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February 3, 2014

In Our Opinion: Local officials should be more attentive

The Daily Star

---- — The adage that “you can’t fight city hall” was disproved last month in two court rulings that set local activists cheering and no doubt set some teeth on edge down at the town hall. 

In the town of Richfield, a proposed wind farm was dealt a blow by a state Supreme Court ruling annulling the special-use permit issued by the town planning board in August. 

Justice Donald Cerio found in favor of a group of area residents who filed a lawsuit to halt the project. Cerio ruled that the project did not conform with all eight of the town’s land-use law requirements, and that evidence was lacking to show that landowners would not be negatively impacted by the project. 

The wind project has divided the town, with some residents criticizing the planning board for having issued the permit in the first place. 

“We couldn’t understand how the town and the wind company could take our rights to develop our property without our consent — and the judge apparently couldn’t, either,” Daniel Mezik of Richfield told The Daily Star. 

This ruling was probably not as celebrated among the members of the Richfield town planning board. But their counterparts in Harpersfield may be feeling even worse. 

A recent state Supreme Court decision found that that town’s planning board violated the state Open Meetings Law on three different occasions when considering an agreement operation for a motorcycle track. 

Acting Supreme Court Judge Brian Burns annulled the agreement, ordering that the New York Safety Track go back to its original proposal of being a private facility, with attendance capped at 25 people and engine size limited to 250cc. 

Just as in Richfield, this is a win for the “little” people, who have been critical, not only of the track itself, but of the town’s handling of the whole matter. 

In a letter to The Daily Star in August 2012, Kitty Ballard, who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, wrote that “This racetrack has been and continues to be misrepresented since day one.”

There are likely to be appeals in one or both cases. It could have saved the expense and uncertainty of litigation had town officials paid more attention to their laws and the ramifications of their approvals.

If Richfield didn’t have such stringent land-use laws, the opponents of this wind project would likely not have had a prayer. Meanwhile, in the town of Harpersfield, a lack of zoning laws meant that it was almost entirely up to the town planning board to decide what the New York Safety Track could and could not do. In both cases, we are reminded of the power that our local officials have over our communities — for better and, sometimes, for worse.