DANBY, NY – Over 30 residents of Danby attended a town board meeting on Monday to voice their opinions on the recent controversy that led three officials from the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals to resign.

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Last month, the Danby Town Board voted 3-2 to reappoint local businessman David Hall to the Danby Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA).

The decision shocked many — including the two town board members who voted against it — because it went against the recommendations of three members of the BZA: Al Becker, Sarah Elbert and the BZA’s chair, Joe Schwartz.

The three had recommended Al Wagner, who had previously served as chair of the BZA. They argued Wagner was much better qualified for the appointment due to his prior experience, education and work experience as an assessor. Becker and Elbert also cited personality conflicts with Hall.

Another concern was a perceived conflict of interest, since Hall had been working with the town board to rezone one of his properties, a subject that had been a major source of conflict in the town.

Two days after Hall’s appointment, Becker, Elbert and Schwartz resigned, leaving just Hall and one other member, Gary Bortz, on the BZA.

For a more detailed recap, click here or read our previous coverage.

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Danby residents speak

Almost 20 people spoke, a substantial majority of them condemning the town board’s decision, or rather, specifically the decisions of the three town board members who voted to reappoint Hall — Leslie Connors, Frank “Jim” Holahan and Jack Miller Jr. Others instead spoke of the merits of the resigned BZA members.

While most who spoke seemed to feel that the town board made a mistake, people’s expectations of the board varied. Some suggested that the board should consider offering to reinstate the three members who resigned. Others felt that the board should offer an official apology for “insulting” the former BZA members. Others still felt that the damage had been done and the important thing was to find a way to move forward.

Danby resident Pat Woodworth pointed out that immediately prior to Connors’ motion to reappoint Hall to the BZA, against the recommendations of three of its members, she had made an argument to reappoint a planning board member — based on the fact that the planning board had unanimously endorsed him. This was despite the fact that, due to medical issues, he had been unable to submit an application or interview with the town board. Another candidate had done both.

“This was completely inconsistent with the previously stated position,” Woodworth said. It was absurd, it was a huge insult to the members of the BZA who had provided many hours of volunteer service to the town and as such it was an insult to all town residents.”

Ted Crane, who runs the Danby Area News, pointed out that having a split vote was relatively unprecedented in Danby and noted the significance of a board recommending against one of its incumbents. However, he did also note that he felt the process of a board recommending its own members was flawed to begin with, since it often leads to an established group that is consistently reappointed.

“It’s important when a board recommends someone who is not a seated member, it’s like saying, ‘Hey, here’s someone special.’ Alternately, when a board recommends an outsider over a seated member, it’s a red flag waving,” said Crane.

“This is the most embarrassing and sad moment I’ve seen in 20 years serving the town,” said Naomi Strichartz, who serves on the Danby Planning Board. “I hope the board can wiggle out [of its mistake] with grace.”

Other members of the public urged taking whatever measures possible to fix the situation and make the BZA functional again, since some of the town’s development projects would be essentially on hold until the BZA could do its duty, especially as summer is a prime time for construction.

None of the Danby Town Board members who voted for Hall offered any response to the public comments.

David Hall and his wife Adriana also spoke at length about the personal impact the controversy has had on them and their reputations. Their statements are covered in a companion article:

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More questions raised

Gary Bortz, the only member of the BZA aside from Hall who did not resign, also spoke during the meeting. He expressed concern over the fact that Wagner was reportedly offered the appointment after the three retired, but opted to decline.

According to Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich: “[Wagner] said yes to the original proposal, but he’s ‘not going to go it alone’… I don’t think he’s going to come back unless the rest of the board comes back.”

“There’s something drastically wrong with that,” was Bortz’s response. “We are a board that’s supposed to be an unbiased board with five different opinions, if we got three people and the fourth person doesn’t want to come back because those three aren’t there…”

Bortz left the idea hanging, only adding that he disagreed with the three BZA members who resigned and he had urged them to give the Town Board time to find replacements so the town wasn’t left without a functioning BZA.

What happens now?

Al Becker, one of the BZA members who resigned, reported that he had spoken with the County Ethics Advisory Board and that that board “didn’t like what they heard” and would be requesting more information.

Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich said the town needs to take rapid action to reestablish the BZA, because they are legally bound by state law to be able to judge zoning appeals. He said he wasn’t sure of the exact time frame, but thought it was 30 or 60 days.

Town board member Leslie Connors put forth an idea the town board might perform a sort of emergency appointment, calling on members who had previously served in order to get the BZA to a functional state again.

Dietrich said the decision would be a mistake, saying it was of the utmost important to be open, transparent and follow procedure in searching for new BZA members.

The town will be putting out a request for applicants in the near future to at least fill a third seat, because the BZA needs three votes to come to a decision.

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The recap

David Hall’s BZA appointment, ended in December. Hall had been appointed in 2014 to the seat formerly held by Al Wagner. Wagner had left in order to pursue his MBA.

While not directly relevant to his role on the BZA, Hall has been at the center of a heavily contested development plan. Hall has been seeking a change to a zoning law that would allow him to turn a piece of industrial property he owns, the former Angelheart clothing factory, into a multi-use center including a business incubator and autism clinic.

The property is located on a quiet residential stretch of Gunderman Road. The former Angelheart factory faced similar controversy while it was still active, due to the increased traffic it brought to the area.

While the BZA had no direct impact on the outcome of Hall’s project since it was under the town board’s jurisdiction, some people, including former BZA member Sarah Elbert, saw his appointment as a conflict of interest.

Historically, the Danby Town Board has heavily weighted the recommendations of the members of its appointed boards, such as the BZA and the Danby Planning Board. Three of the BZA’s five members had recommended of Al Wagner. In fact, one of them had personally reached out to Wagner to get him to reapply.

During the March 21 town board meeting, town board member Leslie Connors moved to re-appoint David Hall to the BZA position. The motion passed 3-2. The motion and the outcome were seen as “surprising” and “shocking” to Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich and board member Rebecca Brenner, who voted against it. Some members of the public similarly characterized it as unexpected.

The three members of the BZA who recommended Wagner — its chair Joe Shwartz, Al Becker and Sarah Elbert — felt that Wagner was vastly more qualified due to his BZA experience, his educatin, and his professional experience as an assessor. They also cited some personality conflicts with Hall. They saw the decision to reappoint Hall as a wrong and disrespectful. Two days later, they resigned.

Later in that meeting, Hall suggested he would withdraw his attempts to have the zoning law changed and instead settle for a zoning variance in order to get the autism center, which was his top priority, up and running. Zoning variances are in the jurisdiction of the BZA, although Hall would have to recuse himself if such a vote were to occur.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.