The members of the Planning Board committee are Peter Cross, Paul Henderson, and Laurie Ylvisaker. Their Town Board counterparts are Cathy Magarelli, who chairs the board’s subcommittee on infrastructure, and Bill McKenna, whose subcommittee oversees matters related to town facilities.
The Town Board initiated the proposed exemption, in the form of amendments to the zoning law, at its March 9 meeting. After receiving the proposal, the Planning Board had 45 days, beginning March 16, in which to respond, creating a deadline of May 1. Following a presentation by Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran at the Planning Board’s April 1 meeting, and the agreement by members of the two boards to consult with one another, the deadline has been extended to May 6.
In recent interviews Moran and Planning Board chairman Paul Shultis Jr. expressed contrasting views of the proposal and its potential impact. According to the supervisor, the frequently crowded agenda for the Planning Board’s twice-monthly meetings often consigns town projects to a prolonged state of limbo, costing the town time and money. Even if the Planning Board process were bypassed, town projects would still be subject to relevant local and state laws and regulations, including environmental measures. Further, he maintains, the town’s land use attorney has stated that Woodstock is one of only a handful of municipalities in the state that submit their projects to the local planning board for its review and approval.
“The five members of the Town Board swear an oath to uphold local laws,” said Moran in an April 6 interview. “We are unlike every other applicant, who has a very specific agenda: what he or she can get done on their property. The town is subject to the Ulster County Planning Board and its own zoning law. It is not that this Town Board wants to do X, Y, or Z, or to ‘put one over on Woodstock.’ We are elected to serve the interests of the town’s citizens. We want every Town Board, irrespective of politics, to be able to pursue and explore municipal projects for the health, safety, and welfare of Woodstockers, without going through redundant processes.”
Shultis, however, said in an April 7 interview that the proposal would do more than simply modify the role of the Planning Board; it would actually exempt town projects from compliance with the local zoning law. In the Town Board’s proposed amendments to the zoning law, he said, “municipal uses have been crossed out of the use table. This is a totally different monster than saying that the Planning Board would just have an advisory role, or that this would just be a ‘fast track’ process.” While the Planning Board is willing to consider procedural options to accelerate its review of town projects, the proposal amounts to “a very big difference,” which would eliminate the “balancing test” that Planning Board review has traditionally provided, he said.
The Planning Board chairman raised practical questions about the proposal. Where would the Town Board find the time, let alone the expertise, to conduct rigorous reviews of its development plans? Would the board schedule special workshop meetings for that purpose? Meanwhile, he said, the Planning Board might be willing to change some of its procedures in order to accommodate two projects. For example, the Planning Board could allot the town a 40-minute time slot on its agenda, or double the standard 20-minute allowance, for an initial presentation, which the planners would review in greater-than-usual detail. The Planning Board might also be willing to waive the use of its own consultants and thus save the town money on occasion, he said.
The value of Planning Board review is evident in the town’s plan to expand the municipal parking lot on the upper part of the Comeau property, said Shultis. In the course of its review by his agency, the original plan has undergone extensive and significant revision of features including lighting, paving, drainage, signage, directional parking, and provisions for disabled parking, he said.
Shultis predicted that the upcoming negotiations might result in an arrangement similar to that of the Ulster County Planning Board (UCPB) and municipal planning boards. In that arrangement, a local planning board (or other agency) submits a completed site plan for a certain kind of project to the county agency, which in turn issues an advisory opinion or recommendation.
According to Shultis, if a local agency wishes to override a binding recommendation by the UCPB, it must do so through a “supermajority” vote. Five of the Woodstock Planning Board’s seven members would constitute a supermajority, he said. In the scenario sketched by Shultis, Woodstock’s Town Board would be the equivalent of the local planning board and the Woodstock Planning Board the equivalent of the county planning agency. In another example, a purely advisory Woodstock Planning Board would resemble the town’s Commission for Civic Design, which provides nonbinding guidance and advice to the Town Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and building inspector.
Dennis Doyle, who is director of the UCPB, noted that the Woodstock proposal would be subject to review by his agency because it entails a change in the local zoning law. If it receives the proposal for review, the UCPB will submit an advisory opinion including its comments, said Doyle in an April 7 interview. The UCPB comprises representatives of 24 municipalities in the county. Woodstock’s representative is Anita Yuran.
The county planning director could not immediately confirm whether Woodstock is one of the few municipalities in the state that refer their projects to local planning boards for review, or whether other communities in Ulster County follow that procedure. In any case, an exemption from local review and approval is not necessarily undesirable, he observed.
“Clearly, communities can or cannot include themselves in the review process,” said Doyle, noting that, on occasion, communities have inadvertently subjected themselves to a local planning review. “Communities do a lot of things that are time sensitive, of a public nature, and may or may not meet zoning statutes.” While a proposal like Woodstock’s may not be inherently harmful, it could raise concerns if it led to situations in which the town sought a variance from its own zoning law, he said.
Towns can benefit from taking a long-range as well as a short-range view of their projects. “A community should look back — to its comprehensive plan, for example —
when it considers public projects,” said Doyle. “If a town board steps back, looks at its comprehensive plan and its open space plan, and weighs those factors out, it takes some of the sting out of an exemption. The state and (in Woodstock’s) local environmental quality review processes offer an opportunity for public comment and for agencies to look at capital projects.”
Woodstock has yet to adopt a 205-page draft comprehensive plan that dates to 2003. In 2009 the Town Board edited the draft plan’s abbreviated executive summary for possible adoption, but that process stalled and has not been revisited by the current Town Board, which took office at the beginning of this year.++