EDITORIAL: Tale of two consultants

THE BEST THING about consultants? You can always blame one when something goes wrong. Never mind that you hired this so-called expert–a know-it-all with nice clothes. So, the consultant gave you options and you picked the wrong one… every time. You shouldn’t have to pay for that, right?

Now, a confession: I was once a consultant. I had an office on K Street in Washington, D.C. I have recovered. I have not sold my services for decades. I know the dark side but I swear that some expert advice is worth it.

Consider municipal land use regulations. Mostly they get lumped together as zoning. The state says towns and villages need comprehensive plans that, among other things, establish goals and principles that will guide local development in the near future. Should we regulate solar farms? Are we ready for Starbucks? Driverless vehicles? Droneports?

Once it has a comprehensive plan, each community has to make sure its zoning laws reflect the guidance contained in the plan. That process is happening in the Town of Chatham right now. Actually, it had been dragging on for years, as a committee of citizens meandered through the laws with little progress to show for all their hard work. But that changed two years ago, after the Town Board hired consultant Nan Stolzenberg to help guide the process.

She has brought order to the zoning review process and informed the discussions with her experience working for years with other communities throughout the region. That knowledge of what works and what doesn’t is one of the most important qualities consultants can bring to a task as complex as a zoning update.

With guidance from Ms. Stolzenberg the committee has a chance of completing its recommendations before the economy of the county shifts from dairy farms to coconut groves. But a consultant, no matter how qualified, cannot guarantee success. Success requires political will to adopt new laws that further the goals of a plan. That’s the job of the Town Board. Keep this in mind should you hear anyone complain about the work of Ms. Stolzenberg or another consultant.

At the other end of the county, the issue is not about what’s ahead; Germantown is dealing with the present–a plan by a developer called Primax to build a Dollar General store on Route 9G near the center of the hamlet. The town Planning Board has a consultant, J. Theodore Fink, who has guided the board through the complex state Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) for more than two years.

One of the last steps in that process is a findings statement, a document that summarizes the impacts the store will have on the community and the surrounding environment and helps determine what steps the developer must take to mitigate or prevent unwelcome changes. Mr. Fink was not part of the Planning Board’s review of that statement. It wasn’t clear that he would be paid for his time.

The majority of four Germantown Planning Board members who voted to approve the final impact statement for the store didn’t want Mr. Fink’s input. And that might make sense if they felt they could do it themselves. But they didn’t write it themselves. They voted to let Primax write the statement and gave the company the job of drafting the findings statement, too.

That’s a very efficient way for the Planning Board majority to spare itself any bothersome questions about unwanted environment impacts on the store’s neighbors. Call it happy talk planning. The Planning Board chairman said the Primax Findings Statement reminded him of an infomercial. That’s not reassuring.

It’s possible that even if Mr. Fink had been part of the most recent Planning Board meetings members would not have heeded his advice. George Sharpe Sr., a Planning Board member, reportedly referred to Mr. Fink in email as an “environmental hit man.”

No. Mr. Fink is a consultant and an academic with more knowledge and experience than anyone on the Planning Board about the likely impacts of the project. He also knows more than board members about how other communities have handled similar proposals.

The majority of Planning Board members who voted to hand Primax the job of spinning the project in its favor know Germantown better than Mr. Fink. But by failing to include his analysis in this final phase of the review, they’ve wasted time and squandered the public trust. As it is, how will people know the Planning Board has put the interests of Germantown first?

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