This column is part of series exploring the town of Yorktown’s two dozen advisory boards.
For many, serving on a government advisory board is rarely their first stop in a long career of volunteerism. It’s simply the latest one.
Long-time Planning Board members Richard Fon and John Kincart are no different.
In Fon’s case, the Shrub Oak resident served on the Conservation Board before joining the Planning Board in 2010. He’s now the board’s chair.
“My father always was very active in volunteering with Little League,” Fon said. “I believe it’s very important that you try and serve the area you live in. That’s just what my background is.”
Kincart—who has coached youth soccer, taught catechism, and also serves on the town’s Board of Assessment Review—is serving his second five-year term and brings a unique perspective to the board: A real estate agent, he believes finding the best use of a property is the Planning Board’s first consideration.
“I obviously market properties, so I know the nuances of what has more appeal and marketability, what type of property would sell, if there’s an opportunity to explore different uses,” the Yorktown Heights resident said.
“Our primary concern in most cases is not the financial feasibility of a project,” Kincart said. “Our primary concern is the health, safety, and welfare of the public. Then we can explore getting creative.”
The Town Board appoints the Planning Board’s five members. In addition to meeting on the second and fourth Mondays every month, either at Town Hall or the Albert A. Capellini Community Center, members sometimes perform site visits on weekends. They must also attend classes once a year.
But for Fon, the most time-consuming aspect of the job is the preparation.
“I think the biggest thing is coming in prepared for meetings,” he said. “The Friday before the meeting, you get a packet. You have to know our material. That weekend, you’ve got to put in the time to review the material. The meeting is time, but it’s the prep.”
Though development is often politicized, especially when elections loom, the board is expected to stay above the fray and do what’s best for Yorktown.
“You hear these buzz phrases like pro-business or anti-business,” Fon said. “I think our main task is responsible development.”
Like any governing body, the Planning Board can take its lumps if residents are unhappy about what’s happening in their neighborhood. But with its even-keeled approach, the board usually defuses these situations before they devolve into personal attacks.
Planning Board members try always to remember what other town officials frequently seem to forget: Sometimes, people just want to be heard.
In late January, for example, many residents came out to protest a development going up in their neighborhood. Rather than adopt an adversarial stance, Fon assured them that their comments were not falling on deaf ears.
“We volunteer our time up here,” he told them. “We’re all residents; we’re your neighbors. We do this because we’re concerned about the town that we love and we live in. We want to see the town go [forward], not backward. Anything this board looks at, it does get looked at seriously.”
Fon, who is the town of Greenburgh’s deputy commissioner of public works, said he always tries to put himself in the shoes of the residents who come before him.
“If it was next to my house, my wife and I might be concerned about the same things,” he said. “We want to hear the input. We don’t know about water conditions or traffic conditions everywhere. If you’re next door, you have intimate knowledge that we don’t.”
Though responsible development is at the forefront for Planning Board members, they are sometimes handicapped by a property’s zoning. For example, the Town Board is currently considering rezoning a property on Hill Boulevard in Jefferson Valley to allow for 150 rental units.
“It might be good for the developer and the people selling the property, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for the town,” Kincart said. “Yes, we need diversity in the housing stock, but there are other ways to achieve that.”
If, however, the Town Board chooses to rezone the property and allow high-density housing, the Planning Board has no choice but to play the hand it’s been dealt and review a development that conforms to zoning.
Planning Board decisions, from the Jefferson Valley Mall to Lowe’s, often wind up being a political football, tossed around by candidates for elective office.
“The Planning Board is a completely separate nonpolitical entity,” Kincart said. “We don’t have a specific interest in getting re-elected or anything like that. Nobody gives us directives.”
For some, however, the mere act of reviewing an application is enough to draw suspicion.
“The applicant has a right to bring an application,” Kincart said. “They have a right to do it and we have a responsibility to entertain those applications... If we allow them to go through with the process, it doesn’t mean [we support it]. It means we’re allowing them to pursue their rights as a property owner or as a developer.”
Fon said the board has never shown favoritism to any applicant.
“There’s a process,” he said. “There are rules and regulations that we are [required] to follow.”
Any misconception about his board, Fon said, stems from a lack of understanding about what goes into reviewing an application before it’s either approved or denied.
“People think things are so simple and it’s not,” Fon said. “Nothing is cut and dried. Even if you think something might be.”
If people don’t understand the process, it’s the board’s job to educate them.
If people don’t like for the process, it’s the board’s job to listen.
“From the public officials to the volunteers to the residents, I think everybody is in it for Yorktown,” Fon said. “I’ve never seen anybody with some negative motivator. I truly believe, from every elected official I’ve seen, everybody wants what’s best for Yorktown.”