Proposed zoning changes that would affect a pivotal part of Woodstock — the Gateway Overlay district at the eastern entrance to the hamlet, where Routes 375 and 212 converge — have prompted debate over the sometimes competing claims of cultural and architectural preservation, commercial vitality, and the rights of property owners.
As the debate proceeds, the use of a signature parcel in the district — the property at 105-109 Mill Hill Road, which is owned by Cyrus and Nancy Adler — is undergoing one actual change, an expansion of Cucina restaurant, while another, the construction of a hotel, is contemplated.
The proposed changes emerged from a district-by-district review of the local zoning law begun last year by a Town Board subcommittee composed of councilwomen Cathy Magarelli and Terrie Rosenblum. The subcommittee’s assignment was to determine whether portions of the law were outmoded, misguided, or otherwise in need of revision. Following a failed electoral bid for town supervisor, Rosenblum relinquished her Town Board seat at the end of 2011.
Among the Gateway Overlay (GO) district-related proposals discussed to date at the a series of informal workshop-type meetings are the elimination of the Overlay designation and the creation of a new Gateway District with its own table of permitted uses; a relaxation of a “cultural facilities” provision of the current GO district; and revised Special Use Permit (SUP) requirements for activities such as the demolition of existing buildings.
The subcommittee’s findings have been aired at Town Board meetings. Magarelli said in a recent interview that she has discussed various proposed zoning changes with the town’s Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Commission for Civic Design, and former planning specialist, Dara Trahan.
At its first meeting, on January 3 of this year, the new Town Board, at the behest of councilman Ken Panza, agreed to disband the subcommittee and halt the townwide zoning analysis, while allowing Magarelli to complete the review of the GO district. The next in a series of public, workshop-type meetings on the matter is scheduled to take place at 10:30 a.m. on January 17 at the town offices on Comeau Drive.
The GO is one of four overlay districts created in 1989, when the zoning law underwent its last major revision. The overlay districts are so designated because they overlie, and impose special conditions on standard residential, commercial, and light industrial zoning districts. The GO district is bounded roughly by Playhouse Lane on the west, Birch Lane on the south, Chestnut Hill Road on the east, and Edgewood Lane on the north.
The district includes the Woodstock Playhouse, Woodstock Elementary School, and Woodstock Golf Club. It also includes 105-109 Mill Hill Road, the approximately three-acre parcel owned since 1998 by Cyrus and Nancy Adler, which contains Cucina, the latest restaurant successor of the legendary Deanies, in the historic Riseley house; the “red barn” building that until recently housed a plumbing company and an art gallery; and a residence behind the restaurant.
The GO district, as described in the zoning law, was created for the purpose of “protecting the aesthetic and historic qualities of the District while promoting the development of cultural facilities in the District to benefit the residents of Woodstock.” The “cultural facilities” reference related mainly, or perhaps entirely, to the Woodstock Playhouse, which had been razed by an arson fire in 1988, the year before the amended zoning law was adopted.
Although the Playhouse is apparently now on solid fiscal footing following an ownership change in the last year, GO district provisions aimed at preserving the formerly shaky theatrical enterprise have remained intact. Those provisions — which cover actions such as the renovation or demolition of an existing property — along with the Residential 1.5 (“moderate density residential”) zoning classification of his 105-109 Mill Hill Road property, led Cyrus Adler in a March 2010 letter to request that the Town Board amend the zoning law to reclassify his parcel as Hamlet Commercial.
“There is no question that the subject property is ‘commercial’ and should be designated ‘commercial,’” wrote Adler, citing his belief that the property was classified Hamlet Commercial prior to the zoning law’s amendment in 1989. “Especially now, in these uncertain and difficult times, Woodstock is losing numerous old-line businesses in the middle of Town on Tinker Street, with resulting unemployment. Anything that can be done to counteract this should be done. It is almost an unnatural act to designate the subject property Residential.”
In a January 5 interview Adler reiterated his contention that the property merits a Commercial zoning designation and reported that, following his March 2010 letter, he had discussed the matter a number of times with town officials including Magarelli. “It has always been my position that it was wrong for the town to change the zoning from Commercial to Residential status in 1989,” he said. “Times have changed; this is no longer a horse-and-buggy era. I don’t want Woodstock to develop into a metropolis — I love it here — but it must develop in an orderly way. It can’t be held back.”
Adler, a lawyer who has owned property and resided part-time in Woodstock for more than 40 years, also confirmed that he has leased the red barn building exclusively to Cucina for an expanded restaurant operation and disclosed that he has engaged in discussions with a developer about the construction of a hotel on the property.
Adler did not identify the prospective hotel developer, but described him as a friend of Cucina’s chef and co-owner, Gianni Scappin. The discussions continued until recently, but were put on hold while the lease agreement for the red barn, where Cucina plans to operate a catering business and perhaps a café, was executed.
As envisioned thus far, said Adler, the hotel would consist of a certain number of rooms on the upper floors of the three-story Riseley building, above the restaurant, and additional rooms in a new building that would be erected on the property. “Cucina might pursue it in the future,” said Adler of the proposed hotel. “I certainly would give my consent. I would love to see a hotel at Cucina.”
The current zoning law includes, as a permitted use in the GO district, hotels or motels with a maximum capacity of 40 rooms. Attendees of the zoning subcommittee’s workshop meetings have discussed a reduction, to 12, in the maximum number of rooms — a limit that Adler deemed “not viable” and “ridiculous.”
“Forty rooms is small,” he said, adding that a large hotel chain such as Sheraton would not consider acquiring an establishment with fewer than 70 rooms. “If the limit were reduced to 12 rooms, it wouldn’t be a hotel; it would be a bed-and-breakfast. I’m not thinking about putting an Empire State Building at the gateway, but you can’t hold progress back. Keeping things too small doesn’t work.”
Adler stated that his track record as a developer of real estate in the hamlet should reassure local residents. “In reality the gateway to Woodstock is an important thing,” he said. “I feel that what I’m doing with that area is good for Woodstock. The things that I’ve done for the town are great; we ran the (former Tinker Street Cinema) movie theater for 40 years and then brought in Upstate Films, the best. Good stuff has happened.”
“Spot zoning” debated
Opponents or skeptics of the zoning change requested by Adler, including Panza, maintain that the Town Board would be engaging in “spot zoning,” which under certain conditions is illegal, if it acceded to the request. The term generally refers to the rezoning of a parcel to a use a category at odds with the classification of the surrounding area, for the benefit of a single property owner or development interest. Panza has recommended that the Town Board obtain a legal opinion on such an action.
Adler argued that his requested change was “perfectly legitimate and reasonable” and would not amount to spot zoning. “It wouldn’t just be for my property,” he said. “The golf course, for example, is also zoned Residential, but no house has been erected in the district. The change would not necessarily benefit me only; it would benefit everyone.”
In a December 6 interview Magarelli disputed the contention that Adler’s request was the main impetus for the subcommittee’s consideration of GO district changes and that granting the request would constitute spot zoning. “We are not doing anything for the benefit of one person, but for the benefit of the town and its appearance at the approach to the town,” said Magarelli. “This (change) would include the entire Gateway Overlay District — the Woodstock Golf Club, the school — and not just the Adler property.”
The councilwoman acknowledged, however, that the Overlay designation, covering three or more standard zoning districts, was “complicated” and “vulnerable to lawsuits.” “I wanted to be proactive; to fix the law before someone sued (the town),” Magarelli said. She added: “If I was going to do spot zoning I would give permission to rip down the Riseley house and put up a 40-room hotel. We are trying to create a law that is workable and not contradictory.”
Any amendment of the town’s land use laws, including a zoning change, must proceed through a review by county and local planning agencies, an environmental assessment, and a public hearing before it is adopted by the Town Board and incorporated into the town code. In that light, a comprehensive overhaul of the GO district provision of the zoning law would take several months to enact — provided the Town Board recommended such a sweeping change in the first place, which is far from assured.
Nevertheless, the outgoing Town Board at its final meeting, on December 29, voted 4 to 1 to eliminate a GO district requirement linking retail or restaurant uses to the support of a cultural facility and prohibiting the sale of takeout food. The board’s resolution, from which councilman Jay Wenk dissented, has been sent to the county and town planning boards for a review period of up to 45 days, to be followed by a public hearing. If the change eventually becomes law, it would appear to clear the way for Cucina’s planned expansion.
Sewer work under way
In an interview after that meeting, Woodstock supervisor Jeff Moran (who has since left office) said that he had not discussed zoning matters with Adler following his receipt of Adler’s March 2010 letter. “Cyrus Adler hasn’t petitioned for a zoning change,” he said. Moran acknowledged that he and Adler had discussed other issues, including the town’s improvement, now under way, of the segment of the municipal sewer system that serves 105-109 Mill Hill Road. The improvement, said the supervisor, would modernize the sewer system and make it safer for maintenance by town employees.
Referring to Adler, Moran said, “I am aware that he has for years been exploring the possibility of building a hotel.” It might be unwise, he added, to reduce the maximum capacity of a hotel or motel by revising the language of the existing zoning law as it pertains to the GO district. “I think that begins to interfere with a property owner’s right to develop,” he said, noting that the current law would permit the Bear Café, for example, to build a 12-unit hotel. “The town should tread very carefully in changing any law that affects commerce and the rights of an owner who wants to develop his property.”
Before taking office on January 1, the new town supervisor, Jeremy Wilber, said in a December 19 e-mail interview that he generally considered the existing GO district a “good idea.” If the Overlay designation were abandoned and a new district created as a result, the use table for the new entity “would need to be very carefully constructed,” he said.
In response to a question about his views on Adler’s request to rezone his Mill Hill Road property Hamlet Commercial, Wilber said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” The supervisor promised that the public would be fully informed about the disposition of any proposal to alter the zoning of the Gateway area, should such a proposal advance to the stage of Town Board resolution.
Zoning change opposed
Alan Shapiro, a retired educator and GO district resident who resides in a circa 1940s bluestone house at 110 Mill Hill Road, facing the Adler property from the western point of the triangular intersection of Routes 375 and 212, opposes any changes that would weaken provisions of the existing zoning law that protect historic structures and the scenic entrance to town.
“I don’t see a need to gut the law that has protected the gateway,” Shapiro said in a recent interview. “Thousands of photos have been taken of people flashing the peace sign at that entrance to town. I don’t want a hotel involving an alteration of the Riseley building. The Riseley building and the red barn give atmosphere to the gateway and set the tone for Woodstock. These buildings are remnants of Woodstock’s rural past.”
He continued: “I’m concerned that people who don’t live in the directly affected area are making these decisions. I think there would be a hell of an uproar if the Riseley building — the old Deanies — were knocked down. I don’t want the entrance to Woodstock to look like the entrance to Saugerties.”
In Shapiro’s view, it would permissible to “fine-tune” or “tweak” the existing zoning law by eliminating the cultural facilities requirement, but not to overhaul the statute. He considers the change requested by Adler an instance of spot zoning. “I don’t see a primary need for this change, which would more or less absorb this area into the business district. I think that the town should deal with the business district first,” said Shapiro, who also expressed concern that a major development in the gateway area would make the intersection of Routes 375 and 212 dangerous.
Ed Sanders chaired the committee that created the GO district in 1989 and is credited with “formatting” the comprehensive revision of the zoning law that was adopted at the time. In a recent interview he questioned the rationale for eliminating the gateway area’s Overlay designation and took exception to Adler’s March 2010 letter, which accused Sanders, a writer and publisher, of improperly seeking to benefit from his zoning position by including “newspaper office” as a permitted use in the Residential 1.5
Sector that encompasses Adler’s property.
Asked if he considered the stated purpose of the Overlay designation — that is, protecting the GO district’s aesthetic and historic qualities while promoting cultural facilities within it — as compelling today as in 1989, Sanders replied, “It is, considering the visual impact of the gateway area.” Alluding to Adler’s requested change, he said, “This, to me, is an example of spot zoning due to pressure from one property owner, who wrote a scurrilous letter impugning my work on the zoning committee. I think that the (zoning law’s) cultural provision should stand.”
Sanders continued: “I see no reason to make a separate Gateway District, which would be dumb and expensive. I believe that Jeremy (Wilber) supports maintaining the district (in its current form), as do Shapiro and others. It is a beautiful vista. Under the proposal, the golf course would be zoned Hamlet Commercial; they could peel off that property and put a mall there. Any change would require more care and planning. The protection of that good vista is what’s on my mind. Nothing should be done to mar that vista.”++