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County planner looks back at 31 years of changes

Jan 03, 2011 6:50 am
The Register Star's Francesca Olsen has a strong piece about the retirement of Columbia County's longstanding planning officer, Roland Vosburgh, in this morning's papers, and how Vosburgh was able to shape the county over his nearly 31 years in office, which started when the Scotia, NY native took his first job out of school as Columbia County Planner 2 back on March 12, 1980.

“I had fully intended to launch a career in forest management,” he says in the piece. “But it seemed every time I tried to launch a career there was a recession.”

Although tied to several controversies -- including the St. Lawrence Cement brouhaha of recent years -- that ended up showing the veteran planner's ties to earlier views of rural life, the Claverack resident comes across in the piece as caring and still involved. And a clear indication of the continuing back-and-forth represented in our listening area as we all wrestle with staying rural or recognizing ourselves as newly ex-urban.

After nearly 31 years, Roland Vosburgh is retiring from the county Planning Department.

A veteran of many county office reorganizations and local environmental battles that go back decades, Vosburgh, whose official retirement date was Dec. 30, is exiting the county as “Principal Planner.” That’s his last-held title, but he’s chaired the county planning board and environmental management council, and served as the director of the planning department until 2008, when it became the department of Planning, Tourism, and Economic Development.

Vosburgh started March 12, 1980, his first job after earning a Master’s Degree in Forestry and a Bachelors in Resources Management. “I had fully intended to launch a career in forest management,” he said. “But it seemed every time I tried to launch a career there was a recession.”

Vosburgh, who grew up in Scotia, NY but now resides in Claverack, instead reached out to counties in New York, ending up in Columbia County as a ‘Planner 2,’ an entry-level position at the county planning department.

“Here I’ve lasted all these years,” he said. “I’ve variously called myself a fossil and a survivor at reaching this milestone.”

Vosburgh said he’s tried to keep the point of view of a public servant, nothing more or less, since he started his career in Columbia County. He said he loves to help people access information and help them gain a greater understanding of environmental and land use issues, and that the more the public can understand, the better.

“Ask questions. Clarify,” he offers as advice for residents fired up about a local issue. “Communication is so vital. The debate is healthy as long as there’s no yelling and screaming. Let’s have a civic dialogue about the pros and cons.”

“We need to hold elected officials accountable and bureaucrats especially,” he said. “I can say that because that’s what I’ve been. I’ve been a public servant. My door was always open. We are serving the public. It’s important to be available and accountable...it wasn’t about making a name for myself, rather, quietly and unobtrusively doing what I can to help others.”

“My goal was never about, ‘I want you to make good decisions.’ It was about making informed decisions. That’s an important distinction.”

In the last 30 years, Vosburgh has worked in-depth on more land use issues than most will ever research. In the 1980’s, he wrote permit applications for every single one of Columbia County’s solid waste transfer stations as the county prepared to move away from town landfills.

“I was front and center to that whole process,” he said. “I’m proud of my small role in getting the transfer system up and running.”

He remembers a proposed octane petroleum refinery on the Hudson waterfront during the mid-1980’s, and a debate over an auto racetrack in Kinderhook shot down by a community group. And of course, he remembers the controversy over the St. Lawrence Cement Plant that did not come to Hudson in the earlier years of the last decade.

Vosburgh said he understood the opposition, but offered his opinion on the controversy.

“As an opportunity to diversify the Columbia County economy — it wasn’t a pristine introduction of cement making for the first time in (Columbia County) history — I actually saw it as a good shot at being approved.”

“Part of me says it’s an opportunity foregone that we didn’t have that,” he continued. “I know many people are relieved that that project didn’t happen, but that was my perspective. You can’t build a cement plant anywhere. It has to be physically adjacent to the resource...remember, if you want to enjoy some of the consequences and benefits of the 21st-century lifestyle, we still have to make things. We have to mine things, we have to transport electricity.”

Vosburgh said he’s tried to anticipate and explain unintended consequences, which he says all plans, land use related or not, will have, and that he understands both sides of the “us versus them” divide that some county residents live by.

“I can appreciate the arguments on both sides,” he said. “Change is the thing we really need to focus on. It isn’t stasis...that’s so foreign to most everything you see around us. The landscape changes. Land use changes. For some people, these changes are very difficult to deal with.”

From now to 1980, the biggest change in county government is its use of technology, Vosburgh said. The Internet has made it possible for local residents to access so much information: “especially in residential issues, information about legislation, environmental impact statements...you can access so easily now...that’s huge. That all developed in my term working here. The internet has empowered citizens,” he said. “I think we have a ways to go with transparency, but it’s certainly light years over what it was like when I started.”

And with greater access to information, residents’ participation levels have changed, Vosburgh continued. “I think there is a higher level of citizen activism at the local level,” he said. “I suppose some of that is a reflection of growing awareness of environmental issues and consequences.”

Vosburgh said he will miss the planning department staff — “They all say, ‘don’t be a stranger,’” he said.

Modestly, he doesn’t think the department will collapse without his institutional knowledge: “life goes on,” he said. “I know that things will go ahead smoothly. I never had this conceit of, what happens when I’m gone?”

He’s not really sure where the future will take him. He’s staying in Claverack and will be keeping an eye on public policy and environmental issues. He may do some consultant work. He said he’s not sure yet, but being unhinged from the county, “I think I’ll have a little bit more freedom to speak. As an advisor, I was helping somebody else.”
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