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Findings faulted

Lawsuit challenges review of RUPCO project

by George Pattison
August 05, 2010 04:40 PM | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An opponent of the proposed Woodstock Commons affordable housing development has filed a lawsuit charging that the town Planning Board’s environmental clearance of the project was based on a flawed review and should therefore be set aside.

Woodstock resident Robin Segal last week filed the lawsuit — an Article 78 petition, through which affected parties in New York State can challenge actions by government agencies — in State Supreme Court on July 28. She personally served the relevant documents on the Planning Board’s chairman, Paul Shultis Jr., at the outset of the board’s July 29 meeting. In addition to Shultis and the Planning Board, the petition names the town of Woodstock and town supervisor Jeff Moran as defendants.

Shultis declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit in an August 4 interview, other than to say that the action was “not surprising.” It was his understanding, said Shultis, that the Planning Board had contacted the town’s land use attorney, Drayton Grant, and the Town Board had notified the town’s general attorney, Rod Futerfas, about a response to the legal action. In a separate interview Moran said he had no comment on the petition, while confirming that the Town Board had referred the matter to Futerfas. According to Segal, the defendants are required to respond to the petition by September 1.

Meanwhile, Shultis reported that the Planning Board was likely to vote on a resolution to approve the Woodstock Commons site plan and special use permit (SUP) application at either its August 5 or its August 19 meeting. Approval of the site plan and SUP would conclude the board’s five-year review of the project and clear the way for its developer, the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO), to seek required state and local permits, including a town building permit, before starting construction on the 53-unit project. A court ruling in favor of Segal, however, presumably could require the Planning Board to revisit its environmental review and thus invalidate any subsequent actions on the project.

The Article 78 petition cites 22 causes for the court to vacate the Planning Board’s issuance, on July 1, of a “findings statement” that the housing project, whose developer is the Rural Ulster Preservation Company (RUPCO), complied with state and local environmental quality statutes. The causes refer to sections of the findings statement that deal with subjects ranging from traffic safety to alleged conflicts of interest involving three members of the Planning Board. (One of the board’s seven members has recused himself from deliberations on the Woodstock Commons application.)

Segal’s petition, which comprises 73 pages including multiple exhibits, repeatedly characterizes the Planning Board’s adoption of the findings statement as “arbitrary and capricious.” Said Segal in an August 3 interview, “RUPCO wrote the findings statement. (Town of Woodstock planning specialist) Dara Trahan rewrote it, but didn’t catch the errors. For example, the statement names a nonexistent company as the owner of Woodstock Commons. The acceptance of that name (‘Playhouse and Elwynn Associates, LLP’) was arbitrary and capricious because it doesn’t exist and wasn’t checked. This is a very technical example of a lack of checking and paying attention. This should have been reviewed by an attorney for the town of Woodstock, but it wasn’t caught.”

Traffic and conflicts

Of the Planning Board’s review in general, Segal said, “It’s not shocking; it’s consistently incompetent.” The Evergreen Lane resident, who is a nearby neighbor of the development’s 28-acre site behind the Bradley Meadows shopping plaza, has catalogued her criticism of the project in a blog, thetroublewithrupco.blogspot.com.

Traffic safety, a centerpiece of Segal’s independent research into potential repercussions of the project, is one of the 22 causes cited in her petition. Specifically, the petition charges that the Planning Board accepted a RUPCO engineer’s traffic study that omitted the allegedly hazardous condition posed by an intersection formed by Playhouse Lane, the project’s main access road; Route 212; and the Playhouse Plaza, which cars routinely exit by backing into oncoming traffic on Route 212.

According to Segal, six accidents — three of which were reported and thus entered into an official administrative record, while the other three were unreported and not included in the record, but are supported by anecdotes and photographs — occurred in the vicinity of the intersection in a recent 18-month period. Occupants of Woodstock Commons would account for hundreds of additional car trips per day in the area of the development, according to Segal’s analysis.

A relevant section of the petition reads as follows: “(The)Woodstock Planning Board did the opposite of take a hard look at the projected additional traffic’s effect on the intersection’s safety. The professional engineers hired by the applicant could not come to any reasonable conclusions since it was they who refused to count the parking lot cars in the first place. Woodstock Planning Board members are nonexpert town residents who substituted their casual observations for an unacceptable absence of work by credentialed and experienced experts.”

The last of the petition’s 22 causes cites alleged conflicts of interest on the part of Shultis and Planning Board members David Corbett and Laurie Ylvisaker, who is a real estate broker. According to the petition, Ylvisaker’s conflict relates to her membership in the Ulster County Board of Realtors, which performs services such as helping first-time homebuyers obtain financing through organization’s like RUPCO, an official partner of UCBR. Ylvisaker expressed her readiness to offer such a service in a 2009 letter to this newspaper, but in a subsequent interview denied that she was directly associated with RUPCO in any way.

The alleged conflicts involving Shultis and Corbett involve their volunteer service on a town committee that in 2004 recommended the parcel adjoining Bradley Meadows as a site for affordable housing and, according to the petition, “invited RUPCO to apply to build affordable housing in the town.”

The petition states: “(The) Woodstock Planning Board’s acceptance of the Findings Statement must be set aside since three of six Woodstock Planning Board members have conflicts of interest with RUPCO. These three members’ votes should be annulled, which leaves only three members, and these votes, even if all in favor of adopting the Findings Statement, do not comprise a quorum.”

Moran, the town supervisor, said on August 4 that he had not yet had a chance to review Segal’s petition, but planned to do so soon. “Whether, as town supervisor, I agree or disagree, anybody has the right to file an Article 78 action and I respect that right,” he said. “Regardless of whether someone wins or loses, I will shake their hand because the action was taken in the best interests of the town.” Just as he had shaken hands with residents who contested the town’s cell tower and the Comeau easement through Article 78 actions, said Moran, he would offer the same gesture to Segal if her petition prevailed.++

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