Residents look at blueprints of a project during a Colonie Planning Board meeting. Jim Franco/Spotlight News
COLONIE — The New Year will see big changes in the town’s Planning and Economic Development Department.
Joe LaCivita, chair of the department since Supervisor Paula Mahan was sworn in 12 years ago, is leaving near the end of January to be city manager in Watervliet under its new mayor, Charles Patricelli.
Beginning on Tuesday, Jan. 7, Planning Board meetings will be held in the Town Board chambers of Town Hall rather than in Public Operations Center conference room.
Last year, the town began live streaming Town Board meetings and providing archived videos of the meetings. Rather than invest in infrastructure to do the same from the Public Operations Center, it will move the meetings to take advantage of the video equipment and other infrastructure already in place at Town Hall on Loudon Road.
Industrial Development Agency meetings will also be held at Town Hall and livestreamed and sometime in the near future Zoning Board of Appeals meetings will follow suit.
Coming from state government, that included stints at the Empire State Development Corp., and before that the private sector, LaCivita was brought in to help change the development process in town; to make it more transparent, streamlined and fair to the neighborhoods and developers.
In the last dozen years he implemented a Town Designated Engineer system which appointed liaisons to work as a middle man between the developer and the Planning Board. It helped board members better understand the nuances of things like drainage, wetland regulations, zoning and land use law and density parameters.
He also shepherded through the 2019 Comprehensive Plan that will act as blueprint for all aspects of town including development, public safety, recreation and open space.
But the day to day grind of heading up one of the busiest departments in Town Hall went largely unseen. And when it was seen, it was often by angry residents who don’t want that development going in their back yard.
Looking back, though, he pointed to the redevelopment of properties that could just as easily still be home to rotting buildings as something he is most proud.
“Fresh Market, Latham Circle, Starlite Theater. Those were all priority projects and collectively, working with the board and the administration, we were able to re-develop them from the blights they were into viable commercial properties.”
With nearly every project that got the go ahead from the Planning Board, there were detractors. Either neighbors who were against a particular development adjacent or near their home to a grassroots group, SAVE Colonie a Partnership for Planning, that was seemingly against development on a more
“Development doesn’t come without people against it,” he said. “Whoever it may have been a resident or a group. The process we go through, though, and the concerns expressed by all involved made for better projects. The projects did not get rubber stamped and a lot of projects got touched by the detractors and they made them better projects.”
Taking emotion out of the equation, and instead looking at density requirements, traffic impacts, land use laws and whether or not the numbers presented with a project are suitable was one rule of thumb he tried to follow.
Mahan said she will begin a search for LaCivita’s replacement, but is confident there will not be any disturbance to the process for projects already in the system and for any new projects introduced.
“Joe has been here since I started and he’s done a great job and right now the town is one of the best in the Capital Region regarding economic development,” she said. “We are going to miss him a lot. He has learned a lot about how the town operates and the direction the town is going and it is hard to replace that knowledge. It is a great opportunity for him and they are very lucky to have him take the job.”
As city manager he will work under the newly sworn in mayor and the City Council, and handle all the day to day operations of the city. He did say he would be available to help transition a new planning director into the position as needed.
Mahan said she will advertise for the position but is willing to wait for the right person to fill the spot.
“The planners we have in the department and all experienced with good backgrounds so when the right person comes along we will be able to move forward,” she said.
To the detractors to development, Mahan said much of it goes back a dozen years when she first started and changed the way the town does business.
“The fact is there were a lot of concerns, and we worked hard to make it function so it everyone was a fair and level playing field,” she said. “Joe LaCivita was a big part of looking at the whole process with all of us and streamlining it and making it an open, fair and transparent process.”
She too said that any constructive criticism voiced with for the good of the town as a whole made many project better. And even the ideas generated by critics with a vested interest in their own properties were taken into consideration to make projects better.
“Any constructive criticism that produces something positive is a good thing,” she said. “A lot of people have opinions, but they don’t look at the facts. We have a very thorough process, we require a lot, but the reality is you want a good product and the developers want a good product so it is in everyone’s best interest for us to require a lot. That is not going to change.”
For the first time, on Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Planning Board meeting will be broadcast live from Town Hall.
In March, 2018, after years of delay, the town put together enough money to install infrastructure in the aged Town Board chambers to accommodate the livestreaming of meetings.
“We were looking at the possibility of putting the technology in the public operations buildings but it was not cost effective. There is no sense in paying for things twice,” Mahan said.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, Mahan will get sworn in for a seventh two-year term. Also, newly elected Town Board members Rick Field, Jill Penn and Danielle Futia will take the oath of office.
After the ceremonies, the Town Board will hold its organizational meeting.
Among those likely to get re-appointed to three-year terms are Planning Board members Brian Austin and Frederick Ashworth. Also, Peter Stuto, chair of the Planning Board, will likely get re-appointed to a one-year term.