ZBA, Zoning enforcement officer dispute catches Cucina in the middle

The red barn at Cucina. (Photo by Alan Carey)

A philosophical dispute between Woodstock’s Zoning Board of Appeals and its Zoning Enforcement Officer of six months, Ellen Casciaro, appears to be at the bottom of what may cause several lawsuits against the town and the ZBA and has caught one local business in a vise after it had already spent a considerable amount on renovations.

One entity, the Zoning Enforcement Officer, is saying that what’s good for business is good for the town. The other, the ZBA, is replying that a zoning law is a zoning law, and it can’t legally be interpreted in favor of any economic philosophy.

At issue appears to be how a business can get a building permit for a proposed project, complete it at $125,000, and then be told what they did was wrong and had to stop. Some are asking if there’s a weak leak within Woodstock’s zoning and planning worlds…or maybe the zoning document itself is the problem. Do 13 requests for ZBA interpretations of zoning decisions in one year represent a trend, when the norm was between zero and four such requests in previous years?

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On April 12, the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals passed a resolution, 5-0, determining that the building permit Casciaro issued under which Cucina Restaurant has been renovating the old Riseley barn for use as a catering hall was “improperly issued,” and the restaurant’s proposed use of the structure is not allowed under town zoning laws.

In its four page determination, the ZBA answered a request for a zoning interpretation from Cucina neighbor Nancy Shauffler of Edgewood Lane by stressing that the town’s Gateway Overlay District only allows restaurants somehow tied to a cultural institution, and termed Cucina a “lawful nonconforming restaurant use.”

But the ZBA pointed out that all uses for a property not “listed specifically as a permitted, special permit or accessory use” in the town zoning law “shall be considered a prohibited use;” and added that “a proposed change in use of the barn building even one considered a legal use…would require a Site Plan to be done and submitted to the planning board for review prior to the issuance of a legal building permit.”

They concluded that because no site plan was ever done and submitted to the town planning board, and no referrals for alterations were made to the town’s Commission for Civic Design, Zoning Enforcement Officer Casciaro’s decision to issue the building permit was to be considered reversed.

The question, now, is whether anyone will enforce that called-for reversal, and what a lack of action on the town’s part will mean to other zoning matters in Woodstock.

And just how many lawsuits will be filed against the town over this matter, joining a similar suit, still in the courts, involving the Hanowitz plumbing building property in Wittenberg and another discrepancy between Casciaro and the ZBA.

“My architect Barry Price had a site pan prepared and was told by Zoning Enforcement Officer Ellen Casciaro that it was not needed,” Cucina co-owner Lois Freedman said this week of the matter. “We were prepared to do whatever was necessary. We were told we were not going to need a site plan.”

Freedman spoke about having put $125,000 into the red barn renovation, and her understanding of town zoning law. An article about her plans for the catering business ran in a Woodstock Times article this past winter, following a series of stories about possible changes to the Gateway District that included talk of possible hotel and other major expansions to the Cucina site, owned by attorney and local property owner Cyrus Adler. In it she mentioned having received her building permit, and thus assumed she had planning board approval. She also said she had gotten an e-mail from the planning board last autumn in which they noted that, “the zoning enforcement officer has to make a determination of which category of use our proposal falls into.”

“We’re ready to open in a couple of weeks. We’ve booked parties for the new space all summer long,” Freedman said, noting how much she and partner Gianni Scappin have put into their business, in addition to having signed a 17-year lease on the property with Adler. “The Woodstock Film Festival has been talking to us about making the red barn their headquarters for the length of the festival next autumn.”

She added that she was currently contemplating an Article 78 lawsuit against the ZBA decision, as was Adler, separately.

There are 7 comments

  1. mark goldfarb

    That the ZBA would do this to a local business who has done nothing but help our town, just to flex their petty power muscles is abhorrent! I am calling for the town board to remove all 5 members of the ZBA at once and replace them with people who can take a reasonable and holistic approach to each and every matter before them. This out of control board is costing our town precious resources, both financial and human. There is simply no place for this kind of hateful behavior from a body that is appointed to make decisions that are supposed to be best for our town. Get rid of them now at once!

    1. Dara Trahan

      So Mark, tell me, it’s not a reasonable and holistic approach to uphold the law when the Town Board and Building Department have failed to do so? Let’s get to brass tacks here. The zoning law allows certain uses in certain zones and prohibits certain uses in certain zones. Restuarants and catering halls are not allowed in this zone. They are prohibited. Non-conforming uses, such as Cuncina are not allowed to expand. One non-conforming use is not allowed to change to another. When changes are allowed site plan review and architectural review are required. All these steps – required by law – have been ignored. Your solution would be to axe the people pointing this out rather than the people causing the problem.

      There is a reasonable and holistic approach, but not the one you are suggesting. It’s called comprehensive planning followed by zoning law amendments that would allow this use if the community wants it – Not simply ignoring the law and granting people you like carte blanche to do what they like. The only people who should be axed are those encouraging behavior that ignores the law and it is a damn shame that innocent by-standers like Cucina are in the middle of this.

  2. mark goldfarb

    I am sorry that you feel that the ZEO who is the ONLY person employed by the town of Woodstock is incapable of interpreting the law she is paid to uphold. It is her job to decide if Cucina needed a site plan review. She did her job and that is final. The ZBA has no business over riding her. She has over 12 years of experience with our towns zoning law. That should be the end of the story, period!

    1. Dara Trahan

      Incapable is your word. Not mine.

      I don’t think I “feel” anything, Mark. I know. I know that the use is a pre-existing, non-conforming use. I know that the uses on site have been modified in the past in ways not in keeping with the zoning law. I know that the uses have been expanded in the past. I know that a pre-exisitng non-conforming use in Woodstock is allowed a 25% expansion from the time in was made non-conforming. What I doubt is that they have any capacity left on site to do that. And I certainly know that if it is allowed an approved site plan, CCD review and any required variances must be issued prior to the issuance of a building permit.

      And actually, Mark, it is the ZBA’a job to determine whether a ZEO determination is correct or incorrect. Hence, the word “appeal” in their title. And you certainly can’t consider an appeal without interpreting the law. They are the first step before a neighbor – and neighbor’s spend money on their properties too Mark – can file and Article 78 with the State.

  3. mark goldfarb

    In point of Fact the ZEO is extremely capable. She has the ability to understand ALL the issues at hand and make the best judgement possible. It is rationale like yours that will bankrupt the town and the business people in this town. If the ZBA had to pay to defend these needless lawsuits, maybe the ZBA would think twice before rendering such absurd rulings! Instead the ZBA simple tells the taxpayers to pony up. I believe that Judge Mary Work admonished the ZBA in the Hanowitz case for being reckless in their rulings. And who got to the neighbor anyway? How could she be fine with VIVO and their late night parties, and yet not fine with Cucina which will only use the site once or twice a week at the most? Maybe someone coached her??????? Could someone have a personal vendetta here? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck……. The whole thing stinks and the ZBA is out of control!

  4. Maura Rubencamp

    Cucina is a beautiful restaurant with fine food.The Red Barn looks much better since Cucina took it over and provides a beautiful entry to Woodstock. Since the Playhouse reopened and is also beautiful and comfortable and has had many shows and serves the Film Festival also, the ability to get catered food from Cucina annex is a real plus for the town and will enhance entertainment here. Hooray for Cucina. The Chamber of Commerce should support this wonderful facility. The Zoning officer is right to issue permission.The revenue generated will help the town and encourage other building owners to upgrade their property.

  5. Maura Rubencamp

    Seventeen requests for approval by Cucina is absurd.Gateway Project should support upgrading facilities and particularly where a needed catering service for events at the Playhouse is concerned. Cucina is connected with cultural activities.We taxpayers do not wish to fund lawsuits against good neighbors.If only more of our businesses could expand and grow thanks to prudent investors that believe in this town!

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