MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Last month, the Town Board hired the Melville, N.Y.-based consulting firm Nelson, Pope & Voorhis to assist it with the long-anticipated updating of the town’s master plan and codes. For Greater Mahopac-Carmel Chamber of Commerce members Lawrence Zacks and Thom Ianniccari, there couldn’t have been better news. The two are co-chairs of the Chamber’s Legislative Advisory Board (LAB) and have been pushing town officials to move forward with the project for more than two years when they first presented them with a white paper that they dubbed “Vision 2020.”
“We brought this to the public in August 2017, and we were hoping to start a conversation that wasn’t being had about the future of the town,” Ianniccari said. “Fast forward to May of 2018 when [the Town Board] held their first public hearing on this project. I was glowing because I never imagined it would happen so quickly.
“But we are now approaching 2020,” he continued. “The original concept of the paper was to have the master plan on its way by 2020. Well, that’s not going to happen now.”
Town officials said that with the consultants finally on board, the project could take anywhere from a year-and-a-half to two years to complete.
“We need to have a pro mindset for change,” Zacks said. “But we have two mindsets. We have a mindset of ‘yes, change is fine’ and one [that says,] ‘I’m in a sleepy town and don’t want to change anything.’ However, the tax burden is such that we can no longer hold out without more commercial development and business.”
The two are encouraging residents to get involved with the process and help shape the future of Carmel/Mahopac.
“Embrace the unknown; but more importantly, be involved in the unknown,” Ianniccari said.
“This master plan might be the groundswell of the future,” Zacks added. “Will it be shaped by the few people who go to the town meetings or will it be shaped by emails and Facebook? What we are trying to do is open up a dialogue and push the momentum to get a new master plan looked at and push to get economic growth in the area. But we need the public.”
The two said they hope the recent dustups on the Town Board over Councilman Mike Barile’s legal problems won’t serve as a distraction.
“I find it sad that this legal thing has blown up with the Town Board; it could be a major distraction,” Ianniccari lamented. “If it becomes one, we will be speaking out on it.
“This (master plan) is the focal point,” he added. “It’s what we’ve all worked for. We are focusing on educating and inspiring the public to come forward and get involved. If you don’t speak up, you don’t get to complain about the results.”
It has been 20 years since the town updated its master plan—something that the state recommends doing every five years. Zacks and Ianniccari reached out to neighboring towns and cities for copies of their master plans to serve as guidelines and inspiration but were surprised by what they found.
“Shockingly enough, not one of them had been rewritten in five years,” said Ianniccari. “So, I am hoping that what Carmel does will be an inspiration and a template for other towns throughout the county that can create an overlap with the county itself and provide a powerful future for development.”
The two want the plan to identify certain areas of the town that have a specific personality or characteristic and have the revised master plan and town codes reflect that.
“It would be different than what you would see in the hamlets or in a commercial district,” Ianniccari said. “This would give them character and the codes would be written around that.”
To aid in future projects the master plan might call for, grants will be necessary, the two said. It’s something the town has struggled with in the recent past.
“Grants are a major issue for the town,” said Ianniccari. “They need a professional grant writer for this type of work who has political teeth. Someone who knows how to navigate that whole thing. Nobody at Town Hall has that skill. [The Town Board] may say, we can’t afford it—it’s not in the budget. But you can’t afford not to have a person like that on your team.”
As it updates the code and master plan, both men said, the town needs to find a way to become more business-friendly and attract commercial development. They said it’s the only way to lighten the tax burden on residential homeowners. But to do that, they said, the planning process needs to be streamlined and made less complicated.
“We do not have a positive, strong pro-business atmosphere,” Zacks said. “It’s very complicated and very arduous to get anything approved.”
“[Going before the Planning Board] is a very confusing process,” he said. “Why? They have no guidelines. There are no architectural guidelines. There is no streamlined planning in the process. You have to think of these people as customers. They’ve come in here to bring business.”
They pointed to the recent Taco Bell site-plan application, which was recently approved for the site of the old Friendly’s building in Carmel. The two said that the process was so arduous and filled with nit-picky requirements that they almost drove the applicants away.
“You can’t look at these people as the enemy—someone who is to be hassled or stymied,” Zack said. “That happens over and over again. Right now, [the planning process] is so arduous we are getting practically nothing. You scare people away. Well-run businesses don’t want to go through the process, so we don’t get the cream of the crop.”
Ianniccari noted that every time the Planning Board asks a developer to return to another meeting it costs that applicant money
“He has to pay his engineer, his lawyer, his architect and then development becomes expensive,” he said. “It keeps more people away than you realize.”
Zacks and Ianniccari laid out some of the tenets from Vision 2020 that they would like to see included in the master plan.
Improved sewer and water
“Without the infrastructure, commercial development can’t improve,” Zacks said. “Not only do we need the sewers, we need the roads. We need a plan so that as [the town] grows it grows in an organized fashion that is not haphazard. And it grows in a way that is cohesive. We have too much hodgepodge now.”
“We want to see more multifamily and mixed-use property development,” Ianniccari said. “Create a community atmosphere [with mixed-use properties]. Walk to get your groceries, walk to a restaurant, walk to a bar, to a park, to a bike trail. We need smart development that is unique and still keeps the beauty of why we live here.”
Improve property values
“If we can improve our infrastructure and have a cleaner, better town, the businesses that are here will also do better, and then they will collect more sales tax,” Zacks noted.
Other details in the Vision 2020 paper that Zacks and Ianniccari would like the new master plan to embrace include:
• Cultural outlets, nightclub/entertainment/concert hall
• Encouragement of redevelopers
• Improved mass transportation options
• A plan for going green using solar power for street lighting, etc.
• More and better sidewalks
• Improved parking
• Gigabit development that modernizes broadband infrastructure