeting evidenced a board and public somewhat unhappy with various policies and procedures at planning board meetings, and while town board member Andy LaPolt is leading an ongoing effort to clarify and revise those rules, the entire town board decided to take action that evening.
For one, they unanimously hired Michael Weeks of the firm McGoey, Hauser and Edsall to be the planning board’s engineer.
Paid only for the work he does – and usually through a town-maintained escrow account funded by the developer whose project he’s reviewing – Weeks will be solely employed by the planning board.
Supervisor Harold Russell added that Weeks will normally only be utilized for major subdivisions or other large projects and must be reappointed by the town board every year.
Shepstone’s role in question
His employment will lessen the duties placed on town planner Tom Shepstone, who came under fire Thursday for allegedly offering paid advice to developers seeking to navigate their way through Bethel’s approval process.
“Regretfully, the use of our town planner has been misused,” said Russell, who promised to look into the accusations.
“These are ridiculous comments,” remarked Shepstone when contacted the next day. “That’s absolutely not true. I don’t bill any of these people directly – that’s through the town.”
Shepstone maintained that’s the way he does business with every township for which he works – if he speaks with developers, it’s clearly as a representative of the township.
But Smallwood resident Jonathan Hyman said it’s time to get rid of Bethel’s longtime planner.
“He’s clearly not the right person for our town,” said Hyman. “Let’s make a new beginning.”
“I would not suggest to the board at this time that we take that action,” replied Russell, who said that with the appointment of an engineer, Shepstone now has the opportunity to focus on the job he was originally hired for. “Mr. Shepstone’s company has served the town very well over the years and very effectively.”
While the board generally seemed favorable to Russell’s desire to retain Shepstone, they shot down his idea to simply table the appointment of Marvin Newberg as planning board attorney.
“I make a motion not to appoint,” remarked board member Richard Crumley, firm in his desire not to have Newberg serve in that role.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t have someone who specializes in planning and zoning,” added board member Dan Sturm, who seconded Crumley’s motion.
Russell pointed out that Newberg is currently attending planning board meetings and being paid on an hourly basis.
“You’re paying him anyway,” agreed Town Clerk Rita Sheehan. “He needs to be appointed.”
But the board, including Russell, ultimately unanimously decided not to appoint Newberg (a decision which actually would not have needed a motion).
Russell, however, said the board should include provisions for an appointed planning board attorney when it undertakes next year’s budget planning process.
Introduce a review period
The planning board continued to dominate the evening, with Russell asking the board to approve a minimum two-week review period for any “major” changes to projects seeking planning board approval.
The current law only requires a 14-day review period for newly presented projects, not ones changing their plans. This has led some developers to bring info to planning board meetings at the last minute, said Russell, which has to stop.
“I think two weeks is ample time” for planning board members to review changes, he said.
But some in the audience disagreed, advocating for a minimum of 30 days.
“I don’t think the FOIL [Freedom Of Information Law] laws will accommodate [two weeks],” remarked Hyman, referencing the public’s right to ask for copies of project documents, which take time to produce. “There’s not enough time.”
“I don’t think 14 days is reasonable anymore,” agreed fellow Bethel resident Hal Teitelbaum, who advocated for agendas to be set at prior planning board meetings, rather than days or even hours before.
He also urged the board to not distinguish between “major” and “minor” changes, so as to avoid disagreement over the various interpretations of the magnitude of changes.
Crumley seemed to agree with the public comment, saying he was “appalled” at the recent planning board meeting where “things were dropped on the board.”
“I didn’t like it, and it’s not going to happen again,” he stated. “… We’re in no rush. Things are going to be done and done in our time.”
“I think enforcement is the whole thing,” added board member Bob Blais.
However, Russell advocated for tabling a decision in light of “the need to talk with the board about this more… We don’t want to do something that isn’t within our realm to do.”
Town Clerk Rita Sheehan, however, had perhaps the most far-reaching suggestion that evening: create a planning department that would employ full- or part-time workers to review projects, make copies, file documents, issue permits and generate reports, funded by those seeking project approvals.
“At this point, the planning board has outgrown the town,” she said, lamenting in particular her own staff’s resulting workload. “We’re still small but extremely busy.”
Route 17B parking signs
In non-planning board-related news, the NYS Department of Transportation (DOT) sent the town a letter stating it will erect “No Parking” signs along the south side of 17B in Mongaup Valley.
Many in attendance already knew this, as the signs are up for about 1,200 feet between Airport Road and Martin Lane – with more planned for the north side.
“I never gave support for those signs to go up,” said Sturm, distancing himself from a letter written by Russell saying the town supported the DOT’s efforts. “… I don’t know if it’s any safer with those signs up.”
He also felt the action “singled out the church,” referencing the Mongaup Valley United Methodist Church, which has long held a popular flea market in its parking lot – necessitating visitors to park along 17B on a blind hill.
“I too felt the church was being singled out,” agreed Crumley, complaining that other 17B enterprises aren’t subject to a “No Parking” ordinance. “What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.”
Church Trustee Vicky Vassmer-Simpson pointed out that John Payne’s boat business in White Lake uses 17B’s shoulders to store and repair boats.
“He’s changing oil on the side of it, too,” she explained.
Russell said he had notified and would again send a letter to the DOT regarding Payne’s business operations, but he added that the “No Parking” signs in front of the church were warranted.
With cars parked on both shoulders, he said, “it leaves no escape route… to avoid an accident.”
“We need that little flea market,” insisted Vassmer-Simpson. “This will hurt the church.”

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