Letter: Planners Should Be Trained as Planners

I am deeply concerned about the proposed changes to the job requirements for the Commissioner of the Putnam County Department of Planning (County to Again Consider Changing Planner Position, Aug. 26). The Legislature is debating a change in the County Charter that would remove the requirements that our top planner both hold a Master’s in Regional Planning (MRP) and have eight years of professional experience in the field. It has been reported that the changes are proposed in order to hire the Acting Commissioner, Sandra M. Fusco, who has neither of these qualifications, on a full-time basis. I believe the proposed changes to be ill-considered, short-sighted and not in service to the public interest.

Arguments have been made that the internal candidate is a lawyer, and is therefore qualified to act as Commissioner of Planning. Deputy County Executive Bruce Walker recently said, “The fact of the matter is that with this job … there are no urban areas in Putnam County, and so an urban planning degree is not a useful degree.” This statement reflects a narrow understanding of what land use and regional planning actually are, and what their successful implementation means to Putnam County residents and taxpayers.

Planners are trained and experienced in broad scope of activities, including, but not limited to, the development and support of regional economic systems, transportation systems, zoning for intelligent growth, and encouraging development that supports local economies and environments. Most importantly, professional planners are trained to plan comprehensively, assessing the needs and desires of communities and the impact various land use choices will have on those needs and desires over time.

Planners are trained as participatory leaders, and know how to engage the public, draw on valuable comment, and mitigate conflict when it arises in projects, as it does so often. All of these competencies are standard elements in accredited Masters in Regional Planning programs. They are enhanced and broadened in direct work experience in public planning.

Skilled land use attorneys and real estate attorneys are well-versed in planning issues, but not with the same focus as MRPs. Attorneys frame their work in legislative craftsmanship and code interpretation. These areas of expertise are essential to the public planning process, but they must be paired with the skill set that land-use planners have in order to be successful and effective for the public benefit in the short and long term. Although Ms. Fusco, the internal candidate, is a lawyer who holds a Juris Doctor degree, she does not have expertise either in land use or in real estate.

From what I have been able to learn about Ms. Fusco’s professional experience, her work in the County Law Department has focused primarily on indigent and mental hygiene law as well as labor law. Prior to that, she spent most of her legal career as a divorce and domestic relations attorney. She has served as Acting Planning Commissioner for a period of seven months — this hardly constitutes an equivalence to the current job requirements for the Commissioner to hold an MRP and have eight years of practical experience. I simply do not see how a background in family and indigent law is transferable to the County’s needs for land use and regional planning.

I might be more open to the idea of allowing Ms. Fusco to receive on-the-job training if she had a deep and experienced bench of qualified staff behind her. But as it is, with only one other staff member in the department who has planning training, the Legislature seems to be setting the County up for poor performance and potentially bad decision making. In order to ask the tough questions that drive intelligent, careful planning, the Commissioner needs to know which questions to ask.

Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown, has said of Putnam, “We’re a small county; we’re built out.” Though some portions of Putnam are more densely built-out than others, the county as a whole is not built out. Even if it were, that condition would make good planning more important, not less. A trained, experienced planner knows this. The developable parcels that remain in Putnam are of critical importance to our economic well-being and to our quality of life.

We need qualified planners on the job who can understand the interconnectedness of economics, real estate, and the environment, and who can propose wise, long-term approaches to address needs. We don’t simply need a contract reviewer — presumably the County Attorney’s office can provide that service.

Moreover, it is a falsehood to claim, as Walker did recently, that the current job description “precludes qualified and capable people” from service. In fact, it rightly excludes those who are neither qualified nor capable. And it helps ensure the people of Putnam County are provided the best service possible by their planning department. Clearly, given the number of questionable and fiscally-irresponsible projects we’re seeing unfold, we need a qualified and experienced planner now more than ever.

Kathleen E. Foley, Cold Spring

Foley holds a master’s degree in Historic Preservation Planning and a doctorate in Land Use Planning from Cornell University.

2 thoughts on “Letter: Planners Should Be Trained as Planners

  1. In my letter of a couple of weeks ago to the legislature, I reminded them that Attorney Lotto, Putnam County Law Department, gave due notice to County Executive Odell, citing New York State Law that requires any change in the Charter of this nature is subject to a Permissive Referendum. At the legislative meeting, I stated that I would employ this avenue of redress, should they approve this ridiculous and dangerous, precedent setting effort to downgrade a vital governmental position.