What is a Planning Board in New York?

Planning Boards play an important role in shaping how our community will look, feel, act and react. In a very real sense, the Planning Board is charged with overseeing the “orderly” development of real property, and in the process shaping the “public” face. Developers want the best return on their “investment,” homeowners want to protect what they know, and the Planning Board must implement the laws as enacted by the Village, Town, County and State, a difficult tight rope for a Board comprised of local volunteers and neighbors.

The process begins with an application to the Building Inspector. The homeowner (we’ll call her the “Applicant”) completes an application with the Building Inspector, who reviews the proposal (or “Site Plan”) to see if it meets various code requirements– is the lot large enough to support the planned structure, is drainage adequately directed to prevent run off, are the plans professionally drawn and contain all of the technical data required by New York State’s building code. The Building Inspector next refers the Applicant to the Planning Board with instructions to “post” notice of a “public hearing.” In Nyack, we meet the first Monday of every month to hear these applications.

The Planning Board receives the Site Plan and the Building Inspector’s opinion, and we review against our local Zoning Code and Comprehensive Master Plan. In Nyack, our Comprehensive Master Plan was adopted by the Village Board on January 11, 2007 (a process that took many years of hard work by various civic minded volunteers). Our Comprehensive Master Plan (available on line or at the Village Hall) sets the tone from its first sentence, “The Village of Nyack is a special place, proud of its historic, scenic and socially heterogeneous character– quite unlike the suburbs to the west.”

The Planning Board is granted limited rights to review the Site Plans for (1) traffic access on and near the site; (2) circulation and parking; (3) landscaping and screening; (4) underground utilities (5) and to be sure that the plans “reasonably preserve and maintain view corridors and sight lines (particularly Hudson River views) throughout the commercial zones in the Village of Nyack. Broadly speaking, the law permits the Planning Board to consider the public health, safety and general welfare, the comfort and convenience of the public in general and of the residents of the immediate neighborhood, in particular.

In conducing the public hearing, local residents, the Applicant, and the Planning Board learn what might be acceptable, negotiate various ways to mitigate the effects of various design elements, and impose “reasonable conditions and safeguards” to further the general purpose and intent of the Comprehensive Master Plan. During the process (or negotiation), the Planning Board can only apply the law enacted by the Village Board, the Town Board or the New York State Legislature. The Planning Board does not have the legal power to simply deny a Site Plan that otherwise complies with such laws. Stated differently, if the law permits a twenty (20) story apartment complex, the Planning Board may not deny the application because it requests a twenty story apartment building.

From my perspective as a lawyer and as a member of the local Planning Board, it is safe to say that when the community shows up to air its concerns at a public hearing, everyone (including the applicant) is benefitted. The moral of the story is to participate in the process, don’t simply agitate about the change that is forecast for your neighbor.