Middletown Board debates signage, appointment process

By Matthew J. Perry
Given a light docket, the Middletown Town Board spent most of its meeting time last Tuesday night debating two issues: what action, if any, can be taken against the proliferation of temporary advertising signs along highways in the township, and the proper procedure for recommending and then appointing new members to the town’s planning board.
While the board seemed to agree that the sheer number of signs, particularly on weekends, is unpleasant to the eye and perhaps hazardous, it was not at all clear what general rules could determine which signs are illegal, if in fact any are.
Board member Brian Sweeney argued that the situation is becoming more than an annoyance when any given weekend will see “20 to 30 signs” popping up, advertising established businesses and everything from yard sales to weddings.
“It’s dangerous and it looks bad,” he said. But when he asked how the town might address the illegal signs, or at least the most offensive, the board agreed that the burden fell on one particular office, code enforcement, and on the officeholder, Pat Davis.
Town attorney Carey Wagner noted that the sheer volume of code violations requires that Davis prioritize. He covers the entire Middletown area, including the unincorporated hamlets Arkville, New Kingston and Dunraven; the villages of Margaretville and Fleisch-manns contract for his services.
Because of that burden, Wagner argued, it is imperative that individual citizens bring violations to his attention if they believe immediate action is necessary.
Sweeney agreed that Davis has his hands full. “He’s got a bad job,” he said, but maintained that signage violations should receive more attention.
Board member Michael Finberg noted that not all the signs should be considered a nuisance. “It’s a tough zoning law to reconcile,” he said. “If you don’t have frontage on Route 28, how are people supposed to know you’re there?” Legitimate businesses should have a means to attract customers, he argued, while balancing for safety and aesthetic concerns.
Ultimately, the board seemed open to a balance that the planning board might strike in a recommended adjustment to the zoning laws. This could happen either through the town comprehensive plan, which is still being hammered out, or by an outright amendment to the existing zoning laws, which would have to be approved by the town board via a motion.
The board’s relationship with the planning department came under scrutiny once more that night, when Sweeney stated his objections to the process by which new planning board members and alternates have recently been appointed.
He took exception to the means by which the latest appointment to the board—Kate VanBenschoten, who filled a vacancy created by Pete Palen in January and is now up for reappointment—was approved.
The issue, he said, was not with the qualifications of particular applicants, but rather the process of recommending and then approving applicants.
“To me, it feels like we didn’t follow [the correct] procedure,” he said. Councilman Don Kearney, who sits on the human resources committee, contended that he had.
Sweeney also questioned the new practice of electing alternate members to the planning board. Supervisor Len Utter and Finberg both argued that having a quorum for all votes was essential as a means to expedite building projects.
Even the personal views of planning board members came in for discussion. Sweeney asked why candidate for the board, Glenna Herz, had not received more serious consideration despite excellent qualifications.
Planning board member Susan Finch, who sat in the audience, opined that Herz’s outspoken opposition to the Crossroads development should be of serious concern to any appointing board.
Finch then presented the board with photos she had taken illustrating Herz’ support of the Save the Mountain coalition, a group concerned about the possible environmental impacts of Crossroads.
Wagner stated that any board member with a predetermined opinion should recuse him or herself from a vote and have an alternate vote in their stead.
Utter struck the middle ground on this argument. “It should depend on the individual,” he said. “As long as [the argument] is presented positively and civilly, I think the town is better off for it.