Monday, February 3, 2014

The State of the Commissions and Boards

Someone once made the observation that the regulatory agencies--the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Historic Preservation Commission--have the real power to shape what happens in the city. They are charged with interpreting the code, and their decisions have an impact on how the city evolves. As an example, in the past year, in a city that agonizes about the shortage of affordable apartments and celebrates its entrepreneurial spirit, the ZBA denied an area variance to a five-unit apartment house proposed for 248 and 250 Columbia Street and a use variance to a small market wanting to operate in an alley.

The members of these boards are mayoral appointees, and because the appointments are for terms longer than the mayor's two-year term, a mayor can, through these regulatory agencies, influence what happens in Hudson long after he has left office. (Many of the people now serving in Planning Commission, the ZBA, and the HPC were appointed by Rick Scalera.) In this respect, these appointments are like Supreme Court appointments, although happily for all, they are not lifetime appointments. Unlike Supreme Court appointments, however, where the President nominates and the Senate confirms and approves, the mayor appoints, and that's that.

Council approval of mayoral appointments has been suggested many times, starting at least as early as the fall of 2005, when a candidate for First Ward alderman, inspired in part by Scalera's appointment of Eric Galloway to the Historic Preservation Commission, made it a campaign issue. (Galloway resigned after attending only one meeting.) Whenever such an approval process is suggested, however, someone eventually points out this would diminish the mayor's powers and hence could not be accomplished without a referendum. 

Although it may not possible in the short run to change how appointments are made, it may be possible to establish some effective qualifications for members of boards and commissions. The Common Council is now in the process of adopting a law that would replace the Planning Commission with a Planning Board. It was discovered not long ago, by city attorney Cheryl Roberts, that the Planning Commission, which has probably been around since the City of Hudson adopted zoning more than forty years ago, did not have the authority to do what it was doing, at least not according to New York State General Municipal Law. So now the Common Council is in the process of putting things right.

One of the good things about the change is that it will require members of the Planning Board to be trained in what they do. According to Paragraph 25-6 of the proposed new law:
Each Member of the Planning Board shall complete four hours of training each year designed to enable such Members to more effectively carry out their duties. Training received by a Member in excess of four hours in any one year may be carried over by the Member into succeeding years in order to meet the requirements of this section. Such training shall be approved by the Common Council. To be eligible for reappointment to the Planning Board, a Member shall have completed such training. No decision of the Board shall be voided or declared invalid because of a failure by any Member to comply with this section.
The process by which members are appointed and the qualifications for those appointed are also defined in the new law--somewhat differently from the way they are currently defined in the charter:
There shall be appointed by the Mayor seven members, who together shall be the City of Hudson Planning Board. . . . Not more than one-third of the members of said Board shall hold any other public office in the City of Hudson and no person who is a member of the Common Council shall be eligible for membership on said Board. The Mayor shall have the power to remove, after public hearing, any Member of the Board for cause. Any Board Member may be removed for non-compliance with minimum requirements relating to meeting attendance and training as established by any applicable local or state law.
Had these strictures been in place before, Cappy Pierro could not have served on the Planning Commission for two years while at the same time being an alderman representing the Fifth Ward, but there would have been nothing to stop him being on the Planning Commission, as he was, while serving as mayor's aide to Rick Scalera. (It's interesting to recall that ten or so years ago the chair of the Planning Commission was also Common Council president.)

Some may find it troubling that in the language of the new law there is no residency requirement for members of the Planning Board. Why should people who do not live in Hudson be in a position to affect the city's future? If there were a residency requirement, would it prevent Cappy Pierro from serving on the Planning Board? According to the 2013 tax rolls, Pierro owns a house in Taghkanic that is assessed at close to a half million dollars, but he claims as his primary residence--the address he uses for his voter registration--a little house on Paddock Place, which, according to the 2013 tax rolls for Hudson, does not belong to him. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

It is not clear if, when the local law is passed and the Planning Commission becomes a Planning Board, the current members of the Planning Commission automatically become the members of the new Planning Board, but if that's the case, Pierro will not be the only person serving on a regulatory board who does not live in Hudson. Phil Abitabile, who is on the Zoning Board of Appeals, doesn't live in Hudson anymore either. Unlike Pierro, Abitabile doesn't claim a residence in Hudson. He is registered to vote where he lives in Greenport.

Of the three regulatory boards, only the Historic Preservation Commission has a residency requirement. According to Chapter 169-3 (6) of the city code, "All members, but the architect member, shall be residents of the City of Hudson." The residency requirement is waived in the case of the architect member because it may be necessary to look outside the city for a qualified preservation architect willing to serve on the HPC. That's reasonable and understandable. But if all the other members of the HPC must be Hudson residents--as well as having some known interest and knowledge of historic architecture and preservation--why not make residency a requirement for the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, too?

The public will have the opportunity to ask that question next Monday, February 10, at 6:30 p.m., when the Common Council holds a public hearing on the local law that would replace the Planning Commission with a Planning Board. The language of the law can be reviewed here

While on the topic of the three regulatory boards, it is interesting to note that two of them do not currently have their full complement of seven members. The Historic Preservation Commission has been a member short since late August 2013, when Scott Baldinger resigned, and since the beginning of the year, when Gail Grandinetti's term was up, the Planning Commission has had only six members.


  1. Thank you for that excellent and well ordered presentation. A tour de force!

    Like you Gossips, when I first read the proposed law I was very pleased to see that members of a Planning Board would not be eligible to serve simultaneously on the Common Council.

    As well, the lack of a residency requirement stood out like a sore thumb thanks to Mr. Pierro's ongoing and almost stubborn influence over Hudson's welfare.

    Since residency is already a condition of HPC membership (a fairly recently created commission), how can the same stipulation not have been considered and rejected for a new Planning Board?

    Of course the residency requirement was weighed and rejected; it's the most obvious thing missing from the draft law!

    Thus it is entirely fair to wonder of the proposed law whether the welfare of a single individual, Mr. Pierro, is being advanced ahead of the interests of the actual residents of Hudson?

  2. Of course they are advancing an individual.
    That is nothing new

  3. Really? A new elitist low for this forum.
    Now that you have attacked Cappy Pierro and Phil Abitabile why don't you try to find two individuals that have done more for the City of Hudson. These two have selflessly given back to their community for decades.
    I would think that even in this forum the fact that Phil lives 150 yards from Hudson High School would have been disclosed.
    The Planning Board and the HPC are solutions to the problems in Hudson? These bureaucracies are nothing more than a obstacle to the one thing Hudson needs to continue its revitalization, Investment Capital!
    This blog is above being a forum for elitists to attack other citizens that don't share the same views. A dialogue with the Galvan Foundation would be a much more worthwhile endeavor. The houses he has rehabilitated on N. 5th St. are an example of what he has done and continues to do for Hudson. Where are the before and after pictures in Gossips? Two dilapidated old buildings, not historic, just old and dilapidated. However, no credit for fixing up these properties from Gossips, just attacks for not following HPC directives. Everyone needs to ask themselves if it was your checkbook would you want the elitists on the HPC, whose tastes are different than yours, dictating how you spend Your money?
    Please acknowledge old and historic are two different things. Short of that the HPC will remain nothing more than an impediment to investment.

    1. Mr. Millar:

      You raise some important questions. First of all, you’re calling on Gossips to be “fair and balanced” in reporting. Mainstream media has a hard enough time with that one, never mind a blogger. I don’t think Gossips would be Gossips if Carole was simply reporting the news. As a strict preservation advocate, she is an anchor against the very real forces who’d love to crank up urban renewal all over again. She’s even lambasted the HPC from time to time. And, while we’ve had some pretty intense disagreements, I respect the important role she plays in preserving Hudson’s built environment. I don’t believe that historic preservation is a one-size-fits-all discipline, nor is it a singular vision. Through dialogue, discussion and compromise we arrive at solutions that work best for all. That is decidedly absent from our political landscape these days, isn’t it? It’s all about forcing our agenda down the opposition’s throat, but I digress.

      The HPC is charged with interpreting the code specific to historic preservation in Hudson. That is a daunting and challenging task that has excited the ire of strict preservationists and anti-preservationists alike. I don’t always agree with what they decide, but this is an often subjective practice in which answers and directions aren’t always as black and white as the dilemmas posed to the Planning and ZBA folks. The commissioners on the HPC are doing a fantastic job handling some pretty difficult projects and I respect their dedication and commitment in spite of the sharp and often unfair criticism directed toward them. I find it quite telling that you are quick to point to the admirable and selfless devotion of some public servants while lambasting the efforts of others. Historic preservation is NOT an impediment to growth and capital investment, it is a vehicle for it.

      I do agree with you that there is a difference between “old and historic.” Hudson’s code does not differentiate between contributing (historic) and non-contributing (old) resources in the local historic district. This is, in fact, in sharp contrast to what’s going on elsewhere in the United States. In Massachusetts, for instance, where historic preservation practices are more or less on par with New York, contributing resources in local historic districts are clearly identified. In essence, you have both historic and “old” buildings. “Old” buildings are not subject to the same degree of scrutiny as “historic” buildings. It’s not as simple as I’m describing it, but you get the point. Another area in which they differ is that the HP law in Massachusetts (often referred to as MGL 40) doesn’t go hot and heavy re new construction in a local historic district whereas Hudson’s Chapter 169 does.

      This is an area that has been particularly challenging and confusing in recent times. New construction refers to additions to existing buildings or new buildings, from the ground up. There are two generally acceptable approaches to this issue, one which seeks to make the new work compatible with its surrounding, and the other which seeks to intentionally create a differentiation between the two. The code in Hudson does not waiver on the issue: the principle of compatibility is clearly stated. The code does not even suggest that differentiation is acceptable. Yet the argument was raised re the additions to the Armory and the Opera House. And, I imagine, was used successfully to argue for a Modernist-style building on Willard Place in 2011. Interestingly, this champion of differentiation has vocalized displeasure over a new “Greek Revival” entrance to the Richardsonian Romanesque-meets-medieval-Europe-fortress that is the Armory. Inappropriateness, you see, is a relative thing.

    2. Thank you Mr. Hamilton. All good points.

      And whereas the difference between "historic" and merely "old" is not codified in Hudson, the HPC is still quite capable of, and willing to make, the distinction. (In my admittedly wordy post below, I gave the example of a mid-19th century house which was razed last August at 124 Union Street.)

      But we have a small difference of opinion where you admitted you'd digressed somewhat.

      It was my perception that Gossips was motivated by the spirit of fairness and balance by including Mr. Abitabile as the other example of a non-resident in a story about non-residents on Hudson's Boards and Committees.

      Mr. Millar read an attack on Mr Abitabile where none existed.

      Mr. Milar's principal argument for leaving Mr. Abitabile out of any such discussion on non-residents is the absurd distinction that the gentleman lives only a short distance from Hudson.

      Vis-a-vis Mr. Pierro, where Mr. Abitabile is mentioned the post was entirely fair and balanced. (Otherwise Mr. Pierro could say that he was unfairly singled out.)

      Mr. Millar's gratuitous defense of Mr. Abitabile amounted to a stand against the elusive principal of balanced journalism, and not in favor of it.

  4. Sir, you present us with at least two "straw man" arguments.

    First to the lesser. While in my own previous comment I made no mention of Mr. Abitabile (whom I do not know), the Gossips post merely cited that he is a non-resident.

    If the blogger actually supports Mr. Abitabile we cannot tell, but it would have been the height of journalistic irresponsibility to cite the one example, Mr. Pierro, and not the other when considering the general category of people on commissions or boards who do not actually live here. (And for taxing purposes, 150 yards is 150 yards.)

    In the above example you've turned a necessary technical point into an unintended and uncommitted slight. (May I point out that you are free to thank Mr. Abitabile for his service on the ZBA, and that the blogger has graciously posted your appreciation.)

    But as for Mr. Pierro, what you refer to as his "selfless" service is, upon close inspection of the particulars, too often indicative of short-sighted self-interest. Indeed, all politicians must act from some degree of self-interest; it is the art of prudence to strike the proper balance.

    Even when Mr. Pierro wasn't an office-holder, his arguments - made for the sake of "investment capital and revitalization" as you would have it - too often proved so short-sighted that they effected opposite results!

    To wit, this blog recently took apart the 5th Ward's blundering blow-hardism in the case of a failed council Resolution to insist that Greenport conduct an environmental impact statement on its Widewaters development. On what was at the time only a threat of increased truck traffic through Hudson, Mr. Pierro argued that the mall development would actually decrease truck traffic here. Aldermen Donohue dutifully cast the killing vote against anything that contained the word "environment." (That was very selfless indeed, and if you live in the 5th Ward please be sure to thank him.)

    Thus it's your second straw man argument that posits that anyone criticizing politicians of this ilk must only be against capital investment and revitalization. That's neither an accurate nor a very winning argument.

  5. 2.

    In place of the preceding and invidious dichotomy, may I suggest a differentiation between short-term and long-term visions for the revitalization and investment interests which are shared by all.

    (To take the above example, the 5th Ward's opposition to a Resolution intended to address our traffic problems before they reached the current scale is an prime example of short-term thinking, however selfish or selfless the motivation.)

    Furthermore, I see little or no evidence that the HPC and the Planning Commision are obstacles to investment opportunities or to Hudson's revitalization.

    Indeed, things are moving so quickly on the investment front that we should be thanking our stars Mr. Van Kleek was denied permission to raze his historic train depot only months ago when the property has already changed hands since then.

    If the building had been demolished, there's no straw man argument in pointing out that there'd be no future investment or revitalization opportunities which could include it.

    You are incorrect that the HPC does not distinguish between "old" and "historic." Take the example of 124 Union Street, the "infill" house which was demolished in August. It dated to the mid-19th century, and it is well documented who owned it and even who rented it 150 years ago.

    As to the charge of the city's commissions and boards "dictating" what people can do with their properties, I never tire of pointing out that at their very first meeting the city's proprietors laid down rules for the appearances of buildings, and for the way resident's buildings would be distributed on streets. Now there's some history for you to consider if you're so bent on overturning local traditions in the disguise of appearing as a traditionalist.

    You're possibly warming to some good points, each of which are more up-in-the-air than you let on (more straw men), but the actual wording of your entire comment seems to me to be "an attack [on] other citizens that don't share the same views." (Of course I am quoting your own words back to you.)