ITHACA, NY – On Wednesday, three members of the Town of Danby’s Board of Zoning Appeals resigned from their posts.
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An article The Voice ran this morning offered the basics of what led to that decision. Here’s the whole story, or at least most of what we know so far.
The story ultimately centers mostly around one person: David Hall. Hall is a Danby resident, businessman and entrepreneur.
In 2011, Hall bought a property on Gunderman Road, a rural residential stretch not too far from the heart of Danby.
The property had a lot of history, both good and bad attached to it. On the one hand, it was a success story for an entrepreneur who designed her own clothing line from her house, known as Angelheart — which you may now know as FLAX.
However, as it grew, it also began to have a negative effect on the neighbors, particularly in the form of vastly increased traffic from employees and shipping trucks.
Responding to the growth of Angelheart the Town Board at the time (this was in the late 80s, early 90s) created a Planned Development Zone labeled PDZ10. Basically, this changed the zoning on the property from residential to commercial, restricted to clothing manufacture.
Now, back to the near-present. After Hall purchased the PDZ10 property, he began brainstorming for ways to use this property. He told The Voice that his main priority was to establish an autism center or clinic, as his son is autistic.
Beyond that, he said that he wanted to support entrepreneurs. To that end, he came up with the idea of creating a business incubator, currently identified as Summit Enterprise Center, geared toward agri-businesses in particular. He also sought to relocate his current business, National Book Auctions, to the site.
In 2014, Hall began the process that would change PDZ10 to allow for additional uses beyond clothing manufacture. When the idea was proposed, it met with opposition from some local residents for the same reasons that Angelheart was criticized.
Hall has has presented some additional background and his answers to those concerns in a letter, which we will publish soon.
Backing up in time slightly, in November of 2013, Hall was chosen to serve on the Town of Danby Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) when one of its members, Alan Wagner, stepped down in order to pursue his MBA. Hall would serve out the remainder of Wagner’s term, which ended on Dec. 31, 2015.
Now, to the present: on Monday, at the regularly scheduled meeting of the Danby Town Board, the Board was set to vote on who would fill the now-vacant BZA slot that Wagner, then Hall had held.
Interestingly, Wagner had since completed his MBA work and once against applied for the appointment to the BZA. That meant essentially that the choice came down to Wagner or Hall.
Standard practice in Danby, according to multiple town officials, has members of its lower boards, such as the BZA or the Planning Board, write a recommendation to the Town Board on who to appoint. Generally speaking, the Town Board ends up voting for that person.
The three members of the BZA who would resign just days later had recommended Wagner.
They also had brought up concerns about Hall’s performance on the board.
Al Becker, one of the BZA members who resigned, said that in addition to “personality conflicts,” and that he did not carry out the some of the required duties of the position.
Another of the resigned BZA members, Sarah Elbert, said that there were troubles with Hall from the moment he started on the BZA.
“Usually, the new guy in town is a bit deferential, or if not deferential at least listens for awhile to hear, ‘How does this work?’”
She explained that when you get appointed to a BZA position, you get a “big, thick loose-leaf book” full of zoning rules and regulations and even self-administered quizzes. She also mentioned that there are periodic state-run classes that teach these topics.
Elbert said she didn’t believe that that Hall had ever read the book or attended a class.
Hall says that he never got the book.
“That was one of the things I brought up … I was given no training,” Hall said. “I’ve never seen the binder. I wish I had had the binder.”
Hall said that he had arranged a lunch meeting with Joe Schwartz, the BZA’s chairman (and the third member who resigned), and during that meeting Schwartz had explained the basic procedures and flow of meetings, but that was all the “training” he received.
Hall believes that he may have “fallen through a crack” given that he was taking over for Al Wagner in the middle of Wagner’s term.
“I didn’t even know there was supposed to be something, so I didn’t know something was lacking,” Hall said.
Several town officials The Voice spoke with also mentioned concerns that Hall did not visit the physical locations of the sites that the BZA was deliberating on.
Elbert recalled a specific instance where Hall asked a question about something that had an obvious answer had one actually visited the site in person: “Finally, one of our members said, ‘Have you been to the site? He admitted he hadn’t been. Then our fellow member got more inquisitive, and asked about the previous case. No, he hadn’t been to that – he hadn’t been to any of them. He just looked at them on the computer.”
She went on to say that Hall’s response at the time was that he hadn’t known he was supposed to. Elbert said she found fault in that argument, as “there wasn’t a meeting that went on where we didn’t discuss those sites and what we’d seen.”
Hall argues that there was no established rule for site visits until one was established shortly into his time on the BZA.
“[BZA member] Gary Bortz suggested it, it struck him as rather obvious that we should have to do a site visit before coming to hearing on a property,” Hall explained. “I readily agreed, I thought it was a great idea.”
Hall added that Bortz had gotten some pushback from some of the others on this rule, suggesting that it wasn’t necessary to do site visits. He didn’t name any names — but by process of elimination it must have been one or more of the now-resigned BZA members.
“I have visited every site since the BZA committed to visiting the sites,” Hall said. He said the only person who he knew of that had missed a site visit since that agreement was Becker.
Becker said that while he had no problem with Hall personally, in their interactions on the BZA he was “abrasive,” “confrontational” and “self-serving.”
Elbert said that and Hall often butted heads over issues of “consistency,” where Hall felt that the board should give more weight to precedents, it was the board’s policy to weigh every case on its own individual merits.
Hall, meanwhile, says that he was the one who had been the target of some abrasive comments. He explained that he had “grave concerns” about some things that Elbert had said during a Town Board meeting. He spoke to the chair of the BZA, Joe Schwartz, and was “shocked” that Schwartz found no issue with her statements.
“I did not receive any further comment from the Town Board or the BZA about what was being done about that,” Hall said. “I have remained very troubled about what happened because I think it was wildly inappropriate.”
Elbert’s comments had to do with a perceived conflict of interest regarding Hall being on the BZA while also seeking to make zoning changes to his PDZ10 property. Hall says she also insinuated that “something was amiss” with Hall and some unidentified Town Board members.
It’s worth noting that the a full rezoning of the PDZ10 property is a Town Board issue, while smaller zoning variances are the domain of the BZA.
“I’ve done my utmost to be an effective and objective member of the BZA,” Hall said, nothing that the three Town Board members who voted for him on Monday agreed. Hall said that he felt that defending himself from Elbert’s comments “wasn’t appreciated.”
The recommendation and the vote
Becker said he had personally called Wagner to convince to him to put his name in for the position again.
“He brought a lot more to the board in terms of information and ability to draw out information without being abrasive or hostile toward anyone,” Becker said.
Elbert described Wagner: “He was very good, very collegial, he had been an appraiser, he had been a real estate guy, he had lived in Danby for a long time, he knew the zoning codes back and forth.”
Four of the Town Board members The Voice spoke with all had similarly high opinions of Wagner — even those who ultimately voted in favor of Hall said Wagner had “great qualifications.”
All of this is why, when Town Board member Leslie Connors made a motion to appoint Hall, she surprised several members of the public and at least two of her fellow board members, including Town Supervisor Ric Dietrich.
“It was a bit of a shock,” said Dietrich. “Usually when people make decisions, like course change decisions, we normally throw those things around amongst all of us so we have an idea of… unintended consequences, perhaps?”
“I still feel surprised,” said Town Board member Rebecca Brenner on Wednesday, “Typically we take the recommendations of our boards very seriously and listen to them, because they’re the ones that have to work together.”
The vote was 3-2, with Leslie Connors, Jack Miller and Jim Holahan voting in favor, and Ric Dietrich and Rebecca Brenner voting against.
Two days later, three members of the Board of Zoning Appeals wrote letters of resignation.
“[Hall] has made life very abrasive,” Becker said. “We just washed our hands of it. [The three Town Board members who voted for Hall] don’t think very much of our opinion.”
The looming question, of course, is why did the Town Board vote against the BZA’s recommendation? Here’s what Town Board member Leslie Connors, who made the motion to appoint Hall, had to say:
The resignation letter stated that the three members were resigning because the Town Board didn’t appoint the applicant they favored. The applicant they favored had great qualifications and I hope is still interested in a position. The person reappointed to the BZA was an incumbent who at least three Town Board members felt was a known asset to the team and deserving of another term. Appointing people to committees and boards is at times a difficult decision and when at all possible, I believe the Town Board should consider the views of standing memberships. I also think Board Members have a duty to consider what is “best for the Town.” There are differing views on what that is.
Asked about the concerns expressed about Hall, Connors responded:
As a town board member with the responsibility of appointing people to different boards/committees, I made the choice a couple of years ago to attend BZA meetings when I could. I missed one meeting last year. I never saw any evidence that David Hall was difficult to work with. He did ask questions and tried to clarify procedural issues.I was at the meeting where the members all agreed to visit properties under consideration. There had not been any requirement to visit sites before that meeting that I was aware of. One of the members thought it should be required and everyone agreed. I did not hear that any of the members were not visiting sites since they agreed to do so.
Long as it is, there is still more to this story. The next piece will further examine the aftermath of these events.
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