Previous statements by town officials and citations of town law led many observers to conclude that the Town Board indeed possesses that legal authority. In a March 8 interview, however, Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran suggested otherwise, while noting that the town’s attorneys are currently considering the question.
In the case of water service, the town and the project’s developer, the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO), recently submitted a joint application to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The DEC ruled last December 2 that the town was obliged to seek a modified water supply permit because the project’s proposed site, behind the Bradley Meadows shopping plaza, lay outside the local water district, although RUPCO contends that the parcel lies within both the water and sewer districts.
Meanwhile, an extension of hamlet sewer district services to include Woodstock Commons would require a waiver by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a prohibition against extending such districts in or near designated wetland areas. The 28-acre site of the project contains such an area. The town has requested the waiver from the EPA, whose jurisdiction traces to the agency’s funding of Woodstock’s hamlet sewer system at the time of its construction.
The recent DEC ruling, which took town and RUPCO officials by surprise, has focused attention on the water side of the water-sewer equation, although a denial of sewer service to the project would presumably prove more costly to RUPCO — perhaps prohibitively so, if the developer were required to build an on-site treatment plant — than an adverse ruling on water service, in which case the company would face the need to drill wells. The developer has announced plans to begin construction of the project this spring.
The DEC ruling, contained in a letter from DEC environmental analyst Rebecca Crist to Moran, directed the town to apply for a modified water supply permit. It did not mention RUPCO as a co-applicant. In the interview Moran explained that RUPCO has joined the town in the application process because the company possesses most of the required documents, which fill thick binders.
The Planning Board, rather than the Town Board, served as the lead agency charged with considering RUPCO’s application to build the affordable housing complex. Concluding nearly a six-year review, the Planning Board last summer approved the project on environmental grounds while also signing off on its site plan and application for a special use permit.
Soon thereafter, at an October 5, 2010, Town Board meeting, which featured a presentation by RUPCO attorney Michael Moriello, Moran raised questions about the town’s obligation to provide water and sewer service to the project. Citing a section of state law, the supervisor stated that town governments could resolve to deny such services, even to properties situated within the relevant districts.
Councilman Jay Wenk and councilwomen Terrie Rosenblum and Cathy Magarelli expressed strong reservations about the RUPCO project and intimated that they would oppose the provision of town services to it. It thus appeared that a majority of the board, with the exception of Bill McKenna, who has consistently supported the project, and possibly Moran, may have been prepared to deny water and sewer service to Woodstock Commons if and when the matter came to a vote.
The applicable portion of Woodstock town law — Water District: Section 250-5, Regulations and Requirements — seems straightforward. “Any person or corporation within the Town of Woodstock may apply for hookup to the municipal water supply,” the section begins. It adds the following provision, however: “The Town Board may, at its discretion, grant or deny such application.”
In recent statements Moran and McKenna have suggested that the Town Board’s authority in the matter might be no more than “ministerial,” that is, administrative rather than definitively legislative.
In the March 8 interview Moran cast doubt on the Town Board’s authority to withhold water and sewer service following the Planning Board’s approval of the project. In the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for Woodstock Commons, he noted, RUPCO stated that it was prepared to provide the services on its own, but the Planning Board never asked the developer to pursue that option.
“The DEIS essentially says that RUPCO should develop the project expecting (the provision of) town services,” said Moran, noting that the Town Board granted lead agency status to the Planning Board. “The Planning Board is an arm of the town, so the town has essentially approved the Planning Board’s decision.” The supervisor observed that the town had had opportunities through the Planning Board review to comment on the DEIS and its subsequent, final version.
He continued: “When you put a applicant through a six-year process that is time consuming and expensive, and you approve (the project), what then — the Town Board says no? In that case the whole thing would go back to square one; the developer would have to redesign the project and reapply (for the requisite approvals). That would seem to be illegal. It is hard to imagine that the Town Board would have the authority (to deny the services) after the project was approved by a town agency that, like other agencies and departments, speaks for the town.”
Moran did not rule out the possibility that the Town Board would eventually vote on the matter. “We will certainly operate on the advice of our attorney. If a Town Board resolution is required, we will certainly do that,” he said. “The balls are currently in the courts of the DEC and EPA. Once we get direction (from those agencies), we’ll know how to proceed.
Conceivably, said Moran, the EPA might rule that the sewer district cannot be extended across a wetland area, while the DEC might reject a proposed extension of the water district. According to the supervisor, however, precedents exist in which Woodstock has provided municipal water service to properties that lay partially or entirely outside the district, without so much as a formal application by the property owner to the town’s water superintendent or other official. Some of the affected properties are in the vicinity of Playhouse Lane, near the proposed RUPCO project site, with others in the Bearsville area, he said. The supervisor expressed doubt that such an informal process could take place today.
The town’s 2011 budget contains funding for a hydrology study to assess the capabilities of the municipal water system. The study is scheduled to be performed this spring. Available evidence indicates, said Moran, that the capacity of the town’s aquifer is ample and could readily accommodate the RUPCO project. Any problems are likely to involve the mechanics — factors such as the number and depth of the town’s wells — of delivering water to the district’s customers. “Water is our most precious resource. We have to be very mindful of what we have to work with and make sure that we get it right,” he said.
Rosenblum and Wenk said in interviews on March 9 that they would reserve judgment on the matter of town services for the project until the DEC and the EPA had ruled on the respective applications. (In an informal conversation on March 8, McKenna reiterated the view that the Town Board’s authority was ministerial only. Magarelli was out of town and thus unavailable for comment.)
“I would have to know the results of the DEC’s look at this,” said Rosenblum. “It seems arrogant for any of us to base a position on our feelings instead of on the facts. At this point I don’t know what the impact (of providing the services) would be on the town. My personal feelings about whether the project is worthwhile are truly irrelevant. The question is whether the project is in the best interests of the town.”
Wenk reported that he made a recent visit to the DEC regional office in New Paltz, where he discussed the joint application by the town and RUPCO with Crist. The conversation led him to conclude that the application contained mistakes by Woodstock town attorney Rod Futerfas and was “kind of sloppy,” said the councilman.
Opponents of the housing project have charged that Futerfas, town engineer Dennis Larios, and Drayton Grant, Woodstock’s town attorney for land use matters, have conflicts of interest based on relationships with RUPCO officials or attorneys. “I like Rod and Dennis Larios, but in terms of their connections with RUPCO, I’m feeling very uncomfortable,” said Wenk.
The debate over whether the Town Board has ministerial or greater authority in the matter of services for the project has left him confused, Wenk acknowledged. Meanwhile, he joins his colleagues in awaiting the judgments of the DEC and the EPA. Stated Wenk: “I have said this and I will stick to it: I will vote for the project when I am convinced that everything is legal.”++
RUPCO hearing set
The Woodstock Planning Board on March 17 will conduct a public hearing on an application by RUPCO for a wetland permit certifying that the Woodstock Commons project complies with a town law regulating development and other activities within wetlands and watercourses and buffer areas surrounding them. The hearing is scheduled to take place at 7:15 p.m. at the Community Center. ++
Town Hall transfer
The Woodstock Town Board at its March 8 meeting took a step toward renovating Town Hall by resolving to transfer up to $60,000 from a building capital reserve fund to a newly created account, with the money earmarked for architectural and engineering work on building specifications for bidding by contractors.
The board adopted the measure unanimously, with one member, councilwoman Cathy Magarelli, absent. The proposed funds transfer is subject to permissive referendum; that is, opponents of the measure could force a townwide vote if they manage to collect a legally required number of valid signatures on a petition within 30 days. While such a petition drive was recently launched in opposition to a similar proposed transfer involving a renovation of the Community Center, the Town Hall project may enjoy wider public support.
Of the $60,000 total, more than $38,000 would be designated for engineering fees and the remainder for architectural fees. Councilman Bill McKenna proposed that Town Board members use the 30-day petition period to solicit public input on the current renovation plan and the question of whether the town should continue to retain the services of the architectural and engineering firms — Robert Young Associates and Novus Engineering, respectively — that have thus far worked on the project, which dates to 2008.
In a December 2007 referendum on a renovation of Town Hall, voters authorized the town to bond for $1.45 million, toward a total cost of $1.6 million. The project was abandoned when contractors’ bids amounted to $2 million. The bonding authority remains intact provided the current plans, for a scaled-down renovation of the town-owned building at76 Tinker Street substantially conform to the original plan, as described in a resolution accompanying the 2007 referendum
Also, on the town board’s agenda, Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran announced that New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal (NYMIR), an insurer of local governments, had recognized Woodstock as the best performer among 682 towns in the state for risk management over the last two years. The award takes the form an etched-glass statuette, which Moan accepted at the Association of Towns annual meeting in New York City. He credited the late Paul Shultis Jr. and the town’s Safety and Insurance Committee for the achievement and for “saving the town money every year.”++