"I wish to challenge the members of the Town Board who are opposed to hiring a full time planner for Lansing, said Sustainable Tompkins President Gay Nicholson. "As a resident and taxpayer of 34 years I have been dismayed by the culture of unrestrained sprawl development in our town, which always seems to lead to higher taxes and cost of services, while benefiting only a few landowners and developers."
The history of the position has been troubled, and despite council member's protestations, split along party lines. Last year's board passed this year's budget 3/2 with Democrats voting yes and strong Republican dissent. It included a $55,000 salary for a full time municipal planner plus money for benefits. The makeup of the board changed in January with Republican Doug Dake replacing Democrat Katrina Binkewicz. The board went forward with a search, included citizens on a search committee, interviewed two top candidates and Wednesday's resolution would have offered the job to John Zepko, provisional on a 26 week probational period as dictated by Civil Service rules for Tompkins County.
Proponents of hiring a full time planner argued that neighboring municipalities have town planners, including two in Dryden. Many lauded part time planner Jonathan Kanter, who recently left the position because of long standing plans to relocate. They noted that even though he contributed many unpaid hours to the job he could not complete all the tasks at hand as a part time employee. Members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), Comprehensive Plan Committee and RFP Committee outlined the benefits of consulting with a professional of Kanter's stature. A number of ZBA members spoke in favor of a full time planner including Dan Konowalow, who noted that the entire ZBA signed a letter to the Town Board in favor of a full time planner.
Nicholson said she is suspicious of what she characterized as a maneuver to defund the planner position. She said that having Highway Department employees handle storm water enforcement may be a conflict of interest because she said some of them also work for developers. She warned insurance companies are starting to sue municipalities for failing to adequately plan for and enforce storm water laws.
"The thing is, here in our town with all the development we have going, we have sprawl already," said former Lansing representative to the Tompkins County Legislature Pat Pryor. "We have development on the books, we have developers, so I'm told, that come in to talk to the town all the time. I want to know that when those developers are working with our town official that those officials have the benefit of a professional planner in that process."
Many speakers cited a long list of responsibilities a planner would have, and stressed that a part time planner would ultimately cost the town more than a full time planner because of additional consultant and legal fees to pay for tasks a full time planner would be responsible for under a fixed salary. Some noted a planner would write grants that would bring money into the town that alone would justify the position.
"It is inconceivable to me that we all have to be here tonight pleading with you to hire a full time planner," said Susan Brock, who noted that 547 units of new housing are planned within a one mile radius of her home. "To those who oppose the full time planner, please defend your position and give your reasons at this meeting," she challenged. "At this time your opposing position does not seem in the best interest of this town. It is not supported by the financial reality that it will cost more not to have a full time planner."
The vote was 2/3 with Supervisor Kathy Miller and Councilwoman Ruth Hopkins voting yes and Councilmen Robert Cree, Ed LaVigne and Doug Dake voting no. Miller requested the opponents state the reasons they voted no. Disappointed residents heckled board members, despite more than one admonition from Miller to be civil and stop interrupting them.
"I haven't been in favor of this since we talked about it during the budget deliberations," Cree explained. "It didn't seem during that time that there was any discussion that was warranted other than moving forward with this. That was one of the reasons the budget got passed. I did not vote for the budget. I am still not convinced that full time is necessary at this point, but I am willing to listen to my colleagues and look for some compromise that hasn't happened at this point."
"We hear about the development of upwards of 700 lots," said Dake. "That means there is a lot of density happening, specifically in the Triphammer, Asbury, Hillcrest and Warren Road areas.
"That density leads me to believe that at some point sewer will be inevitable. I believe that to be the case, because when you get density we get smaller lots that don't contain septic systems. We have a certain building size lot at this point, so that's something to be considered.
"Given the past history of the sewer in the Town -- I believe it has come up three or four times and been voted down three or four times -- with all due respect I don't know that sewer will be approved in Lansing unless developers take and bear the full brunt of it. If that's the case I don't see a need at this point. If we have that much development are they going to bring in package plants? Are they going to rely on septic systems? I know we're all concerned about storm water. What are the plans for this? We don't know at this point.
"We have a storm water guru in (Town Planner) Dave Herrick. To be honest with you I have to think of the people who put me in this office. I've talked to many people about it and I cannot go against our wishes. I can't support it."
"There have been a lot of assumptions tonight that this full time planner will make all your problems go away. That's not the case," said LaVigne. For some reason it keeps being thrown in to this argument that the Highway Department gets their position and no one else does. That's not the case. You have a lot of misinformation
"One piece of misinformation is they have absorbed that position. Another position has been approved but they have forfeited that. There is not position -- they have absorbed the storm water part of it so they've taken on more work with the same resources they have.
"I was also not in favor of a full time planner. I voted against it. I would like to see a consultant. I would like to see a part time person. I would like to see that part first. If that does not pan out, then let's go to the second alternative. Let's do this in a methodical way, not just jump in to this full time planner.
"Because what happens when you get your comprehensive plan done? What happens when the rest of it gets done. You can tweak these things all you want but the bottom line is that for this development that's coming you still have rules and regulations.
"You're looking for someone to plan. Does that mean you're looking for someone to control what goes into Lansing? that's of tremendous concern because that person has tremendous input as to what goes on. The bottom line is if you hire this full time person you give them a lot of power. When you have a consultant they have specific duties. It's as simple as that. That's why I would like to go with a consultant first.
"We have talked to the Planning Board and heard their concerns. We try to address their concerns first. We understand it is difficult to learn all this stuff, but the bottom line is if I disagree with you it doesn't mean that I'm wrong. When I look at these things I listen to all these different people and I don't think now (is a good time for ) a full time planner. Maybe down the road, but let's just see what's out there for a part time position. There is no reason to say that is not the right alternative for right now. After all Jonathan Kanter was part time."
"We've already tried a part time planner," Miller responded. "Jonathan Kanter worked about 25 hours a week. He gave us many hours that he wasn't paid for. He often said there was so much more he could do, and in the end he was in the process of moving. Since 2008 I've been thinking about what we needed to help the planning board. It wasn't functioning well when I first got involved, but it's coming around. We've instituted monies to let them go to meetings to increase their knowledge."
"We've done a schematic of what it would cost to have a part time planner as opposed to having a full time planner," she continued. Fiscally part time makes no sense. The idea that a planner has power... a planner can do nothing. He advises. He doesn't have any power. He doesn't have a vote. He would bring things before the planning board and they make their decisions. If and when it needs a Town Board decision it would come before us."
Miller told the board that now that the decision has been made to hire a part time planner the board needs to do so quickly.