Susan Weber is a founding member of SAVE Colonie: A Partnership for Planning, a community group “organized to protect and preserve the Town of Colonie’s natural environment and quality of life.” SAVE, with a Facebook membership of more than 900, monitors and works to inform residents about town government affairs. SAVE has a website and is active on social media. Susan is also a member of Citizen Action NY and a Working Families Party state committee member. A former legislative counsel and administrative law judge for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, a product of North Colonie schools and Albany Law, Susan still lives in Colonie.
Q: Was there a development or series of developments that was the impetus into creating SAVE?
A: First was the clear-cutting of mature woodlands to construct “The Residences” on Airline Drive, followed closely by the clear-cutting at “Maxwell Village,” in 2015. People were incensed and flocked to join us. Research revealed Chapter 177 which allows the town to restrict removal of mature trees during development, but this power is seldom if ever used. Since those early days, the most powerful catalyst for SAVE’s growth is the town’s far too deferential treatment of development interests, to the obvious detriment of this area’s quality of life and open space needs. Neighbors’ legitimate concerns deserve formal consideration, not just the developer’s business interests.
Q: SAVE says it is not anti-development but that is the perception. What is SAVE’s purpose?
A: SAVE’s purposes are, first, to help bring residents’ interests to the table when development is proposed. Residents find it difficult to follow and publicly comment on what’s going on, and we see how the town government is not always happy to hear their concerns. So SAVE helps to alert neighbors to new and pending development projects and Town Board agenda items so that neighbors may work together to amplify their voices. Second, we act as a watchdog to ensure that the law is followed. Ideally, Town Law should reflect the community’s common purposes and vision; the development decisions must follow the law and protect neighborhoods from developments’ harmful impacts. We work to encourage adherence to that standard. Our purposes are more nuanced than the way SAVE is sometimes depicted in the media.
Q: How do you think the town should balance the needs and desires of two conflicting interests when it comes to development, namely the developer and the residents living in the neighborhood of the proposed development?
A: Development done right isn’t necessarily a conflict of interest. Conflicting needs and desires are ideally balanced by the Town Law, moderated by the board’s powers applied in consideration of the conditions on the ground, the needs of the neighborhood, and goals of a well-reasoned comprehensive plan. Many development conflicts could be avoided by open communication between the developer and neighbors early in the process. But there seems to be an aversion, coming from the top, to this openness. We’ve heard Planning and Town Board members say, “The owner has a right to develop their land…”, as if this canard should shut us up. However, we all know that property rights, like all rights, are not absolute. They are subject to zoning laws, town code, public health standards, building codes, and more. For most of us, our home is our most valuable asset; this must be respected by town authorities when they make decisions that necessarily affect our homes and quality of life.
SAVE initially advocated for public broadcasting of Town Board and Planning Board meetings, which is now being done. Unfortunately, Zoning Board of Appeals meetings are still not broadcast. SAVE also requested that all project application documents be posted, well before Planning Board hearings. Thanks to the new Planning and Economic Development Department director, residents can freely access project documents they formerly had to FOIL. Full transparency is resident-friendly and cuts down on work for the town attorney’s office. While we hope that the town continues to move toward full public transparency and greater citizen participation, we are concerned that the Town’s COVID meeting policy could hamper the public’s meaningful participation in the development review process.
Q: Recently, the town completed an update to its Comprehensive Plan. What do you think of the final product and what would you like to see included in changes to land use and zoning laws currently being formulated?
A: The 2019 Comprehensive Plan update is seriously flawed. The main failing is its lack of clear near and long-term goals, and specific steps and time lines to meet each one. The 2005 Comp Plan contained these important milestones. While lip service is given to open space conservation, the town refused to map Colonie’s remaining large open tracts for the Comp Plan. We encourage the town to retain specialized land use experts to draft new land use laws.
Review of zoning variances granted and successful sign review challenges from the last few years should inform the changes. How could our building code work to address climate change, such as encouraging renewable energy and conservation, zero emissions and promoting electric vehicle use? Can we make our neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable? Ethical standards should be applied to town contractors, who should be barred from representing other clients before the town. We need a meaningful dedicated funding source for open space and park lands acquisition. How about a map that identifies large tracts of land to conserve in future as open space or park lands? And of course, a rewrite of Chapter 177, to require that mature trees be removed from only the building footprint and driveway plus 10 feet when development occurs.
Q: You are politically active. Is there a politician, living or dead, you would like to have lunch with and why?
A: That’s a really tough one! Upon considerable reflection, I’d choose Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive populist Republican and conservationist whose respect and love for America’s wild natural places left as his legacy our National Park System, unmatched anywhere on the planet, and enjoyed by millions annually. He fought corruption at every level, including as police commissioner of New York City; championed regular people and regulation of monopolistic business power; and advocated for government reform, including establishing the civil service merit system to end patronage and cronyism. And he was personally courageous and lived a wild, adventurous life.
If you would like to see someone featured in Five Questions contact Jim Franco at 518-878-1000 or [email protected]