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The ZBA needs volunteers

NORTH EAST — The town’s Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) is in desperate need of volunteers — it’s a plight the board’s chairman, Julie Schroeder, is sad to say she’s more than familiar with.“Oh my gosh,” she said. “I couldn’t even count the number of times members [come and go].”At this point in time, Schroeder is dealing with members going. She’s down one, with the exodus of former member Chip Barrett from the ZBA; he left to join the North East Planning Board last winter.Now she’s concerned she may lose two more with the upcoming elections, as two of her members are running for positions in November. George Kaye is seeking a spot on the Town Board as councilman; John Merwin is making a bid for the town supervisor’s seat. The possibilities leave Schroeder very worried.“We’re down one and with the election are liable to lose two more very capable, really excellent members,” she said. “Part of the problem is that the ZBA has been a stepping stone [for political service].”Both Kaye and Merwin have served less than a year.Another difficulty in finding willing volunteers, according to the chairman, is that those who make zoning decisions find they’re not always the most popular members of the community — and that prospect is hard for some to deal with.“In many cases you don’t make any friends because you’re going to leave somebody unhappy, either the neighbors if they object or the applicants,” Schroeder said. “It’s kind of a unique board because we’re governed by New York state laws and case laws that don’t give us much wiggle room. We just treat everybody fairly and the same.”It’s also tedious work, but Schroeder said she finds it fascinating. So much so that she’s remained on the board for roughly 30 years. She’s even earned the name of “the Queen of Dutchess County zoning,” from local attorney, land owner and businessman Robert Trotta.“It’s an interesting field; there’s always something to learn,” she said, explaining what keeps her hooked on zoning.She also said it’s important to keep the board manned with five members — the minimum — because if not it could risk losing its autonomy to the state.“I think it’s very important that we maintain our local autonomy and that we have local members that understand the community,” she said. “The number one risk is that if we continue with a board short of members and then get challenged in a court case [we’d be vulnerable]. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened, but courts don’t look kindly on boards that lack full membership.”Additionally, if the ZBA membership slips to three, it will place an exorbitant amount of pressure on the existing board members, said Schroeder. It will also “leave a lot of ground unturned because people look at things differently and think outside the box.” Schroeder’s example was that she’s quite conservative, but with more members there’s likely to be someone who’s not, and may offer new ideas and perspectives. That would improve the board overall, she said.The job of the ZBA, for those not familiar with its role, is to grant relief from some zoning laws where and when it’s justified. It grants special permits and uses as allowed by law.

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