DANBY, NY – David Hall, the Danby entrepreneur who has become one of the focal points of the recent political controversy in the town, spoke at a Danby Town Board meeting on Monday, defending his character, his record as a town official and his motives.

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For additional context and more coverage of the meeting, see the companion piece to this article:

http://ithacavoice.wpengine.com/2016/04/danby-bza-update/

David Hall and his wife Adriana both spoke about the impact that this situation had had on them, with Hall describing the situation as awful and unpleasant.

He challenged how he had been portrayed as abrasive, confrontational and self-serving by former BZA member Al Becker. Hall challenged anyone in the audience to listen to the BZA meeting recordings to hear for themselves how Hall had conducted himself during these meetings.

“It’s deeply damaging to me to have had that said and put in print. It is false. It is a lie,” Hall said. “I sit on a lot of boards where the stakes are a lot higher than the Board of Zoning Appeals in Danby. That I would be unprofessional in that environment is ridiculous. There’s no incentive for me to do such a thing.”

Additionally, he defended his record against the claims that he did not fulfill his job duties as claimed by some of the former BZA members. In particular, Hall had been accused of not performing in-person visits to sites under appeal, when such visits were supposed to be a requirement of the office.

Hall said that it hadn’t been a rule that all BZA members should visit a site prior to the Apr. 23, 2014 meeting, when BZA member Gary Bortz brought up the issue. Hall’s assertion is backed up by the recording and meeting minutes. On that date, the BZA voted unanimously that every member should make reasonable attempt to do an in-person visit to each site under appeal.

A recording reveals a conflict over this issue arose during a July 21, 2015 meeting, when Becker had apparently been unable to make a site visit. Bortz and Hall took issue with this, given that the group had agreed to try and visit every site. Becker felt that he had reviewed the paperwork and stated that the nearest neighbors had no issues, so he was comfortable making a judgment.

Elbert said she agreed that everyone should make an honest effort, but it should be okay to make occasional exceptions on site visits.

While some of the exchanges in the recording are unclear, what is clear is that tensions were high. Becker at one point threatened to tender his resignation, saying, “I’m too damn old for this crap.”

Changed recommendation

Hall said that the fact that three members of the BZA had endorsed the other candidate had come as a surprise to him. In a series of emails obtained by The Voice dated Jan. 12. Schwartz asks for Hall’s support in recommending Becker’s reappointment; Hall in turn notes that his term is almost up as well, and Schwartz indicates that he would reach out to the Supervisor and recommend Hall for reappointment. Schwartz recommended Wagner in March.

Schwartz explained his reasoning in an email to The Voice:

I served on the BZA with both Wagner and Hall, and in my opinion, Al’s knowledge and experience with zoning and related statutes is far more comprehensive than David’s. For those reasons, I concluded that Wagner was the stronger candidate, by far … Even if David were the best-qualified candidate, this clearly would not be the time to appoint him.  Appointing the developer of a controversial project to a board that may review that project only serves to undermine public trust of local government.

It appears that Wagner was not under consideration at the time of the Jan. 12 exchange. In an email dated Jan. 17, former BZA member Sarah Elbert requested an addition to an upcoming agenda, stating that the BZA members were planning to encourage several candidates for the position, including Wagner.

Conflicts over conduct, consistency

Hall also brought up that he was deeply troubled with actions of former BZA member Sarah Elbert. At a town board meeting on Mar. 2, 2015, Elbert, speaking as a member of the public, had accused Hall of a conflict of interest due to his position on the BZA and his development project and implied collusion between Hall and members of the town board.

In a message submitted to then-BZA chair Joe Schwartz and the Danby Town Board, Hall called Elbert’s actions unprofessional and unbecoming of a public official. He also noted that he and Elbert had clashed over the issue of consistency in rulings. Hall requested that some action be taken against Elbert on these grounds.

In his letter to Schwartz, Hall wrote:

[Elbert’s] capriciousness has been evident in the votes she has cast in rulings since I have joined the BZA, as well as her off-record reasoning for casting the votes she made.  Such unprofessional and erratic behavior in judiciary proceedings exposes the Town of Danby to imminent risk of litigation as well as tarnishing the integrity of our community and its governance.

In his response, Schwartz defended Elbert’s right to speak her mind as a private citizen. He also disagreed with Hall’s stance on consistency.

“Each case before the BZA must balance the benefit realized by the applicant against potential detriments, and in balancing those interests, the board must consider the same factors … Yet every case is different, and reasonable people can have different interpretations of the factors — even if two or more cases appear similar,” Schwartz wrote.

Challenging the system

Lastly, Hall called into question the recommendation system, explaining that as a judiciary body, it didn’t make sense for the BZA to effectively appoint its own members.

“You want diversity on a judiciary body. You want a variety of opinions, you want a broad demographic background. And seeing some sort of ‘temper tantrum’ about not getting the person they wanted put on is exactly what you end up having happen when you have a model like this,” Hall said. “You want people on that board who are not afraid to disagree with each other.”

Adriana Hall also spoke briefly, albeit passionately, saying that Hall’s offer to move away from a zoning law change (overseen by the Town Board) to a zoning variance request (overseen by the BZA) was not a bargaining chip as some had accused. Rather, she said, it was because they had run out of time to start establishing the autism clinic that the family so heavily prioritized, as their son has autism.

David Hall echoed this point, saying that most opponents of the larger development had suggested they would be accepting of the autism center component.

http://ithacavoice.wpengine.com/2016/03/letter-danby-businessman-defends-project/

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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.