Director of Planning and Zoning at Town of Lake George — Daniel Barusch

My Career as a Planner

Daniel Barusch

I am currently the Director of Planning and Zoning for the Town of Lake George, New York, and I am the youngest planning director in New York State and quite possibly the country.

It is my duty to enforce the zoning code and subdivision regulations of the Town of Lake George and to help with the development of major planning projects and documents. I work closely with the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals to regulate development throughout the town, and to analyze site plan reviews, subdivisions, and area and use variances.

Through my office, applicants, engineers, and contractors involved in any building or development can obtain a land use and development (building) permit, floodplain permit, sign permit, lot line adjustment permit, and septic permits. I am also charged with carrying out "planning" endeavors for the Town of Lake George.

I assisted with the finalization of the town's comprehensive plan update in 2016, and act as project manager for many other planning projects going on within the town, which include acting as project manager for the $7 million "Route 9 Gateway Project," administering the town's Climate Smart Communities program, administering the town's Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) program, administering the town's Septic Initiative program, and leading the town's economic development plan.

I have also single-handedly applied for six grants since starting with the town roughly 16 months ago, five of which have been awarded.

Is your career based on considered choices you planned or has it unfolded as part of a process you didn't necessarily foresee?

My passion for city planning and analyzing how urban networks creative human habitats has brought me to this career path, following a short college stint in architecture. Following my transfer from the SUNY system in New York to Arizona State University, I found the materials in the planning program to be exactly what I wanted to study.

I wouldn't say I necessarily saw myself in this current position, but it was indeed my goal to become a city planner and to be a higher level manager of a planning department, either in the public sector or at a private firm. It is my sincere hope that one day this career path will bring help catapult me into politics.

It is one thing to be a planner acting as the "mediator" between humans and the places they inhabit, but it is another thing to be a lawmaker, paving the way for new legislation to help advance the field of planning, both for human habitats and the environment. Very few city planners ever make their way into the political realm, and I want to help break that mold.

Career influences

What skills and personality traits lend themselves to success in your field?

Success in this field is based on numerous facets. Organization, passion, and perseverance are critically important while studying as a planner, especially in graduate school. Open-minded people tend to look at planning with a broader "brush stroke" if you will, and so people who go into the planning field with an open canvas can paint any picture they'd like, whether they want to be a housing planner, an environmental planner, a health planner, a military planner, and even an economic development planner.

The almost endless possibilities are based upon the intertwining of planning into almost every avenue of our everyday lives. Lastly, skills and adeptness can either come with the completion of your degree, or after a certain amount of years of experience, but every planner must understand one critical thing: everyone has a different skill that makes them a good planner, and each and every day we are learning something new, not one planner in this world knows all there is to know about planning.

What has been the best surprise in your career?

The best surprise in my career is hard to define. I've paved the way for my own success starting in college and have come across many surprises and things to be proud of. If I had to whittle it down to the top three, I'd have to say the top three surprises of my career would be:

  1. Being offered the opportunity to be the director of planning and zoning at Lake George, making me the youngest planning director in New York State
  2. Being awarded numerous accolades through my educational career, including ASU's Mary Kihl Leadership Award or being a part of the Alpha Chapter of the first Urban Planning Honor Society in the country (Upsilon Rho Beta)
  3. The happiness I have every day going to work as a city planner, which is a critical factor to the continued success in my career

Looking back, what might you do differently?

Looking back, I wouldn't have done anything differently in terms of my education, my internships, or my first job(s) as a planner. The one thing I might have done differently would have to do with the financing of my educational career and critically observing how my student loans would impact my future life.

If I had one piece of advice to people that are looking to obtain a higher education, not just as planners but for any profession, and that also have to borrow money to support their education, I would implore them to be cognizant of the way that works. While you are in school, make sure you have a side job, try to pay off interest on your loans while they accrue, and keep track of your money management.

It is deplorable that millions of people in this country are leaving college with debt numbers higher than the annual salary they will take home, but it is the undeniable truth that many of us have to deal with these days.

Becoming Director of Planning

What do you enjoy most about your current role?

The thing I enjoy the most about my current role as a public government planning and zoning director is being able to help people, one side of the public sector's "double-edged sword."

Each and every day, nearly a dozen or more people call my office looking for answers to their questions about their property, future development, infrastructure, zoning, and a plethora of other things. Being able to assist these people with zoning answers, help on their permits, advise on their designs, and sign off on their projects helps me feel accomplished as a civil servant, and their praise makes my job worth it.

I would say the hardest part of the job is the other side of that double-edged sword: Not everyone that calls your office to ask for help is going to be pleasant or in a good mood, or even polite to you. Dealing with the dissenters, the complaints, and the unfriendly is part of any government job, but dealing with these people honestly and positively is a task that is difficult in itself.

How has your perception of planning changed since you first entered the field?

I would say my perception of the planning realm has not changed much, if at all, since I first entered the field (which was less than five years ago). If anything, I have begun to realize how much larger and encompassing the planning field actually is.

Whether you know it or not, the planning field is like a spider web, reaching out and touching various things (or other fields) whether they are nearby (similar in nature) or far away (not alike), creating an organized pattern of synchronized cohesiveness.

Career Advice

What advice do you have for someone who hopes to find a job similar to yours?

My advice to current or potential planners is to learn as much as you can, persevere and overachieve, and understand that planning is for the "community at large." Do you absolute best in college and/or graduate school, and show the community how you can help — whether it is through volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, or creating a student group at your college for planning students — be involved!

Try to learn as many different things as possible during your educational career (and after), and set your goals as high as you can. Finding a job can sometimes be difficult, but if your resume is full of good grades and extracurricular activities (such as participating in the APA or even a Young Planners Group), the only step between you and a job similar to mine is your ability to interview well and show people what you're made of.

Convince people that you are the best one for the job and that you won't let them down. Once they've given you a chance, they may come to find that you were the best decision they ever made and that you are pushing the position to a new level, taking it leaps and bounds higher than it was.

What is the biggest planning-related hurdle you've faced in recent years and how was it dealt with?

Sensitivity is by far the biggest hurdle I have come across as a planner. Whether it was neighbors that were sensitive to a new project being built across from their home, or a complex State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) that showed sensitive archaeological or environmental impacts from a project, sensitivity frequently impacts the way we can carry out the function of planning. Realizing how to address this in a comprehensive manner, with the best outcome for all is quite a difficult balancing act.

Schools and Education

Arizona State University, Master of Urban and Environmental Planning, 2014

Arizona State University, Bachelor of Arts in Design Studies, Magna cum Laude, 2012

State University of New York at Delhi, Associate of Applied Science, Architectural Technology, 2010

First planning job:

Internships: City of Mesa, Arizona (Planning/Sustainability Intern); Saratoga Associates, New York (Planning Intern)

First full-time planning job: Matrix Design Group, Inc. — Phoenix and Crofton, Maryland offices (Planner)

Influencers and Tools for Success

Helping people; making a name for myself in my field; always looking to make the next step upwards.

Tools: Holistic/multi-disciplinary approach; people skills; confidence; education; ability to adapt and learn fast.

What do you do outside of work that helps you be successful?

I stay involved in my community. Currently, I am on the Saratoga Springs Climate Smart Task Force as well as the founder of Saratoga County Young Democrats. I also helped start the Student Planning Association at ASU, Students for the New Urbanism at ASU, and the Young Planners Group in Arizona.

Any influential people?

Senator Bernie Sanders, Jane Jacobs, James Howard Kunstler, Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and my mentors.