CATSKILL — The composition of the Catskill town planning board changed abruptly when three members of the planning board stepped down.
Joseph Izzo, Reid Mower and Charles Holtz resigned, and the town board unanimously appointed William DeLuca and Angelo DiCaprio their replacements Sept. 16, with Brenda Vandermark as an alternate.
The mass resignations began shortly after Teresa Golden was appointed to chair the board when Thomas Decker resigned in August.
Golden was appointed in a 4-2 vote by secret ballot. Planners did not vote in secret ballots, secretary Patricia Case-Keel said, but the board switched to the procedure within the past year.
Freedom of Information Law requires a record of the final vote of each member of every entity proceeding in which the member votes.
“It appears that the state Legislature, in precluding secret ballot voting, sought to ensure that the public has the right to know how its representatives may have voted individually with respect to particular issues,” according to an advisory opinion from the Committee on Open Government.
Izzo, a planner for more than 10 years, said he is unhappy with the way the board’s direction.
“I feel that the town board is trying to extend control over the planning board,” Izzo said. “I think that the planning board, as an autonomous board, should not be under the thumb of the town board.”
Town Supervisor Dale Finch wants to change the membership of the board, Izzo said.
“If that’s the direction the town board would like to go, they certainly have the authority to do that, but I do not want to be a part of that,” Izzo said. “It may be time for the board to change. I thought we had a decent board and were doing a good job and obviously the town supervisor thought we weren’t.”
Brook Stevens, a candidate for one of the vacated seats, accused Finch of appointing the new members without considering other applicants.
“Three or four [additional] individuals submitted applications,” Stevens alleged. “[The applications] were all thrown out, no interviews were given even though they were all told there would be interviews. The supervisor appointed three of his buddies without consulting anyone, including the Republican chairwoman that helped get him elected.”
Greene County Legislator Matthew Luvera, not Vandermark, is the town Republican chairman.
Finch declined to comment on Stevens’ allegations.
“In response to the vacant positions, there was a need to streamline our process to select talent to serve on the board,” Finch said. “I feel our new members have the ability and will be great assets to the board.”
Finch did not say how many people applied for the positions or how many were interviewed.
“I don’t have those available,” he said.
The town received six or seven letters of interest, said Councilman Patrick McCulloch, who was unsure if all applicants were interviewed.
Golden said other candidates applied for the positions, but she did not know if all candidates were interviewed.
At the Sept. 8 planning board meeting, Stevens said he was told by Golden that interviews for the board seats would be held before the Sept. 22 meeting, but the town board made its appointments Sept. 16.
Mower said the board made plans at its Sept. 8 meeting to come to the Sept. 22 meeting early, at 5 p.m., to conduct the interviews, but this did not happen.
Interviews were conducted by Finch, McCulloch said.
“We were tentatively going to do interviews on Sept. 22,” Golden said. “We had a second resignation [Izzo’s] and the town board opted to fill it right away.”
The planning board did not receive letters of interest from DeLuca and Vandermark, Mower alleged.
“I think it’s odd we never saw a letter from any of them,” he said.
Finch disputed Mower’s allegation, saying DeLuca and Vandermark submitted letters of interest. McCulloch said all candidates submitted letters.
The letter for DiCaprio was submitted by McCulloch, Mower alleged, adding that the two work together at the town water department.
“Working for the town should be a conflict of interest,” Mower said.
McCulloch said DiCaprio submitted his own application to the town board, which McCulloch forwarded to Case-Keel, Golden and the town clerk.
Another applicant, Nick Birk, did not receive a phone call about his application, Mower said, adding that he was more qualified for a position. Birk owns Toolhouse Construction. A retired architect also applied, Mower said.
Mower expressed frustration with the appointment process.
“We used to interview [candidates] and then make recommendations to the town board,” Mower said. “The town board went ahead with no recommendations and appointed whoever they want. There are other people who put in letters to be appointed and they didn’t even look at them.”
The appointment process has changed over the years, McCulloch said, adding historically, interviews were conducted by the planning board chairman, the town supervisor or sometimes both.
“We have no set policy as to how we appoint members,” he said.
The appointment process is under the purview of the town board, Planning Board Vice Chairman Larry Federman said.
“Through state law, the town board fills vacancies and it’s up to each individual town to have their own procedure,” Federman said. “There is nothing illegal or unscrupulous by the town doing it that way. The town board has the authority to do that.”
Izzo, Holtz, Mower and Stevens also had concerns with the town board passing a resolution that sets a fee schedule for projects to be reviewed by Delaware Engineering.
The town board passed a resolution Sept. 1 requiring escrow accounts to be set up at the time of application for subdivisions at $300 per lot for up to five lots; $100 per lot for over five lots; multi-family site plans at $100 per unit for up to 50 units and $50 per unit for more than 50 units; commercial subdivisions at $350 per lot for up to five lots and $125 per lot for more than five lots; solar arrays at $1,500; site plans and special permits at $300 plus $50 per 1,000 square feet; state environmental quality reviews at $150 for a short form assessment, $300 for a long form assessment and $5,000 for an environmental impact statement.
Golden said the planning board has discovered a new way of doing business.
“We have learned that there’s a better way to review whether or not applications are ready for planning board review,” Golden said. “We were having meetings that were more than three hours long and much of that time was spent determining whether or not the application was complete.”
The change will promote efficiency, Golden said.
“What we are trying to do is be more efficient of planning board members’ time to ensure that when applications reach the planning board, that they meet the minimum requirements for review.”
Finch agreed that the process will be smoother.
“It will streamline the process and gives notice [to the applicant] that additional costs may be required,” Finch said.
The initial review will not result in a fee for the applicant, McCulloch said.
“The initial review wouldn’t be part of any escrow account,” he said.
Golden said there will be no fee for a preliminary sketch, but when an application is filed for any of the types of projects identified in the fee schedule, payment for the escrow will be due.
“It’s to ensure that the money is paid as opposed to submitting an application and the town having to continually chase someone to get it paid,” she said.
Izzo disagreed, saying the upfront payment was unfair.
“My understanding is that they have to pay right away and set up an escrow account and if they don’t use the money it goes back to the applicant,” Izzo said. “It’s their prerogative to change the fees. I thought it would be a little unfair to pay upfront for issues that they may not have to [address].”
Applicants are being asked to front the money for projects that haven’t been approved, Mower alleged.
“All these fees should be conditional upon approval,” he said. “We’re spending people’s money and we can still say no [to the project.]”
Finch said a review by Delaware is up to the planning board.
“That’s really an arrangement that’s made by the planning board, not the town board,” he said.
Izzo disagreed, saying the planning board has no discretion over the review and all projects will automatically go to Delaware.
Holtz agreed, saying the planning board will not see an application until it has been deemed complete by Delaware.
Despite the resolution stating that the town board and planning board believe an escrow fee schedule will help facilitate a smooth process of applications, the planning board was not involved, Holtz said.
“They made a decision to bring Delaware on to review projects without talking to the planning board,” Holtz said. “The planning board should have the say of what gets reviewed. The town board will sit there and say [the planning board] is an autonomous board and they have no control over it.”
The planning board did not vote on Delaware’s fee schedule or even to use the firm, Mower said.
“We should have gotten presentations from several different engineers,” he said. “The new supervisor is just forcing it down my throat. I don’t have a problem if we voted upon using Delaware and we all agreed upon it.”
Finch said looking at alternative firms would be up to the planning board.
“[Delaware Engineering] has been our engineering company,” he said. “If they need other engineering companies I think that would be OK. That would have to be a planning board discussion.”
The town should have explored alternatives, Mower said.
“We’re forcing people to use Delaware when there’s other engineers out there that are cheaper,” he said. “If the town board wants to use Delaware, the town should pay for it.”
The new review process has been slowing projects down, Mower alleged, not streamlining the process as Finch and Golden said.
“The role of the board is to get people through the process of getting a permit,” he said. “Now we’re making it harder.”
“The planning board should be there to help people,” he said. “I felt like it was getting to be the other way around.”
Stevens said he was forced to set up an escrow account for $1,000 for his subdivision request, which will divide a 10-acre parcel into two five-acre lots. He is also expected to pay $150 per hour for three days to have an inspector on-site while the access road to his property is widened.
Stevens’ application has been under review by the board since June.
Stevens said the review by Delaware resulted in new conditions on his subdivision after it had been conditionally approved Aug. 25.
“The goalposts kept changing,” he said. “Four weeks ago, I paid the escrow account because I was sick of dealing with this. My resolution passed with no conditions and then later, my resolution was filed with three conditions on it, which is not the resolution. The planning board didn’t write the resolution. Kevin Schwenzfeier from Delaware wrote it and he’s not a planning board member.”
At the Sept. 8 meeting, Izzo said changing conditions on the approved subdivision was illegal, Mower said.
Golden replied to Izzo that the work he had been doing on the board for years was illegal, Stevens said. Izzo resigned on the spot.
“I indicated to the board that they couldn’t do that,” Izzo said. “If they wanted to change the resolution, they had to amend it at a regularly scheduled board meeting. You cannot change a resolution after it’s passed.”
Izzo called Golden’s comment “off the cuff.”
“I was not very happy with that comment but that’s somebody else’s opinion and that’s how boards work,” Izzo said. “I think the comment wasn’t said in malice, it was just said off the cuff and said inappropriately.”
Golden said after the resolution was conditionally approved, the language had to be modified.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the board reviewed the original resolution — without the conditions, Stevens said.
“Even the applicant agreed at the last meeting it currently reflects what was agreed at the meeting,” Golden said. “That was a non-event.”