November 26, 2021

Cortland County planning director Dan Dineen to retire

S.N. Briere/ staff reporter

Dan Dineen stands outside of Hope Lake Lodge at Greek Peak Mountain Resort Thursday afternoon. Dineen, who will retire July 30 after 33 years with the county, has been around for a lot of Greek Peak’s expansions over the past few decades.

County Planning Director Dan Dineen had a foot and a hand — well, perhaps a limb or two in every aspect of county development to the point that he probably ran out of piggies over the years.

“I see us as more of the background people,” Dineen said Thursday about the Planning Department. “Where we’ve been strong is building relationships with the communities over the years. We’ve built a trust with the municipalities.”

Trust like that takes years to nurture, said Dineen, who will retire July 30 as the director after being with the county for 33 years.

Dineen, 55, began with the department right out of college in June 1987 as a planner trainee. He had transferred from Mohawk Community College to SUNY Plattsburgh, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geography. A year after being a trainee he became a planner, which he did for four years before becoming a senior planner for seven years. He was then the interim planning director for eight months before becoming director in 2000.

It’s in those 33 years with the county he’s given a helping hand to development opportunities, regulation changes and bringing programs to the county. Some of those activities include:

Radioactive waste — Battling with the state to stop a low-level radioactive waste facility in Cortland County. From 1989 to the early 1990s, the state was embroiled in a lawsuit with the federal government after a federal law required states to keep their waste — more like used medical X-rays, not spent nuclear fuel — rather than dump them in other places, such as Nevada.

A site in Taylor was one of the final two spots in New York, Dineen said, and that brought protests — very loud protests — to the small town. While protesters and picketers worked outside, a planning department team worked more diplomatically with state officials. The federal law was eventually deemed unconstitutional.

Public transportation — Dineen was there when the county first introduced public transportation in 1993.

“A lot of this came as a result of it being expensive to transport social service clients via individual taxi cabs,” he said.

The department applied for a grant to start the service, which continues to this day.

911 — When 911 communications came online in 1993, Dineen and his colleagues had to assign unique addresses to every property in the county. That work continues to help first responders locate people.

“We had to go through and make sure everyone had the correct addresses because previously people were using rural routes,” he said. “For example, your address might be Rural Route 3-Landers Corners Road. Obviously it would be much more difficult to find somebody with an address like that.”

Cell towers, wind turbines and solar Dineen has helped municipalities keep up with zoning and other regulations needed to develop, or slow development of, cell towers, wind turbines and solar — to name a few.

“None of them had regulations regarding these types of activities, so we assist these communities in developing regulations to allow these types of uses, if the community so sees, in a matter that works well with the community — that’s not going to be obtrusive to the community,” he said.

Free medical care — Dineen helped bring the Innovative Readiness Training a military logistics training exercise — to the county in both 2016 and 2019 after applying for a grant through the Southern Tier 8 Regional Planning Board.

“Between the two IRTs, we’ve saved the community over $1.5 million in medical costs,” he said.

Route 13/281 development — Dineen had input on the development of the Route 13/ Route 281 corridor. When he started, the original Walmart location, which is now Lowe’s, was just a farm field.

“The corridor has expanded significantly over the last 30 years,” he said.

That expansion has been a great revenue base for the town of Cortlandville, said Ted Testa, who has sat on the town board for 30 years.

“I thought he was excellent in what he did,” Testa said. “He was always well prepared when he came to the board.”

Aquifer protection — Dineen helped elected leaders and developers balance growth with the need for clean water from the county’s sole source aquifer.

“We didn’t really know much about the aquifer back in 1987, but since that time more studies have come out and we’ve obtained a better understanding of the aquifer and its importance as far as the groundwater for the residents of Cortland County,” he said. “Whenever we review a project, we obviously look at potential impacts that the project may have on the aquifer and any time we view a project we have to balance aquifer protection with economic development.”

That balance between protecting the aquifer while allowing development will continue to be the biggest challenge the county faces in years to come, Dineen said.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “Communities are becoming more engaged and see the importance of proper planning. Over the years, we’ve developed comprehensive plans for many communities, land-use regulations and I see communities continuing to do that to promote development in a sound manner.”

Dineen said while he’ll miss working with his staff, municipalities, county officials and will have a hard time not commenting on planning issues, he’s ready to enjoy more time with his family.

Once the coronavirus pandemic is over — or at least under better control — he plans to become a winter bird in Florida, where one of his daughters lives. He also plans to visit his other daughter in Pittsburgh and son in Buffalo.

He’ll be missed though.

“Dan has been a mainstay of the planning department for as long as I’ve been with the district, and I’m not quite sure how they will fill his shoes,” said Amanda Barber, the manager of the county Soil and Water Conservation District. “He’s been instrumental in so many important local projects, from farmland protection to helping institute local codes for water supply protection. His knowledge of local issues and history of planning activities will be impossible to replace.”

Dineen left one bit of advice for his successor: Listen to what the people want.

“They need to be a good listener and they need to listen to what the communities want and help them to obtain that instead of coming in and saying ‘You know I think; you need to develop zoning,’” he said. “If the community doesn’t want zoning, don’t push zoning on them.”