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January 6. 2008


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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January 6, 2008

Democratizing The Planning Process

At long last a Common Council member wants to bring
decision making out of the toilet and into the sunshine

For decades the City of Albany has been deliberately run into the ground by its government. You can see the mess all over the place. Buildings are being allowed to languish and be destroyed that should be repaired. Meanwhile, vile atrocities that belong in the suburbs of Lower Hell are planted in the worst possible places.

You can look around the City and see blocks of vacant houses and empty lots. But you can also see an endless string of badly built crap buildings strung out along Washington Avenue Extension. Small businesses run by City residents are few and struggling, while corporate combines in crappy temporary buildings are given every advantage.

Vacant House With Storefront, Will Be Torn Down For Howe Library Parking Lot
Vacant House With Storefront, Will Be Torn Down For Howe Library Parking Lot

This is not supposed to happen. There are two public bodies, boards mandated by State law, that are supposed to allow citizen input into the process of locating buildings and determining the infrastructure of neighborhoods. These two are the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals (usually called the ZBA.)

But see, the public has little access to these boards in the City of Albany. In fact, the members of the boards treat the taxpayers like unwanted intruders. The whole system is set up so that our elected officials can do the hand jive with speculators and “developers” under the table and and not have to worry about public objections.

Until recently, not too many Albany citizens have been aware of the inbuilt corruption of these boards, or even cared. Indeed, when I first wrote an article about this back in 1996 for the Save the Pine Bush newsletter, I was stunned by the backlash.

At the time, both neighborhood activists and the handful of progressive elected officials were so terrified of rocking the Old Boy’s boat that they refused to question why the planning process was so badly broken. They all told me to shut up and quietly accept the system, which, they all said, could not be changed.

There was one immediate result of my article from 1996. Much of the information that I gathered for it came from the City Record, a pamphlet put out by the City government that published board decisions and other legal notices. I don’t believe anyone had ever done what I did before. Within a few months the Common Council put an end to the City Record, and now no one knows where these decisions are published, if at all. My goodness, I felt powerful.

Before And After, Pine Bush Transformed To Crossgates Before And After, Pine Bush Transformed To Crossgates
Before And After, Pine Bush Transformed To Crossgates

Fast forward ten years later to May of 2006. I wrote a straightforward description of business as usual at the City of Albany Planning Board here at Albanyweblog, as seen through the eyes of The Wife. Quite a few people came up to me in the weeks after I posted it to express astonishment at what they had read. They had no idea of the total corruption that had been embedded in the rules governing this important panel, rules designed to keep the taxpayers out and the old boys in control.

Suddenly, after all these years, something positive is being done about this festering problem.

Michael O'Brien
Michael O'Brien

This January 2nd, 12th Ward Common Council member Michael OBrien made an unannounced presentation to the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) meeting at the library. Mike is a real nice guy, but he is not known as a leader or an innovator on the Council. So I was rather surprised at what he brought before CANA.

Mr. O’Brien is proposing that the Common Council impose a set of democratizing procedures on the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and on the Planning Board. Most of his legislation, as it stands now, concerns the ZBA. Nothing radical, just sensible.

He wants to allow each citizen five minutes to speak at hearings before the boards. He wants citizens to have a right to respond to the “developers” who bring proposals before the boards. He wants the meetings held in the evenings, not at Nine AM on odd Thursdays.

He wants all proceedings of the boards to be audible to members of the public seated in the back of the Common Council chambers, where the meeting are held. That’s right, right now the Planning Board members mumble and can’t be heard more than ten feet away. The ZBA board members use microphones, but the “developers” stand with their backs to the public and can rarely be heard.

Mike wants all meetings by the boards to be in compliance with the open meetings law. No more “held over until next meeting” decisions. If there’s any sort of extra input needed to make a planning decision, then the boards have to include the public. This more than anything else will affect the outcome of decisions that historically could only be altered by lawsuits brought by outraged citizens.

Shawn Morris
Shawn Morris

Right now, the boards set their own ridiculous rules. Common Council President Shawn Morris, who had come along to the January CANA meeting presumably to support Mr. O’Brien’s presentation, told us that the council had been trying to encourage new appointees to the boards to reform the rules.

This effort was unsuccessful. I had to suppress a grim laugh at that. But at least some of the council members were trying.

You see, the members of both the Planning Board and the ZBA are appointed by Mayor Jerry Jennings and “serve at his pleasure.” According to Shawn, each of the appointees are interviewed by the Common Council, and the CC can issue a recommendation either way. but that’s it. The Mayor can ignore their recommendation if He sees fit.

A CANA representative asked if the Common Council had ever made a negative recommendation of an appointee. Neither Mike nor Shawn could remember that ever happening.

The Mayor
The Mayor

To change the way members of the two boards are appointed would require an alteration to the City Charter. That is unlikely to happen. Jerry Jennings would do anything to keep control over His ability to suppress small businesses and play finger footsie with suburban interlopers and corporate sleaze bags. Especially now that His retirement is looming closer, He has to plan for His financial future.

The one thing that the Common Council can do is impose rules on how the meetings are conducted, thus Mike’s initiative. Except for one problem. His proposed legislation has been buried in a committee, specifically what he calls “Dan Herring’s committee,” the clumsily named Planning, Economic Development and Land Use Committee.

That’s why Mike O’Brien is doing something I’ve never seen him do, bypass internal procedures designed to bury legislation and take his case to the public. You know that The Mayor and his slavish minions on the Common Council are not going to democratize the planning process in the City unless they have to fend off persistent gangs of outraged citizens.

Judging by the reaction to Mike’s presentation at CANA, there are plenty of people who want to see reform. Maybe I’m out of line here, but I’d like to pat myself on the back for bringing this problem to public light a year and a half ago. I’d like to think that my blog is good for more than complaining about holidays and pushing my own point of view.

So Mr. O’Brien asked all of us at CANA to lobby our Common Council representatives, and he also asked us for suggestions to add to the legislation. Quite a few of us at the meeting threw out important ideas, of which Mike said, “All of these are important.”

But I noticed that he didn’t write down any of them. fortunately, the CANA membership immediately appointed Joe Cunniff of the Upper Washington Area Neighborhood Association (UWANA... isn’t that a great acronym?) to gather ideas to be added to the legislation. He’ll keep in contact with Mr. O’Brien and present the suggestions. At a meeting to come, hopefully the one in March, the CANA membership plans to enthusiastically endorse the proposed changes in procedure.

I offered to assist Joe in this task. So I’m asking that anybody who has any suggestions to email me and I’ll pass them along. Tell me how the Planning Board and the ZBA can be improved. How can they be used by the taxpayers to make this City better, rather than be used as vehicles to enrich our elected officials and make the City uninhabitable.

Picotte's Filthy Walgreens On Holland Avenue, All Ready To Go                    The Appeal Is Still Pending
Picotte's Filthy Walgreens On Holland Avenue, All Ready To Go
The Appeal Is Still Pending

This is your chance, folks. If you’ve ever had the miserable fortune of having to deal with either the ZBA or the Planning Board, you are more than qualified to make constructive suggestions. Even if you haven’t dealt with them directly, you have a right to demand that the planning process, which often determines the fate of your neighborhood, be opened up for your participation.

One important suggestion is that all of the reforms applied to the ZBA should also be applied to the Planning Board. If this requires separate legislation, so be it. Both are broken, they need to be fixed.

The way the Planning Board and the ZBA currently behave is a disgrace. Perhaps this is how planning is conducted by third world countries or communities run by criminal gangs, but this is not how the Capital of New York State should conduct business.

And if The Mayor and His minions on the Common Council refuse to reform the system, we’ll have to take up a collection for tar and feathers. One way or another, their back room terrorism has got to end now.

Here is Michael O’Brien’s proposed legislation, the democratization of the City of Albany Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board.

The mp3 link is to the mostly forgotten punk band Hüsker Dü, “It’s Not Funny Anymore” from the album Metal Circus, 1983.


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Posted by: Lynne Jackson
Posted on:
Changes in how the Planning Board works are long overdue.

I wholeheartedly agree with albanyweblog that the public is treated like "unwanted intruders".

The Planning Board meets every third Thursday at 9:00 am. No comment from the public is ever taken, unless the Planning Board holds a public hearing. Unlike every single other Planning Board in every other municipality that I have attended (including the Town of Guilderland, Town of Colonie, Clifton Park, East Greenbush and many more that I have attended), Albany's Planning Board is the only one that does not take general comments.

Unless one sits up front at the "press" table, it is not possible to hear 90% of the proceedings.

The chairman of the Planning Board mumbles so badly, that even when I am a few feet away from him, I can barely understand what he says.

Reforms on the Planning Board are long overdue, and I am grateful that Mr. O'Brien is offering this legislation.

Posted by: suburban dem
Posted on:
Perhaps they should model it after Guilderland. Board members to the planning and zoning board are appointed to set terms with one member of each board having their term end every year. All meetings are at set times of the month, at 7:30 pm and are televised live on the local access network on cable. The public is invited to attend and comments are welcomed.

Posted by: cek
Posted on:
In addition to being televised on the local access channel, detailed meeting minutes should be kept, either stenographically or taped and later transcribed, and made available online as timely as possible -- but certainly before the next meeting is held.

Posted by: Albany Taxpayer
Posted on:
Finally, (hoepfully) someone will start listening. The Walgreen's proposal is a disaster. Depsite all the hearings where the public was clearly opposed and even the City Planning Department recommended against the proposal, it's still going ahead. The attorney's representing the developer's for Walgreen's totally dismissed any comments as amateurish and uninformed. This is the Capital City and as such, it should be a Capital City. Allowing commercial highway development in the middle of a residential neighborhood still confounds me. What's even more frustrating is the fact the developer's claimed they were being harmed by not being able to develop the site commercially. They claimed there was no demand for office space, which is what the site was zoned for and the only alternative was a Central Avenue style development. If there is no demand for office space, why did the City just announce 120,000 square feet in office space planned for New Scotland Ave in conjunction with the Park South redevelopment. Where do I make my donation for the tar and feather?

Posted by: Dave Merwitz
Posted on:
My councilman is Dan Herring...he WILL be hearing from me on this matter. I don't know how much I can influence him as he seems to be in Jerry's pocket, but I will certainly do my best to make him aware that people are getting fed up with this b.s.

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