Howard Harris relishes his role as longstanding chairman of the Woodstock Zoning Board of Appeals. One could sense this from the moment he opened discussion on the matter of Cucina’s new application for a variance to allow its new catering hall last Thursday, May 24. And it was confirmed when Harris spoke about how much he enjoyed working a crowd when the session was over, a busy half hour later.
Cucina, the eatery located on the old Riseley property in the Woodstock Gateway District where routes 212 and 375 meet — formerly home to Deanies, The Emerson, Legends, Margaret’s and other restaurant ventures, has been seeking to transform the former Riseley barn on the property into a catering hall. Earlier this spring, weeks away from opening its new space, Cucina had its official building permit from Woodstock Code Enforcement Officer and Building Inspector Ellen Casciaro revoked by the ZBA when a neighbor requested a formal hearing on the permit’s legality.
Late last month, the Woodstock ZBA agreed to rehear the Cucina case after the restaurant’s co-owner, Lois Freedman, came before them with a new application under the town’s zoning law. Instead of bypassing the board, as well as the Woodstock Planning Board — which Freedman says she did on the advice of Casciaro and others — she is currently seeking a new set of zoning variances and a special permit/site plan approval for what Cucina has all but completed — which, if approved, would result in the issuance of both a new, fully legal building permit and, hopefully, a final Certificate of Occupancy.
At the ZBA’s last meeting on Thursday, May 24, Freedman addressed a letter she had submitted to Harris and the ZBA from Randy Conti of the Woodstock Playhouse, located adjacent to the Cucina property. In it, the Playhouse director talked of formalizing arrangements for the restaurant to not only “re-open and revitalize” a path between the two entities, in use throughout the Playhouse’s heyday from the 1930s to its untimely end from fire in 1988, but also feed its repertory company over the coming season.
Under a clause in the town’s zoning law relating to the Gateway District, additional restaurant uses are allowed on the Cucina property, owned by attorney and local landowner Cyrus Adler, if tied to one of Woodstock’s cultural institutions.
Freedman also presented letters of support for Cucina from the Woodstock Writers’ Festival, the Center for Photography at Woodstock, and the Woodstock Film Festival, whose director, Meira Blaustein, was in attendance at the hearing, along with approximately a dozen other restaurant supporters — as well as the neighbor who first asked for a ZBA interpretation on the building permit that was eventually determined illegal.
“The key is that there is no need to have a cultural facility on the same lot. The fact that it’s the Playhouse goes further than necessary and adds more credence to the application for a variance,” Harris said, saying that further evidence wasn’t necessary.
“If we’re lucky we’ll be open only once a week,” Freedman said of the catering hall.
“And if you’re unlucky,” Harris quipped back.
“Let’s not talk about that,” Freedman responded, just as fast.
Legal opinions only
During several requests to speak by members of the audience, Harris cut statements off midway.
“I need legal opinions,” he said. “Questions of standing will all be based on the law.”
When Blaustein started talking about the film festival’s planned use of the catering hall, and CucinaHarris again reiterated his need for “legal only.”
“The owner of this property has a penchant for exceeding the traffic for what the property can bear,” started off David Boyle, noting his 50 years as a local resident before Harris cut him off.
“Enough,” he said. “At this public hearing I quiet everyone down who is not on point.”
Loren Rose of the Planning Board, who will hear the Cucina applications in the weeks to come, asked Harris if there were any other lingering issues involving a zoning variance besides the establishment of a cultural tie-in for the proposed (and actually built) catering hall. Harris said if there was another viewpoint, he’d be glad to hear it.
Nancy Schauffler, the neighbor who’d set this whole process of revisitation in motion, questioned the cultural tie-in clause, and definitions of “directly-related” activities, but was told by Harris that, “That’s why this is an opinion and we have to mull it over.”
In subsequent discussion about whether the building permit under which Freedman had been operating was properly issued, the restaurant owner’s attorney noted how Cucina was now working through more formal channels and processes. Harris noted that a decision would be made by the ZBA on whether its variance will be reliant upon planning board approvals or not.
“We’ll do whatever we have to do,” said Freedman.
Harris said he and the ZBA would have a decision within two weeks, although at this point their next meeting is set for Thursday, June 14 and ZBA Secretary Michele Sehwerert said that legally, the board has 62 days from the hearing to render a decision.
Meanwhile, the Cucina application for a special use permit goes before the Woodstock Planning Board on Thursday, June 7 for its initial sketch review, a process that Planning Board Secretary Therese Fernandez said will take weeks to complete before any public hearing, let alone decision, gets scheduled or rendered.
“This baffles me,” said Adler, who’s owned the property for years and faced similar battles with both boards before. “I thought the town would embrace this idea…and we have plenty of parking there in back of the building. This all reminds me of a dog chasing its own tail.”++