New Law Establishes Minimum Training Standard For Local Planning Officials

George Winner

September 21, 2006

Albany, N.Y.-- Legislation sponsored by Senator George H. Winner, Jr. (R-C, Elmira) to establish a minimum training requirement for municipal planning and zoning officials, has been signed into law by Governor George Pataki.

"The challenges facing local planning and zoning officials have enormous implications for rural communities and localities across New York State," said Winner, chairman of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources. "We need to try to ensure that local land use decisions are made with as much effectiveness, foresight and knowledge as possible. Training in modern land use tools and strategies can help local officials better address land use decisions that have become increasingly complex and decisive to the future quality of our communities."

Winner said that no uniform statutory standards currently exist for training municipal planning and zoning officials, who have the primary responsibility for regulating local land use in New York State. The new law establishes a minimum training standard of four hours annually for members of local planning boards, zoning boards of appeal and county planning boards.

Winner noted that the need to provide training for local planning and zoning officials was consistently highlighted by participants at a series of Rural Visioning project "listening sessions" sponsored by the Rural Resources Commission and Cornell University and Cooperative Extension service in eleven regions throughout New York earlier this year. It’s widely believed that well considered and timely land use decisions by a municipal board or commission help attract promoters of quality community development, including those considering residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial, open space, recreational and main street projects. Sound land use decisions result in fewer lawsuits and can help lower municipal liability insurance costs as well.

Municipalities are provided with the flexibility to structure the training requirement in a variety of ways. Training may be obtained through a range of sources, according to Winner. A wide variety of land use training is available throughout the state at no cost to participants, so that the four-hour minimum requirement can be obtained with minimal fiscal impact. For example, the Department of State hosts training courses throughout the year at various locations statewide. The state Association of Towns, Conference of Mayors and New York Planning Federation also offer training. In addition, free training and distance learning is available on line.

The new law has had a thorough review by the State Land Use Advisory Committee, which is comprised of state and local representatives and experts on municipal planning and zoning, environmental, housing, agricultural and economic development policies and practices. They cited a growing consensus among planning federations, local governments, builders institutes, insurance companies, economic development corporations, land preservation trusts, environmental groups and others that well trained municipal planning and zoning board members are essential to maintaining and enhancing quality communities.

"The volunteers who serve on planning and zoning boards throughout the state provide a valuable service and many already seek training," said Bob Elliott, Executive Director of the New York Planning Federation. "Training is a necessary component of the job of these public servants. There is abundant (frequently at no cost) and readily available training to enhance their ability to make sound decisions. Their communities expect them to make educated land use decisions and this new law goes a long way to assuring communities that the best practices available will become the foundation of their actions."

"In order to remain viable, our family farms must be able to utilize their land and not be burdened by inappropriate land use regulations, " said New York Farm Bureau President John Lincoln. "We commend the Legislature for passage of this legislation and Governor Pataki for signing it into law, which will help promote proper land use planning and regulation across New York and in doing so, protect New York farms. This is a tremendous tool that will have a positive impact on many of our rural communities."