From Open Public Involvement to Broken Promises

There are several people who run our Facebook page and website, but I wanted to share that this post is from me, Jeanne. I have gone to almost all of the Q&A and Town Board meetings, and tonight, at the August 28th Special Town Board meeting, I’m the one behind the camera. And yes, you occasionally hear me huff or puff. It’s hard not to, sometimes. But up until this week, I had been hopeful about this Q&A process, because I witnessed it working, firsthand. Then… things abruptly changed.

Most of the recording below (and also posted via Facebook Live) consists of the discussions by the board of possible changes to the zoning law (a law they were about to pass on June 20th, but are now clearly finding many faults within it). It’s important to watch the discussions. That’s why we film them—to show how the sausage gets made. You’ll see that when the Board chooses to listen to the public’s comments, and re-examine the document, good changes happen.



But I also suggest you fast forward to the Public Comment section at the end to witness the citizens’ frustration when the Board chose not to confirm continued scheduling of zoning Q&As with us, despite having previously promised they would keep having them… until all questions were asked and answered.

In fact, the Town Board’s promise was quoted in the Columbia Paper, in earlier Town Board meeting minutes, and in their own Democratic Party mailing that went out recently.

“We will meet until there is nothing left to meet about.”

John Wapner

I don’t believe for one second that the decision to not schedule another Q&A is unanimous by the Board. I do believe when John Wapner made the declaration above, he meant it. He offered that opportunity in good faith.

However, tonight, Maria Lull refused to promise more Q&As, and Michael Richardson said that he wasn’t saying there would be no more Q&As, but in the next breath he also stated that he was not going to promise that there would be more Q&As either.

“Let’s get the revised document together and see what happens…” was the theme.

I do understand the need to clean the document up and do a reset. It’s a mess. But why stop the progress of the Q&As and block the public involvement while you’re doing it? We’re capable of multitasking!

Another unkept promise was to put a red-line version of the new law vs. the existing law on the Town of Chatham website. Up until now, there has never been one presented to the public. We’ve only seen red-line versions from one draft to another. That is not what people need to see. For example, it would be extremely helpful for citizens to know when something is a mere carryover, as opposed to a new regulation.

Full transparency means you show the citizens how their current law compares to the law you would like to pass.

Let’s hope they do that. As soon as possible.

I’ll tell you what’s going to happen if the public feels locked out again… another Tri-Village Firehouse meeting, overflowing with 300 angry citizens… or more this time.

What baffles (and saddens) me the most is these Q&As were absolutely helpful to the board and to the citizens. People want to feel heard, and we mostly did. Were these perfect meetings? Of course not, but we at least got to have an open dialogue with two board members at a time, even if our opinions didn’t always make it back to the remaining three board members. It was better than nothing. The Board even referenced previous Q&A discussions in tonight’s workshop and admitted the Q&As were helpful in reaching agreement on changes. (Well, everyone except Maria).

They are clearly in a rush, but we don’t know why. There is quite literally no zoning emergency that Chatham is suffering from. None.

I won’t even go into how tone deaf it was to set up a Special Town Board meeting on the first night of the Columbia County Fair… the biggest family event of the year.

We’ve heard over and over how much time the board has put into these proposed laws, but the public’s commitment is equally important. Some have missed vacations, time with their kids before sending them off to college, taken days off from work to read the proposed zoning laws and do research, all to attend the barrage of meetings crammed into the past weeks. They are volunteering their time because of their love and commitment to Chatham.

In their recent Democratic mailing that supports the re-election of Maria Lull, it was stated this Board should be applauded for having over 40 meetings this year. I respectfully challenge that statement. The reason they have had so many meetings about this proposed zoning law is because they have chosen to take the control and duty away from the Zoning Board.

Do they not trust their own Zoning Board? Even if they do, they have certainly usurped their authority.

Town Boards creating zoning laws is not the standard in municipalities. Why? Because they are not zoning experts. Zoning Board members are required by NYS to take classes on zoning so that they can recommend appropriate potential laws, sometimes involving a Zoning Implementation Committee, then those draft laws go through a series of steps and reviews by multiple committees, finally ending up at the Board level for a vote, after a Public Hearing.

Maria Lull chose to task the Board with the minutia of going line by line. We can only assume this is because she wants more control over the law, and over the timeline. We don’t know though, because she rarely talks at the meetings.

That is not effective leadership.

Ironically, this decision to halt Q&As will actually waste time. The public participation has sped up changes to lightening speed!

So, let’s just give Ms. Lull a bone. Let’s say her involving the public in Q&As was strategic to make this go faster. Brava! But then why stop the Q&As?

They worked.

I can’t imagine the number of hours a Zoning Board would have had to endure to get to the quantity and quality of revisions made on this proposed law since early July. So much has changed for the better because of public involvement.

We are not slowing this down. We are speeding it up.

Which brings me to my next point… the Board is not just wasting time, they are also wasting money with their “take control” approach. Instead of using the free hive minds of a very intelligent public to assist, they are going to toss things back and forth to Nan Stolzenburg (the planner) and Jeff Lyons (the attorney), then back to a public hearing, then back to Nan and Jeff… more of your tax dollars lost.

How is that helpful for anyone?

I can say without reservation that I truly believe if they kept going with the Q&A approach, they would have succeeded in creating a better law, faster, and with much less money. Now? They are refusing to toss this back to the Zoning Board and also refusing to promise an open door to continued public involvement.

Please note, if you went to the Tri-Village Firehouse and wrote a question down on a card, do not assume it’s being considered. Two people in attendance submitted questions that were ignored after that firehouse meeting, yet when they came to the Q&As, their questions got answered. If this happened to two people, I assure you, it’s happened to more.

So, if we have no more Q&As to ask questions, how can we ever be sure our concerns will be addressed?

We can’t.

Mr. Richardson stated that part of the Board’s reluctance to continue Q&As is that they were starting to hear repetitive questions. Of course they were. Unless someone came to every single Q&A, they would have no idea what was asked because, again, no information was posted on their website.

Clear communication is not rocket science. We, Chatham United, are just a bunch of concerned citizens, yet we quickly created a website, Facebook, and Instagram that we update consistently and timely. It works. All they had to do is have someone live streaming the Q&A meetings online, like we do for the Board meetings, and everyone could have watched and potentially heard answers to a question they, too, might have had. (Note: The Town of Chatham Communication Committee has reestablished a Facebook page, so please follow it.)

We also know many people did not attend the Q&As because they were waiting to have their questions from the Tri-Village Firehouse meeting answered and posted on the Town website, as not to duplicate their questions at these meetings. Tonight, the Board held up a stack of papers with what they claim are “rhetorical” questions that are being addressed by the Board (any question starting with “Why…” was considered rhetorical). We appreciate the Boards efforts in answering them and look forward to those being posted, but they will most likely not be up for weeks.

It is with a heavy heart that I admit I no longer have faith at all in this process, and I have also lost faith in our Town Supervisor’s ability to keep her word. A person’s word matters, especially the word of someone we put into office.

If we can’t trust the word of our leader, what do we have? We certainly don’t have a healthy democracy… or a healthy town.

“If your actions don’t live up to your words, you have nothing to say.”

― DaShanne Stokes

Our actions matter, too. We can’t bellyache about these laws if we aren’t willing to be a part of the solution. We need to be active in solving the problem, not just gripe and moan on Facebook.

So, what can we do? We can keep working hard, keep making lists of questions, keep going to as many board meetings as possible, email questions and concerns to the Board, spread the word about upcoming Town Board meetings, and stay engaged.

Even if they never schedule another Q&A, our town deserves our dedication and commitment to its success. You deserve it! Please stay engaged!

If this unfortunate turn of events taught us anything, it’s that bad things happen when we don’t stay on top of our government.


Check our Facebook page, this website, and the Town of Chatham website and calendar for updates. VOTE FOR DONAL, VANCE, AND ABI ON NOVEMBER 5th.


Ted Miner Thoughts on Q&A Meetings

Thoughts from Ted Miner. An important read, as Ted has attended every single Q&A and Town Board meeting since our stampede into the Town Hall on June 20th to voice our objection to the proposed zoning laws.

**** 08/10/19 ****
It has been a bit since I have commented on Chatham’s zoning proposition issue. I thought to write this in satire, but, having second thoughts……..

The process has been grinding along with all indications openness and clarity were to be hallmarks of the effort at the finale. That may yet be, but recent events are throwing roadblocks, making this possibility a challenge.

June 20th, 2019 was a pivotal day for our town. Regardless, the purported agenda, or lack of, our town, (notice please I did not say any group exclusively), learned we have a communication problem. A tipping point was achieved. Through the efforts of a very few, in a very short amount of time, a wave of town residents showed to voice an opinion. Right/wrong/yes/no, it does not matter the thought. The raw fact they all felt necessary to break their habits to come was lesson enough.

Our town needs better communication devices. Happily the board has come to recognize this fact and has challenged for solution(s). Unhappily, the old sentiment, “they all know when we meet”, will never carry the day again. While the legality of the thought is fine, the practice has dire consequences, as evidenced that evening.

The movement to a Zoning Proposition based on a minimum ten year old Comprehensive Plan concerns me. Even within the document, (page 6), it specifically calls for 5-7 year review. Our board recognizes the short coming while considering ongoing committees of Comprehensive Plan and Zoning review. The Plan was wrote at approximately the same time Chatham schools submitted a 47 million dollar bond proposal for school upgrades, (for multiple of reasons). It failed. Dramatically. I suggest for the same shortcomings the Plan suffers. If reviewed the past couple years those that rose to defeat the 47M Bond would contribute and the Plan would include low-income housing concerns as well. Etc.

The FaceBook page “Chatham United for Common Sense Zoning” has been attacked with some vicious vitriol. Some of which, wisely, has been removed. While the sentiments have been heartfelt, the lowering to personal attacks has been demoralizing. I have to say that the tone was achieved first by “the opposition.” You may disagree. My point made.

Letters have appeared in the local paper(s). Again, the lowering to personal attacks have not carried the factual arguments, nor made positions more attractive. The skirting of issues to twist to advantage insults me. I would hope it insults you. BTW – I don’t care the partnership status, or lack thereof, of ANY participant.

Nor do I care as to anybody’s longevity of Chatham occupation. A day, month, year, decade, or generations; we are all in this together having made the financial and emotional commitments to reside in our town.

Finally, regarding the letters’ “late to the party” comments…….. How about, “Welcome. Glad to have you. Sit down, may I get you some coffee? Do you have any questions? Anything to add?” What a novel idea. I fully appreciate the extended effort of those involved “from the beginning.” But that is not a card carrying right to exclude or demean another. Conversely, respect must be accorded knowledge. Especially when given openly and generously.

“Truth Matters.” Welcome to the party. I wish I had known of your FaceBook presence earlier. In an effort to promote all views to come to common ground I would encourage the review of their information. I hope “Truth Matters” takes a lead from local schooling efforts and publishes thoughts from all sides. As we all know, “truth” is most of the time dictated by the victor, a position I would hope we all may lay claim.

The actions of the Aug. 8th board meeting concern me. After suggesting at the Q&A’s “Short Term Rental concerns be tabled for a more detailed review of the balance of the proposition”, the board dramatically revised the STR “domicile” definition. All previous conversation had been as to the longevity of owner’s stay at site factoring rental abilities. Then, “whatever is identified on tax returns” became the norm. I suggest the, (category 2,3,4), STR people may feel short changed. I would. The balance of the board meeting was then kindly opened up to the floor for public dialog. Certainly needed as subjects came up for decision that still had not been fully reviewed in the Q&A’s. I applaud the board for the “meet in the middle” attitude. I expect the next Q&A meeting to be along the same lines. Finally, a Q&A is scheduled for Aug. 20th from 5-7:00. I hope it is enough time to satisfy an earlier board comment, “We will continue to have these Q&A’s until there are no more questions”. If not, I expect to sit through more.

I recognize “politics is a blood sport,” yet I do not condone the mirroring of state and federal representatives’ actions locally. This is not about party affiliation or position. Local politics is about local people, neighbors all, who have to live together at the end. Some of us even to the end.

Thank you for taking the time. Back to work.

**** 08/13/19. Update ****
10 hours since the gavel dropped on the best Chatham Board experience I have ever sat through. Not because anybody “won”…. or lost. Because of the openness and concise and concerned participation of all. This was town government at its best.

Congratulations to the Chatham Town Board and I would add the same to Chatham United and Truth Matters. And to all the neighbors who have given effort towards an end we all may live.

Next Q&A. 08/20/19. 5-7 @ the town hall.
“These will stop when the people don’t show and the questions are exhausted.”

Has the Public Been Quiet About Objections All Along? No, They Have Not.

On the June 20, 2019 Town Board meeting, the board scolded to the audience for not getting involved earlier. People have indeed been involved. Please read the August 3, 2018 minutes from a Public Hearing, where many people used the same terminology we are using today regarding these proposed laws as restrictive, overbearing, and a violation of property owners’ rights. 

Please read this post with a brief history of where and how these zoning laws came about and the abuse of power by Maria Lull.

At the beginning of the meeting Nan Stolzenberg gives comments on the process of drafting these laws.

At this meeting in August, 2018, people spoke of the need for the Board to provide the public with a full red-line version, comparing the current zoning to the new proposed zoning. Note: When they post red-line versions on the Town site, they are ONLY posting comparisons from the current draft to the last draft, which is very misleading.

That was one year ago, and the Town has yet to provide the public with a full, accurate comparison from the current laws to the proposed laws.

When the public cries out that there is no transparency, this is an example of why.

Here are two detailed examples of the public comment’s, but please read the entire minutes, because it’s also important to read comments from those who support these changes. You’ll find several speakers from Thomas Road in the minutes.

Page 19, Lawyer Mitchell Khosrova stated the following:

I come here, really, with what I hope is more of an objective look. Those that know me, know I spent 16 years as a deputy chair of the ZBA. I spent two and a half years on the ZIC that was mentioned earlier. This process, these 182 pages that are on the website — which is a work in process for, I think it’s close to six years in happening.

I know for a fact that the council members care what’s going on in this community; and as stated earlier by the supervisor, want to get input; and there’s always been a lot of talk since the change in the last administration about transparency and public input. This is a real chance to do that. I have worked with both your attorney and your consultant in the past and currently I have a lot of respect for what was done here and for what you are trying to do; and I recognize the largess of it makes it very, very difficult.

I guess the long and the short — and I will go through some specific examples but not many. I think that more time is needed. I think that this was posted, literally, on July 20th. I, certainly, have not had an opportunity to go through it more than a few pages; and I looked and highlighted some of the things that I thought might be important. I know at the last meeting, Dr. Wapner — he and I have, sometimes, disagreed in the past — but he had tried to put off a Public Hearing. I do think that more time is necessary.

Also, if there are changes, which I hope there will be, based on the input that you are receiving, that there be another public notice and a public hearing after those changes. This document did not highlight the changes from the current law. It makes it very, very difficult to focus on what needs to be focused on. You literally have to read 182 pages. And many times there would be some kind of a table or there’s a red line. This board has decided not to do that; and it really is unfair to the public, especially in a 12-day period, to give you final comments. I know I cannot do that. I am unable to do that.

(APPLAUSE.)

And I don’t know — it could very well be the Town will, this time, take up Dr. Wapner’s motion from last month; and say, yeah, let’s put this out 60 days; or let’s rewrite base on comments and then put that out for 60 days. I hope that you will do that.

I just want to point out, I guess, there are some things, like inconsistencies. In one place, you say that a residential pond needs a site plan review. In another place, it says no permit is required. Again, I know because it was a rush and largess of it, things like that have to be knocked out.

This is a legal document. You are going to go to Court — if you try to enforce that, you are going to lose that. There’s several things that I think that may not really have, or at least explain proper rationale to it. The three-car garage limit. I think that — as a practical matter, it doesn’t really make sense to me. I have two children. If they were of age to drive, that means we needed four cars. It’s just where we live. I also have a lawn mower, I have a motorcycle. And to say and to limit on any piece of property, without mention of size or anything else — what Nan referred to is you wanted to standardize things — really doesn’t make sense, and there’s no rationale for that prohibition. If someone has a larger piece of property, and wants a bigger garage, why not? It’s not going to hurt anybody.

(APPLAUSE.)

I also think that some people may think and look at this and read this in saying — you know, there are a lot of working class people in this community. I know if you try to get a contractor, repair person, plumber, electrician — it’s really hard out here. And it’s one of the businesses that we need and need to promote because everybody needs those type of things.

Specifically, contractors have need for garages and places to store things. And you are — you know, looking at those type of people, and right away, you are penalizing them for their business. And that goes into the —

(APPLAUSE.)

I love clapping, but hold on a second. It goes into — also the accessory use limit that you have imposed. You have based it on the square footage of the house. To me, that easily could be deemed illegious because if you can afford a 10,000 square foot house, you are going to be allowed to have more accessory uses; and I just don’t see the rationale. If you have a large piece of property, and no one is going to see it, what difference if someone has a shed, a pool, a large garage, or any other type of — a swing set, all of those things — anything that would be considered a structure is limited now as an accessory use. I just don’t see the rationale in that. I don’t really think that that was properly thought through. And to say one-size-fits-all is not what zoning is supposed to do. That’s why you have special permits.

SEQR is exactly the opposite. SEQR specifically comes into existence so you take, fact by fact, specific spaces, and say what is proper for that particular application. You are, kind of, going through that and negating any of that need by saying you want to standardize something.

I just have two more little examples.

The 100-foot buffer zone — you know, whether it’s in a hamlet that could be near a creek or a stream — by the way, I don’t think there’s a definition of a stream. If someone wants to, simply, put a swing set, and they live in a hamlet, it makes it impossible to do. Why is that not allowed? Again, I am not sure that was thought through.

Your mowing and construction restrictions, I think also — I mean, you have it Saturday but not Sunday, you have it after five. I mean, people like me work all day. I get home and I mow. And it’s never between 9 and 5; and I usually will do it on weekends. And I don’t have any neighbors in earshot.

Why can’t I do it at 8 in the morning? Why can’t I do it after 5 o’clock at night? Especially when it’s light until 9 o’clock. I think that those were rather quick to go through. I won’t even go into it because I know other speakers will talk about your town roads — you don’t differentiate between gravel or paved.

The short-term leasing is also a large problem. You don’t define media. For me — and I have worked on other municipality’s Airbnb issue. You know, if someone wants to rent a room in their home where they live, you don’t have the transient issues about all-night parties, about littering, about not caring, and all those other issues. I don’t see why you would make someone, who is trying to make a few extra bucks to have a guest in their home — have to go through a whole obstacle course in order to do it. And you don’t differentiate between someone who wants to — and I thought Karen was very articulate in the things that she said earlier about the Airbnb. I think that that’s a really
difficult issue. I know Hudson just passed it, and they thought it through, I think, a little bit more than what this definition does and what you allow.

So, to sum up, I really think that it took a lot of time to do this. I think a lot more review and input is necessary. I think that if you make changes, we need more time to look at those challenges. If this is passed the way it is, you will lose lawsuits; and I know the town doesn’t want to do that, they don’t want to waste their money.

Thank you again for your effort and your time for allowing me to speak.

Page 31, Wendy Carroll stated the following:

My name is Wendy P. Carroll, and I live in the village. I am here to express my concern that although much of the proposed town code is valid and fulfills the Comprehensive Plan’s intent, there are proposed prohibited uses on all town roads that are not consistent with the intent of the plan.

The Zoning Implementation Committee worked long and hard to establish guidelines consistent with the plan’s intent. Such prohibited uses on all town roads were never included in any of the draft use tables.

The Town Board added these prohibited uses at the final stages, in an effort to compromise with powers that fought loudly and insistently to protect their dirt roads with claims that such uses were intense and would destroy the rural character of their town.

I strongly believe that horse-related activities with similar impacts can coexist with the proposed prohibited uses while maintaining our rural character.

Just out of curiosity, to see the impact, I made this map, and all the red zones on our town are the prohibited use areas. These are our town roads. Roughly, I will
show you guys —

SUPERVISOR LULL: Please show it to the Town Board.

MS. CARROLL: Here we go. There’s roughly 1,786 parcels, almost 88 percent of the town will be impacted by these over-restricted regulations. The plan clearly states recommendations to preserve the rural character of our town, while balancing growth and protecting our quality of life.

Nowhere in the plan are there any recommendations to prohibit uses such as day camps, health clubs, membership clubs, outdoor commercial recreation, facilities, etcetera, on any town roads.

The Comprehensive Plan does include Goals, such as places for our children to engage in our natural environment, homes for our elders, in close proximity to their families and friends, and states: Recreational facilities compliment our rural character. The plan does not prohibit such uses. The plan encourages uses such as that.

I also find it extremely challenging to understand the difference between the town’s paved road and a county’s paved road, other than the obvious distinction of ownership — distinction without a difference.

Why will someone on a county paved road be allowed a use, when someone three houses away on an adjacent paved town road, will not be allowed the same opportunity? Each one of these roads are different. Each site is different. And rather than blanket regulations, I think we should consider each site.

Explicit recommendations to protect and to preserve the rural character of the town are included in the infrastructure section of the plan. The list is long, and due to time constraints, I will mention a few. None of them include proposed prohibited uses.

Roads remain rural and design of maintenance, institute rural road standards that will maintain rural character. Develop and use contact sensitive design standards for new roads built in Chatham which are recognized nationally for their flexibility and ability to preserve rural character.

When I questioned the reason behind the overly-restricted prohibited uses, I was told, as far as the Town Board goes, the choice became, limit the high impact uses or prohibit them all together; thus, the compromise. Surely, you would not want to see those uses eliminated all together. No, I would say that the uses should be based on a case by case basis according to each use and each site.

I was told the number one response from the people was protect road character, and close behind, was protect open space — yes. But the prohibited uses as proposed would not, with rural road standard and adequate review processes, destroy our open space and rural character.

In addition, I was told, as one of the members of the steering committee that completed the plan — I’ll be finished in just a minute — I can assure you, we were told, more than once by committee members living on dirt roads, that they would lay down in front of the road paver before they let their road become blacktopped — they were not kidding.

Is this the real impetus for such heavy-handed prohibitive regulations? A threat. And why, at the last minute, were the prohibited uses included at all? The proposed zoning can and should move forward without such misguided and special interests influencing prohibited uses on all town roads.

To justify these restrictions as maintaining the rural character is nothing less than unconscionable and an obvious attempt to placate certain members of the community at the expense of the entire town — and most definitely, not in compliance with the intent of the Comprehensive Plan. Thank you very much.
(APPLAUSE.)
SUPERVISOR LULL: Wendy, can you enter that?
MS. CARROLL: I can enter it, a longer version with all the recommendations from the town about the rural road standards.

NOTE FROM CHATHAM UNITED: Since Wendy submitted her chart to the Town Board, you can email the Town Clerk to get a copy of that and her further recommendations.

Please read the entire Public Hearing minutes here.