Letters exchanged between New Paltz town supervisor Susan Zimet and Wilmorite attorney Shawn Griffin shed light this week on the tactics of the Rochester-based real estate corporation seeking to build a 732-bed rental project on a 50-acre site adjacent to the SUNY New Paltz campus.
In a letter dated March 4, Zimet wrote to Griffin to “… confirm our understanding of the proposal you presented at the Town Board meeting on Feb. 27, 2014 and also to clarify some issues that emerged in the course of our discussion.” Wilmorite is seeking to pay 25 cents on the dollar each year for the next 25 years through a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) from the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency (UCIDA). Its application is currently under consideration. Griffin claimed at that meeting that he was “not looking for a discount.”
The Park Point development is projected to cost $50 to $60 million to build and will contain 13 apartment buildings and a clubhouse equipped with a gym and swimming pool. The New Paltz tax assessor has estimated that a real-estate project of this size assessed at approximately $50 million would yield close to $1.4 million in real estate taxes to the town and school district in the first year of operation.
Town Board member Kevin Barry said he preferred to characterize the exchange of letters between Zimet and Griffin as “discussions” rather than “negotiations.” “The UCIDA and Wilmorite developed and implemented the process we’re engaged in now,” Barry stated. “The town is open to discussions as long as the other side reveals the information we have requested.”
Barry was referring to a meeting arranged by attorney George Lithco on behalf of the town. At that meeting the town expected Griffin to share the detailed financial data he said he had already revealed to the UCIDA. When Barry showed up ready to sign a confidentiality agreement and receive the data, Griffin demurred. No information was shared. Supervisor Zimet has described the events surrounding the meeting as “a really big misunderstanding of major proportions.”
In the past few weeks Wilmorite has approached both New Paltz municipal governments seeking a water supply for its project. At a joint town-village government meeting held after the town learned of Griffin’s approach to the village, both municipalities agreed to keep each other informed regarding their dealings with Wilmorite.
Zimet’s subsequent March 4 letter states that “the town would require that [Wilmorite] petition for establishment of town water and sewer districts ….” She told Griffin that the town engineer would be developing an estimate of the costs (associated with buying town water). “For comparison purposes, he will also estimate the cost of securing a water supply from the village,” said Zimet. “We anticipate that the average cost per unit of a town district will contrast favorably with the cost of a water supply from the village.” The Village Board was not copied on this correspondence.
Griffin’s reply came the next day: “We also appreciate the atmosphere of cooperation evidenced by the town commitment to now accept the sewer and water systems.” Replying to questions, Zimet said, “The town has made neither such commitment to accept the water and sewer system nor any other commitment to Wilmorite.” Village Mayor Jason West had not replied to requests for comment by press time.
Zimet concurred with Barry’s view that her interchanges with Griffin were not negotiations, saying, “… It would be impossible to characterize those discussions as negotiations since Wilmorite refuses to give the town any relevant financial information. We are opposed to any PILOT that does not provide a benefit to our community that is at least commensurate with the benefit it confers upon the applicant.”
Zimet repeated the Town Board’s maximal position that the project must pay full taxes based on its assessment. “Our Town Board realized that our community cannot give up $1.4 million in town taxes,” she said. “Our job is to protect the community …. We stand behind the community.”
Commenting on Zimet’s letter to Griffin, county legislator Ken Wishnick said, “The continuing references by the Town Board to specific cost impacts from the project give the public an impression that negotiations are continuing to take place. I am not privy to whether or not this is true.”
What happens next remains to be seen. “The missing piece of this is that if the town does not negotiate, the IDA has the authority to go over its head and impose the most generous [to the developer] PILOT on the schedule,” noted former Town Board member Kitty Brown. “I suggest that we put our energy towards a letter to the Town Board saying we support paying for a legal defense if it chooses to reject the PILOT based on the flawed addition of the eligibility of dormitory housing.” Brown was referring to her contention that the category of “dormitories” was inappropriately added by UCIDA to the list of project types eligible for tax breaks. Barry has stated that he agrees.
Griffin closed his March 5 letter with the following: “We appreciate the discourse and efforts of all to bring these matters to a conclusion. We are confident that with this proposal the town Planning Board can issue its findings at its next meeting without further delay.”
Planning Board member Tom Powers, contacted for his reaction, noted that it was highly unlikely any findings statement would be issued at the town Planning Board’s next meeting. On a personal level, Powers expressed concern that Griffin’s letter had not been sent to any Planning Board member.