My Years on the Penfield Planning Board or, What I Learned about Local Government

By Barbara Rickman Power

In the late 1980s, when I moved to Penfield with my then-husband, two children, and dog, I had my own ideas on how to help Penfield retain the characteristics that made it attractive to us.  I was very willing to share my opinions and observations whenever the opportunity came up during discussions with friends and neighbors.

One friend passed my name along to former Penfield Town Supervisor, the late Donald Mack. The result was that a few months after we moved in, I found myself on the Penfield Conservation Board. The Conservation Board serves in an advisory capacity, offering opinions on whether or not a proposed development met the Penfield Environmental Quality Review (PEQR). This local legislation predated the NY State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR), thanks to the work of Irene Gossin as supervisor and environmentalist.

I learned that not all developments need PEQR. I also learned that although the members of the Conservation Board—all well-meaning citizens who cared about the town—could offer opinions, nothing was binding. The big lesson I learned was that to have an impact on land-use in Penfield, a person needed to be appointed to either the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals. Once appointed, members of these boards are supposed to be free of political pressure and constraints. It is the local version of checks and balances.

My appointment to the Planning Board took place in November of 1988. Another thing I learned about the Planning Board—and I believe the ZBA has similar expectations—is that there is work involved. I spent between five and ten hours a week on Planning Board work, including reading, site visits, and meetings.

Every two weeks, several days before the meeting, each member would receive a pack of site maps, building plans (if needed), engineering detail along with the developer’s project description. Some developments involved splitting off a parcel of and from a farm so a child could build a home on family land. In those cases, the application was sufficient.

The board needed to read the documents, at least drive by the site, if not get out and walk it to see the terrain, notice the water table, see what was visible from different points along the property lines and what people from neighboring properties would see on the site. We also needed to know which parts of the Penfield Zoning Code applied for each development. Was there a steep slope where there would be a driveway, what did the Zoning Code say about the maximum degree of slope? Were there steep slopes near the building sites? What was the developer required to do to protect the slopes and prevent run-off?

Helping me manage the learning curve were the other board members and the supportive staff from the town, ranging from the clerk and the secretary, both members of the town’s Planning Department, the town attorney for Planning and the town engineer. For two evenings a month, we reviewed applications, discussing the pros and cons of each project, and finally arriving at a consensus. Because we had to work with each other, we were able to disagree without being disagreeable, and we always parted as friends.

Our decisions were not simple yea or nay. We were able to, and indeed expected to, provide a list of conditions that the developer would have to meet in order to proceed. These conditions could range from testing to see the percolation rate of the soil—too slow and the developer would have to have a larger lot or install a raised septic system, both at a higher cost, to asking for a certain amount of land to be set aside as green space, to installing adequate safety lighting for commercial properties.

We had two parts to our meetings. We met as a board to discuss tabled items and we had public hearings at which residents were invited to speak. Many of these public hearings were very sparsely attended while others drew standing-room-only crowds. I learned that people can become emotional about developments that might endanger the property value of their homes, appearing to threaten the economic security of their families. It can be difficult to get up and speak in a large room, and I applaud the many individuals who did so. They needed to have their opinions acknowledged, and we were fortunate to have a board chair, the late Walt Peter, who treated everyone with exceptional courtesy.

Before the board members received materials for each meeting, the town planning staff had reviewed the applications, met with the developers and scheduled the public hearings. They also met with an internal group: the Development Review Committee. The DRC was helpful in working out some of the engineering details with the developer that made the drawings and reports more meaningful. They immediately went to the details of the project—DRC members are current and retired staff and consulting engineers. They would go into great detail on such questions as whether a 24-inch pipe under a driveway was sufficient or if a 36-inch one was needed, but they never asked what I thought should have been the first question: should this project be built? As a result, by the time we received information, the developer and town had been in discussions and the unknown—barring something unforeseen—was just the final conditions.

After Don Mack passed away, a new supervisor was appointed until the next election. The person elected supervisor took a great interest in the Planning Board. He did not understand why the board would not cater to his whims and thoughts. The value of an independent Planning Board had been explained to him, but he thought members should welcome his ideas. The board saw a couple of resignations and the newly appointed replacements would not express an opinion on applications, proceedings or conditions until they heard what the supervisor had to say. It became a very frustrating experience and the collegiality that tied us together was broken. After nine and a half years on the Planning Board, I resigned.

Serving on the board was a wonderful experience. I am so glad I did it, and that former supervisor is no longer in office. I would be happy to answer questions from anyone who is interested in serving.

 

 

 

 

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