BETHLEHEM — The Town Board began deliberating in its July 10 meeting on what the proposed Comprehensive Plan Update Advisory Committee should be like.
Town Supervisor David VanLuven began by saying that he wanted the board to consider four key aspects: the committee’s purpose, its ideal size, what area of expertise it should have, and what the appointment process would be like. He said that he would like for the committee — which represents part of phase two of the comprehensive plan process — to be readily assembled and started by early September.
Town Board member Jim Foster said that the to-be-completed comprehensive plan needs to reflect that it “belongs to the community, not the Town Board.” Fellow member Maureen Cunningham similarly echoed his words and noted the importance of how the committee “is not a Town Board-led narrative, but it’s a community initiative. It should include more people and it has the potential to invite more skill sets and diversity.”
Member Joyce Becker said the committee needs to represent the whole town and be inclusive. VanLuven said it would ideally get residents engaged and “it would be a group of individuals going out regularly to town and acting as ambassadors and bringing people in. I see it as vital for bringing information out to residents.” Regarding his latter point, he saw the committee as an opportunity to address misunderstandings that residents may have about the town government’s roles and the overall comprehensive plan process.
When Becker and VanLuven asked Robert Leslie, the town’s Planning Division director, how big was the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee for the original 2005 plan, Leslie said there were nine people. Leslie added that in 2013, the Comprehensive Plan Assessment Committee had around 15 to 19 people.
Becker then said that in her years spent from being in many past boards, “If there’s too many people, you don’t get the job done.” Member Dan Coffey agreed with her, saying that being a committee member is a major time commitment. He believed that nine people may be too “light,” 20 is too many but 10 to 15 people “may be enough to encourage diversity of people’s backgrounds, skill sets and geographic locations.”
Areas of expertise
There was a general consensus among the board that the committee should at least include members who specialize or have experience in government agency, planning and economic development. Cunningham brought up how Bethlehem benefits from being so close to the city of Albany where such people are in high supply.
Foster saw the town’s local businesses as great places to start as they have people whom he said have “a unique perspective on economic development. They can be good resources in government and the private sectors.” Coffey wanted the committee to include at least an engineer or surveyor, and an attorney with zoning and planning backgrounds, as well as others to represent the town’s large landowners and farmers.
Becker said that the committee needs to make sure it does alienate any hamlet, especially North and South Bethlehem, the latter which she noted for having the largest regions of open land. Cunningham warned that the committee should be mindful that some of its eventual members could likely be parents and they may face time constraints due to their personal schedules. “But they’re still important,” she added.
Foster also wanted the committee “to include the perspectives of everyday people so that it’s not just experts. It would help keep balance, a sort of sanity check and a voice of reason to help us perhaps.”
Foster suggested the appointment process could be a two-prong process: while the board and town staff can start reaching out to colleagues they know who may fit the committee’s ideal criteria, the town should also seek out people who would want to help out. Coffey, agreeing with Foster, added that the search for committee member hopefuls should be posted on the town’s website, where such people would submit a letter that also expresses their background and skill set.
Cunningham said she remembered certain individual residents from the seven comprehensive plan community forums, held from winter 2018 through spring 2019, who “rose to the occasion already. We saw some leaders in town we didn’t know and this is true in every forum. We could reach back out to those people.” Coffey concluded that the committee can have a diversity of opinions but they should not bicker because “we want a consensus at the end of the day.”
VanLuven said that a formal decision about how to proceed with the committee’s forming was not necessary that night but he appreciated his fellow board members’ feedback.
Since then, the town has posted on its website that it is looking for interested candidates who would “actively participate in meetings and read all materials beforehand, actively serve as community ambassadors to engage as many residents as possible in the process, and help get information out to residents and businesses.” Those interested can submit a cover letter that discusses their interest, skill set or expertise, and background to [email protected].
While applications need to be submitted by Friday, August 9, the Town Board and relevant staff will begin interviewing candidates sometime later that month. The Town Board is expected to appoint the committee members in its Sept. 11 meeting.
For more information, visit www.townofbethlehem.org/842/Comprehensive-Plan-Update.