At the July 19 meeting of the Town Board, Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran announced, and Planning Board chairman Paul Shultis Jr. confirmed, that the Planning Board would alter the language of the resolution at its scheduled July 21 meeting. The Planning Board adopted the original resolution on August 5, 2010, near the conclusion of its six-year environmental review of the proposed 53-unit housing project, whose developer is the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO).
The original resolution set several infrastructure-related conditions for the issuance of a building permit, such as the town’s acceptance of water and sewer mains and a lighting system that the developer would install at the project site. According to Woodstock officials, however, in subsequent communications with town attorney Rod Futerfas, RUPCO argued that the conditions were untenable, in that the infrastructure elements could not be completed without a building permit.
The Building Department issued the building permit on July 7, effectively nullifying the Planning Board resolution, which remained in effect. The permit stipulated that the disputed conditions would now be requirements for the issuance of a post-construction certificate of occupancy for the project. The terms of the amended Planning Board resolution are expected to conform to those of the building permit.
Said Shultis: “I believe that if this went to a judge, he would agree that the language in the resolution was flawed, in that RUPCO couldn’t build the infrastructure without a building permit.” He added: “Since I signed the resolution, I want to make sure that the language works and is fair to the applicant; that it is possible for the applicant to comply with the conditions.”
RUPCO previously posted a $150,000 bond that the town would collect if the infrastructure work proved unacceptable and had to be removed by the town. Although it was not described as such at the time, the bond now appears to function as a factor in a quid pro quo arrangement, providing security for the town in exchange for its issuance of a building permit under revised conditions.
A leading opponent of the housing project, Iris York, last week formally appealed the Building Department’s issuance of the permit, with its accompanying contravention of the Planning Board resolution, to the Zoning Board of Appeals. York stated on July 19 that the ZBA planned to consider her appeal at its July 28 meeting. According to York, the zoning law provides for a stay, or suspension, of the contested activity while an appeal to the ZBA is pending.
In a July 20 interview, however, the ZBA’s chairman, Howard Harris, outlined a process which, if followed by town agencies, might eliminate the grounds for the appeal.
The process would involve the following sequence of actions. First, the Planning Board would amend its original resolution (after adopting a resolution to do so) as it intends to do. Next, with the necessary foundation thus in place, the Building Department would issue a new building permit. “The first building permit may have been issued in error, but if the town issues a new building permit, what would be the point of a ZBA hearing (on York’s appeal)? It would be moot,” said Harris. “If the town doesn’t issue a new building permit, we will hear the case as it is and base a determination on the facts of the case.”
Harris added that such a determination might exceed the scope of the town’s zoning law and require an examination of applicable case law.
An attempt on July 20 to reach Moran for comment on the town’s likely course of action was unsuccessful. Councilman Bill McKenna stated in a brief interview that the town attorney, Rod Futerfas, would presumably advise the Building Department on the appropriate steps to take. McKenna noted that the Town Board had no role in the issuance of building permits. Futerfas was on vacation and unavailable for comment on July 20, according to his office.
Several residents attending the Town Board meeting objected to the town’s actions on the Woodstock Commons project. “Confusion and anger sometimes result from a lack of objectivity by the people in decision-making positions,” said Terry Breitenstein. “Opponents of the project — who, unlike RUPCO, are local residents and taxpayers — have often been left out of the process. I believe that the town of Woodstock is about to embark on its single largest mistake.”
Shultis noted that the Town Board, as a so-called involved agency in the Planning Board’s environmental review of the project, had failed to submit a formal comment on the review within the prescribed 45-day period. The current debate over elements of the proposed project, including its eligibility for municipal water and sewer service, were therefore belated, he said.
Said resident Jay Cohen, “This Town Board causes chaos and difficulties for itself by not demanding relevant data when it is studying something. The failure to meet the conditions of the Planning Board resolution is a violation of the building permit and the law. Do you want to be accountable to the people or to RUPCO?”
Councilwoman Terrie Rosenblum, in response to a query from Cohen, stated that the Town Board had thoroughly reviewed the Planning Board resolution and raised questions about it. Said Moran, “We are sworn to uphold the law and are doing our best to do that.” Countered York: “Whether or not the Planning Board retroactively amends its resolution, at the time the building permit was signed there was a violation of the law.”
RUPCO representatives were not present at the meeting.
Other items on the agenda included the following:
Wetlands measure. An informational workshop on a proposed revision of the section of the zoning law that restricts development and other activities in the vicinity of wetlands and watercourses will take place at 7 p.m. on July 26 at the town offices on Comeau Drive. A public hearing on the subject is scheduled for August 9.
Ethics Board. The council agreed to ask the five-member town Ethics Board for an “accounting” to justify its request for the appointment of an alternate member. The accounting would cite the number of occasions on which an alternate was needed because one or more regular members of the panel could not attend a meeting.
Commemorative plaques. The board voted unanimously to install two bronze plaques commemorating, respectively, former highway superintendent Stan Longyear, who died in 2005, and former building inspector Paul Shultis, who died in 2009. The Longyear plaque will be installed at the meadow named for him on the Comeau property. The Shultis plaque will be placed on a memorial bench on the upper portion of the property.
Subcommittee reports. Representing the subcommittee on land use, Rosenblum initially stated that the latest draft of the Comeau stewardship plan had been submitted to the town’s special counsel, Steven Barshov, for examination following its review by the Woodstock Land Conservancy (WLC). After colleagues reminded her that Barshov was to review the document only after the Town Board had reviewed the WLC’s comments, Rosenblum amended her previous statement and agreed to the prescribed timetable. The Town Board plans to review the draft by August 9, possibly in consultation with a citizens advisory group, before submitting it to the attorney for a legal review.
McKenna, who chairs the facilities subcommittee, reported that a new array of solar panels has been in operation at the highway garage for about five weeks. Information about the installation is available on the town’s website. Councilwoman Cathy Magarelli, representing the infrastructure subcommittee, said that the website also contains recommendations from various parties, including the public and attorneys, on the proposed revision of the wetlands and watercourse measure. Councilman Jay Wenk, the board’s representative on the fuel tanks subcommittee, described buried tanks in the vicinity of the town aquifer in Bearsville as a “ticking clock.” He urged the board to pass a local law that would apportion responsibility for the cost of a cleanup in the event that an underground tank leaked fuel oil into the aquifer.
Spending freeze. The board failed to pass a resolution, proposed by McKenna, that would require town departments to obtain advance authorization from the supervisor for an expenditure of any amount from the general fund. Moran deemed the provision unnecessary and said that a need to obtain approval for every expenditure of a penny or more would create a backlog of paperwork. In an interview after the meeting, McKenna said that the dire condition of the town’s finances was the impetus for his proposal. The vote on the measure was two in favor (McKenna and Wenk) and two opposed (Moran and Rosenblum), with one abstention (Magarelli).++
Not for sale
Woodstock board rejects Town Hall proposal
The Woodstock Town Board at its July 19 meeting decisively quashed a resolution to offer Town Hall for sale to the highest bidder at a minimum price of $800,000. While any sale would have been subject to a permissive referendum that could have put the final decision to a townwide vote, the building at 76 Tinker Street is now effectively off the auction block.
The measure, which was opposed by councilwomen Terrie Rosenblum and Cathy Magarelli and councilmen Bill McKenna and Jay Wenk and supported only by supervisor Jeff Moran, drew impetus from a recent offer by local businessman Neal Smoller, who owns Woodstock Apothecary, to buy Town Hall for approximately $800,000. According to an appraisal by the town assessor, the building has a current market value of $790,000 to $810,000.
Smoller’s proposal to buy Town Hall reflected a plan to convert the building to commercial retail space for an expansion of his pharmacy and occupation by other businesses. The assessor has deemed commercial or retail use the “highest and best” form of use for the building, according to the Town Board resolution.
As it stands, the board’s 4-to-1 vote against selling the 74-year-old edifice leaves open the option of proceeding with a renovation that would create bigger and safer quarters for the police and emergency dispatch departments and the justice court, which are based at Town Hall.
The town’s consulting architect and engineer for the proposed renovation are finalizing bidding specifications for the project. The schedules envisions the town’s solicitation of bids from contractors in September. Voters in a 2007 referendum approved a $1.6 million renovation of the building that would have entailed bonding for $1.45 million of the total cost, but that plan was abandoned when bids totaled about $2 million, significantly exceeding the total cost authorized by the referendum.
The bonding authorized in the 2007 referendum may be applicable to the current renovation project, provided the plans under consideration conform to the terms of the referendum. Whether local taxpayers would support borrowing for that purpose amid the ongoing recession remains to be seen.
“Many things have changed since 2007,” observed resident Steve Grenadir, who serves on the town’s Economic Development Task Force. Noting that the town has been running a substantial deficit in recent years and faces critical budgetary decisions in the months ahead, Grenadir suggested that a new ballot measure might be an effective way to gauge public sentiment on a proposed renovation. Debt service on bonding for the amount in question would cost the town an estimated $100,000 annually, he observed.
Wenk opposed selling the building in the current “down” market. McKenna agreed, adding that the town had devoted a lot of time to the renovation plan under consideration. While imperfect, he said, the plan promised to provide a clean and safe working environment for town employees. Magarelli read a letter in which the town historian, Richard Heppner, cautioned the board against taking an action that would permanently surrender town control over a beloved local landmark, to the regret of future generations.
Magarelli concurred with the sentiment and expressed her opposition to leaving the town employees in limbo for another three or four years. Rosenblum, who described Heppner’s letter as “very moving,” agreed, observing that certain actions, while logical, cannot be reconciled with deep-seated feelings. Moreover, she said, a decision to sell the building would be inconsistent with the will of the public as expressed in the 2007 referendum.
Lorin Rose, a member of the Planning Board who is an announced candidate for town supervisor, proposed that the town conduct a nonbinding referendum as a means of taking the public’s pulse on the matter. Ken Panza, who is running for a Town Board seat, maintained that the proper procedure would be to build a new facility for town employees before selling Town Hall.
While Moran supported a scenario in which the town would apply the proceeds from a sale of Town Hall to the construction of a new building that would house the three municipal departments, his colleagues favored keeping the building in the town’s hands, for reasons ranging from an inhospitable economic climate to Town Hall’s historic and sentimental value.
Edith LeFever, who is president of Performing Arts of Woodstock, noted that her organization has presented theatrical productions at Town Hall for more than 40 years. She delivered a petition signed by 285 residents and nonresidents who support PAW’s continued presence at Town Hall after a renovation of the building. “Woodstock, as an arts colony, must be careful about doing away with historic edifices,” she said.++