Planners: Free rein for developers

Village planners say their oversight was eliminated in proposed zoning changes while they were kept out of the loop


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  • The BT Holdings site showing the portion of the parcel annexed from town to village.



How much notice?

Confusion ensued over how much notice the village is required to give of meetings, including those where local laws are changed. Those who oppose the proposed zoning changes accused the village board of rushing the process and keeping the public in the dark.
Planning Board Chair Richard Ramsdell quoted chapter and verse: zoning law states that 15 days’ public notice must be given prior to a meeting that seeks to change the law, he said. Furthermore, he said, 10 days’ notice must be given to contiguous municipalities — in this case, the Town of Chester — if they would be affected by the changes. The town was not notified, he said.
Mayor Phil Valastro said the village never intended to ignore the law. He explained that he was looking at another section of the law that specified only 5 days’ notice.
“I didn’t just pull this out of the air,” he said.
Village Attorney Ian Schlanger said a municipality may choose to post a legal notice about public meetings on one day only, either at municipal hall or on the municipal website. The village does not need to make any further effort to make sure the public is informed.
The village of Chester posts a one-time public notice in the legal section of The Times-Herald Record.
Schlanger said the village does not even have to publish that. The notice needs only to be “posted,” he said.
Schlanger said local village laws specify a three-day notice, but that “Rick pointed out to me today there was a 15-day notice for this particular type of law” on zoning changes.
Ramsdell said he didn’t even know about the March 10 public hearing on the changes until the day of the hearing.
“On that day I downloaded a copy of the latest (village) version,” he said. “It had not been referred to the planning board.”
He said residents would have appreciated more advance notice.

Editor's note: Correction made to original article (see note at bottom of story.)

By Ginny Privitar
— The village of Chester planning board chairman was taken aback by the many changes that the village board made to the planning board's recommendations on zoning revisions now in the works.

What the public had to say

Ted Talmadge suggested the village and planning boards “get a different attorney, because there’s a conflict there," he found that Norton and Christensen representing both. He also said the lack of a 15-day notice was grounds for voiding that public hearing. He mentioned that a previous board changed the zoning on his land and others from 1 acre to 3 to 5 acres, depending on the steepness of the site, and that he was not compensated for it. “That’s what five board members can do to people,” Talmadge said. “That’s what can happen with these zone changes; they have the last word, no matter what the public says.”
Gordon Shehab objected to the lack of planning board oversight in the proposed changes. “Who actually wrote these amendments? Was it the subcommittee? Did they do it with BT Holdings? Did BT Holdings write it up? It was sort of slanted to BT Holdings and they did take out the planning board? I just wondered who did?” Mayor Valastro angrily responded: “Do you think we would sit down with BT Holdings and do that? No we didn’t....I have more integrity than to sit down with the developer and let him write along. Because I’m tired of hearing it. I’ve had my integrity questioned time and time and time again."
Nikki Mayer said the language was confusing. “Fine, you didn’t write it," she told the mayor, "but you passed the annexation against the will of the public. Something’s wrong with that.”
Leslie Smith said she looked in past minutes of village board meetings and was unable to find any motion to have a public hearing. Schlanger said they normally they do make a motion for a public hearing, but that it had taken so long to get to board members, they just went ahead. He acknowledged there would be a 15-day notice in future for public hearings on zoning changes.

At Tuesday's meeting of village trustees, planning board Chairman Rick Ramsdell said he could not understand why planning board oversight would be eliminated in nearly every one of the most recent changes the village proposes to make to its zoning code.

“In this latest version of Local Law 4, almost every mention of planning board involvement was deleted," Ramsdell said. "There were 10 sections, and 9 out of the 10 had been changed. It was kind of a surprise. It wasn’t that somebody got back to us and said, we don’t understand — what you were saying or why you made the changes. It was done. We don’t normally find such broad diversion from the village board.”

He repeatedly expressed surprise at the changes he found. The village board had not approached the planning board, or made the planning board aware of the most recent changes, until very recently, despite regular communication between the two boards, he said.

He was also critical of the short notice given about the March 10 public hearing not only to the planning board but to village residents (please see related story). And he objected to the elimination of the phrase “subject to site conditions and potential impacts” governing how many units may be built depending on land conditions.

“It’s unnerving to see this kind of stuff happen,” Ramsdell said. “I don’t understand what the possible reasoning could be, but the result of it is an open gate for people to essentially do whatever they want.”

Those who oppose the changes see them as accommodating developer Frank Nussbaum’s BT Holdings development, to be built on Route 94 on the hill between Ted Talmadge’s historic farm and the Shoprite shopping center. The village recently annexed more than 60 acres of land that once belonged to the town because the village has the water and infrastructure Nussbaum needs to build 240 townhouse-style condominiums and 100 senior citizen rental units. The town, whose zoning in that area would not have allowed such dense development, had resisted the village's effort to annex the acres.

The proposed zoning changes will affect current and future developments within its new borders.

Ramsdell said the village board is obligated by law to refer proposed code amendments to the planning board.

“This was not” referred, Ramsdell said.

The most recent proposed changes were made without planning board input.

“That added to our, or at least my, surprise,” he said. “In the past it’s always been a single exchange. We are now at version 3.”

New York Mayors side with village board

A resident asked how the village board could chose to disregard the planning board’s changes.

Village Attorney Ian Schlanger said, "A lot of times you’ll have a subcommittee of board members look over the planning board changes and say, ‘This makes sense, this doesn’t make sense,’ and come together with a new version of that law that then goes out to village board members. It’s the village board’s position that that sort of thing does not get referred back.”

Schlanger said he called the New York Conference of Mayors, and “they sort of sided with the village board on that particular issue.”

The village will hold a workshop on proposed Local Law 4 at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 3, at village hall. Attorney Schlanger said the planning board may comment further, and the village board may accept them or not as part of the public record.

Ramsdell said he would not be able to attend the April 3 meeting because of a personal commitment.

If a specific project is seeking, the procedure has always been to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals, Ramsdell said.

“We don’t look to tailor changes to the zoning law for specific projects," he said. "That’s what the ZBA is for.”

Ramsdell said village laws are important, and that it’s serious business to be making changes and re-writing things. Better projects often result after input from the planning board, he said.

If the village board decides to go forward with its version of the law, another public hearing is likely, Schlanger said.

Mayor Philip Valastro suggested a joint meeting between the planning board and village board between the April 7 and the May 12 village board meetings, but no date was set.

Planning board member Robert Jankelunas said that by taking out the planning board oversight, developers may come in and do basically what they want. He stressed it was important to have a joint meeting so that the public could know the expectations of both boards.

Planning Board member Gene Winters said board members take their training and duty to the public very seriously. They looked at a development very similar to the one proposed and saw for themselves what it would look like, what the setbacks would be, and other features. This research informed their recommendations, Winters said.

“We do our homework," he said. "And we want the best for the village we represent. If you’re going to do the job right, it takes time.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from the original to reflect the fact that only the most recent zoning changes went without review by the planning board. The Chronicle regrets the error.

Also see related story, "Decision affecting new condos postponed": http://bit.ly/NZ689k.

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