postheadericon Town Still Split on Full Time Planner

townhall_120The Lansing Town Board continued to argue about the value of hiring a full time planner Wednesday.  Although the board passed a budget that includes funding for a full time position and that amount is less than was budgeted this year, some board members are taking a cautious approach to adding a full time position to the Town's roster, despite strong advocacy from Supervisor Kathy Miller, Planning Board Chairman Tom Ellis, and Jonathan Kanter, a professional planner who has held half-time position this year to guide the Town of Lansing as it updates its comprehensive plan.

"If you have been to a Planning Board meeting lately, or this year, things are different," she said.  "They're really working well and I attribute that to Jon.  He's worked really well with them.  You have to admit they are a cohesive group now, and that is so crucial to what goes on here.  When they deal with developers come in the facade developers see is so much more professional.  It's a lot different from what we saw the year before."

"I've seen the difference that a qualified planner makes in the last two years," Planning Board Chairman Tom Ellis told the Town Board last month.  "It's been phenomenal.  Materials have been brought to the board on a timely basis.  It has all proceeded in a very professional manner.  We have not had that in the previous six years I was on the board.  I know the 24-hour a week planner is exceeding those hours every week.  I also know there are things on his desk that he's not able to get to in a timely manner for a small town that would like to process projects as quickly as we can."

Councilman Ed LaVigne has expressed the most resistance to a full time planner, preferring a 'baby steps' approach that would start with a half-time position supplemented by consultants.  He argued for a part-time planner and hiring consultants for specific tasks.  He said that a full time planner would be split among the tasks while consultants could focus on their one task and get it accomplished more efficiently.  Miller disagreed, saying that even if they can get a part time planner with Kanter's experience and talents, that a full time planner would be lest costly to taxpayers than a cadre of consultants.  Kanter further argued that the Town is not serving its constituents well when a planner has limited office hours as he does.

Funding for a full time planner is part of the 2014 budget the board approved last month.  Councilwoman pointed out that the Codes Department is budgeted for $14,000 less than this year even with funding a full time planner.  Late in the budget process Highway Superintendent Jack French and Deputy Superintendent Charlie Purcell made a case for a new employee in their department.  LaVigne said Wednesday that the board should also take a wait-and-see approach to that position.

"Give the highway department a year to document what they do and we won't give them a new employee," said Councilman Ed LaVigne.  "Tap the brakes on that.  Meet with the Planning Department and do this in doable steps.  As we go forward we try to improvise here and there.  Another thing is, if we give it a year with a part time planner we'll find out what our situation is with (the power plant).  The fact is we don't know where that's going to go."

Miller said that the power plant has a three and a half year contract, and that plant officials have told her the assessment is expected to remain steady at at least $60 million during that time period.  Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz said she is concerned with planning issues that Kanter has not had enough time to work on, and how that slows down development in the Town.

"What are the things (Kanter is) not getting to that are important?" asked Binkewicz.  "We have to think about whether we want to sacrifice that going forward. And some of these things are actively going forward.  Does it make sense to go forward with a full time planner with the tax situation the way it is, and accomplish things?"

Miller presented the board with a partial list of tasks the Town needs a planner to address.  It included assisting the Comprehensive Plan Committee and completing the update to the plan, as well as implementing it once it is passed; coordinating and assisting with zoning and code revisions; coordinating plans and development of the town center land; assisting the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals with developer reviews and environmental reviews,  overseeing the administration of the Planning Office and supervising the staff; handle storm water management issues mandated by the state; prepare studies, plans and reports for the Town; assist with grant writing and finding funding opportunities for the Town; interact with the public; and coordinate an effort to bring GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping capabilities to the the Town.

Hopkins argued that an overarching viewpoint is also vital in a town that is growing as Lansing is.

"You would lose a lot of connectivity by not having someone who has a pulse on what's going on in various parts of the Town," said Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins.  "You're just not going to get that in a part timer or (a consultant) who's coming in on a single-shot issue.  It seems to me that we would be poorly serving the Town and people who live here if we don't have someone with oversight on the planning function."

Kanter is a retired Town of Ithaca planner, who has been consulting and working in what was supposed to be a half-time position at the Town.  He also serves on the Village of Lansing Planning Board.

Jonathan KanterJonathan Kanter"These are a combination of things I've been doing and things a planner should be doing assuming they had enough time to do them," Kanter said.  "I've tried to provide, in the limited time I have available, an ongoing presence in the office.  All the time we're seeing people come in.  It's really awkward when the receptionist has to tell them to come back on Wednesday afternoon because my office hours are only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  There were countless times when people did not get what I would call good, efficient service."

"There's a certain threshold where if you don't have enough time and presence you're not going to get anything done," he added. "The person will be constantly be going from one thing to another.  While I would like to think you could find a part time planner, in-house who could juggle and multi-task, that's not what you get with a part time planner.  You're going to get somebody who doesn't have a lot of experience.  You're going to get somebody who may or may not have good communication skills. Here aren't a lot of people looking for part time planning positions."

Kanter said he hopes to overlap with the new hire to bring the successful candidate up to speed on Town issues.  He said he definitely can not be here past March.  Board members were skeptical that a new planner will be hired in time for a transitional period.

The board has been increasingly split along party lines on many issues.  Last month the budget was passed 3-2 with the two Republicans on the board voting no.  The vote was the same on supporting the formation of a state forest on the Bell Station property in the northwest corner of the town.  So it is not too much of a leap to think that board decisions on the planner and many other issues will have different outcomes in January when Republicans will have the 3-2 majority.  Councilman Robert Cree questioned Miller on why she was trying to convince the board to hire a full time planner when the position was passed in the budget vote.  Miller said it is because once a candidate is chosen the job is subject to board approval.  Cree noted that in that case if a planner is hired, any discussion now on whether it be part or full time is moot because that decision will be made after the new board is seated.

"This discussion probably has to be had with our next board, next month," he said. "It doesn't matter what we decide tonight."

Millions of dollars worth of development in Lansing are either in progress or in the planning stages right now.  With the prospect of a municipal sewer dead, the future of the town center land across the street from the Town ballfields is uncertain.  But even without development there proposed projects along Triphammer and Warren Roads and East Shore Drive could mean hundreds of new housing units in a relatively short period of time.  Some of those projects are already underway.

"From my perspective, I don't see how we can grow, and we are the town that is growing," Hopkins said.  "There is a lot of pressure for development in this town and I don't see how we can manage it without a full time planner.  The key ingredient to making this town work is having a full time planner.  It's what's been missing for years.  We've got ordinances sitting around waiting to be written and rewritten.  That was one of the biggest recommendations coming out of the Zoning review Committee three or four years ago, to get some planning skills into the town and start working on these things that haven't been touched since the '90s."

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