A recent resolution passed by the Cobleskill Village Board of Trustees endorsing the proposed CVS Pharmacy development was, make no mistake, an utterly shameless and inappropriate attempt to preempt the Planning Board’s final evaluation of that project. Yet this is only a hint of what’s to come should Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra continue to dominate the Board of Trustees. Be prepared for more of the same depressing vision for Cobleskill and, most likely, more naked attempts to bully those involved in making land use decisions.
The resolution was spearheaded by trustees Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra (and, sadly, supported by Mayor Sellers). Galasso attempted to justify the resolution with the absurd claim that the planning board was out to deliberately sabotage the project. I call this absurd because there is no evidence that any planning board member was attempting to exceed their statutory responsibilities in reviewing the proposal and because, in fact, the planning board has every responsibility to heavily scrutinize a project of this magnitude. Instead, by injecting itself into and politicizing the village’s land use review process, Galasso, LaPietra and Sellers have in effect sabotaged and enfeebled the planning board, which was arguably what they set out to do from the get-go.
This latest episode, like the previous attempt by LaPietra and Galasso to remove Nelli Mooney and gut the village Planning, Environment and Codes Department, is best understood as part of a broader long-term strategy to reduce the public’s role in the village’s land use planning process and to marginalize those individuals who work and volunteer in that capacity. It’s no surprise then that consolidating the village into the town (a move which would have the same effect) is also strongly supported by Trustees Bob LaPietra and Mark Galasso.
Given this recent history, it is difficult not to see this latest attack on the planning board as fitting into a larger picture: a growth model driven entirely by land developers that gives short shrift to preserving the historic character of the village and the economic well-being of Cobleskill’s downtown business district.
Having said that, the pertinent issue here is not whether or not Cobleskill needs another pharmacy, although this is an eminently important question. The issue is whether or not Cobleskill’s village residents will be able to exercise their rights to review major land use decisions in their community.
It is not so much about questioning the wisdom of razing one of Downtown Cobleskill’s largest and most impressive Victorian mansions to make way for yet another pharmacy, when one already exists across the street, as much as it is about the public’s right and responsibility to do so and to have a process in place for insuring that developers don’t run roughshod over the community. The planning process that is lead by our community’s volunteer planning boards and zoning boards is meant to be a space not just for debate about the merits of such projects to the community, but a process (with teeth) that insures a community’s own vision for its future is upheld.
Unfortunately right now that vision is not one single vision, as might be represented in the comprehensive plan, but a series of competing visions being put forth and defended by a diverse group of stakeholders. Right now the village’s land use planning process exists solely as an extension of the political arena and as such is being driven by whatever forces happen to be able to manipulate it for their own purposes.
To be sure, the Village currently has a comprehensive plan in effect; however, bulldozing historic homes so that medium-box retail can be built is not really included in its vision statement. The plan is over ten years old, and perhaps it is time for a revision that reflects the need to balance protecting the village’s historic character with the need for economic development that increases tax revenue and jobs. It is perhaps also necessary to view these goals as competing in a kind of zero-sum game and to recognize that pursuing one over the other will eventually lead to diminishing returns.
Otherwise, local officials and developers will continue to proceed in an opportunistic fashion disregarding the former objective for the latter. This might not be so easy if village planners and planning board members had some vision in place as to how they should balance these two necessary but often-times conflicting imperatives. More importantly, it is perhaps time to replace our existing boards with people who will have the public interest (not their own) in mind.
Currently, the Board of Trustees’ efforts to quash debate have been successful, and this is lamentable. An open and vigorous debate would have weighed the potential jobs and tax revenues created by the project against the potentiality of Rite-Aid (which would be just across the street) being forced to close down, as well as the additional traffic generated by the project and the costly road improvements it will necessitate.
It could also have weighed the economic benefits against the less tangible costs of losing one of the village’s largest and prettiest Victorian mansions, not to mention the diminished pedestrian access and lost human scale of the block. Of course, a vigorous debate can lead to more than a yes or no vote, it could have led to amendments to the design of the project that really did serve to increase its chances of adding to the community rather than simply just being there, or worse yet, detracting from the community.
Yet these debates will not and can not occur when town and village boards are comprised of developers, real estate professionals and absentee property owners whose financial interests and economic instincts run counter to the goals of long-term comprehensive planning and community development. It is arguably worse when these developers populate the planning and zoning boards themselves, which they do in many places in Schoharie County.
Only the voters can insure that the planning process remains under the control of ordinary citizens and they can do this by not sitting home while a minority of their neighbors thoughtlessly elects land developers to their village boards who then unsurprisingly proceed to shamelessly push their own agendas.
As these officials attempt to shove consolidation and unneeded sprawl development down our throats voters should reflect on their plans for this upcoming Election Day. Will the deepest pockets in the town and village (i.e. the Galasso’s and Nadeau’s) continue running the show? I’ve heard it said, and sometimes agree, that people get the government they deserve.