By Dan Hust
FORESTBURGH A years-long struggle between Forestburgh’s town and planning boards is coming to a head.
On Monday, the town board will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. at the town hall in Forestburgh to gain input on its plan to abolish the existing planning board and temporarily replace it with the town board’s members.
A vote to enact such may follow, though it’s likely to be split along the same lines as at the last town board meeting, when board member Gene Raponi voted against setting a public hearing and confirmed his opposition to the plan.
But at least three (and likely four) of the town board’s membership are expected to approve it in what Supervisor Bill Sipos indicated will be the first step towards reconstituting the planning board later this year.
A history of tension
Disagreements between the boards go back years, according to immediate past Supervisor Jim Galligan.
The boards first wrestled over the development at Lake Joseph, then the implementation (or lack thereof) of a revised master plan, then minor subdivisions, then the major Lost Lake resort proposal.
Once a planning board member himself, Galligan indicated many of the disagreements concerned philosophical differences how easy or hard, for example, the permitting and subdivision processes should be.
He was supervisor when the town board wrested “lead agency” status from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Lost Lake, and he’s not sorry the town board never relinquished that authority to the planning board.
“We just felt we had so much invested in it already,” Galligan said adding that he felt the town board knew more about the proposal because of the battle with the DEC.
He agrees that it’s time for a change on the planning board but not the way the current town board is proposing.
“I just think they could appoint [members to the existing vacancies],” he said this week, noting he had blocked an abolition proposition when he was supervisor.
But he doesn’t share the remaining planning board members’ contention that this is evidence of the town board’s lust for power.
“I don’t think it’s a power grab,” Galligan said. “It’s going to be a lot more work for the town board.”
A power-hungry town board?
Ivan Orisek, one of two remaining planning board members, believes it definitely is a power grab.
“I have been on the planning board for seven years,” he stated in a recent letter to town residents. “Soon after my appointment, I realized that Forestburgh needed a change in the way it was governed. We have had the most authoritarian town government I have ever seen, with greater and greater concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands.”
Orisek used Lost Lake as a prime example, which he feels allows for too dense a development and will overtax Forestburgh’s infrastructure.
“By approving the 2,742 units for the Lost Lake project, the town board stands virtually alone and in opposition to the recommendation of the maximum of 1,250 made both by ... [the] DEC, which holds the final approval authority on this issue, and the Forestburgh Planning Board,” he stated. “This is the main reason why the town board has been gradually limiting the authority of the planning board, first by taking the Lost Lake project entirely out of the purview of the planning board six months ago and now intending to abolish the planning board entirely.”
He accused the town board of tailoring town rules to the Lost Lake developer’s benefit and town residents’ detriment, adding that town board members don’t possess the same amount of state training the planning board members do.
Fellow planning board member Ed Kaufmann agreed.
“The Forestburgh Town Board now wants to abolish the planning board and make all planning decisions without the benefit of training,” he stated. “It is my opinion that this town board neither has the time, training, or discipline to tackle the serious development issues currently facing our town. Instead, they prefer to hire consultants (none of whom reside within our area) to give recommendations on how the town should proceed.”
Both men lamented the erosion of planning board members, which had once stood at seven and is now just the two of them.
“Sadly enough, during the past few years, four very competent and knowledgeable members have resigned from the planning board due to the frustrating efforts of this board in trying to maintain the type of community that most residents state is their reason for moving to Forestburgh,” said Kaufmann, who has spent 17 years on the board.
In the past year alone, three resignations plus a lack of reappointments have decimated the board’s ranks.
Two of those resignations had to do with a new law the town board enacted this past summer, making the town board the sole authority on Planned Development District (PDD) zoned projects like Lost Lake.
“Due to the adoption of Local Law 3, I feel the relationship between the town board and the planning board is irreparable,” wrote two-decade planning board member Thomas Berg in an August 16 resignation letter.
In his May 23 resignation letter, former planning board member Richard Katzman stated, “With this new law, there is no reason to have a planning board if the town board is going to act as a town board and a planning board.
“... I do not plan on wasting any more of my time as a member of a ‘lame duck’ planning board left to determine lot changes,” he added. “... As I see it, this town board is leaving its citizens open to what could be major catastrophes with the type of ‘spot zoning’ or ‘zoning on the fly’ that you are doing.”
Planning board out of control?
On the other hand, both former planning board chair Susan Hawvermale and member John Galligan Jr. have announced their support of the town board’s move to re-evaluate the planning board.
Hawvermale was not reappointed to her post in 2012 in anticipation of a reconstituted planning board later this year. Galligan resigned in late December.
“It is my opinion that the current way the town is handling projects should be given a good look as to the steps that simple subdivisions and boundary concerns are addressed,” Galligan wrote in his resignation letter. “It is my opinion that smaller projects should be able to move through the town in a more efficient manner.”
Supervisor Sipos says that’s what he’s trying to accomplish.
“Simple sublot divisions ... ended up getting sent to the Zoning Board of Appeals” or otherwise got bogged down, he said sometimes leading to residents leaving planning board meetings crying and upset.
“The town board looks at it as, ‘If you can’t handle the small projects, how can you handle the large projects?’” Sipos explained.
He blames past and present planning board members for being overbearing and resistant to any development.
“It’s quite intimidating to the average person showing up to the planning board,” Sipos said. “... Walking before that planning board, you just feel like you’re beat into submission.”
He rejects the accusation that the town board isn’t qualified to handle planning board matters.
“I’ve attended the classes myself I have the credits,” Sipos asserted, adding that fellow town board members John Galligan Sr. and Mike Creegan are experienced professional surveyors, and they plus Raponi all have served on the planning board.
Raponi and Orisek, however, have stated that the rest of the town board’s minds are already made up, and Sipos hinted that that is true.
“The icing on the cake was when they [the planning board] decided to roll an Article 78 [lawsuit] against the town board,” Sipos explained of litigation intended to challenge the town board’s authority to handle Lost Lake.
The suit didn’t gain majority support of the planning board, however, so it went nowhere. Nevertheless, Sipos became convinced the current planning board was no longer effective.
“The planning board is totally incapable of handling a project like Lost Lake,” he stated, arguing that the resort’s benefits far outweigh its impacts, and that the town board has “taken every possible precautionary measure we know how to take” to ensure its compatibility with Forestburgh.
He affirmed that a vote to abolish the planning board will likely come right after Monday’s public hearing. Six months later, he predicted a new five-member planning board (with two alternates) will be in place, likely with Hawvermale as a member, if not chair, again.
Sipos does not plan, however, to appoint Orisek or Kaufmann to the new board.
“I feel at this point we have an opportunity to fix what is broken,” Sipos said. “... I want people to feel we work for them. They don’t work for us.”